PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke

49 piranesi

𝑷𝒊𝒓𝒂𝒏𝒆𝒔𝒊 was the very last book I read in 2020. I finished it thinking that it was probably the best thing I read in the entire year, but that I needed time to dwell on it before I could say for certain.⠀

I think two weeks is more than ample time. It’s not only the best book I read last year, but it’s also simply one of the best I’ve read in, I don’t know, the last decade? Susanna Clarke just writes the kind of stories I love reading the most: full of wizardry and wordplay and whimsy and wistfulness. Fairy tales, in other words, in their purest, most primal form. ⠀

Alan Moore, the comic book writer and actual honest-to-goodness magician, often writes about art as being true, literal magic, a notion that has always stuck with me:⠀

Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to achieve changes in consciousness. The very language about magic seems to be talking as much about writing or art as it is about supernatural events. A “grimoire,” for example, “the book of spells,” is simply a fancy way of saying “grammar.” Indeed, to “cast a spell,” is simply, “to spell.” To manipulate words. To change people’s consciousness.

It’s an interpretation I love, because while I don’t really believe in actual, wave-thy-wand magic, I sure as hell believe in the power of art.⠀

Which is all really to say, for what seems the hundredth time, that I think Susanna Clarke is a true mage, and I will read any spell she chuses to cast on the world.

DRAGON HOOPS by Gene Luen Yang

19-dragon-hoopsAt the beginning of this book, Gene Luen Yang, high school teacher and acclaimed author of graphic novels, is worried that he has no more stories to tell. He’s felt a hole in his life since his last book was released, and that was over six years ago, but he’s unable to find a story that just grabs his heart and runs away with it.⠀

Until he starts hearing the excitement in the hallways of Bishop O’Dowd High School. Their basketball team, the Dragons, is set to go to State and is causing quite the stir. Yang does not follow basketball so he has no idea what this means, but the hold it has on other people fascinates him, and he starts to think there might be a story there. He’s hesitant at first — the computer science teacher and comic book guy writing about sports of all things? But he feels the hook in his heart and so, tentatively, he takes the first step.⠀

Dragon Hoops is the true story about a basketball team overcoming all manner of odds on their way to becoming champions. It’s about the people that make up the team, and their stories. And its about the rich history of the game they play.⠀

A game in which, when I first picked up this book, I had next to no interest in, it having gone away in the aftermath Space Jam and Michael Jordan’s second retirement. Which, for me at least, made Yang the perfect audience surrogate: he begins his journey caring not much for the game but for the stories it generates. He ends it, not exactly a superfan, but as someone who now appreciates basketball and its deep cultural importance.⠀

Which perfectly mirrored my own journey with Dragon Hoops. There’s a reason why after finishing the book I: read Phil Bildner’s A Whole New Ballgame; have been keeping up with The Last Dance documentary miniseries on ESPN; bought Kwame Alexander’s Crossover; and, yes, re-watched Space Jam (still a masterpiece).⠀Like Yang, I haven’t become suddenly a superfan — I don’t think I’ll sit down and follow every single game once they start back up again — but I am definitely more interested in it, and appreciative of its history, and of its cultural impact.⠀

There’s just so many things Dragon Hoops does right for me. On the surface it’s just your typical tale of a team on its way towards victory. It’s a story we’ve seen countless times before. But the difference, as always, is in the telling:⠀

19-dragon-hoops-2It’s a story about basketball, but it’s also a perfectly accurate portrayal about the agony and joy of writing. We get to see Yang as he tries to write the story while the actual story unfolds. We see him struggle with what to add and what to omit as the action plays out in front of him. He talks with the people he’s portraying about how they should be depicted, and we see the changes in the art during these conversations. He even addresses the reader at one point. Which is one of the advantages of this being a graphic novel: these are all things you can pull off in comics that you can’t easily do in other mediums. And by this point in his career, Yang has such a handle on sequential storytelling that he takes full advantage of the form here.⠀(The art, despite all the times the author disparages it as inadequate in the book, is wonderful. Yang’s form is clean and clear, and it translates surprisingly well into the dynamic basketball scenes.)

It’s also a story about stories. A handful of chapters are focused on key members of the team. Preceding their stories however, we get a short history lesson on the game of basketball, which are fun and fairly informative: we learn why the game of basketball became so popular with minority communities and in the inner cities; we learn that women have always been playing the game pretty much since its inception; we learn the myriad ways different people took steps to take the game forward; and we learn many other things besides. The most interesting and impressive thing Yang does with these brief classes, however, is showing how their lessons are still relevant to the life of the individual being discussed in the chapter, thus creating a direct link between the past and the present. It’s very effective and probably my favorite thing this book does.⠀

19-dragon-hoops-3Tying all this together is the recurring image of stepping forward. Each and every person in this book, author included, is facing a set of challenges, varied as the people themselves: trying to win a basketball game; trying to decide whether or not to take a job offer; forming new friendships; balancing relationships; prejudice (in all its infuriating forms); how to best tell a story. And the thread that runs through each and every person facing these obstacles, from the past to the present, no matter how uncertain or how scared they were, is that they took a step forward. They stepped into the court. After all, how else are you going to know what happens unless you play the game?⠀

Dragon Hoops is a wonderful delight, and probably Gene Luen Yang’s best, most ambitious work to date. I see myself revisiting often (indeed, I’ve already read it twice).


18-a-whole-new-ballgameMason “Rip” Irving and Blake “Red” Daniels think they know exactly what to expect from fifth grade. They know their principal, Ms. Darling (real name) is going to stand at the entrance to greet all the students. They know that Ms. Hamburger (real name) is going to be their homeroom teacher. And, most importantly, they know they can finally try out for the district’s basketball team.⠀

But when they arrive at school nobody is there to greet them out in front. When they get to their homeroom they find, not Ms. Hamburger, but a young, long-haired, tattooed teacher called Mr. Acevedo.⠀

More changes await the two best friend that will turn their precious little world upside down, and especially so for Red, who thrives on order and routine. But they have one another. And they will soon find that every challenge comes with the opportunity for new allies as well.⠀


Middle grade books do so much. Not only do they have to be breezy, fun reads in order to sustain the attention of kids who live in a world of extremely loud and incredibly constant distraction, but they often have to do so while exploring some serious, sensitive issues — without losing that sense of playfulness and optimism we tend to associate with childhood.⠀

It’s a lot to handle. We’re currently living through a sort of Renaissance in children’s literature, though, so there’s no shortage of books that manage to carry this weight — and Phil Bildner’s A Whole New Ballgame is certainly among these.⠀

It’s a simple story told with a lot of heart, with wonderfully realized characters. Rip and Red are charming and endearing and immediately likable. Their relationship is the heart of the book and its portrayal is fittingly heartwarming. Even side characters with limited roles like Avery and Rip’s mother are given their fair share of story. And of course you can’t help but root for Mr. Acevedo right from the get-go, an idealist who stands in for those modern educators who prioritize dynamic and fun learning methods, tailored to their student’s needs, rather than relying on the rigid and often outdated practices that hinder our current educational system, especially so in the Western world.⠀

Which is one of those serious subjects that creep in: the boy’s school doesn’t look the way they expected it to because of severe cuts in their district’s budget, something that happens all too often in the real world, as any teacher can surely discuss at length.⠀

Another interesting aspect of this book is in its depiction of disability. Avery is a wheelchair user who, rather than being treated as a one-dimensional character, as the trope tends to do, gets a fair amount of depth. Some of her experiences are discussed at length in a charming and amusing manner. (She even gets to be a bit of a jerk). And then there’s Red himself, who is on the autism spectrum. He struggles a bit with all the changes going on around him, but he’s portrayed as a tenacious and clever character. And luckily his best friend Rip offers plenty of support and encouragement, as does Mr. Acevedo and a handful of other teachers. I thought author Phil Bildner, a former teacher himself, did an admirable job with their depiction. ⠀

Middle grade books do so much. A Whole New Ballgame is certainly no exception.⠀

Oh and there’s a decent amount of basketball in here, too, as the title suggests. Like most books involving sports, though, it’s a metaphor. Because what’s life after sudden change if not a whole new….⠀

Well, you know.⠀

GET A LIFE, CHLOE BROWN by Talia Hibbert

get-a-life-chloe-brown-remakeGet a Life, Chloe Brown begins with the titular character getting almost run over by a car, a sudden brush with death that, combined with a number of other issues she’s been dealing with, compel Chloe to, as the cover exclaims, get a LIFE. Type A person that she is, Chloe goes about this by making a list of the things she believes constitute a full, well-rounded life. The entries ranging from the momentous (move out of parent’s house; travel the world) to the positively frivolous (enjoy a drunken night out; have meaningless sex).⠀

It’s a pretty great beginning.

Chloe immediately begins checking off items by moving into her own flat in London, in a building managed by our other protagonist and inevitable love interest, Red — tall, literally ginger my god Hibbert, and handsome — a former painter who has withdrawn from the art world. Their relationship starts off, in classic rom-com fashion, as positively hostile: Chloe finds him an uncouth oaf; Red finds her a spoiled, standoffish brat. A series of mishaps and circumstances soon lead both characters to come together, however, with Chloe agreeing to build Red a website that will hopefully rekindle interest in his neglected art career, and Red helping Chloe get through her Get a Life list.⠀

It’s a pretty great set-up. You do worry for a moment that their frenemy dynamic might end up overstaying its welcome, but, refreshingly, it begins to break down and evolve only a couple of chapters in, as the stimulating chemistry between Chloe and Red softens their respective distant and defensive exteriors. Which is when they realize they’re also helping one another in entirely unexpected ways.⠀


I don’t tend to pick up many romance novels, although I quite like the few that I have read. The works of Rainbow Rowell and Stephanie Perkins quickly come to mind. But while their novels are certainly full of love and all its clutter, they tend to slant more towards the emotional side of the romantic spectrum. Chloe Brown decidedly leans toward the other end. The physical end. Whereas a lot of stories with romantic plots often leave you wanting to shout “would you just kiss already” at the stubborn, exasperating characters, Chloe Brown simply skips all that noise and just goes straight into the more risqué aspects of courtship. I was surprised but amused by how quickly — and frankly how often — the book got down to this sort of business. There are enough steamy scenes to fill up several saunas.

Which isn’t to say there’s no emotion to be found in this novel. Meaningless sex may be an item on Chloe’s list, but, as she also realizes, things aren’t always so straightforward, and people often carry their emotional baggage with them. Our main characters being no different.⠀

Chloe, for one thing, lives with fibromyalgia, and while she’s developed a myriad of methods to manage it, emotionally, it’s taken a toll. As is often the case with invisible illnesses, non-disabled people struggle to sympathize with those who deal with them. They can get, as Chloe puts it at one point, “bored with lists and rain checks and careful coping mechanisms.” And, sometimes, they leave. Which is where we find Chloe at the beginning: determined and resolute, but lonely.⠀

We find Red in a like manner. Dealing with his own trust issues stemming from the fallout of a particularly ruinous relationship that left him feeling adrift and uncertain about his life. That this former partner was, like Chloe, affluent, only adds to his inner turmoil, his more modest background having been a constant issue before.⠀

How Chloe and Red deal with these knotty circumstances is nothing if not compelling. How they support one another is, frankly, adorable. How they fall for one another is just thoroughly sweet and, indeed, quite sexy. The development of their relationship might seem a little rushed, but it’s believable, and you quickly root for them.

I’m doing it for you because that’s how people should behave; they should fill in each other’s gaps.

Mental health and chronic illness. Class conflict. Toxic relationships and their aftermaths. These are all complicated subjects that can prove too much for any single story to handle, but Chloe Brown does so with thoughtfulness and tact, and it’s what impressed me the most about this “kissing book.”⠀

They are also subjects that can weigh down a story, casting a somber shadow over even the most lighthearted of comedies. Chloe Brown avoids this hazard by boasting a small but well-realized and obscenely charismatic cast of characters. Because not only do both protagonists read as real, actual people, the side characters do as well. Chloe’s family in particular plays a substantial supporting — and supportive — role: Gigi, her glamorous, flamboyant grandmother (who my brain immediately envisioned as British Eartha Kitt, much to my delight) dutifully doles out wisdom and guidance with wit and candor to spare; and her two enigmatic and energetic younger sisters, Dani and Eve, routinely drop by her flat to check in on her well-being — and to also discuss the latest, greatest gossip, usually concerning Red. (The sisters were hilarious and fun to read, and I’m glad to see that Hibbert is going to tell their story in future installments.)

Talia Hibbert’s author biography states that she writes “sexy and diverse” stories. And she certainly delivers on both fronts with Get a Life, Chloe Brown. I want to make special note of the diversity aspect, though: Because while I don’t know much about the romance genre, I’m willing to bet that characters like Chloe (a self-assured, Black, fat, nerdy, disabled woman who is regularly revered over her beauty), or even like Red (whose constantly cheerful and confident demeanor belies intense insecurity), are not so readily found within it, simply due to the fact that they are few and far between in most other types of stories as well. Which is, of course, a shame. Representation is important, and fiction is always in need of other voices, and other lives.

Representation […] means accepting, then celebrating, the fact that difference is normal. To do that, we have to carve out space for the voices of marginalized people, because underrepresentation can’t be fixed unless you actively do the work.

— Talia Hibbert, in an interview

So I’m glad Hibbert is out there, actively doing the work, and that she’s using her voice to share Chloe Brown’s life with us.

We would do well to listen. That’s part of the work too.

So I quite enjoyed the book. Started this one in the middle of February, for obvious reasons, but while I liked what I read, it didn’t manage to hold my attention, and I put it down about halfway through.⠀⠀

Fast forward a couple of years, to March. The world is even more terrifying than usual, and most of us are stuck at home until who knows when. I’ve been doing fine, relatively speaking. In a decent place, mentally speaking. Until last week when 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖌𝖑𝖔𝖔𝖒 finally got me and caused me to spend the following weekend in a depressive daze.⠀

I had been reading a couple of thematically relevant books — mostly non-fiction accounts about humanity overcoming all kinds of calamities and disasters. Books that assured we were going to get through all this. Books that I absolutely refused to read after the anxiety hit. It all felt too real, too unwieldy. I wanted instead to read something as far removed from our current situation as possible. ⠀

Enter Chloe. It did the trick. I managed to crawl out of that dark headspace and into the light and delightful world of this book. I tore through the remaining half in a single, sleepless night.

If I had any real criticism to offer, is that I thought it relied too much on the cliché, at times. And also that it was definitely, maybe, just a tiny bit too melodramatic. But then again I figured that sort of went with the territory. I don’t know! You get swept up. I did.

I you’re looking for something to pick up something that’s light but still compelling in these dark and strange times, though, you could certainly do worse than reading about Chloe Brown’s life.


16 death wins a goldfishDeath Wins a Goldfish is a book about living, author Brian Rea writes in the introduction. More specifically, it is a book about Death living.⠀

In the world presented in this story, Death works, like so many of us, in a cubicle farm (in an office full of other grim reapers). He lives for the job, so to speak. He’s been doing it for so long, after all, and without a single pause. But one day he receives a letter from Human Resources informing him of the fact that he has a year’s worth of vacation days accumulated, and that he must make use of them.⠀

So Death takes a holiday. Only he has no idea what to do with all the time that has been given to him. Dedicated as he’s been to his occupation — defined by it, you could say — he never quite managed to build a life outside of it. And so we follow Death along as he tries to figure out how to best go about living.⠀

This is a picture book, although it is decidedly not intended for kids. Not because there’s anything explicit about its illustrations (which are fun and clever and charming in their rushed, scratchy quality), but because it deals with topics relatable mostly to us adults who may or may not feel as if their job occupies too much of their personal identity.⠀

Like Death, I work as an office drone. And while I appreciate the stability and structure that it gives my days, one of its main challenges has always been having some semblance of a life after I clock out at the end of the day. The job is not hard, physically speaking (back pain notwithstanding), but it is certainly mentally draining. When I get home, oftentimes the only thing I want to do is shut off my brain, do nothing but unwind and rest before heading back into the office the next day.⠀

But I don’t want to let myself — my life — get stagnant. So I make routines. I carve out time to work out; to hang out with my partner; to read; to write a little. I try to make the best use of my time as possible.⠀

Not that I’m always successful at it. Some days I don’t even bother with any of that.

And that’s fine, too. Mileage varies, as it often does. Later on in the introduction, Rea offers a piece of advice given to him by a former mentor: learn when to row your boat, and when to rest your oars. In our current society, however, where hustle culture is so prevalent, constant productivity is placed on such a large pedestal that you can be easily excused for thinking it’s the only path towards having a successful, meaningful life. There are no hobbies — there are only side jobs. There is no downtime — every waking moment is an opportunity to be productive. Your life gains meaning only by putting in the work.⠀

But that path only really leads to burnout. It’s not sustainable. And more importantly, it’s just not how people work. How life works. As with all things, there’s a balance that must be struck: You have to learn when to row. You have to learn when to rest.⠀

Reading this book now, though, in the context of our current situation, was interesting, to say the least. It gave it an unexpected new layer. Those of us whose jobs have been deemed non-essential now find ourselves at home with all this free time suddenly dropped on our laps. It’s a weird situation in which to be, confusing and also somewhat overwhelming. It can even get a little existential: Who are we when something that takes up so much of our lives gets taken away? How do we fill our time when we now have so much of it?⠀

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us, as Gandalf once said. It’s the theme Death Wins a Goldfish explores, and we could do worse than to emulate its findings. We can’t, of course, currently do all the traveling and outdoor activities Death does in this story (my favorite being the running of the bulls — although I don’t approve of the practice).

But we can read some books. We can make some art. We can take care of our loved ones (pet fish certainly count). We can rethink our lives and our worldviews. We can look within and work on ourselves.

We can, in other words, work on living, while we’re still able.

Or we can just rest. That’s as much part of life as anything else.


KEEP GOING by Austin Kleon

15-keep-goingThe world has changed since last I wrote about a week ago, something that feels more uncanny than it does anything else. Needless to say, we’re going through wild, uncertain times, and I can only hope that you are safe, doing your part in flattening the curve.

I have not left my house since Saturday. And Sunday, my office sent out a message saying we would be closed until the end of the month. This is, technically speaking, the first time off I’ve had in over a year, and I wanted to take advantage of it as best I could. I would read all of the books, for one. I would write. I would do this and that and also this.

But, like a lot of others right now, anxiety has gotten the best of me these last couple of days, completely shot my focus, and just making it difficult for me to enjoy the things I generally love.

Which is where Keep Going comes in.

Austin Kleon has made a name for himself writing motivational books about being a more creative person in the modern, digital age. His first book of this kind, Steal Like an Artist, was all about channeling your influences (my nicer way of saying “just straight up steal from your idols”) in order to create something that may not be entirely new and unique, but that is entirely and uniquely yours. Show Your Work! was more business-like in nature, expounding advice and industry knowledge on how to share your stuff with the world and making a space for yourself within it.

Keep Going feels like a natural progression from those themes, but its central message is perhaps less tangible in nature. It is a book about being creative, yes, and it is also full of useful, practical information — but it is also a book that is less interested with the external side of things than it is with the internal. Less concerned with the how than it is the why of making art. Where the first two books deal with the more physical, material aspects of creating art, Keep Going is about what it feels to create said art. Specifically how it feels to create art when things aren’t going that well.

If the past handful of years have shown us anything, it’s that we live in tumultuous times. One glance at any recent headline is enough to fill anyone with dread and dismay. With so many cheerless and complicated things going on in the world it can be easy to feel as if doing anything artful and creative is a trivial endeavor at best, or actively selfish at worst. How can you sit there, frivolously frolicking away while the world crumbles around us?

With Keep Going, however, Austin Kleon reminds us that art is not a gratuitous, self-indulgent thing. That it is important and necessary. And especially so during times of strife, where it acquires even greater significance. “To any creators who feel guilty making art when the house is on fire,” author V.E. Schwab wrote recently, “please remember: you make the doorways out.” And here’s Kleon quoting the late, great Toni Morrison:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.

It should be noted, however, that at no point does this book imply that you have this obligation to be creative in spite of the difficulties around you. Everyone deals with hardship in their own way, after all.

Here’s writer Robin Sloan, in a recent edition of his newsletter:

In 1816, the gloomy “Year Without a Summer,” Mary Shelley stayed indoors at a lakeside hotel; not quarantine, but maybe quarantine-adjacent. There, bored and haunted, she conceived the story that would grow into her novel Frankenstein, the foundation stone of the genre we now call science fiction.

It’s moderately annoying when people invoke work like that, because it feels like the implication is, if you’re not writing Frankenstein what are you even DOING? That’s not what I mean. It’s just that the big, bright examples help us see it clearly: toil in the shadow of calamity will have its day.

Toil in the shadow of calamity WILL have its day.

A crack in everything; that’s how the art gets in.

Keep Going acts more like a permission slip. You can create art, it says, if you want to. If you are able. If you must.

Go easy on yourself and take your time. Worry less about getting things done. Worry more about things worth doing. Worry less about being a great artist. Worry more about being a good human being who makes art. Worry less about making a mark. Worry more about leaving things better than you found them.

The world can only benefit from your contribution, ultimately, if you just keep going.


14-nine-last-days-on-planet-earthSome topical reads for this most disquieting of weeks. ⠀

The day was too big for small emotions.⠀

I’m a mood reader, as I’ve mentioned before, and my temperament hasn’t been the best these last few days. World news have done a number on my anxiety, and the frustration that comes from feeling powerless hasn’t helped assuage it any, let me tell you. It’s been a bleak week, essentially, and I was looking to read something dreary to match my current disposition.⠀

This turned out to not be that read. Thankfully enough.⠀

Nine Last Days on Planet Earth is a compact and concise novella by Daryl Gregory that does what it says on the tin: it tells nine tales about main character LT, through whose eyes we see the gradual unraveling of a slow alien invasion. As a boy in the American South he witnessed a seemingly endless meteor shower that went on to wreak havoc all over the world. When the smoke cleared, humanity found that these rocks from space were actually seeds, which soon began to sprout forth countless of strange new plants. Over a slow amount of time, some of this alien vegetation begins to throw Earth’s ecosystem off-kilter, causing considerable amounts of damage, while others seem to just… be there, harmless and passive. ⠀

LT is one of the most wonderfully-realized viewpoint characters I’ve come across in a while. Over the course of the nine stories we see not only his interest in this unfathomable new flora blossom, but his personal life as well — from his growing estrangement from his family, to his burgeoning sexuality, to his establishing of a family life (additional points to positive and wholesome queer representation, here). And through LT’s personal life we see how the world has changed. ⠀

In Captured Ghosts, a documentary about his work, writer Warren Ellis talks about the concept of the “novum” in science fiction stories, which is, essentially, the Big New Thing that happens that causes the world to change forever. The thing that disrupts normality. In Nine Last Days we explore this nova event — in a slow, incremental fashion, much like a plant grows — through LT. Through him we see how humanity has adapted. Which of course it has. ⠀

There’s a lot of mystery surrounding these space plants — where did they come from what do they do were they sent here and why and by whom — which forms a lot of the tension of the story. But perhaps the most shocking thing about it all is how any answers we might or might not get are essentially inconsequential. Because the world has accepted it and moved on. Life found another way. ⠀

This novella, you see, is less to do with annihilation of mankind (the “last days” of the title refers not to any final stage of life, but to concluding personal experiences) and everything to do with how we deal with the perplexing and the unexplainable (which is to say: most things this weird, wild world throws our way). We adapt. We change. We evolve. And we go on.⠀

And so Nine Last Days on Planet Earth ends, as these stories so often do, on a note of hope. ⠀

Words were not required. Sometimes the only way you could tell someone you loved them was to show them something beautiful.

Take care out there. Be safe. See you on the other side of the nova.



The children’s stories I tend to love the most are those that deal with societies built by kids — stories like Rugrats and Recess and, more recently, Craig of the Creek (the best and most pure animated show on television right now, by the way) — stories that deal with covert communities that have their own cultures and customs, and which act as a fun-house mirror reflection of our own adult world. It’s a trope that I love. If I overanalyze it, I could tell you it’s probably because I had a happy but fairly sheltered and restricted kind of childhood, and the idea appeals to my wish-fulfillment, nostalgic nature. But it’s mostly because I think it’s just fun. And it’s a trope that is front and center in The Cardboard Kingdom, a book I enjoyed so much I finished it in a single, sleepy Sunday afternoon.⠀

The Cardboard Kingdom is a graphic novel by Chad Sell and a veritable village of writers. It’s essentially a collection of short stories centered around a group of creative and imaginative kids with a seemingly endless supply of cardboard, the material which fuels the epic adventures they act out around their neighborhood during Summer break.⠀

As a mood reader, nostalgia often plays a big role in the books I decide to pick up, especially so in my middle-grade choices. I tend to go for books that seem likely to evoke some vague, elusive aspect of my childhood. The stories I choose this way, however, usually end up being way more than just a tool to wistfully reminiscence about my past. And they are always — always — much the better for it.⠀

Cardboard Kingdom was no different in this aspect. It is a fun book to be sure, full of the joy and whimsy of childhood — but it is also a thoroughly modern book, dealing with things like gender roles and identity, conflict between family and friends. That it does so in a subtle and compassionate manner is a credit to the writers. Heavy topics are acknowledged, but they don’t weigh down the book. Because kids are able to grasp serious issues without being burdened by grown-up moralizing. ⠀

Sell’s bold and dynamic illustrations drive the book, but its heart beats thank to the writers that have lent their considerable talents and distinct points of view. Together they have a created a large and diverse cast of characters, each with their own story to tell (and enough cardboard with which to tell them), stories that manage to strike a balance between fun and poignancy: one story can deal with a kid whose parents are going through a messy separation, and the next could deal with a sister hunting down her brother for eating cookies before dinner. Stories that have a deep respect for kids, which is ironically something that a lot of children’s books often fail to do.⠀

Imagination is the theme that runs through all these stories. That the characters in Cardboard Kingdom use the fantastic as the lens through which they view their adventures is a big deal in a world that still tends to view fantasy genre as mere escapism. But is escapism such a terrible thing when the kid whose parents are constantly fighting starts to imagine himself as a superhero protecting those around him? Or for the boy who only feels strong and powerful whenever he dons the personality of a fierce sorceress? Don’t we want them to know that the world is not a static place and that they have the power to change and shape it?

Because if they can build a helmet, a sword, an armor;⠀a mask, a costume, an identity; a tavern, a city, a kingdom — out of such a flimsy material like cardboard, imagine what they will be able to do with the world. They might just make it a better place.

A kingdom on Earth, even.

DEAR MARTIN by Nic Stone

dear-martin-1So while Nic Stone’s first foray into the world of middle grade fiction left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed, I enjoyed aspects of it enough to leave me feeling like giving another of her books a shot. And wow am I glad I did. ⠀

Dear Martin is Nic Stone’s first published work, and where the writing in Clean Getaway feels stilted and hesitant, here it flows with a smooth, confident swagger. Which makes for a curious dichotomy: the prose is imminently readable, but the topics discussed are heavy, all too real and sometimes hard to read. But it’s a balance that Stone strikes splendidly.⠀⠀

Dear Martin follows Justyce McAllister, a brilliant student at an exclusive and privileged private school, whose life, at the start of the story, consists of excelling at school in order to get into the Ivy League, and trying to figure out a tumultuous relationship with his on-again/off-again/on-again girlfriend. Until one night, when trying to stop said girlfriend from driving home drunk, he is harassed by a racist cop who predictably assumes the worst. The experience leaves him shaken, enough that he starts to become increasingly aware of just how much he is judged by the color of his skin. ⠀

Justyce doesn’t know how to deal with this, so he starts a project with the goal of emulating Martin Luther King, Jr. in a series of letters that soon become the outlet for his fear and frustration. A project that comes to a tragic, screeching halt when he and his best friend are involved in a shooting, the fallout of which puts Justyce in the cross-hairs of the media and the general public, who insist on degrading and demeaning him.⠀

Nic Stone has written a heartbreakingly real and painfully relevant novel about the plague of systematized racism and how it continually, relentlessly tears down and dismantles Black youths. Justyce feels all too real, as a young Black man who has to work twice as hard as everybody else in order to stand on the same stage as his more privileged colleagues; as a less-than-perfect teenager just trying to figure out the trials and tribulations of adolescence, which is hard enough without the prejudice of others; as just this kid who just wants, like Martin, to face a world that never, ever lets up with all the grace and dignity of a king and just do good.⠀

The cover for my copy features a blurb by Angie Thomas, which is appropriate since this book explores the same theme as her excellent debut The Hate U Give. But whereas that book presents a more idealized conclusion of a community coming together to fight injustice, Dear Martin is, I think, a bit more realistic in its ambiguity — which just adds another layer of tragedy to the story. The ending of Dear Martin caught me off-guard, since it felt to me like there was more to the story. But there’s no neat resolution to be found here, no uplifting ending wrapped up in a bow. It ends like real-life situations often do: with uncertainty. We don’t know what’s going to happen to Justyce any more than he does. But Stone reminds us that, like Martin, we can hope, and we can dream. And maybe one day we’ll find our way towards justice.

GHOST by Jason Reynolds

ghostCastle Crenshaw — who goes by Ghost — has been running for most of his life. At least ever since his father’s gun went off. It was pointed in the general direction of Ghost and his mother, and, like in all track races, the shot was a signal to start running. His father went to jail for it. They went back to a home that stopped feeling like home (they sleep in the living room, near the front door, just in case something else happens and they need to run again). And Ghost feels as if he never stopped. Only this restlessness he has felt inside has no real outlet, and it bubbles up, bursting outwards at times of stress and conflict. He lashes out, and gets in trouble for it often.⠀

And then one day, taking the usual long way back to his house, he stops to watch a group of kids his age during a track meet. He scoffs at the notion that people have to work at running, which comes so naturally to him. So he decides to show them up by beating their most promising and arrogant stars in an impromptu race. The coach is impressed and asks him to join, which Ghost, with some reluctance, eventually does.⠀

The feeling of running, Reynolds has said, is of your body going through trauma, as it fights against exhaustion and suffocation. Running is about feeling like you are about to die, and getting used to that sensation. And running is about breaking through, and overcoming that feeling.⠀

Running is also, in Reynolds’ hands, an exceedingly useful metaphor — not only for the particular issues that Ghost faces, but for life in general. Because what is life if not just a series of races you have to break through in order to breathe again? For Ghost, running is initially a means of escape, useful only when he wants to put as much distance between his problems and himself. He doesn’t find the act itself uncomfortable — his life is suffocating enough, after all, what is a little sprinting compared to the day to day? “Running ain’t nothing I ever had to practice,” he boasts at the beginning. “It’s just something I knew how to do.” It’s only after he joins the team and it becomes an increasingly important aspect of his life that he properly begins to feel this suffocation, as he starts to come to terms with the heavy things he’s been carrying inside — this scream, as he calls it — for most of his life.⠀

Ghost is about a lot of things, but it is mainly about dealing and living with trauma. There is a talk Jason Reynolds gave where he told the story about a childhood friend who, decades after the fact, recognized that he had been traumatized at a young age, and that he just went through life as if these feelings were normal, only to later realize that they were not supposed to be, and how surprised he was at this understanding. No one, you see, made him aware of the fact. It’s a particularly cruel problem, and one we can only address by paying attention to the people around us. This is what Reynolds’ work does for his audience — his books are all about being seen. In this novel, seeing one another is what Ghost’s teammates do, as they accept him as one of their own. It’s what his mother does, who, despite demanding job, studies at night in order to give them a better future. It’s what Mr. Charles, the elderly owner of the local store shop does every time Ghost pays his store a visit and they fall into an established, familiar — and familial — routine. And most importantly, it’s what his track coach does, seeing in Ghost some of the same struggles he faced growing up. The kind of struggles that makes you want to disappear, like a ghost, and run away, instead of being present, the burning in your chest a reminder that you are still alive and able to run free. Ghost may not entirely realize the full extent of his trauma, but he is smart enough to know when the people around him care for and want the best for him, which in turn, of course, makes him want to be better for them. “You can’t run away from who you are,” the Coach tells him at one point, “but what you can do is run toward who you want to be.”⠀

The novel ends with a different kind of shot that makes Ghost run. Only this time, instead of running away, you are certain and hopeful that he’s running free, breaking through the struggle, towards a better future.⠀

Jason Reynolds has written yet another lyrical and poetic book chockfull of meaning, and which helps us see these kids in a better and more understanding light. I loved reading it.