books, Debut Novel, Reading, Women Writers, Young Adult

“The Someday Birds” by Sally J. Pla

“Someday Birds List:
Bald Eagle
Great Horned Owl
Trumpeter Swan
Sandhill Crane
Turkey Vulture
Passenger Pigeon
Carolina Parakeet

          Dad would be so excited. If I can tell him that I’ve checked a great horned owl (GHO) off our list of Someday Birds, he would like that. It would make him feel happy. And feeling happy makes you heal quicker. That’s what Gram says.
          I think about that as the truck shifts gears and roars forward, chugging up and up. What if I tried to spot all the birds on our list? Then I could tell Dad I found them all, that I did it for him. It could be like a gift I could give him. A gift to help him get better.
         That feels right.”

IMG_0625Sometimes a book just touches your heart, and the reasons it affects you are difficult to pin down. “The Someday Birds” isn’t infinitely quotable; its prose is stirring but not overly sentimental or poetic; its characters are both highly unusual and oddly quotidian. In truth, I am hard pressed to articulate what exactly struck me about “The Someday Birds”, but something did. Maybe it is the fact that I read two-thirds of the story before remembering that is was a ‘middle grade’ book. Perhaps it is the fact that I still find myself thinking about the characters days after I’ve finished the book. Whatever it is, “The Someday Birds” was sweet and thoughtful, dark and yet full of hope.

The story is told by thirteen year old Charlie, a middle child who seems to be both autistic and obsessive/compulsive. Charlie’s mother died when he was just a toddler, leaving him, his older sister, and his twin younger brothers in the care of their journalist father. Somehow, this suddenly-single father is able to raise four children and manage his career, but all that changes when he is injured in an IED explosion while on assignment in Afghanistan. Now hospitalized with traumatic brain injury, his kids are left under the care of his lovingly gruff mother. But when doctors recommend a cross-country transfer to a specialist hospital in Virginia, the kids are left to fend for themselves until a responsible adult can be found to look after them. Enter Ludmila, a punk-styled woman who has made herself ubiquitous, mysteriously entering their father’s life and often lingering around his hospital bedside. Though Ludmila graciously agrees to stay with the kids, their distrust fuels their sense of adventure and they sneak off in an attempt to drive cross-country to their father’s side. In short shrift, Ludmila finds them and then the whole rag-tag bunch embarks on a messy, stirring road trip across country in a broken down RV.

Sally J. Pla writes of trauma and war, of sensory and sensibility, and of family. She reminds us that comfort is relative, relatives aren’t always comfortable, and family is what you make of it.

          “I imagine what it’ll be like to tell Dad: ‘Remember how I hate the outdoors? Well, I’ve come all the way across the country to you, and I’ve seen all the birds on our Someday list, Dad.’
          It will be like a hundred hand-washings of calm.”

Black history, books, People of Color, Women Writers, Young Adult

“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas

“When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me.
          One was the usual birds and bees. Well, I didn’t really get the usual version. My mom, Lisa, is a registered nurse, and she told me what went where, and what didn’t need to go here, there, or any damn where till I’m grown. Back then, I doubted anything was going anywhere anyway. While all the other girls sprouted breasts between sixth and seventh grade, my chest was as flat as my back.
          The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me.
          Momma fussed and told Daddy I was too young for that. He argued that I wasn’t too young to get arrested or shot.
          ‘Starr-Starr, you do whatever they tell you to do,’ he said. ‘Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.'”

IMG_0372Angie Thomas’s “The Hate U Give” is riveting and brilliant. Thomas shares with us Starr, a teenage black girl living in a rough neighborhood of an unnamed city. Starr is both emblematic of enigmatic in her neighborhood. Her parents, together since they were teen parents struggling to survive, grew up in the same neighborhood. Their commitment and loyalty to their community beats strong, but doesn’t blind them to their ambitions and needs as parents. They send their kids to a private school 40 minutes away, where they are among only a handful of black students in a world of white privilege. Starr herself acknowledges that she lives two lives, has two selves, neither of which feels truly authentic or belonging. When Starr is witness to the brutal murder of her childhood best friend by a quick-triggered cop, her parallel worlds are equally upended.

“I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down. Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.”

Starr must struggle not only with the expected waves of grief, but with guilt, fear, a sense of displacement, and a growing yearning to speak out.

“The truth casts a shadow over the kitchen – people like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right.”

Perhaps Young Adult writing, when done well, really is an signal of a story’s universality, of a story we all can understand. In the case of “The Hate U Give”, Angie Thomas’s plain spoken, YA voice is powerful and approachable. It is no frills, no fancy words writing that is stark, poetic, and true. It communicates clearly and undeniably a terrifying, vicious, and uncomfortable truth about ourselves and our country. Everyone should read this book, perhaps particularly those who won’t, those who resist engaging in the fight or who fail to understand the fundamental reality behind the Black Lives Matter movement.