Tag Archives: Bullying

Moon at Nine by Deborah Ellis

Moon at NineAt 15, Farrin is the privileged only child in a tense, unhappy, albeit very wealthy family. Her father runs a construction company that takes advantage of illegal, desperate Afghan workers to make big profits. As successful as he might be, Farrin’s mother continuously laments that she has married beneath her aristocratic standing. Portraits of the Shah have been replaced for 10 years with that of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Revolutionary Guard have eyes and ears everywhere.

In this restrictive environment, Farrin is lucky to still be able to go to school at all – especially one for gifted girls. But she has no friends there, and is often bullied by the head girl, Pargol. And then new student Sadira arrives: for the first time, Farrin has an ally and companion. Their affection soon grows into something more … but their joy and devotion morph into ammunition for Pargol to torment the girls. The consequences for falling in love escalate far beyond their school and their families, until each is abandoned to fight for their very lives.

In 1988 Tehran, homosexuality is punishable by execution. In her ending “Author’s Note,” mega award-winning Canadian author Deborah Ellis best known for her Breadwinner tetralogy – who has built a renowned international reputation for giving voice to children in the most challenging circumstances around the world – explains how her latest novel is true. “At the beginning of the summer of 2013, I met a woman who told me about her early years in Iran … Some of the details have been changed, but this story is essentially hers.”

Adding a succinct historical overview of Iran’s history, Ellis is careful to balance details of Ayatollah Khomeini’s destructive regime with the rich diversity – especially artistically – of the country’s past. But neither does she shy away from the shocking numbers of tragic victims as they relate to this novel: “According to the Iranian gay human rights group Homan, over 4,000 lesbian and gay Iranians have been executed since 1979.” Iran is not alone in its punishment – Ellis names six countries that execute their homosexual citizens as of the end of 2013, and more than 70 countries that deem homosexuality illegal. In light of such horrific restrictions, her final paragraph is both declaration and hope: “As a proud, gay woman, I am honored to have been entrusted with the story of Farrin and Sadira, and I hope that the real-life Farrin will be able to spend the rest of her life with whatever peace and happiness she is able to find.”

As more and more states strike down anti-gay marriage laws, Moon at Nine is a chilling reminder of the suffering of too many others deprived not only of love, but their very lives. As difficult as it is to read – the ending is especially piercing – its importance is hard to deny.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Canadian, Iranian

King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Christiane Krömer

King for a DayWith the arrival of the spring festival in Lahore, Pakistan, no one is more excited than Malik who is ready for the upcoming kite-flying battles armed with Falcon. “‘How can you be king of Basant with only one kite?’” his sister teases. “‘Insha Allah, it will be fast enough,’” he happily insists.

Directing from his wheelchair on the family’s rooftop, Malik sends his brother “downwind so he can catch the kites I will set free.” His sister remains nearby, carefully following his instructions. Together, the children take on the bully next door, whose hurtful words and powerful kites are no match for Falcon. Once he’s defeated the enemy, Falcon continues to pluck kite after kite from the sky: “When they land, they’ll belong to whoever finds them. But at least they will have tasted freedom.”

Malik is not only king of Basant for his aerial prowess, but even more so for his earthbound kindness as he manages – anonymously! – to stop the tears of a little girl who becomes the bully’s next victim. Joyfully, he’s already planning for next year: “And tomorrow I will start designing a new kite … for next Basant when, Insha Allah, I will be king again.” By highlighting Malik’s many other strengths and talents, author Rukhsana Khan seamlessly presents a hero who is much more than his physical challenges: His patience and skill prove stronger than any bully’s cruelty and greed.

Christiane Krömer, who “specializes in illustrating stories that feature cultures from around the world,” uses multi-layered, mixed-media collages to enhance Khan’s caring story: unexpected combinations of delicate embroidery and rougher textures add depth, carefully placed architectural specifics ground the narrative, while the depiction of a teeny-tiny black cat who is the sole witness to Malik’s secret thoughtfulness turns out to be the perfect ‘show-don’t-tell’ detail.

In the endnote “About Basant,” Canada-based Khan gives a cultural and historical overview of Basant in her birthcountry of Pakistan. She explains in the final paragraph how “kite flying and the celebration of Basant in Lahore were banned for safety reasons and for security concerns due to orthodox religious opposition.” According to a recent Pakistani media article, “Hundreds have died in Basant related accidents in the past decade”! Khan mentions that 2013 was supposed to bring a return of Basant to Lahore, but activities remained cancelled until this year. At least in Lahore, Basant officially returns February 21 until March 5, 2014. Here’s to the promise to lofty adventures ahead!

Click here to see Khan’s other titles on BookDragon.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Pakistani, Pakistani American, South Asian American

Wandering Son (vol. 5) by Shimura Takako, translated by Matt Thorn

Wandering Son 5If you don’t like spoilers, might I suggest you click here to catch up. This series is so uniquely delightful, you really shouldn’t miss a volume; trust me, they do need to be read in order. This latest installment officially hits shelves tomorrow.

Welcome to junior high school with new classroom assignments and classmates. Once best buddies, Nitori Shuichi – the boy who wants to be a girl – and Takatsuki Yoshino – the girl who wants to be a boy – are “still … yeah,” as in more estranged than not. The contemplatively quiet Shuichi finds himself spending most of his time with the ever-chatty Ariga Makoto who also encourages and shares Shuichi’s cross-dressing adventures.

On the first day of school, Sarashina Chizuru makes her series debut by grabbing everyone’s attention when she shows up in a boy’s uniform: “… because I felt like it,” she tells her sidekick Shirai Momoko (anther series newbie). Chizuru is definitely a girl who knows her own mind … including choosing Yoshino as a new friend, while somehow managing to seriously irk aloof beauty queen Chiba Saori.

Shuichi and Yoshino share the same Class Three, led by “first-year teacher” Saisho who can’t quite get to class on time, but immediately notices that adorable Shuichi looks too much like his first childhood love. The two friends’ lives overlap very little during the new year as they each face new feelings, relationships, and challenges. The prospect of working together on a new school play – another gender-bender in the making – just might throw them back together.

Sweet and gentle, with just enough angst and worry over changing bodies and emotional alliances, creator Shimura Takako continues to share an enlightening journey toward maturity in a fluid new world that defies easy labels. Go ahead, the weekend’s almost here: settle in for a bit of youthful revelation.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, Japanese

The Flowers of Evil (vols. 5-7) by Shuzo Oshimi, translated by Paul Starr

Flowers of Evil 5-7

First, to catch up: click here for previous volumes (all of which, of course, you need to read for yourself). If these covers placed next to each other above are a bit jarring, I think I might have unintentionally, wrongly grouped the latest volumes together.

Let me explain … The full series has nine total installments, with each third getting a distinct look for their covers. While our conflicted young man, Takako Kasuga, is clearly the protagonist throughout, the object of his primary obsession shifts with each third. The ‘pure,’ simple, mostly black-and-white covers for volumes 1-3 reflect Kasuga’s obsession with the outwardly perfect Nanako Saeki who is so ‘good,’ she seems to have little depth. The deeply infused colors of volumes 4-6 echo the intensity of Kasuga’s growing dependence on the volatile, violent Sawa Nakamura. In volume 7, as seen above, Kasuga’s latest shift to a new schoolmate who reignites his love of literature, begets a whole new artsy watercolored look, surely reflecting the potential and promise of a new future.

Since that explanation revealed a few important narrative details, allow me to back up with just a few fillers …

As summer break quickly approaches in volume 5, Kasuga and Nakamura plot together in their hideout – decorated with a clothesline of stolen panties – to do “something that’ll wake up the people in this town all at once.” Jealousy drives Saeki to the hideout … where she confronts Kasuga with a shocking plan of her own. In volume 6, Kasuga must finally face not only his understandably frantic parents, but his school’s administration, as well. Still, all those adult eyes on him are not enough to attempt a dangerous final act with unstoppable Nakamura.

Volume 7 opens with a spectacular summer festival blow-out (so to speak), and quickly moves to a new grade and new school for longer-haired, reticent Kasuga. After being assaulted on a dark street one night, he aimlessly wanders into a used bookstore, where he recognizes a classmate holding a book in her hand … none other than Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil. His reaction is so severe, she warns, “Hey, you’re creeping me out! Just calm down!!” Trying to rein in his excitement, Kasuga’s bookish new relationship begins.

Readers with children beware: every nightmare associated with disgruntled adolescence gets magnified in these volumes. With friends so toxic, an environment so lax, and the adults so clueless, if manga like Flowers of Evil is any indication, contemporary youth face more challenges to reaching adulthood with their sanity and humanity intact that ever before. Read, be afraid, then use these stories as a primer for how-not-to-parent.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, Japanese

Boy in the Twilight by Yu Hua, translated by Allan H. Barr

Boy in the Twilight* STARRED REVIEW
Recipient of the James Joyce, Prix Courrier International, and Premio Grinzane Cavour awards for novels such as To Live (adapted to film by director Zhang Yimou) and Brothers, shortlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Prize, Yu Hua is an international sensation. His latest collection comprises 13 stories, written between 1993 and 1998, that offer a laconic, piercing glimpse into the daily life of citizens living in post-Mao China.

In “No Name of My Own,” a mentally challenged young man loses his one true companion to neighborhood bullies. A hungry boy is brutally punished by a fruit vendor in the titular “Boy in the Twilight”; by acute contrast, a groceries kiosk proprietor watches the playful son of doting parents who repeatedly appear at the hospital entrance across the street in “The Skipping-and-Stepping Game.” The sanctity of marriage gets trampled, challenged, and mocked in “Why There Was No Music” and others. The longest story, “Timid as a Mouse,” in which a long-ridiculed young man finally decides to strike back, proves the most indelible.

Verdict: Aficionados of the short form will savor these stories as both adroit literature and a sharp cultural lens. Appreciative readers of such diverse recent collections as Emma Donoghue’s Astray and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge will want to add this title to waiting shelves.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, October 15, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, .Translation, Chinese

When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

When I Was EightAlthough she “knew many things when [she] was eight,” what Olemaun didn’t know was “how to read the outsiders’ books. It was not enough to hear them from my older sister, Rosie. I longed to read them for myself.” Against her father’s wishes – “[h]e knew things about the school that I did not” – the determined Inuit girl’s desire for literacy takes her far from her family to be educated by nuns.

Her long braids are shorn and her warm traditional parka is replaced by clothing impractical for the harsh temperatures. Even her name is taken from her and she must answer only to the unfamiliar ‘Margaret.’ She labors through exhausting chores – floors, dishes, laundry – instead of learning letters. One cruel nun takes every opportunity to add misery to Margaret’s life, yet still she perseveres: “I used every task as an opportunity to learn new words. I studied each letter of the alphabet before wiping it from the board, I looked at the labels on cleaning supplies and sounded out the words.”

She survives being locked in the dark basement, her classmates’ bullying, and eventually stands up against the nun’s continuous humiliations. Reading gives her the unstoppable power to be “Olemaun, conqueror of evil, reader of books … who traveled to a strange and faraway land to stand against a tyrant.” Indeed, she knew many things, “because now [she] could read.”

When I Was Eight is the latest rendition of the real-life of Margaret Pokiak-FentonEight is the simplified picture-book adaptation of Pokiak-Fenton’s Fatty Legs, the first half of her award-winning, double-volume memoir (written with daughter-in-law Christy Jordan-Fenton) which is more suitable for a middle-grade/young adult audience. Pokiak-Fenton’s unwavering tenacity to learn to read is especially highlighted here, inspiring and encouraging fluency for younger readers-in-training. Artist Garbiele Grimard‘s open, revealing expressions are especially effective, sharing Olemaun’s fears and reveling in her hard-won triumphs. Here’s to discovering the unlimited power of reading together …

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Canadian, Native American

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Woman UpstairsBest known for her penultimate novel – the bestselling 2006 Booker longlisted The Emperor’s Children – Claire Messud takes on about-to-be-middle-aged regret with a raw vengeance in this, her fifth and latest title. That her protagonist Nora Eldridge shares the same first name as the discontented heroine in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was certainly not an accidental detail. While Ibsen’s Nora had to abandon her husband and children to find herself, Messud’s Nora is unmarried and childless, yet perhaps because she is so alone, her desperation “at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough – before I die to f**king well live” overlaps and echoes Ibsen’s Nora’s “‘sacred … duty to myself.’”

An elementary schoolteacher with sublimated artistic intentions, Nora is the eponymous “woman upstairs”: “We’re not the madwomen in the attic – they get lots of play, one way or another. We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway … and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. … In our lives of quiet desperation, … not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.” At 42, Nora has always been the good “‘teacher/daughter/friend.’” But her years of having to “cede and swerve and step aside, unacknowledged and unadmired and unthanked” end when an exceptionally beautiful 8-year-old boy named Reza Shahid walks into her third-grade classroom.

Among the students with names as diverse as Chastity, Ebullience, Shi-shi, mixed in with the Marks and Noahs, “canonical” Reza is a temporary transplant to Cambridge, Massachusetts from Paris. A violent playground bullying incident ironically provides Nora entree into the lives of Reza’s cosmopolitan parents: she first meets his Italian-born mother, Sirena, an artist just on the verge of worldwide fame; soon thereafter follows Reza’s Lebanese-born father, Skandar, a visiting philosophy scholar at Harvard. Lured by Sirena’s effusively creative ambitions, Nora agrees to share a studio; while Sirena formulates what will become her signature installation which depends heavily on art-and-audience interaction, Nora literally shrinks her own efforts into dollhouse-sized (!) replicas of ‘a room of one’s own’ starting with “Emily Dickinson’s Amherst bedroom,” with eventual plans to move on to tiny spaces for Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel – “the woman artist so fundamentally isolated.”

Over the quickly passing school, once invisible Nora has tumbled down from ‘upstairs’ and ventured onto the main floor, even taking center stage: she matters to Reza who adores her, Sirena who needs her, Skandar who challenges her. She finds herself in adoring love with each member of this enthralling trinity, convinced she is indispensable in their glamorous lives. Boundaries blur, disappointment and betrayal are inevitable. When her “fairy tale” family returns to their faraway world with barely a parting glance, Nora realizes theirs has been a “Fun House” with its “hall of mirrors, this sham and pretend of the world.” And then, what of Nora …?!!

Narrator Cassandra Campbell’s versatility gets a showcase workout, especially when she voices Sirena and Skandar with their impossible-to-label accents. Sirena’s breathy energy is as intoxicating as Nora’s smoldering anger is barely controlled. But Campbell is at her utmost as she seethes and shrieks as Nora’s mother, who warns her young daughter, “‘Don’t ever get yourself stuck like this …’” Sage advice for all, as well.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction

Limit (vol. 6) by Keiko Suenobu, translated by Mari Morimoto

Limit 6It’s Friday. Do you know where your children are? If you thought you sent them off in the care of trustworthy adults, then you might want to wait until they come back … that is, if they come back, to read this. Scared? After finishing this frightful series, I certainly am!

The sixth and final volume of Limit – which follows the few survivors of a school bus crash en route to a student camp trip – opens with an actual cliffhanger. Hinata, horrified by his own recent actions, begins to tumble backwards off a steep ledge, but Konna grabs his hand just in time. As Hinata dangles and Konna begs, “Don’t let it end here,” Morishige manages to pull them both to safety, warning, “If you’ve got time to die, better save Kamiya instead!!” The bullied-turned-bully has a point: Kamiya, with her gaping wound, needs all the help she can get if she’s to survive.

“I am not letting anyone else die …!” Konna screams with desperate determination. To maximize their chances of being found, the final four split up, even as Kamiya begs Konna to leave her behind. But Konna, for all her popularity and seemingly easy life, “finally understand[s] what being friends is like.” In spite of all the terrors the children have experienced, each has also undergone significant self-revelations that could and should help navigate a better future … well, at least for some.

Aware of her high school-age target audience used to thrills and chills, creator Keiko Suenobu makes sure all six volumes move swiftly with multiple surprises. Into the constant action, she’s dovetailed all the contemporary adolescent challenges driven by high school’s caste systems with all the consequences, privileges, assumptions, and expectations of being labeled at one end or the other of the popularity spectrum. Suenobu takes her small control group, isolates them without rules – Lord of the Flies-style – then records with an exacting eye what happens to our children in the most extreme situations. Final warning to parents: do not let those wide-eyed, adorable manga faces fool you … fairy tale happy endings are never guaranteed.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, Japanese

Atomcat by Osamu Tezuka, translated by Sachiko Sato

AtomcatIf you knew nothing about manga history before picking up Atomcat, you would find an entertaining story of a young boy, Tsugio, who shares a love of comic books with his father. Bullied by neighborhood classmates, Tsugio longs for a friend who might have the same superpowers of his bookish superheroes.

During yet another bully attack, Tsugio discovers a tiny kitten, barely alive. Named Atom for his resemblance to a favorite manga character, the kitten not only recovers, but becomes so bothersome that Tsugio’s parents insist he must take Atom far, far away. Enroute to do his parents’ bidding, Tsugio and Atom are hit by a speeding vehicle … driven by a glamorous couple who turn out to be peripatetic aliens-in-disguise. They attempt to restore the lifeless kitten by mining Tsugio’s memory … which is filled with the exploits of his favorite superhero… Astro Boy.

When Tsugio wakes, his supercharged kitten is right at his side. Watch out, bullies! Atom can fly to the rescue, exorcise demons, tame pirate ghosts, foil a smuggling ring, and destroy zombies. Exciting adventures, right?

Oh, but there’s more! Context always make the content richer: creator Osamu Tezuka, revered as the godfather of manga, is best known as the creator of Testuwan Atom, aka Astro Boy. Introduced as a story in 1951, the iconic manga series began in 1952 and lasted through 1968, but continues to live on in many international incarnations, including anime, television, films, video games, and more. In 1986, three years before he passed away, Tezuka (check out his comical – couldn’t resist! – cameo on page 41, bottom right) announced he, too, would “[ride] the ‘remake’ boom … [and] decided … to do a remake of my own, starring Atom.” Tezuka’s endearing essay (which includes his manager’s flabbergasted protestations) of how the iconic mighty Atom morphs into Atomcat – more accurately, A-tom-cat – is included at manga’s end and not to be missed.

Go ahead … take a cue from Tsugio’s manga-addicted father. (Re)discover some of your childhood antics … see that cover? Astro Boy’s pointing right at you.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult

Published: 1986, 2013 (United States)

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Filed under .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Japanese, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Translation

The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham

Night FerryIf I had not stuck Tana French‘s Dublin Murder Squad thrillers in my ears, I might never have discovered Australian journalist-turned-bestselling novelist Michael Robotham – French’s The Likeness (I think) ended with the ‘if you liked x, then try y‘-recommendation that led me to Night Ferry.

Contrarian that I am, however, of course I have a quibble. Like French, Robotham elevates his latest protagonist from a less-than-starring role from his book before – love that clever narrative domino! While each book is also a standalone title, carryover details always enhance the reading experience. Night Ferry is #3 in Robotham’s dark oeuvre, which means his leading lady here, Alisha Barbar, had a supporting role in #2, Lost, whose protagonist Vincent Ruiz appeared first in Robotham’s debut, Shattered, which stars Robotham’s most popular leading man, Joseph O’Loughlin. Got all that? All that means is that if you’re new to Robotham’s thrillers (he has eight out already!), best to start at the beginning: Shattered. I’ll be reading backwards myself.

Okay, so introductory digression aside, meet Ali Barbar, a British detective of Indian Sikh heritage. A former competitive runner who almost made it to the Olympics, Ali has just recently returned to her job at London’s Metropolitan Police a year after a horrific accident: she helped solve a kidnapping case that left her spine crushed, and defied all her doctors to make a fully mobile recovery.

After eight years of silence, Ali receives a terrified note from her childhood best friend begging for Ali’s help. When Ali next meets Cate at a school reunion, Cate – visibly pregnant – manages to blurt out, “‘They want to take my baby. They can’t. You have to stop them.’”  That evening as they leave the reunion, Cate and her husband are fatally wounded, and Ali is left to piece together what happened.

At over 500 pages (or more than 12 hours stuck in the ears – narrator Clare Corbett is chillingly controlled), the plot will twist and turn plenty before Ali unravels the knotted strands around a fake pregnancy, illegal immigration, desperate refugees, school violence, virgin mothers, evil fathers, wayward heroes, while criss-crossing through Britain, the Netherlands, and Afghanistan.

Perhaps the one character detail that doesn’t quite keep up the pace is Ali’s Indian Sikh heritage. Her ethnicity seems superficial, occasionally clumsy, providing at best an opportunity to give her stereotypical Asian parents, especially her dotingly demanding mother determined to marry off her still-single daughter. The eligible doctor planted at a family gathering in order to meet Ali proves to be useful enough to the plot, although again, the mother-daughter-doctor could have been of any background. Ironically, that the protagonist is British Sikh was exactly what made me choose the title. As unfulfilling as that detail proves to be, the rest of the engaging narrative builds swift momentum you won’t want to miss.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Australian, British Asian