African Town by Irene Latham and Charles Waters
I have wanted to read this book since I first saw its sale listed in Publisher’s Weekly a few years back. I had never heard about the Clotilda, the last (illegal) slave ship to reach America in 1860, and this multi-point-of-view verse novel sounded fascinating. Irene and Charles have done something remarkable here, fleshing out the lives of true people, the indignities they experienced, and the humanity they held to as they were captured and sold into slavery. The book follows the characters from their everyday lives in Africa, to “the Middle Passage, enslavement, and Emancipation” and the eventual creation of their own community, African Town. They have managed to take a sprawling cast — from the African captives, to the ship’s captain and crew, to the slave trader and his family, to the ship, Clotilda, herself — and make each voice distinct through different poetic styles.
There are ugly, awful things in this book. There is so much beauty, too. I remember a conversation I had once with Stacey Barney, who edited African Town and is also my own dear editor. She said the onus is on all of us to tell the stories that need to be told. I’m so glad Irene and Charles told this story, giving voice to those whose voices haven’t been traditionally heard (which makes the “speaking” Clotilda — a silent witness — a doubly impactful metaphor). Read my recent interview with Irene and Charles here.
Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? by Leslie Connor
Do you want to know who writes beautifully tender middle grade novels with lovely, voice-y characters that have depth and personality? Leslie Connor. Do you want to know who’s deserving of another honor from the Schneider Family Book Award? Leslie Connor!
Sixth-grader Aurora goes everywhere with her best friend, Frenchie, who is nonverbal and autistic. When Frenchie goes missing, the whole town comes together to search for him, and Aurora is determined, no matter what, to bring him home. This book, while primarily narrated through Aurora’s voice, is also told in the voices of various townspeople and sometimes Frenchie, too. There are birds and kind parents and real kids and a cool map and the tinge of mystery. Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? is an absolute treasure.
A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum
I’ll say upfront this is a really good but very hard read. My running partner (who is of Syrian – Lebanese descent) wanted me to read this so we could discuss it. Told in three voices, A Woman is No Man follows three generations of Palestinian women in a family that has immigrated to the United States. Fareeda, the matriarch, is exacting and expects the women in her family to hold to tradition. Isra, newly married into the family and new to the United States, longs for love, but finds little from her husband, especially as each new pregnancy produces a daughter. Deya, Isra’s firstborn, is a high school senior who wants to go to college, not marry as Fareeda expects. There are secrets and family obligations and so many things left unsaid. In a lot of ways, this book mirrors immigrant family stories like Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and, more recently, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko: Generational differences and sacrifice. Misunderstandings and dischord. A Woman is No Man is complex and important. The ending was just what the story needed.
Call Me Athena by Colby Cedar Smith
Following on the heels of A Woman is No Man is a book I’ll hand to my running partner the next time we meet! Call Me Athena is also an immigrant story, this one tied to my Greek heritage. It is a beautiful and spare and amazing verse novel — three stories intertwined. Mary, the daughter, longs to marry someone she loves, not the man her parents have chosen for her. She wants a family and a career, not just to be a “good Greek girl.” Jeanne, her French mother, who served as a nurse during WWI, and Gio, her Greek father, who fled home after tragedy and served as a US soldier, make up the other two strands. We see them first as parents and then as their younger selves. We see dreams deferred and sorrows and love and family. Wow, wow, wow. It’s beautifully crafted. Can’t wait to share Colby Cedar Smith’s Straight from the Source interview with all of you later this month. Stay tuned!