Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Some Top-Notch #OwnVoices

I was recently lamenting how many great books there are compared to how much time I have to actually read them all, but I have been able to read quite a bit lately, and I've had great experiences for the most part. Three of my recent favorites are #ownvoices novels that speak with the authenticity implied by that term. As I read them, I knew I was looking through a clear window into the lives of people whose America is very different from the one I thought I knew. Even as I learned from my reading, I realized that there were cues and allusions I was missing. Which is okay, because those are the very pieces that make these books also powerful mirrors for people who identify directly with the characters. (The windows and doors analogy is from the work of Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita of Education at Ohio State University.)

Dread Nation is Justina Ireland's highly anticipated zombie historical fiction. I follow Justina on Twitter, where she's talked directly about how her African American readers will get different things from the book than other readers will. This book is terrific because it works absolutely fine as a rip-roaring adventure centered around a kick-ass young woman, but if you take a few moments to think, it also serves a searing social critique. Like Hunger Games (but only in that dual aspect; plot and mood are quite different).

Murder on the Red River is a much quieter book, despite having "murder" in the title. I also don't think it's a YA novel. Cash is 19 and has a casual-sex-and-pool-only relationship with a married man, which doesn't seem very YA to me. And I am leaning more and more towards not accepting NA as a category, but that's for another post. Marcie Rendon is an enrolled member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation, and she writes Cash as a young woman who is disconnected from her history, yet rejected by the white world around her. If you go in expecting an intense thriller, you'll be disappointed. If you like novels that are steeped in a specific time and place, and you're prepared to think about our country's history of ripping apart non-white families, you'll most likely love this book.

When asked what book everyone in my town should be reading this summer, I answered with I Am Alfonso Jones. (Why was I asked that? That too is the topic of an upcoming post.) The story is heart-breaking in its familiarity as well as in its specificity. As I said on Goodreads, I would show this graphic novel to anyone who dismisses the literary value of the form. With a non-linear structure, elements of magical realism, allusions to Shakespeare, well embedded history lessons, and nuanced story-telling, it tackles everything a literary novel would--oh, and also uses visual cues to enhance the story and the reader's emotional responses.  I admit that I get more emotionally involved in traditional books--I have yet to be brought to tears by a graphic novel--but that says more about my reading preferences than the relative value of the techniques. Alfonso Jones is a biracial (Latino and African American) trumpet playing, Hamlet-acting, local black history-studying, hard-working young man who gets shot by an off duty cop who confuses the hanger in his hand for a gun. It should be unbelievable. It's not.

I gave all of these books 5/5 stars. I am so excited to live in a time when we have access to these stories. Keep 'em coming, publishers!


  1. I loved Dread Nation! I’ll add the other two to my TBR list. Thanks for the recommendations!

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. I haven't yet read any of these! I guess I need to get on it!


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