thought-provoking reads on race, mercy, and bridge-building

I’ve got four novels to recommend today, all of which have deep relevance for our fractured societies and our heartfelt desire to be peacemakers, bridge-builders, and extenders of mercy. They are for middle-graders through adult — I’ll try to write in such a way that you can judge which would be good fits for you and the people in your life.

The lightest, most accessible to a younger audience, is:

it ain't so awful falafel cover image It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel, by Firoozeh Dumas
published in 2016 by Clarion Books

Iranian-born Firoozeh Dumas moved to California as a young girl and narrated her immigrant life a few years back in a best-selling memoir, Funny in Farsi. Here she spins her experiences into a fast read with plenty of humor and a light touch, perfect for middle graders. Dumas dedicates her novel to “all the kids who don’t belong, for whatever reason,” making this an ideal read also for those seeking to understand the refugee/immigrant experience.

It’s the ’70s. Zomorod Yousefzadeh has moved from Tehran to Newport Beach, California, and is starting over in a new school. She’s determined to reinvent herself as an everyday, American girl, beginning by choosing an easily-pronouncable name — Cindy, as American as the Brady Bunch! — and suntanning with her new neighbor (not at all what Persian girls ought to do.)

Shedding your identity when you are Iranian is not quite so easy, though. Middle-schoolers are a tricky lot, with radar attuned to wannabe members of the herd who don’t really belong. Add the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the scenes of streets mobbed with fervent followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the American hostage crisis, and suddenly “Cindy” and her family are faced with awkward questions, hostility, and strenuous difficulties.

Author: Firoozeh Dumas

Author: Firoozeh Dumas

Regarding Middle-Eastern people with suspicion, lumping all Muslims together in a “dangerous” category, failing even to understand such basics as that the Iranian people are not Arabs — these remain problematic attitudes for us in the U.S. Dumas educates us in the basics of the Revolution while she opens our eyes to the experience of many immigrant children, and does it all with a warm, light hand. Great read for 5th grade and up, addressing issues of faith often ignored in middle-grade fiction. 370 pages.

every single second cover imageEvery Single Second, by Tricia Springstubb
published in 2016 by Balzer and Bray

With themes of racial tensions, friendship, loyalty, abuse, and God’s will, and an exploration of choices, the impact of split-seconds that reverberate through families, communities, and years, this book packs in a freight-load of food-for-thought and fodder for discussion.

Changes are bearing down on Nella Sabatini in her working-class, Italian neighborhood. Her beloved Catholic school is closing. Her long friendship with Angela is withering. Her new friendship with science-geek Clem is expanding. Her evaluation of her dad is marred.

Then — in just a split second — the world turns upside down. Angela’s brother Anthony — a boy Nella idolizes — accidentally shoots and kills a black man and the neighborhood is engulfed in acrimonious, menacing tensions. How do our misperceptions of people, our lack of knowledge about another’s hidden facets and secrets, color our understanding of them? What happens when good people make — in just a second — really bad choices? Where is God in all of this? Where is forgiveness? What do old loyalties mean, in a time like this?

Author Tricia Springstubb

Author Tricia Springstubb

Springstubb does not hold back from issuing challenging questions, nor from demonstrating the power of words to bring about understanding and healing, and the power of love and kindness to change lives. It’s an absorbing, timely, thought-provoking read for ages 11 and older. 359 pages

an episode of sparrows cover imageAn Episode of Sparrows, by Rumer Godden
originally published in 1955; NYRB Kids paperback issued in 2016

This novel by the amazing Rumer Godden entranced me. Originally written over 60 years ago, its themes of abandonment vs. belonging, mercy vs. cold justice, a proclivity to see the good vs. the ill in people, are timeless.

Godden paints a complex portrait of one neighborhood in London and its galaxy of residents. The wealthy dwell in Mortimer Square’s “gracious and imposing” houses, while the street urchins pack themselves cheek-by-jowl into a variety of homes along Catford Street. The Misses Chesney — Angela and Olivia — two well-to-do sisters, regard those street urchins through dramatically different eyes, particularly when it becomes apparent that some of them are pilfering soil from the Square’s gardens.

That story, of why and how a terribly-lonely girl named Lovejoy Mason conspires with a scrappy Irish lad named Tip to sneak pailfuls of earth over the wall, down the street, and into a secret location in the dark of night — that’s the stunning story played out in Godden’s rich, beautiful prose. Also running through the entire account lie the remarkable healing properties of a garden and the danger of invalidating the gentle, quiet voices among us.

Author Rumer Godden

Author Rumer Godden

It’s not a skimming book. It’s one where you sink your teeth into every gorgeous line, where you pause to soak up the depth of Godden’s perceptiveness, the poignant camaraderie she clearly felt with the betrayed, forlorn ones in this world, and where you come away with an intimate acquaintance of characters who feel true and real.

I heartily recommend it to adults and to those ages 13 and older who are prepared for a more mature read. There is absolutely nothing childish about this book other than the age of the protagonist. For girls, especially, who have enjoyed Little Women or other Alcott novels, or some of the Anne of Green Gables sequels — that’s about the level of emotion and prose to expect. 246 pages.

all american boys cover imageAll American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
published in 2015 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Finally this YA/Adult read. I review almost no YA books on Orange Marmalade so please attend to the fact that this gritty read is most definitely YA!

Plunging headlong into the racism and deadly altercations between police and young black men roiling our nation, Reynolds and Kiely offer up this tumultuous story.

Rashad, a young black teen on an innocent errand to a convenience store, finds himself in one blinding flash the victim of racist suspicions, accusations, and unprovoked, vicious police brutality. Quinn, a young white teen who happens to witness the scene, has long, deep, personal ties to the policeman involved. Both boys attend the same school which quickly becomes the epicenter of tensions and protests that test the core values, alliances, beliefs, and tempers of students and the entire community.

Authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Told in alternating voices by Reynolds and Kiely, the characters of Rashad and Quinn are unvarnished, conflicted, and turbulent with teen-age emotions. There is strong language throughout the account, drug and alcohol use by teens, banter about sexual exploits, and a sexualized vision of teen girls. Its gritty realism serves to prevent the account from veering into contrived, easy-answer fiction and to present itself more like a journalistic exploration of an actual incident. The challenges are honestly complex and thorny.

As Quinn struggles with his response to the situation, his conflicting obligations to old friends vs. the truth, and the ugly racism within himself, we are brought uncomfortably close to our own responses. As Rashad manages his anger, fear, and discomfort with the spotlit position he finds himself in, we are given an extraordinary front-row seat to the experience of young black males. These dual perspectives are guaranteed to spark thought-provoking reflections and discussions.

310 pages. My husband listened to an audio version of the book read in two voices by Guy Lockard and Keith Nobbs and found it extraordinarily powerful, so I’m recommending that as well.