Weekend Pick for December 30, 2022
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As our last pick of December arrives, we want to end the year with gratitude for all our guest curators for 2022. Also, a special thank you to Dr. Susan Densmore-James for all her picks for the month of December. Excellent reads and beautiful reviews to match!
By Joanna Ho
Dr. Susan Densmore- James
The Book Dealer
“Our voices are more than sword and shield. They are bridges too.”
My “book family” shares my passion for ensuring our youth are provided the freedom to choose books that will fuel a fire for reading and provide the comfort and support which stories can provide. I have many friends who write picture books, middle grades novels, and YA Literature, and one thing I can say without hesitation about these authors is this: they are there for our children and young adults. They provide unconditional support for so many who are facing serious challenges in life. My experience working with authors has been life changing. So many of them have modeled for me the importance of placing kids first, as well as the importance of providing a wide variety of diverse selections for reading which can build empathy by shining a light onto others’ lives. I have seen time and time again a classroom of our youth brought together by the powerful words of books.
Why am I mentioning this? Sadly, living in a state that is banning books left and right, I am constantly on alert working to ensure books stay on the shelves of our schools. I have been deeply reflecting on each book from December’s picks, thinking about the unique life lessons from which our youth can benefit. As I usually do after reading a thought-provoking book, I have reached out to each author from this month’s reviews, and, not surprisingly, each has answered my email within a day. These individuals, most of whom have a demanding “day” job in addition to writing for our adolescents, spend countless hours communicating with their young audiences through school visits and responses to emails and letters. In the world of Children’s and Young Adult Literature, I see a passionate group of writers willing to share their stories out of pure love and concern for our society, and many of them are vulnerable enough to incorporate real-world experiences of their own into their books. They provide us a perfect platform for vital discussions with our youth—something that is critical to our growth and development as humans.
My last “pick” for this month is a book that does just that and more. The Silence that Binds Us by Joanna Ho has literally taken my breath away and left me reeling in its wake. Since I spend much time on the road visiting schools, I spent an entire work day going back and forth between the text and the Audible book (narrated beautifully by Raechel Wong). And yes, I finished it in one day. This novel is so tightly and expertly woven together, its perfection seems to stem from an author who has long mastered the craft and knows exactly how to weave together every morsel of text, down to even the smallest detail of its title. Never have a read a book that had me thinking about the importance of a title as much as this one (and that says a lot, as I have read thousands).
As I have mentioned throughout my December 2022 Picks, the Author’s Note gives readers clues into how each story is birthed, and it is no surprise that Joanna Ho has spent time as an English teacher. In my role as a professor who spends much time in the hallways of local middle and high schools, I can say Joanna Ho’s dialogue is “on point,” making this book not only a beautiful read, but one that is both relevant and relatable to our teens. I have been so excited to share this treasure with a larger community, as I have already been sharing with our local schools, educators, my students at the university, all of my book club members, my dogs, and anyone else who will listen as I passionately gush on and on about it.
The story starts with the unthinkable trauma of Maybelline Chen (May), the main character, losing her brilliant, older brother, Danny, to suicide right after he is accepted into Princeton University. Where many YA books would have this loss as the one conflict, this is just where Ho begins her story. The Chen family is thrown into an even deeper pit of despair when
Mr. McIntyre, a local Silicon Valley entrepreneur, publicly blames Asian youth and their families for the overly-competitive spirit in the local school district. He falsely claims Asian parents are the root cause of the struggles of “other” students to compete for college admissions. Adding insult to May and her parents, he addresses Danny as “some Asian kid,” not even honoring Danny with a name. Adding to the complexity is Mr. McIntyre’s son, Josh, is May’s friend and long-time admirer. How Josh reacts to his father’s racist proclamation in front of the entire junior class puts May in a spiral —ending her naïveté about the prejudices in her community. This awareness slowly builds over the course of the novel in just the right manner, as the reader is truly riveted until the last word in the book.
Just like in real life, no person has one layer to the complex human spirit, and May is a beautifully, multi-layered young lady. Ho creates a narrative that expertly pulls back each layer of May, revealing she is not only a Taiwanese Chinese American, but she is the child of two Chinese parents. She is sister to a Chinese brother who has been unknowingly struggling with depression. And, she is a friend to others who are of different racial backgrounds. Her parents’ history and experiences make for complex characters, both of whom provide different roles in May’s life. The mother/daughter relationship is complex. Ho accurately portrays a family who might look different on the outside, but experiences the same challenges faced by all humankind. We all have a complex family dynamic that takes work and a willingness to openly communicate in order to better understand each other. May often feels her mother is ashamed of her because she is so different from her mom. In fact, May feels like even her physical appearance is offensive to her Mother. May often refers to her mom’s disgust through the metaphor of her mother’s “pregnant hippo of disappointment and its cousin, the rhinoceros of fear” Words come easily to May (and to Joanna Ho, as her word choice in this masterpiece is a work of art). May loves to write, which is also in opposition to what she believes her mother wants for her as a career.
Luckily at the time of Danny’s death, May has friends in her life who love and care for her, namely the Duverne siblings. These lovely characters are the ideal in terms of friends— Mark being Danny’s best friend and Tiya being May’s BFF. This family (refuges from Haiti) provides a safe, inviting place for May which May both treasures and needs. May enjoys learning about the food from their culture, loves the warm hugs she receives from their mother, and feels part of their family (sometimes even more than she does at home with her own mom).
When May writes an impassioned poem for the local newspaper, a heated debate pops up in several venues across school. In comes the English teacher, Ms. Daniels, whom I loved as a critical figure in the plot line. Her ability to masterfully discuss challenging yet important topics with her students by posing questions for them to answer is a powerful illustration of what adults should do in order to encourage youth to think critically. The negative response from May’s poem is met with yet another downward spiral in May’s life, as she must decide if she should use her voice or honor her parents, who do not want May to cause waves. At this point in the narrative, May is forced to take a good, long look at her own behavior, as she begins to consider how she has treated others in their quest for equality and a rightful place in society. And, the event that keeps the reader on the edge of their seats is May’s discovery of a shoebox tied together by a shoe string, holding a possible message from Danny about his death.
The lessons in this book will forever be a part of me (and I will leave you with questions to consider, as Ms. Daniels, May’s teacher, so expertly demonstrates)!. 1. What are the possible perils of silence ? 2. When should we use our voices, how should we use our voices, and to what extent should we use them? 3. What should we do when others do not hear our voices? 4. What is the power of friendship? And what is the value of having a diverse group of friends? Can one person/friend be your “everything” in life? 5. How should we seek help when we need it? 6. Why should we learn about cultures other than our own? 7. How do others show us love? 8. How do we show love? 9. How can we ensure we are helping our youth develop into healthy, loving, and thoughtful humans? 10. Why is storytelling an important part of our society?
Joanna, thank you. You have provided your readers with so much to think about, and you have made me a better reader, writer, educator, and human. I am quite honored to be asked to write these reviews, and it has not been easy to select 5 titles out of so many amazing books, but this one is deserving! I am so thankful authors like Joanna Ho have written their stories. As Maybelline Chen says, “Hearts and minds are changed through stories.” We just need to listen.