Monthly Archives: October 2019

The Downstairs Girl, by Stacey Lee

downstairs girlJo Kuan makes hats that the ladies of Atlanta adore, but she was fired because Mrs. English worried that employing a Chinese girl might hurt her reputation. Besides, she says, Jo is a saucebox. Old Gin arranged for Jo to get her former job back as a lady’s maid for spoiled, short-tempered Caroline Payne, but what Jo really wants is to write for the Bell family’s local newspaper. She knows a lot about the newspaper business, since she and Old Gin secretly live in the Bell’s basement, and she eavesdrops through an old abolitionist’s listening tube right under the print shop. Jo overhears young Nathan Bell worrying about declining subscriptions, so she forms a plan that will benefit them both. When she anonymously submits an “agony aunt” advice column to the paper, subscriptions begin to climb, and Jo takes on the pseudonym “Miss Sweetie.”

Chinese immigrants were brought into the South for a brief span of years to take on the manual labor formerly filled by African slaves. In the post-reconstruction, segregated region, they occupied a social position just slightly above blacks, but certainly outside of the realm of wealthy whites. In this novel, many Atlantans reacted to their existence with surprise and confusion. Since Jo was wittily articulate and had a flair for fashion, her presence seemed an affront to the wealthy, simpering debutantes.

Young Jo lives in a world of secrets. No one knows that a Chinese girl is the true identity of the controversial, pro-suffragist Miss Sweetie, nor does anyone ever ask where she lives. On the other hand, Jo does not even know her own parents, and she is similarly in the dark about her exact relationship to Old Gin, the only guardian she has ever known. Old Gin is filled with secrets of his own, both about the past and about his dealings with the shady characters that flit through the stables at the Payne’s estate, where he works. While Jo schemes to uncover the frail old man’s situation without his knowledge, she has learned that information can be powerful. Jo holds several secrets in her pocket that gain her a bit of privilege, but she is well aware that her hard-earned life could easily collapse like a house of cards.

Stacey Lee has created an immensely likeable and intelligent protagonist in Jo Kuan. This diligent and hardworking young woman is so focused on straining upward for herself and Old Gin that she pushes her own feelings away. Ever practical, she ignores her heart, since she knows that romantic relationships across ethnic boundaries are illegal in any case. In her carefully regulated society, crossing boundaries leads only to punishment and shame. Lee skillfully weaves the political issues of Jim Crow laws and women’s suffrage into a coming-of-age tale filled with family entanglements and the fierce struggle for individual freedom.

Very highly recommended for teens and adults.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The World That We Knew, by Alice Hoffman

World that We KnewHanni knew that the Nazis would soon find them. Her mother was too sick to move, so she had to stay in Berlin to care for her, but she would find some way to get her fourteen-year-old Lea out of the country. Hanni pled to the rabbi’s wife, but she refused to help them. However, her daughter, Ettie, overheard the plea and offered to use forbidden kabala magic to help Hanni if she would pay for her and her sister to escape, as well. The women gathered to create a golem that they named Ava, an inhuman creature who looked like a young woman and was tasked to protect Lea at all costs. Before Ava could be discovered, the four young women boarded a train bound for the closest safe place: Paris.

As the reader knows, Paris was anything but safe during World War II, and the four fugitives struggle to stay alive and save their loved ones over the remaining years of the Nazi regime. Not all are successful, but those who survive evolve into beings fit for the new world being born.

With her gift for magical realism, Hoffman moves the plot into interwoven stories, crossing and knotting many strands. Danger, courage, love, and sacrifice define the choices that they make. Alice Hoffman has been an author I have appreciated many times over the years, and in this novel, she is finally writing out the true-life story that a fan related to her decades ago. In The World That We Knew, Hoffman combines two of my favorite genres, historical fiction and a hint of fantasy. Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Two New Ones for Kids

Look Both Ways, by Jason Reynolds

Look Both WaysThey go to school together, but these kids have different challenges and joys. Jason Reynolds writes ten interwoven short stories that reveal the lives of a diverse group of young people as they navigate the ten blocks from school to home. Heartbreaking, heartwarming, sometimes funny and sometimes gross (an entire story is based on booger jokes), these kids will give you hope for the future of our cities that you may not find on the evening news. Reynolds is a master storyteller, so this middle grade book is an accessible, sneaky introduction to short stories for your kids. Be prepared: the lightly written emotional undercurrents will knock you flat.

 

I Am Walt Disney, by Brad Meltzer; illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

i am walt disneyBrad Meltzer was a successful adult thriller writer who hit a gold mine when he decided to write some biographies of worthy role models for his kids. The series is called “Ordinary People Change the World,” easily recognized by the big-headed caricatures on these small picture books. One of the latest is I Am Walt Disney, which gives a child-oriented overview of the man whose youthful scribbles evolved into spectacular animated movies that changed the world. He called his childhood home in Marceline, Missouri, “the happiest place on earth,” and then grew up to create fantasy parks with the same motto, vacation destinations that have families saving their pennies for a week in paradise. Eliopoulos draws four-year-old Disney with the same mustache and suit that he sports in later life, moving through his precocious teen and young adult years, his marriage, and his mature awards and achievements. On a recent talk show, Meltzer revealed that the Disney company was so appreciative of the “Ordinary People” series and its values that they opened up archives for this slim bio that had never been public before. All of the volumes in this series are highly recommended for your four- to eight-year-olds.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of Look Both Ways and a library copy of I Am Walt Disney. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not express those of my employer or anyone else.

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