Monthly Archives: April 2022

Dragon Hoops, by Gene Luen Yang

“Ka-Thunk!” Gene Luen Yang was a computer science teacher at Bishop O’Dowd Catholic High School in California who became aware that his school’s basketball team, the Dragons, was in contention for the state championship that year. Gene knew nothing about basketball. He was so skinny as a child that his nickname was Stick. He didn’t like to play sports, and he thought watching sports was boring. On the other hand, he was looking for a subject for his next graphic novel, so he found his way to the school gym to interview Coach Lou Richie.

“Step.” Gene was very careful to keep his life in balance: a quarter of his time for teaching, a quarter of his time for making comics, and half his time for his family. Over the course of the basketball season, as he dug into the life story of the coach and several players, he found that there was more to them than just guys throwing a ball around—although there was plenty of that—but that each person had a complex background and obstacles to overcome. Changes came to Gene’s life, too, forcing him to make a difficult decision that threatened to wreck his tidy schedule, but promised to make a dream come true.

“Paa! Paa! Paa!” In 2007, I was privileged to attend the Printz reception, where American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel ever to win the award for outstanding teen literature. It was a stellar group of honorees that year, and Gene Luen Yang’s acceptance speech was quintessential high school teacher: he prepared a PowerPoint. In his kind and affable manner, he taught a room full of librarians about the history of American bigotry against Asian people. It was eye-opening. In Dragon Hoops, he uses a personal story about his school to reveal the systemic racism and misogyny in the history of basketball, as well as the contemporary struggles of teens from many ethnic groups.

“Swish!” Gene Luen Yang is a former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and during his tenure, he encouraged everyone to read something in a format that is outside of their comfort zone. If you are not familiar with graphic novels—or if you absolutely love them— this 2020 autobiography is a great reading experience. Although it is almost 450 pages long, I read it in about 2 hours. The panels are large, the colors are pleasing, and the story flies by. Don’t miss his earlier works, such as American Born Chinese and the two-volume Boxers & Saints, reviewed here. He is also the author and/or illustrator of several series, such as “Superman,” “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” and “Secret Coders,” among many others.

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 Last Cuentista, by Donna Barba Higuera

Petra wanted to be a cuentista, a storyteller, just like her abuelita. When she boards the spacecraft with her scientist parents and her little brother, Javier, she comforts herself that at least she can spend the 380 years of their flight in stasis with all of the world’s mythology and stories being downloaded into her brain. When they arrive at their new planet, she will be the cuentista for a whole new civilization. Then, just as she is being strapped into her pod, she finds out that her parents said no to the storytelling download. She will just have the much more practical botany lessons for the whole flight. Her pod fills with gel, her body functions are stopped, and she is supposed to be asleep. But she realizes that she is still conscious, and there is no way to tell the Caretaker that she is not asleep. She can’t call out, wave her hand, or even move her eyes.

Three spaceships are leaving Earth because a great comet is on a collision course with the planet. The survivors are chosen because of their skills that will be useful for a fresh start on a new Goldilocks planet, but some were selected to live out normal lives—working, caring for the stasis pods, reproducing, and dying—just as they would have on Earth. But 380 years is a long time, and people get ideas, and the isolated culture that lands on the planet may bear little resemblance to the ones who boarded the ship long ago.

The Last Cuentista won both the Newbery Medal and the Pura Belpré Award this past January. From the title and the cover, I was expecting to dive into a traditional South American story with magical realism, but just a few pages in, we were boarding a spacecraft! Somehow, Higuera’s Latina protagonist was able to transport her Hispanic culture into a futuristic setting. The story is filled with the tension of most sci-fi tales dealing with survival in alien landscapes, but the more Orwellian terror of ruthless power structures is what propels our heroine into action.

Higuera uses both the past and the future to show that, although our history is filled with war and tragedy, human beings have also created art, music, and loving traditions that should not be abandoned. The richness of our past is the foundation for building a beautiful and meaningful future.

Highly recommended for young teen to adult.

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 Sin of Certainty, by Peter Enns

How does the modern Protestant define faith? For many, faith is considered to be an intellectual assent to a set of doctrinal creeds, rather than trust in a living God. In the past century, especially, the Christian life has calcified into checking boxes on a statement of belief, rather than a relationship with a being who is far beyond our comprehension. Gone is the mystery, the paradox, or the humble recognition of human limits.

Pete Enns is the Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University and earned his Ph.D. at Harvard. Early in his career, he had all of his theological ducks in a row, but while on a plane to give a presentation, he watched Disney’s A Bridge to Terabithia, where the unbelieving girl said that she didn’t believe that God would make his own son die if he was so busy running the whole world. Pete thought to himself, would a loving God force his own son to die a painful death? And he was thrown into a quagmire of doubt, which is not a comfortable place to be when you’re a pastor.

Throughout the book, Pete opens up all of the hermetically sealed boxes that today’s evangelical Christian keeps tucked safely away. How can the earth possibly be 6,000 years old? Why did God want the Israelites to kill all those people? Does he care about me, then? Why is the Bible so ambivalent on the question of slavery? If God loves us, why do children die and why are there wars?

When Pete began to wrestle with these issues himself and to bring them up in his classes, the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary began to view him with suspicion. He published a book on the Old Testament in 2005 (Inspiration and Incarnation) of which his administration did not approve, and while he was struggling to hold onto his job, his daughter had to be sent to a therapeutic boarding school for an overwhelming anxiety disorder. His life began to unravel, and he entered what Douglas Adams calls “the long, dark teatime of the soul.”

The Sin of Certainty is Enns’s exposition of his own journey away from and back to faith—or, as he would say, trust—and he boldly wades into dangerous waters. One of our pastors recommended this as the number one book he would give to people who are deconstructing or reconstructing their faith. Enns certainly leaves no stone unturned. He is completely knowledgeable about scripture, of course, since that is his vocation, but he also writes conversationally and even humorously about his own life and the state of the church. Near the end, he has a couple of sections called, “When ‘Uh-Oh’ Becomes ‘Ah-Hah’” and “Cultivating a Habit of Trust.” He believes that it is important to become comfortable with uncertainty and with changing your opinions as life happens. As Switchfoot would say, “We are always in motion, like the winds, the tides, the ocean….”*

To put cards on the table, I really like Pete Enns. David and I were several years into our reconsideration of many religious issues when we read his How the Bible Actually Works when it was published in 2019. It was pivotal in my journey to have someone who loved the Bible and had studied it for decades tell me, in effect, “but hey, it was not handed down on stone tablets. Here is the real story.” Pete Enns and Jared Byas also host a podcast called The Bible for Normal People, to which I regularly listen. They have great guests and ask hard questions. I am not always in agreement with them, but they are never boring.

When David and I read How the Bible Actually Works, we thought that we were alone in our struggle and that we would never know any other believers who were pursuing God on this path. We were wrong, thank goodness. If you are questioning manmade teachings that you have been forced to think are essential to salvation, please know that there are so many kind, intelligent people who love Jesus and are not evangelical Protestants—millions of them who have lived over a couple of millennia, as a matter of fact. You are not alone, and The Sin of Certainty is a good place to start.

Disclaimer: I own a 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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*”We’re Gonna Be Alright,” by Switchfoot, from the Native Tongue album. It also says: “…And it’s ok to doubt/ To learn what you think ain’t what you thought.”

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Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann

Mollie knew that her sister, Anna, was an alcoholic, but even at her worst, she didn’t deserve to be murdered. Nevertheless, she ended up being shot and her body thrown into a ravine. Of course, they couldn’t find the bullet so that they could investigate the case. Nothing was ever solved when it came to the Osage Indians. Soon after, Mollie’s mother, Lizzie, came down with the mysterious wasting disease that seemed to be moving through the tribe.

The federal government had moved the Osage off their ancestral lands not once, but twice. Finally, they moved the whole nation onto the hardscrabble hills of Oklahoma, where they could no longer farm or raise cattle. The tribal leaders were smart enough to retain the mineral rights to the land, and before long, they struck oil—and again, and again. Soon the Osage tribe was the wealthiest group of people in North America.

Each member had a “headright” or share of the profit that could be inherited by their descendants. The federal government didn’t think that the Osage could responsibly manage their own money, so they appointed white guardians over adult people. White men began to marry into the tribe; Indians began to disappear.

Eventually, J. Edgar Hoover sent agents from the new Federal Bureau of Investigation to Oklahoma. One of them, Tom White, was actually an honest man who worked hard to find answers, but when agents started to put the clues together, they started to die off, too. Eventually, White was able to put the culprits behind bars. Years later, author David Grann visited the descendants of the victims, and there were still many secrets that remained buried.

This is the new teen edition of the famous adult story, although it is certainly complex! It is grievous to read of the extensive miscarriage of justice that continued year after year. Even after people were convicted, the sentences were ridiculously short, as if, as one tribe member put it, they were convicted of animal abuse rather than human murder. Although many crimes took place, from shootings and poisonings to house explosions, none of the descriptions are gruesome, making it appropriate for younger readers. My biggest complaint was that there were so many characters that I couldn’t keep track, so I will let you know what I missed until I was almost finished: there is a Who’s Who in the back of the book, along with a glossary, notes, and an index.

Perfect for true crime aficionados, as well as lovers of American and indigenous history. Martin Scorsese is directing a film based on the book, starring Leo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro, which will be released in November, 2022.

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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