A mystical, magical adventure with a serious message that should spur conversations.

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ZAZU DREAMS

BETWEEN THE SCARAB AND THE DUNG BEETLE

In this illustrated fantasy, a boy and his imaginary dog travel via whale, learning about science, history, ecology, and more.

Zazu is a young boy with light-brown skin and curly hair; he has Sephardi and Mizrahi ancestry on his mother’s side, and African American (Barbados and India) on his father’s. Every night, Zazu travels back in time, visiting his ancestors whose diaspora took them all over the world, learning “history that we never hear about in school.” An especially wild escapade begins when Zazu and his imaginary malamute husky named Cocomiso travel by humpback whale from the present (2016) back through time to locations like the Rock of Gibraltar; Ouazzane, Morocco; the Caribbean; Kerala, India; the Persian Gulf; Shiraz, Iran; Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia; Salonika, Greece; and more. Along the way, Zazu has several kinds of encounters: learning Sephardic/Mizrahi history (such as that of the Caribbean-based Sephardic pirates who took revenge against the Spanish for the forced diaspora of Jews and Moors); meeting ancestors and cultural heroes (like pirate Capt. Moses Cohen Henriques Eanes and Jacques Cousteau); gleaning something about each stop’s culture and background; and, crucially, discovering facets of the global environmental crisis, including burning forests, mass extinctions, and plastic in the oceans. Just as important, Zazu is educated about remedies based on sustainability and an empathic understanding of how human actions affect the biosphere. To save Earth, people need (for example) “zero-deforestation agriculture and product chains, ethically shared seeds,” and “proper poop-use.” The last becomes an important symbol for how humans deal with waste. Zazu is given three poops: one kind warning of the dystopia to come; another serving as a guide to the present; and the third representing “poop for a hopeful future.” Though on the surface a children’s story, with a boy protagonist and fantastic exploits, this novel pitches much of its content to adult ears, backed up by an introductory guide, hundreds of notes, a chronology, and a list of additional resources for further study. The intent is frankly didactic; Alhadeff (Viscous Expectations, 2014) hopes that both kids and adults will see “the possibility of reconsidering consequences of one’s habitual daily choices.” Nevertheless, the tone is joyful and hopeful, and Zazu’s travels are often charming, surprising, and fun, especially when he gets to sample local pastimes and typical foods. The author is effective in showing the breadth, depth, and appeal of Jewish and Arab history, language, and culture. Amato (Uncanny Congruencies, 2013, etc.) provides attractive painted illustrations that have a naïve style but capture the book’s wide-ranging flavor. Given the tale’s enjoyable plot, delight in language, and timely message, it’s unfortunate that its credibility suffers from several questionable assertions (such as the danger of vaccines and the increase of amber’s “healing properties” due to deforestation) and some notes that contain unattributed quotations from other sources.

A mystical, magical adventure with a serious message that should spur conversations.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-63233-118-2

Page Count: 140

Publisher: Eifrig Publishing

Review Posted Online: Aug. 27, 2019

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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