Picking Favorites: Heavy on the Feminism

These have been hanging out in my Evernote for a while, so it’s time I posted them. Also, there’s at least one of these I don’t necessarily agree with but just found an interesting read because it made me think.


George Bailey dreams of a life perpetually out of reach, always right around a corner he can never quite round. He makes all the responsible choices, the safe ones, the necessary ones, and in exchange gives up nearly all of his youthful ambitions—an adventurous Man of the World becoming, instead, a Family Man stuck back in his old hometown, running the family business. It’s heartbreaking to watch. And worse, it happens to almost every single one of us, in one way or another. — It’s a Wonderful Life?

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Book Review: A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich

I picked up A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich by Alice Childress at the Friends of the Library book sale one day, probably because I recognized the title and figured it’s a book I should have read by now. It’s a pretty classic problem novel about a kid named Benjie who is addicted to heroin. (The tagline on the novel is “Benjie is young, black, and well on his way to being hooked on heroin” lest there’s any confusion about its problem novel status or the topic of the book. But I digress. )

A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich by Alice Childress

The story is told in alternating first-person POV chapters from Benjie and the people who his drug use affect, including his mom, stepfather, grandmother, teachers, and friends. The chapters really serve as character studies to let the reader know who populates Benjie’s world as well as how they view not only Benjie but the neighborhood and other people in it.

When I found out the book was made into a movie (starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield, no less!), I wasn’t very far into the book and was surprised because it didn’t seem like there was really enough plot to hang a movie on, but I was wrong about that. While the beginning is pretty light on plot and heavy on premise (Benjie’s on drugs and people notice–seriously, that’s it), as the book goes on, there’s actually a lot of stuff that happens between characters, and it’s all pretty deftly handled. The characters reflect more on how they feel about what’s happened than  detailing what happened to get the characters to that point. I mean, we find out, but the chapters don’t follow the standard this happened and then this happened and then this happened progression.

While I ultimately found the book just okay (it’s super short but took me a ridiculously long amount of time to read it given the length), I really enjoyed all of the relationship stuff with the mom and stepfather, and I am 100% in love with the ending. THAT ENDING. Not to mention, all of the familial relationship stuff is ace. Yeah, so that was pretty great. Also, there’s a really interesting conflict between the white teacher Mr. Cohen (who has A LOT of contempt for his black students) and the black nationalist teacher Mr. Green across the hall. They are both effective teachers but they do not particularly care for each other and they have very, very different views of the children and neighborhood they serve.

Anyway, I’m going to end this by just quoting Mr. Green because, through him, Childress basically says what I was trying to get at in my diversity fatigue post:

Look around your city and let me know if you see coloreds represented fifty-fifty in the white community. No, it doesn’t go down that way. I’m sick of explainin and talkin race. Race is the story of my life and my father’s life, and I guess, his father and all the other fathers before that. As a kid, I was in on “race” discussions in school, at home, in church, everywhere. It’s a wonder every Black person in the U. S. of A. hasn’t gone stark, ravin made from racism…and the hurtin it’s put on us.

Also, for anyone doing any banned book challenges, this book was successfully removed from a school library in 1975.

Book Reviews: Joan Bauer and Teen Work Ethic

Then I mentioned the part about being ignored for my age and put in a word for teenagers everywhere.

“It happens a lot, Mrs. Gladstone. Our money is just as good as an adult’s, sometimes we’ve had to work longer and harder for it. Kids deserve respect when they go into a store.”

I recently reread Hope Was Here (HWH) and Rules of the Road (ROTR), both by Joan Bauer. Hope Was Here because I wanted to read a feel-good book and Rules of the Road because the book specifically mentions Al-Anon, and, well, that’s the kind of mood I was in. To be honest, though, I had forgotten I read Rules of the Road before (though it felt really familiar) until I went to rate it on Goodreads and saw that I’d already given it a rating. Okay, then!

In brief: HWH is an allegory about the positive impact teens can have on politics, while ROTR is about a girl (Jenna) who becomes an elderly woman’s personal driver after Jenna’s alcoholic father comes back into her life. They’re both good books with relatable main characters. They are also unrelentingly positive (even though both deal with heavy issues), which I really appreciate because I can get overwhelmed by reading too many super heavy books. Mainly, though, I want to talk about how Bauer features teenagers and work in both of these novels.

Jenna (ROTR) and Hope (HWH) both have jobs, and both girls enjoy and take pride in their work. The most surprising factor, though, is that neither of them have particularly glamorous jobs. Hope is a diner waitress, and Jenna sells shoes. Both jobs are in the customer service sector and are typically equated with low pay and grunt work. These are also the types of jobs I think of kids taking because they can’t get anything else and then, you know, complaining about the jobs. (Remember in High School Musical 2 when the kids all just wanted/needed summer jobs, got jobs, and then immediately talked about how much they hated working? Yeah, like that.) Not so with Jenna and Hope. They are both extremely good at their jobs and know it.

Jenna: “I am a shoe professional” (pg. 1).

Hope: “It was my fourteenth birthday, and I took to waitressing like a hungry trucker tackles a T-bone. That job was the biggest birthday present I’d ever gotten” (pg. 2).

So not only are both girls customer service aficionados (they want and can make their customers happy), but their characters are defined by the work they do and how good they are at it. The very first nuggets of character development the reader gets is all about the jobs the girls do and how well they do them.

Bauer’s message is clear: Do not underestimate teenagers, and do not think they are lazy or selfish or looking for a short cut.

These girls work hard for their money, and–more importantly–they want to be taken seriously, so they are. They have to prove themselves again and again (to customers and other employees), and each time, they deliver. Because they are serious about their work and they care about it.

That’s not all, though. Both girls get their skills (waitressing and salesmanship) from an absentee parent. Hope’s mom is a terrible mother but an excellent waitress, and almost everything Hope knows about being a waitress, she learned from her mother. Jenna’s father is an alcoholic who couldn’t keep a sales job because of his drinking, but when he was sober and working, he delivered every time. So the girls get the best parts of their parents and maintain a connection to them while still acknowledging that their parents aren’t that great at being parents. So even though their parents are not good, they do give the girls something useful: skills that allow them to take care of themselves.

I think this is an excellent way to show that almost everyone has some good in them without having to make it about the parents. Bauer doesn’t spend a lot of time having to explain that although the parents screwed up, at least the kids have good skills. The characters are able to acknowledge it, the reader is able to understand it, and the narrative doesn’t slow down or become preachy. It’s really smart writing and character development.

I enjoy Bauer’s work for a lot of reasons, but that she doesn’t underestimate teenagers and highlights that they’re hard workers are a couple of the main ones.

Other notes:

  • Addie from HWH is totally my people.
  • Jenna drives a Cadillac all summer. A Cadillac is totally my dream car. (I want an SRX. That is the dream.)
  • I love that Jenna has attended Al-Anon meetings, but I wish Bauer had included some scenes of her actually attending the meetings or talking to someone in the program (though I do understand that wouldn’t have really fit the narrative). I also wonder why no mention of Alateen is made.
  • Old people are the best, and they feature heavily in both novels (moreso in ROTR). Teens + old people = my favorite combo, for real.
  • I love that you can see Jenna’s red hair blowing in the wind on the ROTR cover. So cute!

Book Review: The Year of My Miraculous Reappearance

I just decided that life was like a farmer standing in a field and a kid racing down the road on a Kawasaki, arguing about whether the fence posts are rushing by or standing still. Each thinking the other is crazy or blind or both, neither willing to give up until the other sees the light.

The Year of My Miraculous Reappearance by Catherine Ryan HydeI decided to read The Year of My Miraculous Reappearance by Catherine Ryan Hyde because it’s about an alcoholic teenager who actually goes to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. A lot of books mention teen drinking, but few that I’ve read talk about treatment. Or, if they do, they don’t name the treatment program. So I was particularly interested in a kid who goes to AA and not just “rehab” (not that there’s anything wrong with rehab, of course).

Brief summary, avoiding major spoilers: Thirteen-year-old Cynnie has an alcoholic mom. She hates that her mom drinks and doesn’t take care of Cynnie or her little brother, Bill, who has Down’s Syndrome. One day, the pain gets to be too much for Cynnie and she does what her mom does when the pain is too much: she has a beer. And it’s all downhill from there. Cynnie is then forced to attend AA meetings after getting into a lot of trouble.

When I first started this book, I didn’t think I was going to like it. I found the writing too simplistic, and Cynnie is a really young thirteen. However, I realized that (a) all 13-year-olds do not talk and think like my daughter and (b) part of Cynthia’s character is that she avoids thinking a lot. She doesn’t really read or care that much about school. She just hangs out with a couple of the neighborhood boys and tries to avoid her mom.

I don’t mean to imply that Cynnie isn’t intelligent or that she doesn’t think deeply about things because that’s not true. The quote I pulled about the fence posts is from early in the book, for example. She thinks a lot; she just doesn’t use a lot of complex language to do so. Her voice is also pretty immediate, and I could imagine a 13-year-old kid telling a story the way she does: “I did this and this. My mom did that. I was mad so I did this. Then I went to my room and threw things,” etc. I mean, if a kid isn’t trying to feel her feelings, she’s not going to have a whole lot to say about them.

But that’s a big reason of why I didn’t think the book would have staying power. I was wary that the author was going to keep things simple and kind of on the surface.

And then Cynnie starts drinking. And I was just so worried about her, and I wanted her to not drink and find another way and to get help. And I had to keep reading to see what was going to happen to her and to make sure she was going to be okay. Because she’s just a kid who got caught up drinking and is in pain and needs help. And she’s so sad and I don’t want her to be sad.

And then! Then she has to go to AA and I’m hopeful! But it’s not easy for her, and I want to see how she pulls through and if she commits to sobriety and overcomes her struggles with sobriety. Also, I want her to believe in herself the way that I do.

So I kept reading, and I was invested in the narrative–not just how the author was going to portray a teen alcoholic in a treatment program.

As for how AA is handled, I think the program is presented in a straightforward and accessible way. Hyde doesn’t do any info dumps or long drawn out exposition of how the program works. Everything is presented through Cynnie’s experience in and with the program. Sometimes she asks questions, sometimes she explains something she’s learned, but the story is never preachy and never says AA is something any one person has to do. Hyde just shows how this character experiences AA and how it affects her life. AA is also not presented as some magic cure-all. Sobriety takes work, and the narrative shows how difficult maintaining sobriety can be, no matter how far along in the program someone is.

I know I spent a lot of time talking about Cynnie and AA, but that’s because most of the story focuses on those two things. The other characters that populate the narrative are not given that much page time, but they’re all fully realized and memorable. I understand the relationships and motivations of all of them.

I think this book would be good for teens who know someone who attends AA or who may need AA themselves because it really demystifies how the whole thing works and isn’t preachy or didactic at all.

My only complaint is that there’s no mention of Al-Anon or Alateen made at all. Even one line saying when she’s ready, Cynnie might want to consider Al-Anon/Alateen since her mom is an alcoholic would have been nice.

Source: Library