Tag Archives: fantasy

Last Day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

It is the last day of the 2016 APA Heritage Month — but it will not be the last time I write about media representation of Asian Americans or about the importance of respect, integrity, diligence, compassion, empathy, knowledge, open-mindedness, inclusion, and collaboration in regards to improving accurate and nuanced representations.

Smoke_and_Shadow_hardcoverToday, I want play an upbeat note and share my adoration to the wonderful Avatar: The Last Airbender series penned by Gene Luen Yang. Currently there are four completed stories, each told in three paperback volumes and also collected in a library binding oversize single volume.  They are: The Promise, The Search, The Rift, and Smoke and Shadow.  Of course, for fans of the Nickelodeon TV show like me, these stories are like lush oases in the parched void left by the ending of the original series.  We get to see Aang and his gang grow up a bit, deal with more complex issues, and find out answers to some questions left unresolved by the show!

avatarthepromiseHowever, I have also observed many young readers encounter these as stand alone series and thoroughly enjoy the adventures, character relationships, humor, and the conflicts.  This is a series that could easily err on the side of “appropriation” because it definitely mimicked the Japanese anime style and the several nations’ customs and philosophies or even “national traits” are loosely and (one might argue) stereotypically based on certain Asian cultures — another potentially incendiary aspect of the show.

avatar___the_search_hard_cover_by_antomori-d6pbo7vInstead, it is accepted and even embraced as appreciation and celebration by viewers from all racial backgrounds, including many Asian Americans — one of the super fans is Gene Luen Yang.

Many factors contributed to why the show worked in building and not destroying positive representations: characters are deftly portrayed as individuals, whether they’re from a specific culture or not, the show creators are always careful when cultural details are represented — all Chinese characters and sentences are correctly written out and composed, and the relationships between characters and nations are complex and nuanced.  Not to mention the artistic rendering of the images and the exciting plot progression through the 61 episodes!

The_Rift_hardcoverThe book series written (not illustrated) by Gene Yang, published by Dark Horse, are equally, if not more, complex, thrilling, and satisfying! Please read them, share them with people in your life, young or not so young, and celebrate everything that works well in these volumes!

For those interested, there are some great questions and answers about the creation of the TV show and the outcry against the casting of the 2009 life action movie based on the show at racebending.com.

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So You Want to Be A Jedi: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back by Adam Gidwitz

soyouwantobeajediSo You Want to Be A Jedi: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back by Adam Gidwitz, with original concept arts

Really enjoyed much of the book — many of the Jedi lessons are great fun and with the trade-mark Gidwitz caring for a young person’s mind and character. The second person narrative device worked for me and the added extended training segments made me happy. The third person narrative parts about Han & Leia are faithful to the movie but to someone like me who saw the original movie and re-watched it a few times in the past few decades, they can seem a bit bland. I could tell that the imagined audience is actually those who’re young and not exactly familiar with Episode V. Waiting to hear from my 4th & 5th graders of their view.

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Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

circusmirandusCircus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

For the most part, the story works, and I did care about the main character and what he was hoping for. The ending is the kind that kid readers always want: the young protagonist actually GOT to enter the fantasy realm, rather than learning some precious lessons on how to hold the magic in one’s heart but knowing that “fantasy world” does not quite exist. So, kudos to Beasley on that front. I was hoping that once we learned the back story of the aunt, I would have had more sympathy toward her behavior but she remained a two-dimensional device and not fleshed out character all the way through. Definitely felt that the writing is a bit plain and some details could be trimmed to tighten the pacing, but totally see it appeal to certain young readers.

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The Absolute Sandman Vol. 1 by Neil Gaiman

absolutesandman1Artwork by Dave McKean, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Chris Bachalo, Michael Zulli, Kelley Jones, Charles Vess, Colleen Doran, and more.

I decided to use a large cover image here because this hardcover, full-color, glossy heavy pages tome absolutely deserves this “in your face” treatment.

I read the first twenty installments (24 pages each) of Gaiman’s game changing graphic novel series (from 1989 to 1991) in sequence and absolutely loved every page and moment of it! Dark, haunting, gruesome, poetic, enigmatic and yet lucid all at the same time, wrapped in such a handsome package.

Even if so much within is extremely disturbing, Gaiman’s stories and the art and layout design make reading this volume a blissful experience.

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Magyk by Angie Sage

magykMagyk by Angie Sage

A gentle story of magic and friendship, full of entertaining tidbits for imaginative young readers. Glad that I finally got to read it since the series has been a favorite of many of my students for a while.

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Teaching The Graveyard Book in China

graveyardbookFour young readers from Shanghai (ages 13-15) and I spent two weeks together enjoying and analyzing Neil Gaiman’s Newbery winning title The Graveyard Book. The lessons were all conducted in English. We had a lot of fun and here are some of the observations that we made about the book:

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 9.18.08 AM

(silly names we gave ourselves/each other)Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 7.53.47 AM

  • The author makes it so that the supposedly bad people (the graveyard dead, a witch, a vampire, and a werewolf) turned out to be super nice and caring.  It made us reconsider our assumptions to the people around us.
  • The author effectively uses verbs and action phrases for inanimate objects to create vivid and poetic imageries: tendrils of fog could insinuate themselves into the hall, the graveyard could keep secrets, and the burnt sun could gaze into the world below.
  • We had lots of fun figuring out what Gaiman implies in his text.  Silas’ true being is, of course, the most fun to guess: so many clues about what he is without the word* EVER being present in the book. But there are many other things that the readers need to figure out: the characters’ moods, interior thoughts and motivations, etc.  In other words, this is a great book for inferences. 
  • Paradox is another literary device used often by the author.  We bookended the course with this paradoxical phrase: “Glorious Tragedy” that Gaiman used to describe what it’s like to be a parent and how The Graveyard Book can be read as a book about the bittersweetness of successful parenting.  This phrase could be used especially to frame much of the last part of the book when Nobody Owens grows too old to be contained within the safety of the Graveyard.   Isn’t “growing up” also a kind of glorious tragedy? I asked the four young readers to contemplate in what ways that “growing up” is a glorious tragedy.
  • Each student wrote me a quick feedback on their individual experience with the book.  All were positive and had strong emotional reaction to the events and characters in the book.
    • One wrote how they appreciated the many new vocabulary words (Gaiman definitely did NOT shy away from using precise, perfect, but not easy words.)
    • They all enjoyed the “guess” work whenever I asked them to infer a particular subtly presented idea.
    • One student who never read a single English language book before this class vowed to continue reading books in English!

I had a blast!  The students were diligent and after the first couple of days, were lively and contributed a lot.  It’s especially rewarding to closely re-read The Graveyard Book and confirm how finely crafted this book truly is, in every aspect!

* SPOILER ALERT — Silas’ identity is revealed after the cover image (for those who have yet to read the book.)

graveyardbook

Silas is a vampire.

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Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Search by Gene Luen Yang

avatarsearch1avatarsearch2Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Search by Gene Luen Yang (Vols 1-3)
Artwork by Gurihiru
Lettering by Michael Heisler

avatarsearch3My gosh, Gene Yang really is a super fan of the show and the Avatar universe because he totally understands what the fans want. He gives us a satisfying storyline, complete with a cohesive theme of sibling and parent-child relationships, to a long unsolved mystery from the 2005-2008 TV show of one of the beloved characters.  (What am I saying, ALL the main characters are beloved!  The show was that amazing.)  And he gives us new magical beings and great world elements: the Mother of Faces is such a cool creation. Her backstory, tied with Zuko’s mom’s personal history, fits into the Avatar universe seamlessly!

Mother of Faces

Whenever I watch the show, I am always impressed by how well the show creators did their homework.  Every time Chinese writing appears on screen, it is accurate, legible, and usually in perfect and artistic calligraphic form. Dark Horse (the publisher for the GN extensions) did the same: the letter that Zuko’s mom wrote and that we get to read on the background art is in the formal, literary style befitting the imagined time period (China/Asia a few hundred years ago?)  And now I am reading the third extended story: Avatar, the Last Airbender: The Rift.  It’s all about Toph Beifong (my personal favorite character in the show…) and will apparently bridge her story from the 2005 show to the recent Legend of Korra.  Two more volumes to go and another post to follow.

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Avatar: The Last Airbender (TV show) Survey Report

avatar posterAvatar: The Last Airbender, the Nichelodeon channel animated show from 2005, has been and continues to be really popular with my middle and high school students.  (The show was created for even younger viewers.) I got curious and asked random internet users (via facebook, twitter, reddit, FCL, etc.) to fill out a form and tell me whether: “Avatar? OMG — AVATAR is MY LIFE!” or “This is the first time I have ever heard of this show,” and anything in between.  Although the respondents can choose from 12 different answers, I decided to consolidate them into four categories: Extreme Love, Positive, Neutral/Negative, and Never heard of/watched the show. Those who filled out the form also shared their demographic information and self-identified as one of the following: Asian or Asian American, White (Hispanic), White (Non-Hispanic), Black (Hispanic), Black (Non-Hispanic), Racially Mixed – part Asian, Racially Mixed – no Asian, Native American, or Other* * I had to take out a few responses (for example, a self-identified “penguin” – Oh, internet, you never fails to amuse me!) As you can see, the responses are really positive, just like those from my students and myself.  We are excited about the show, its spin-off Legend of Korra, and are happily reading the Graphic Novels series extending the storyline, and anxiously awaiting the new installments for both Aang, Katara, Zuko, Toph, Sokka storylines and the Korra storyline.  My notes on The Search by Gene Luen Yang will be posted tomorrow. If your browser can’t load this embedded chart, click on THIS LINK. I also asked for age ranges but decided to not include that information in the chart.

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The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

magicianslandThe Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

The third, the final, and my favorite installment of the Magician’s trilogy.  A total love song to traditional children’s fantasy stories for grown-ups who have still yet to grow out of being enchanted completely by those tales (me). Thankfully, Quentin finally stopped being the annoying whinny young man that he was in the first two volumes, so my irknedness level was way down, making the reading experience a complete delight from beginning to end.  Lots of quotable little observations about fantasy story-making and world-building and about being a creative and self-reflective and forgiving (to self and others) human being.

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Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

shadowshaperShadowshaper by Daniel José Older

The young urban teen characters in this novel feel and sound authentic — they are the artsy crowd and use their talents to navigate their lives.  Mural art is highlighted and so is spoken word poetry.  The blend of the real world with the spiritual/ghosty world also feel convincing with much respect paid to the cultural traditions and family ties with some vividly creepy scenes.  This is not a epic fantasy but a story of urban magic, much like a fairy tale where chance meetings and helpful beings are common devices to advance the plot and solve the protagonist’s problems.  And thank goodness we have a wonderful strong young woman, who is not white, whose full face is shown to the readers on the beautifully designed cover!

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Shadow Scale

shadowscaleby Rachel Hartman

Since I loved Seraphina so much and had waited for the sequel with huge anticipation, it was not surprising that I didn’t quite feel satisfied with this second volume. It took me a long time to get through it not because of its heft (almost 600 pages) but because I just didn’t quite feel compelled to know what’s happening next. Partly because I pretty much knew how things would have panned out, that readers would eventually see that Seraphina, after SOOOOOO many pages and chapters of self-doubt, self-pity, and self-blame, would have come through and be the amazing power that helps destroy the “evil side”; and partly because I was really tired of those self-deprecating qualities that were somehow more endearing in the first book. I do appreciate the varied and very invented half-dragons and their special talents and feel emotionally connected to quite a few of them. I also absolutely appreciate the non-traditional relationships between Phina, Selda, and Kiggs. Just wish that I had been swept away by this volume as I was by the first book.

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The Magicians of Caprona

magiciansofcapronaby Diana Wynne Jones

I haven’t read a Diana Wynne Jones for a while and am so glad that I picked this one up. So enjoyed her storytelling tones: very traditionally British, witty, childlike but with age-old wisdom. The storyline plays off of the “family feud/Romeo & Juliet” trope, set in Italy, nonetheless. Of course, the magic and scenes are all so cool, too. One can really see how other writers like JK Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, etc., all came from this same magical storytelling tradition. With this one done, I have finished the first four books in the Chrestomanci series. There are two more novels and a collection of short stories to be done — looking forward to those treats!

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Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

triggerwarning by Neil Gaiman

This is typical Gaiman: disturbing and unsettling little scenes, interesting observations of human natures, everything floating in between waking and dreaming. My favorite are the longer tales, “The Truth Is A Cave in the Black Mountains,” “The Sleeper and the Spindle,” and “The Black Dog.” The first two are folk/fairy tale reimagined, while the last one is an American Gods’ short with Shadow’s adventures continuing. Another small dosage to hold us over for the sequel to American Gods? Calendar of Tales with its many weird crowd sourced tales is also highly enjoyable. Oh, I can’t wait to actually WATCH a special episode (of the 11th doctor and Amy Pond) made based on “Nothing O’Clock.”

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The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean

truestory by David Almond

Genre(s): Magical Realism(?) Fantasy(?) Parable(?) Horror(?)

Basic Content Information: In less-learned spelling (some words are correct while others are wildly inaccurate,) we read the super-natural, fantastic, and intense life story of a semi-feral child after the bombing of his town when he was born and then locked up in a small room with is mother and visited occasionally by his father who turned out to be the priest who held power over Billy’s mother and many others. Billy Dean then was groomed and turned into a prophet who “telt” his own tale with vivid and sometimes grotesque and gory scenes in a time of raging wars around the world. A combination of naiveté and extreme clarity of how the world functions can be found time and time again in this telling.

Edition: Hardcover

Pub Date: January, 2014

Publisher: Candlewick Press

(I’m only recording the bare bone facts about the Young Adult Fiction titles I read in 2014 — Serving on the Best Fiction for Young Adults committee means that I need to be quite cautious in expressing opinions on social media. The safest way is to not express specific reactions publicly. But I’d like to keep reporting the titles I encounter throughout the year. You can always follow the link to Goodreads to see other readers’ reviews.)

Click here for: Goodreads summary and other people’s reviews.

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Days of Blood and Starlight

daysofbloodandstarlightby Laini Taylor

I should have read this a LONG time ago. Whoa, what powerful punches Laini Taylor manages to deal to the readers — over and over — so many surprises and things going just the opposite of what one expects. Lots of gore. Tortured romance. Amazing magical inventiveness. Just too much fun in one book. Should not be allowed! But, how happy I am to have read the second installment — and that I HAVE to read the 3rd book because it’s nominated by fellow BFYA members.  So excited.  But I’m reading another book, not yet nominated, first.  Can’t have all the goodies at once!

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Saga, Vol. 1

saga by Brian K. Vaughan; artwork by Fiona Staples

The first six installments (chapters) of a supposed Space Opera definitely grabbed my attention and my heart. The world is ingeniously built, with interesting and outlandish “races” — I adore the reddish ghost girl who has only top half her body…. not quite sure how I feel about the computer monitor headed royalties… I hope the story unfolds with a lot of creativity and depth. My strong and enamored reaction to this book came largely from Fiona Staples’ lush artwork. I don’t feel like calling her just “the illustrator” because I feel that she did more than mere illustrating what’s given to her — but expanded and enhanced this fictional world and its inhabitants with grace. I look forward to the next volume!

Ah.. this is really not meant for children — even though I know quite a few of my younger teens have read this (on their own, not by my recommendation.)

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The Grimm Conclusion

grimmby Adam Gidwitz

I waited for a while to read this one.  Was somewhat apprehensive.  When one becomes friendly and very fond of an author, one sometimes also becomes worried.  What if… What if the book isn’t as good as you’d hoped?  As good as you  believe that particular author could have made it?  What it…

So, I didn’t read the galley.  I did attend an overwhelmingly successful event at Book Court in Brooklyn with Adam entertaining a host of young readers and their parents.  And then, finally, after I started seeing my students toting around this third volume and hearing that they really really enjoyed it (one of them read it more than twice in the week of its publication) I braced myself and delved into it!

What a treat!  I couldn’t put the book down.  Adam not only featured some of MY favorite Grimm tales, he even used one of my favorite STORY TIME staple (Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock!)  And not only Adam continues with the intrusive and flippant (but often kind and comforting) storyteller/narrator, he brings this narrator INTO the story (or, rather, brings the protagonists OUT of the story and into current day Brooklyn.)  I was worried when I knew that there is a metafiction element of the tale that it would have seemed trite or forced — but Adam did it in a natural and fluid way that really works.  The story as a whole seems a bit darker than the first two, but it is to my liking.  And as in so many stories for children (and adults) the power of storytelling is celebrated at the end!

Same as in the first two books, there are definitely some very sticky moral dilemmas that the two kids have to face and conquer.  I am happy to report that the messages do not get in the way of the enjoyment of the tales. And I suspect that these important “lessons” are being absorbed and are strengthening child readers everywhere as I type!

Finally, the new “Kingdom of Children” that the narrator refers to in the end of this book is an apt metaphor for the realm of imagination, for stories and books, and especially for the Grimm trilogy, where children venture in to “run, to play… to tell their tales and face their fears and let whatever is inside out.”

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The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

truebluescoutsby Kathi Appelt

(narrated by Lyle Lovett for Audible)

This is what outstanding, distinguished, and thoroughly enjoyable children’s books should be!  And of course, I had the additional pleasure of listening to Appelt’s narrative voice brought to live by Lyle Lovett: folky, hilarious, tender, with just the right amount of controlled drama.  This environmental tall tale set in the swamp land, featuring anthropomorphized critters, caricatured villains, down home, real but also realer than life characters, and mythical beings is perfect for a family and classroom read aloud!  One of my favorite 2013 books for sure!

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The Kingkiller Chronicle, vol. 1 and vol. 2

nameofthewind
wisemansfearVol. 1 (Day1) : The Name of the Wind and

Vol. 2 (Day 2): The Wise Man’s Fear

by Patrick Rothfuss

Altogether, these two volumes are more than 1,500 pages long and the audio book versions took about 61 hours to finish.  I mostly enjoyed the listening experience: the first volume is definitely tighter and since everything is new and the world is un-encountered before, I had a little more patience in all the details that Rothfuss put into the tale: colors of people’s clothing, the types of foods, some basic societal rules, etc.  And there are definitely a lot of thrilling moments and some good passages.

The Wise Man’s Fear, though, suffered from being too detailed at moments, too many similes thrown into the passages (that really could and should have been edited OUT of the tale,) and just too long.  I am really annoyed by authors who decided to use a particular narrative “device” and could not keep to the simplest or fundamental rules of that device.  Here, each volume is supposed to be tales told to the scribe within the duration of ONE SINGLE DAY (where people do go to sleep, where the current day contains events such as robbery, lunch, fighting, etc.)  So, almost 1000 pages of words (no matter how FAST one might be able to speak or write down the words) simply don’t compute.

One learns in writing classes that in order to create convincing and lifelike characters, one must know all the background stories (what colors they like, who was their first crush, when was their first experiences of fear and when and why and how, etc.) of the major characters.  But so much of these details should remain in the mind of the author.  Once in a while, perhaps, something can be drawn out and fill in a missing piece of a character’s traits.  But, the Wise Man’s Fear is full of such details breaking through the backstage door and cavorting on the main stage.  It just didn’t work for me.

I also got quite bothered by Rothfuss’ insistence of describing every single emotion or experience with a comparison to something else.  It is OK, Patrick R, to sometimes just say that you feel soothed by someone’s voice without having to compare the soothing feeling to a mother’s gentle touch to a child’s cheeks and the voice is just like a lover’s breathy whisper by your ears.  Some figure of speech enhances a narrative, but overindulgence in such narrative tool becomes tedious eventually.

All that said, did I love a LOT of what went into the books?  Absolutely.  I loved the world building, the mystery, the tentative romantic relationships, the exploration of language, means of communication, and how world history can be shaped and reshaped.  And I will definitely read (or listen to) the final installment when it is published next year.  Still a series worth recommending.

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Avatar The Last Airbender: The Promise – (3 Volumes)

avatar(originally posted on 9/20/2013 on just vol. 1 — updated to include all three)

The story of two “nations” occupying the same land where one is now being demanded to remove itself mirrors eerily contemporary conditions in our current world. I’m delighted that almost all the important characters make their appearances here and their personalities consistent with the show. The artwork is definitely true to the show as well — for the most part.  Of course, the fight scenes are slightly less epic or thrilling presented in still frames and not movements, but fans of the show can probably fill in the sounds and sequences. I know I read it with the actors’ voices in my head!

The story arc is convincing and the ending is satisfying.  My biggest complaint might be that Zuko (the new Fire Kingdom King) is not quite what he looked like on the show — his features in the books are less defined and with less angsty charm that I so enjoyed from the show.

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