diverse books

Review: Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

9780399175411_OutrunTheMoon_BOM.indd “No, the key to wealth was opportunity. And if opportunity didn’t come knocking than Mrs. Lowry says you must build your own door.”

Outrun The Moon is author Stacey Lee’s second book, and it is just as stunning and well-researched as her debut, Under a Painted Sky (which I reviewed here).

Set in San Francisco in 1906, Outrun the Moon details the journey of Mercy Wong, a fifteen-year-old girl living in Chinatown. Mercy is a US citizen, although her parents are not, and her family and friends live and thrive within the confines of Chinatown’s industry. Mercy’s father is a launderer, and her mother is a well-respected fortune teller. Mercy also lives with her younger brother, Jack, whose weak lungs keep him from running and playing as other children might. Aided by the medicine of their neighbor, Ah-Suk, Jack’s health remains in check.

Mercy is smitten with her longtime friend, Tom. Tom is Ah-Suk’s son and is expected to take over the family trade. However, Tom has dreams of flying, and he has even crafted a hot air balloon. Similarly, Mercy has dreams that would take her outside of Chinatown: she wants to run a successful business.

Mercy is an intelligent narrator who, despite her modern ways of thinking when it comes to business and the role of the female, deeply respects her upbringing and Chinese traditions. She has a dislike of the unlucky number four, and she frequently uses her mother’s body-mapping techniques to discern qualities in individuals. For example, Mercy’s high cheekbones (sometimes referred to as “bossy cheeks”) denote an assertive nature. I found this mixture of modern thinking and respect for tradition to be incredibly refreshing and interesting to read. Mercy is also witty and quick to act, and I would happily read another book narrated by her.

Mercy Wong knows that she needs to further her education if she wants to make a name for herself in the business world, and so she strikes a deal with the wealthy Du Lac family. Chocolatiers by trade, Mr. Du Lac also serves on the board of St. Clare’s School for Girls, one of the most exclusive private schools. An elaborate ruse is concocted, and Mercy is granted a trial period at the school where she must pretend she is a Chinese heiress.

Being the first non-white person at the school, Mercy garners a lot of attention – not all of it favorable. Soon after settling in, however, disaster strikes: the historic earthquake of April 18, 1906 sends San Francisco into turmoil, and the girls of St. Clare’s have to put aside their differences to survive.

Outrun the  Moon features a cast of unique and likable characters, each with their own flaws and inner battles. From enemies, to friends, to grumpy headmistresses, Mercy deals with them all. Reduced to living in a park together after the earthquake, the girls’ true natures come to light.

Although Lee takes some liberties with historical accuracy (she changes the time that the earthquake hit Chinatown, among a few other things that she mentions in an author’s note), I found Outrun the Moon to be a wonderful glimpse into a time period and a culture that I am not entirely familiar with. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was a history lesson reduced to one class when I was in school, and I never stopped to think about the myriad of ways that people were affected and what this tragedy meant to the city. Between this book and Under a Painted Sky, Lee has single-handedly made me want to research periods in history to learn more. Anyone who can do that outside of a classroom is doing something right!

I want to thank Stacey Lee for providing me with an advanced copy of Outrun The Moon in exchange for an honest review. The book was released in May by GP Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, and I cannot recommend it enough. Go – read – and fall in love with a time and a place.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Same Story, But Different

So, here’s a not-so-secret secret. I have a Tumblr. But Tumblr is pretty amazing for book lovers. You can reblog quotes, ogle cover-art, and follow the blogs of authors. (Psst, John Green’s Tumblr is especially hilarious)

But one thing I absolutely love Tumblr for is their ability to imagine stories in totally new ways. We’ve talked about the We Need Diverse Books movement, and the problems of sexism in YA. Tumblr users are way ahead of us. To be honest, Tumblr can actually be a bit aggressive in their campaign for acceptance. But hey, better to have a platform for tolerance than one for hate-mongering.

I love seeing users on Tumblr take time to envision alternate versions of books with characters portrayed by actors of different races, or even having their genders flipped. For those of you who don’t speak, breathe, sleep INTERNET all the time, this is referred to as race-bending or gender-bending.

Some of these originate in GIF sets (several animated pictures paired together) or text posts about potential AUs (alternate-universes).

It’s important to show more diverse characters in literature and media, for reasons that have been covered. Tumblr again does a great job of explaining why. And just imagine the possibilities. One AU text post I read proposed that

It’s spilling over into the mainstream too, as we saw with last year’s remake of Annie, with Annie portrayed by Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx taking on the Daddy Warbucks role.

These are really fun to explore. It teeters on the edge of fanfiction, but they’re more like ideas and concepts that let you imagine what could’ve been. There are so many more iterations on Tumblr too. Crossovers, alternate settings to stories, and more. It’s no wonder that I can lose hours of my life to scrolling through all of these ‘what-ifs’.

How about Hermione of the Harry Potter series played by Antonia Thomas? In the books, Hermione does have big hair, a trait associated often with women of color.

antonia thomas hermione

Or A Song of Ice and Fire with an Asian cast? The books do lend well to Feudal Japan. I could see the game of thrones being played out by Samurai. Also, Devon Aoki would be a pretty perfect Daenarys Targaryen.

And let’s not forget about the gender benders, recreating some of our favorite characters as the opposite gender. Cosplayers are great at this! Look at Legolas and Fili as fierce ladies. What would the Fellowship have been like, if the Hobbits were women?

Or gender-bent Percy Jackson heroes! The same artist also did a version of the Marauders from Harry Potter.

Artwork by Viria of deviantart and tumblr

Artwork by Viria of deviantart and tumblr

These things start with us, the fans. With Tumblr and book blogs, we have a bigger voice than ever before. Of course, it goes beyond Tumblr. DeviantArt, Fanfiction.net, and other forums provide outlets for these re-imaginings of our favorite stories.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at Brilliant Buckets.

Review: Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton

fullcicadamoon At 400 pages, Marilyn Hilton’s Full Cicada Moon may look intimidating to YA readers, but this coming-of-age story is a novel-in-verse, and the pages fly by. Similar to Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, the protagonist of Full Cicada Moon is a young female contemplating her identity and role in an environment that is less-than-welcoming.

Mimi Yoshiko Oliver is entering the seventh grade in 1969. She has just moved from a progressive town in California to a small town in Vermont because her father has accepted a teaching position at a college.

Mimi’s mother is Japanese and honors all of the culture’s traditions. The New Year’s festivities feature prominently in the beginning and end of the story. Mimi’s father is African American. He is very proud of his family and works hard to make sure they feel comfortable and secure.

Mimi and her family face racism in both outright and more subtle ways throughout the book. In this prominently-white town, Mimi has to deal with being a minority: half-Japanese, half-African American. On her first day of school she is asked, “What are you?” The friends she makes – as sweet as they are – are not allowed to invite her over to their houses. Mimi’s confusion and hurt is apparent in her thoughts, translated so brilliantly into verse.

Some readers may be worried that they won’t connect to a character in a novel told in verse, but Mimi is complex, rich, and a joy to read about. She has dreams of becoming an astronaut, and she follows along on television with the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. She is encouraged by her science teacher to study this subject, despite the students who have laughed at her dreams.

Mimi questions the school’s rule that dictates that female students must take home economics classes and male students must take woodshop. What about boys, like her neighbor, Tim, who want to learn how to cook? Mimi already knows how to make a cake from her mother; she’d like to learn to make a bookshelf. This subject addresses gender roles in an accessible way for younger readers while also offering readers a glimpse into another time, when girls couldn’t wear blue jeans and there weren’t a myriad of school electives to choose from.

At the heart of Full Cicada Moon is Mimi’s journey towards self-acceptance and understanding. While I would love to read more prose novels about this period in time and these issues, I think this is a great introduction to a time in history for young readers.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

paintedsky Under a Painted Sky is the exciting debut novel by Stacey Lee. Released in March 2015 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, Under a Painted Sky shakes up the YA historical fiction genre by placing two unlikely protagonists in the spotlight: a Chinese musician and an African American hired hand on the run on the Oregon Trail. The kicker? Both of these protagonists are young women, and must disguise themselves as men to avoid being caught. Will the cowboys who take them under their wing uncover their secrets, or will these two heroines make it to California scot-free?

It’s 1849 in Missouri, and Samantha has had a fight with her father. She longs to move back to New York City, where there is a larger community of Chinese immigrants. In Missouri, they stick out like a sore thumb. Her father has lofty ideas about moving out to California, and gives Samantha’s mother’s jade bracelet – the last remnant of her mother’s memory – to a colleague to ensure its safekeeping on the journey there.

In a grotesque turn of events, Samantha is left orphaned, and an act of self-defense has her fleeing for her life. She escapes with the help of Annamae, a runaway slave who longs to find her older brother at Hope Falls, a destination that may or may not exist. The two young women decide early on that they have enough attention on them because of their race; they don’t need their sex dragging them down, too.

So Samantha and Annamae become Sammy and Andy, disguising their feminine characteristics and mannerisms as best they can. Sammy has dreams of meeting her father’s colleague somewhere on the trail, and Andy hopes to reconnect with her brother. Early on they fall into the company of three genuine cowboys – West, Peety, and Cay – and though there’s some resistance on the three young men’s part, they decide to take the inexperienced Sammy and Andy under their wing and teach them how to survive on the trail.

Lee has done her research, and the Oregon Trail really came alive for me here. No longer did I see the trail as only pixels in a(n amazing) computer game; the scenery became treacherous and dusty and startlingly beautiful in my mind. The sensory details in Under a Painted Sky are gorgeous and vivid; I could taste the food cooked over a campfire, and smell the warm scent of the horses. Everything feels gritty: the dirt Sammy and Andy cake their faces in, the rough fibers of rope. Aside from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, this is the first Western I’ve ever read, and it piqued my interest enough to look further into the genre.

The racial diversity of the characters added another rich dimension to this story. Sammy is seen as an oddity on the trail, and her Chinese ancestry makes her “mysterious” to her fellow travelers. And while she may be able to excuse certain slip-ups by referencing fake Chinese curses or beliefs (cowboys will fall for anything), you can tell that Sammy is proud of her heritage. The same can be said for Andy. While she resents her place in the hierarchy, she remains a courageous, spirited young woman who stays strong in her beliefs.

From gunfights, to stampedes, to wild weather, the action in this book does not stop for a second. At the heart of this story, however, is the friendship between Sammy and Andy. Both alone in their own way, they learn to trust each other and to rely on one another, and the story of their blossoming friendship is one of my favorites this year.

I received an e-galley of Under a Painted Sky for review, courtesy of NetGalley. Thanks for always supplying me with interesting reads!

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

everythingeverythingEverything, Everything is the debut novel by Nicola Yoon.  It is set to publish on September 1st by Delacorte Books for Young Readers, and I urge you to put that date in your calendar and get yourself to a bookstore.

I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of Everything, Everything at The BookCon this year, and it was the first book I picked up to read post-Con.

Madeline has been sick for as long as she can remember.  Her rare disease has left her allergic to the outside world, and she’s been told that she can’t be too careful; her triggers are unknown. Madeline lives a comfortable, predictable existence in a vacuum-sealed, sterile house, with only her mother (who is also her doctor) and her nurse, Carla, for company. She follows a schedule, hands her homework in on time (she video chats with some teachers), and enjoys losing herself in a book. Madeline may not have a normal teenage existence, but she’s content.

Until Olly moves in next door.

Madeline spies Olly and his family moving in across the street, and she is instantly drawn to him. With his all-black clothing and his love of parkour, Olly is the exact opposite of Madeline. Where Madeline is all about stillness and quiet, Olly is full of constant movement. Madeline finds herself getting attached to Olly and his outside world, developing teenage feelings in the confines of her room.

Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.

But Madeline’s story is not just a romance. It’s also a story of self-discovery, and a study on family bonds. The complex relationship between Madeline and her mother was so emotionally charged, and as an avid YA reader I found that very striking. There’s a trope in YA literature, that parents are often absent or show little care for their children. Madeline’s relationship with her mother is just the opposite.

Everything, Everything is a coming-of-age tale under unlikely circumstances. As Madeline struggles to cope with and understand her disease, she learns more about herself and the people in her life. This stunning story is complimented nicely by sweet illustrations and funny charts, all drawn by David Yoon (the author’s husband). The story constantly shifts from text, to email, to illustration. It never got boring.  There is something pleasing in shaking it up. There is always something nice to look at and to read.

Everything, Everything is a perfect balance of humor, heart, and heartbreak. I anticipate that this novel is going to make waves when it debuts, thanks to its unique concept and endearing characters (and for those of you looking for books with diverse characters, Madeline is half-Japanese and half-African-American! How cool is that?).

“Spoiler alert: Love is worth everything. Everything.”

Will you be picking up Nicola Yoon’s debut novel when it hits shelves on September 1st? Were you lucky enough to receive an advanced copy, too? I’d love to hear what you think of the book!

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Does Sexism Exist in YA?

On Sunday the 21st, the NYC Teen Author Festival (which I blogged a bit about last week here) hosted a symposium at the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street branch. The gorgeous, sprawling building with the majestic stone lions (Patience and Fortitude) out front served as the perfect location for an afternoon of discussion between young adult authors.


The symposium, which focused on feminism, diversity, and identity in young adult literature featured an incredible lineup of authors: David Levithan, Libba Bray, Gayle Forman, Nova Ren Suma, Scott Westerfeld, Maria E. Andreu, Coe Booth, Sona Charaipotra, Dhonielle Clayton, IW Gregorio, Adam Silvera, Andrew Smith, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Carolyn Mackler, Chase Night, Cindy Rodriguez, Jennifer E. Smith, Jenn Marie Thorne, Will Walton, Terra Elan McVoy, Michelle Knudsen, Jennifer A. Nielsen, Andrew Smith, Lindsay Smith, Jessica Spotswood, and Tommy Wallach.

Alyson and I eagerly took our seats in the Bartos Forum in time to hear the keynote speech about books and gender by Libba Bray, the author of best-sellers like A Great and Terrible Beauty and The Diviners. 

IMG_8650Bray’s keynote started off on a humorous note. She talked about one of her first book tours being sponsored by Midol, an over-the-counter medication that’s used to treat menstrual cramps and bloating. She described the bookmarks that were handed out on the tour: an ad for her book in small font, followed by big, bold letters that asked: Are cramps, bloating, and fatigue getting you down?

“This,” Bray said, “is what authors call living the dream.”

The audience laughed, but Bray brought up a good point: what would it be like if male authors were getting the same kind of sponsorship deals?

“Does sexism exist in YA?” Bray asked. “Abso-fucking-lutely.”

She went on to say that it’s tough as a woman writer to be continually dismissed and told that “our experiences don’t matter.”

A quick look around the internet showed me that there are many people out there who believe feminism means hating men, and because of this perspectives and intentions get skewed. There was no man-hating at the symposium, which sought to shed light on the issue of sexism against authors and readers.


A few years ago, concerns were raised that boys were no longer reading because it was too female-focused. Bray noted that libraries and schools started making “boy zones,” where boys were given special sections of books to read. What if a boy wanted to read a novel outside of that section? What if a girl was curious about a novel in the “boy zone?”

“When we say a boy can’t read a book with a girl protagonist,” Bray said, “What we’re really saying is: girls are not important. The thoughts and experiences of fifty-percent of the population don’t matter.”

Bray went on to talk about a conversation she had with some teens over pizza at her house, when she asked them about their reading habits. Many of them said they have felt confined to genres or ashamed about the books they want to read. They could all pin-point books “for girls” versus books “for boys” based on the covers, which was interesting to me as someone who now works in publishing.

(Birds and flowers are on girls books. Snakes are on boys books, according to Bray.)


The most astounding thing to me? Many of the teens had also been pushed into their reading choices by teachers, librarians, and publishing representatives. Instead of giving children free-reign, authority figures are trying their hardest to pigeonhole readers. I won’t deny that part of this has to do with selling a good amount of books and targeting an audience. But when we limit children’s exposure to varied writing, diverse characters, and characters of the opposite sex, when we tell them “this is what you’re supposed to read,” we are keeping them from seeing how beautiful the rest of the world really is.

Bray concluded her keynote by sharing a touching story about a LGBTQ panel in Texas. The turnout for the panel was so huge that people were being turned away at the door. Authors gave up their seats in order to bring more teens into the room.

“Change can happen,” Bray said. “We make it happen. I believe this and I am banking on the future… Foster empathy, not suspicion. Build bridges instead of cages.”

I think Scott Westerfeld, author of the incredibly popular Uglies and Afterworlds, said it best when it came to describing the power books have on readers:

“Books are machines for becoming other people.”

The symposium opened up my eyes to the incredible strides authors, publishers, and even readers are taking to make young adult literature a well-represented category. It’s imperative that children and young adults are exposed to books about all kinds of people, going through all kinds of experiences. Close-mindedness helps no one. The world is a rich, beautiful place. Don’t you want to experience that?

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.