Strange Readings: A Reference Search Into the Unknown

This is a virtual program that was first started on May 11, 2020. Its last episode premiered October 20, 2020. The program covered true crime and the paranormal. I hosted a discussion for each episode with a different co-host. My last two episodes were with professors from the Department of Criminal Justice of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Researching and creating this program was a wonderful learning experience. I am considering doing another season in 2021, but we shall see. In the meantime, I have the playlist of the episodes down below.

Playlist of Strange Readings Episodes 2020

Book Review (American Born Chinese)

Bibliography: Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. New York, New York: Square Fish, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0312384487.

Plot Summary: At first, you see three unrelated tales. You have the tale of the Monkey King, a famous figure in Chinese storytelling that can’t enter a dinner party because, despite being a deity and a king, he is still a monkey. The second story is about a first generation-Chinese-American, Jin Wang, grappling with living a white-majority area and wanting to belong. The third story is about a white boy, Danny feeling his idealized life getting thrown into shambles when a foreign cousin comes to visit. These tales have more in common than the reader finds initially and as the graphic novel moves forward, the reader finds themselves horrified by the characters’ mistakes but enthused when they succeed or learn.

Critical Analysis: This is not a comfortable book. It’s not. There is a racial caricature that is its own character within the third story, and it will make American readers in particular squirm in discomfort, given the history and prevalence of anti-Asian racism the United States. This book will especially feel uncomfortable now during COVID-19 when there are hate crimes toward Asian-Americans. The caricature is even given the name of what is a pun of a racial slur, and, so, I will only refer to the character as the cousin. The graphic novel is uncomfortable, but that is what makes it an important read for adults and youth alike. It is contemporary in that it shows that the United States still needs to learn from its mistakes. It also tells children a lot on self-image in American culture. The art by Gene Luen Yang is clean lines and simple colors, with a highlight usually used to mark people’s eyes. It has a rather Sunday comics sort of feel, which seems suitable to the graphic novel as it drives that Asian-Americans are as part of the American life and culture like everybody else. Its setting is set no particular year for the most part, beyond clothes that indicate it is somewhere in the 21st century. Therefore, the art does not truly age and it will be interesting to see how readers interpret that for years to come.

As a child, Jin is told by an elderly Chinese woman, “It’s easy to become anything you wish…so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.” The elderly lady says no more, concentrating on her work, leaving Jin befuddled. Not too soon after that, Jin is taken to a mostly-white elementary school. From there, he faces dog-eating jokes from his peers, and the teacher tries to help but ends up making it worse, countering, “I’m sure Jin doesn’t do that! In fact, Jin’s family probably stopped that sort of thing as soon as they came to the United States!” This graphic novel may be meant for younger readers to learn to unpack racism, but it is also a great teaching tool for adults, namely instructors, of how not to defend a student dealing with racism.

Jin’s story is the heart of the entire graphic novel, with the Monkey King story and the story of Danny complementing it in a way I will not reveal as it is what will conclude the graphic novel. However, I will say that readers may not initially like Jin and how he treats his friend Wei-Chen, but they may still nonetheless sympathize and enjoy when he grows and develops into himself. They might also laugh and sympathize with the ways Jin tries to assimilate, such as when he decides to perm his hair to copy a popular boy’s hairstyle (“Why is his hair a broccoli?!” Wei-Chen exclaims to his girlfriend, Suzy when they find out). Readers of all ages have been through that experience of following a trend to belong, only for the whole endeavor to backfire. I remember being obsessed with straightening my Middle Eastern wavy-curly hair back in high school and having to spend much of my early twenties undoing all that heat damage.

As the Monkey King says, “You know…I would have saved myself from five hundred years’ imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey.”

My only reservation is the handling of Suzy Nakamura, one of the few other Asian characters that Jin befriends and Wei-Chen dates. She’s also the only speaking Asian American girl. In her last appearance, she talks to Jin and shares that she feels she doesn’t belong anywhere and how she felt when a classmate called her a slur. She tears up and Jin kisses her. She is upset, hits Jin, and walks off. While Wei-Chen confronts Jin and they have a fallout, she is not mentioned again. Even when Wei-Chen and Jin make up, she is never talked about again. It is a little disappointing that we do not get to hear more perspective from Suzy, especially as she can provide input on how it feels to be Asian and female and what micro- and macro-aggressions she deals in that.

That said, this is a story about accepting and embracing yourself and not choosing to let others define you. Whether the reader is Asian or not, it matters not except that maybe they will see similar struggles through these characters and see if they need to change their views of themselves.

Review Excerpt and Awards Won:

Winner of the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature (2007) (this is the first graphic novel to win this), Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults (2013), and the 2006/2007 Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award.

Following excerpt is from Publishers Weekly, reviewed on June 12, 2006:

“This much-anticipated, affecting story about growing up different is more than just the story of a Chinese-American childhood; it’s a fable for every kid born into a body and a life they wished they could escape…True to its origin as a Web comic, this story’s clear, concise lines and expert coloring are deceptively simple yet expressive. Even when Yang slips in an occasional Chinese ideogram or myth, the sentiments he’s depicting need no translation. Yang accomplishes the remarkable feat of practicing what he preaches with this book: accept who you are and you’ll already have reached out to others.”

Connections: Have readers partner up. Have the first partner and second partner draw the first partner and anything they would associate with them (if they like cats, put cats, if they are fashionable, have clothes drawn around them, etc.) Then have them show each other the pictures they drew of the first partner. They will discuss how their perceptions may differ and what will be similar, showcasing that self-image and other people’s perceptions may contrast each other. Once they are done, have the first partner and second partner draw the second partner and what they would associate with them and repeat the discussion. Another connection can be of having the readers make a comic to ask what is Suzy Nakamura doing at the end of the graphic novel and how it would fit with the canon.

Book Review (The Graveyard Book)

Bibliography: Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. New York, New York: Harper Collins, 2008. ISBN-13:  978-0060530921.

Plot Summary: A man goes into a house. He is meant to kill a man, a woman, a little girl, and a baby. He kills the man. He kills the woman. He kills the little girl. He cannot find and kill the baby. No, the baby wanders away and is found by spirits of an old graveyard. The baby is adopted and renamed Nobody “Bod” Owens. The living boy thus is raised by the graveyard, guarded by a man implied to have vampiric leanings. They tell him to never leave the graveyard for his safety, but how can the living stay always where the dead are? Who is after him? Why?

Critical Analysis: Parents might feel uneasy about their child reading a book about death, but they themselves will be drawn to the story of Nobody “Bod” Owens. This book shows the humor, the sorrow, and, yes, even the beauty and inevitability of death. In fact, this is one the best handlings of the subject of death for younger readers to read about. Bod Owens is not overshadowed by the supernatural that surrounds him, in fact, as he grows up, he shows to have, for lack of a better term, a noble spirit. When he sneaks into a living school, he wants the younger students to stand up to two bullies that are forcing them into giving up their money and shoplift for them:

“The other boy helped him pick the coins up, and handed them over…’Are you with them? Nick and Mo?’

The other boy shook his head. ‘Nope. I think that they are fairly repulsive.’ He hesitated. Then he said, ‘Actually, I came to give you a bit of advice.'”

Bod develops from an impulsive baby into a clever boy that wants to see wrongs be righted, whether it is for his original family or for what he witnesses as he peeks out toward the living world.

This book is also great at establishing strong female characters. At first, when you are introduced to Miss Lupescu, she iss described as follows: “[She] was not pretty. Her face was pinched and her expression was disapproving. Her hair was grey, although her face seemed too young for grey hair. Her front teeth were slightly crooked. She wore a bulky mackintosh and a man’s tie around her neck.” At first, readers would think she was a stereotypical prudish, stuffy teacher type, but as the pages unfold, you find that there is more than meets the eye to her. She and Bod eventually bond and she makes for a great addition to the cast.

“‘This is the boundary,’ said…Miss Lupescu, and Bod looked up. The three moons had gone. Now he could see the Milky Way, see it as he had never seen it before, a glimmering shroud across the arch of the sky. The sky was filled with stars.

“‘They’re beautiful,’ said Bod.

“‘When we get you home,’ said Miss Lupescu, ‘I teach you the names of the stars and the constellations.’

“‘I’d like that,’ admitted Bod.”

The novel has a villain, Jack, and the reader must delve further into the novel to find out more why he is after Bod. In the meantime, the reader reads chapter by chapter of Bod getting older and learning and maturing within his ghostly family and friends, including making mistakes here and there, such as getting his first living friend in trouble with her parents that they have to move away, playing with ill-intentioned ghouls, and getting in the crossfire with two con artists.

Dave McKean illustrates here and there with soft gray drawings that are framed by strong bold curves in black, adding the feeling that this is a book about what goes on after life. Bod learns to embrace life and so will the reader that has this book. It is humorous, adventurous, awe-inspiring, and bittersweet. It captures what life means and to cherish it when you have it.

Review Excerpt and Awards Won:

Winner of the Newbery Medal (2009), Hugo Award for Best Novel (2009), Locus Award for Best Young Adult Novel (2009), Carnegie Medal (2010). It was also nominated for the Mythopoeic Award for Children’s Literature (2009).

Following excerpt is from Kirkus Reviews, published September 30, 2008, and posted online May 20, 2010:

“Wistful, witty, wise—and creepy.

Gaiman’s riff on Kipling’s Mowgli stories never falters…Episodic chapters tell miniature gems of stories (one has been nominated for a Locus Award) tracing Bod’s growth from a spoiled boy who runs away with the ghouls to a young man for whom the metaphor of setting out into the world becomes achingly real. Childhood fears take solid shape in the nursery-rhyme–inspired villains, while heroism is its own, often bitter, reward.

Closer in tone to American Gods than to Coraline, but permeated with Bod’s innocence, this needs to be read by anyone who is or has ever been a child.”

Connections: Have the readers come up with how they would feel they want to be remembered as, and have them draw out their own personal epitaph/plaque. What life goals would they want to be remembered for?

Book Review (Code Name Verity)

Bibliography: Wein, Elizabeth. Code Name Verity. New York, New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012. ISBN-13:  9781423152194.

Plot Summary: This book is about a friendship between two female air pilots, both of whom crash land in Nazi-occupied France. The survivor, Verity, ends up in a gestapo prison, with the officers there, led by Haupsturmführer von Linden, into trying to get her into giving away secrets. She either says all that she knows or she is to face an execution. Verity writes out her confessions, but does so while thinking of her companion, Maddie and all that has happened before she ended up where she is.

Critical Analysis: I have never read a book so intricately plotted as I have with this book. This book is about someone with a secret mission. You go page by page wondering who is Verity and how did everything come to happen to her. You also start finding Easter eggs throughout all her writings. You even realize there is a reason why she underlines certain phrases (which I will not state why because they are important later on in the story.) The author knows much about the technology used in World War II. In her afterword, Wein states that because she was also a female pilot herself, she “wanted to explore the possibilities what would have been open to her during the Second World War…” Weis is also forthright on the liberties she has taken in the afterword. “Bear in mind that despite my somewhat exhaustive quest for historical accuracy, this book is not meant to be a good history, but rather a a good story.” She states that The Forgotten Pilots by Lettice Curtis helped her plot the story as did assistance from the Imperial War Museum of London and the Shuttleworth Collection.

In fact, combined with her pilot knowledge and books on the Air Transport Auxiliary, Wein was able to write convincingly of two pilots with the knowledge they are trained to have. This will be an excellent book for reluctant readers that have an interest in warfare, even if they might not be history fans. Her writing is an interesting combination of gritty and beautiful. She does not hesitate to have Verity talk about the tortures she undergoes, including having her head forced into a basin of water when she is not cooperating. But she also talks of the beauty in this world, such as the experience the women have when in flight. “God’s truth-the rim of the lowering sun, all they could see of it, had turned green. It was sandwiched in between a bank of low dark haze and a higher bank of dark cloud, and just along the upper edge of the haze was this bright lozenge of flaming green, like Chartreuse liqueur with light behind it. Maddie had never seen anything like it.”

Friendship is central to this entire novel and the author shows both narrator and Maddie as doing anything for one another. In fact, Verity writes out her confessions thinking of how Maddie came to become a pilot. Verity introduces Maddie first before herself, even. That said, another theme this book has is mortality in war. Verity talks of her fears time and time again, once even stating, “I am no longer afraid of getting old. Indeed I can’t believe I ever said anything so stupid. So childish. So offensive and arrogant…But mainly, so very, very stupid. I desperately want to grow old.”

Wein also manages to show the Nazis as villains while not making them static. This includes the main one, von Linden. The reader learns that he has a daughter he wants to keep safe (He says to Verity, “‘Isolde is innocent of my war work.'”) He loves to read all sorts of literature. Not to mention, he used to work at a school. This does not mean that he is free from his crimes. In fact, this book serves as a great facilitator of discussion for readers about what can make a human do evil choices, why is it so much more horrifying to others that a normal man could make those type of decisions and actions. Wein has managed to show the Nazi characters not as stereotypes, but as full-flesh human beings, and it makes the book all the more powerful. This is a book about a war, but it is also about the people in that war.

This title has a lot of history in its pages, combined with a good, intricate story, strong female characters. It has young adults feel that they are being spoken to without any condescension. In fact, readers may enthusiastically read this book twice just so they can catch what they missed before as everything comes out at the end.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

Michael L. Printz Award (2013), Golden Kite Award for Fiction (2013), Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Young Adult Novel (2013), and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

Following excerpt is from Kirkus Reviews, published May 15, 2012, and posted online February 15, 2012:

“Through the layers of story, characters (including the Nazis) spring to life. And as the epigraph makes clear, there is more to this tale than is immediately apparent. The twists will lead readers to finish the last page and turn back to the beginning to see how the pieces slot perfectly, unexpectedly into place.

A carefully researched, precisely written tour de force; unforgettable and wrenching.”

Connections: Run a discussion group between all the readers and have them discuss what elements of war may have made them uncomfortable and why. Ask them how they felt the Nazis were portrayed in this book and how they are done differently in other forms of media. Ask them how they felt about learning of the female pilots of World War II.

Review (The Midwife’s Apprentice)

Bibliography: Cushman, Karen. The Midwife’s Apprentice. New York, New York: Clarion Books, 1995. ISBN-13: 9780395692295.

Plot Summary: In a medieval English village, a cantankerous midwife named Jane takes in a homeless girl. This is not out of the goodness of Jane’s heart though. She uses the girl for chores and errands and always keeps her outside when she goes into villagers’ houses to help the women in labor. This does not stop the girl from peering in through the windows and learning what Jane does exactly to have a baby be born healthy and safe. The girl goes from being nameless to being called Brat to Beetle and then, finally, to Alyce. She bonds with a cat, whom she names Purr, befriends a former bully, and takes care of a little boy that was in homeless circumstances like she had been. Alyce finds that there is a place in the world for her and it is not in a dung heap.

Critical Analysis: Cushman does not hesitate to show how the world back then would treat a girl like Alyce. While today’s world is terrible with homeless people, back then was even less humane. Alyce is first known as Brat and is trying to keep herself warm by being in a dung heap. Cushman details how midwifes worked in this society, “In medieval England, midwifery was a less than honorable profession, mostly because it was practiced by and on women. Midwives worked unsupervised and unregulated into the sixteenth century…Medieval midwifery was a combination of common sense, herbal knowledge, and superstition, passed from woman to woman through oral tradition and apprenticeship.”

Cushman manages to balance the effectiveness of herbs and the superstitions of that world well to showcase wisdom and misconceptions of the past. In one scene, Alyce is talking to a cook, who states she is uncomfortable with human twins. “…Alyce [wondered]…why twin cows such as Baldred and Billfrith should be such a joy and a boon while twin babies were ill-starred and unlucky.” In some ways, Alyce is a stand-in for the modern reader. Because she was an orphan with nothing to her name, she is able to observe the people around her without any bias and comes to her own conclusions on matters. In fact, there are times she takes advantage of the fact that no one pays attention to her, such as when she is secretly learning Jane’s midwifery. The reader will find themselves absorbed into this world, not only by strong characters, but the lush, vivid ways Cushman describes this world. “June burst into bloom–daisies, larkspur, meadowsweet and thyme, foxglove and thimbleberry, purple thistle flowers and yellow whorls of blooming fennel.” This an accessible book for young readers that may not know too much about the middle ages.

Alyce ends up using the villager’s superstitions against them in one chapter. I cannot say exactly what happens, but she does get back at the villagers that have been cruel to her with the clever use of wooden hooves. Cushman understands her younger audience, so she does not overtake the story with so many historical references, but just let the world be. Instead, she writes it almost like a smooth fairy tale, with how Alyce grows into her own person, learning from different settings, from the midwife’s home to the inn. She starts out as a young girl that has suffered so much that when she tries to comfort her recovering cat, she does not know how to be kind. “If she had known of gentle words and cooing, she would have spoken gently to him. But all she knew was cursing: ‘Damn you, cat, breathe and live, you flea-bitten sod, or I’ll kill you myself.'” She starts learning how to defend herself and using her wits to survive, such as when she threatens the bullies when they try to go after her cat, Purr again. She threatens that she has a potion that could command the Devil to turn them into women and give birth. The bullies stop doing what they are doing, and the cat and Alyce make it back to the cottage unscathed. “It was fortunate that the boys never tested Alyce’s magic, for the bottle she shook so fiercely at them was naught but blackberry cordial she was to deliver to Old Anna on her way home from nutting in the woods…”

Truly, the themes of this work is perseverance and dedication. Alyce learns to keep moving forward and develop as a person that deserves dignity and respect like everyone else. Readers will cheer her on as they move through this story. They will also enjoy the beautiful scenery she writes, despite the harsh era this story is set in.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

John Newbery Medal (1996), ALA Notable Best Children’s Books (1996).

Following excerpt from Kirkus Reviews, posted online May 20, 2010 and published originally March 27, 1995:

“How Brat comes to terms with her failure and returns to Jane’s home as a true apprentice is a gripping story about a time, place, and society that 20th-century readers can hardly fathom. Fortunately, Cushman…does the fathoming for them, rendering in Brat a character as fully fleshed and real as Katherine Paterson’s best, in language that is simple, poetic, and funny. From the rebirth in the dung heap to Brat’s renaming herself Alyce after a heady visit to a medieval fair, this is not for fans of historical drama only.

It’s a rouser for all times.”

Connections: Have the readers draw out a time they defended themselves, whether from friends, bullies, family, and whatnot. Ask them to state how they felt. Also, have them illustrate a scene where they are happy for Alyce and have them state why.