Family Reads: Black Berry, Sweet Juice by Lawrence Hill

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Lawrence Hill’s Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On being black and white in Canada

Black Berry, Sweet Juice - Family ReadsWe had tried reading two novels about Ireland for this month’s Family Reads. Unfortunately, we found both novels to be incredibly dull. I asked Mom if there were any books by authors she liked that she hadn’t yet read. That’s how we ended up on Lawrence Hill’s author page. Mom has read and enjoyed The Book of Negroes, The Illegal and Blood. I knew virtually nothing about growing up biracial in Canada. Thus, we chose Black Berry, Sweet Juice for our January Family Read.

In BLACK BERRY, SWEET JUICE, Hill movingly reveals his struggle to understand his own personal and racial identity. Raised by human rights activist parents in a predominantly white Ontario suburb, he is imbued with lingering memories and offers a unique perspective. In a satirical yet serious tone, Hill describes the ambiguity involved in searching for his identity – an especially complex and difficult journey in a country that prefers to see him as neither black nor white.

Interspersed with slices of his personal experiences, fascinating family history and the experiences of thirty-six other Canadians of mixed race interviewed for this book, BLACK BERRY, SWEET JUICE also examines contemporary racial issues in Canadian society.

Our Discussion

Hill explores how one’s personal identity can differ from the external identity thrust upon them by those looking at them from the outside. Hill writes about how people are judged by their skin colour as to what their identity is. But that, of course, is a dangerous and often wrong assumption to make. A person’s internal understanding of their identity might not have anything to do with their skin colour.

Hill’s book was an eye opener for Mom and I. We are White in every direction I can see on the family tree. We’ve never had to think about the possible discord between our identities and our skin colours. We’ve never had to think, “Oh, I’m White, I need to make a concentrated effort to connect with the White community, learn about my cultural identity, etc”. We are just that way, we are just White and we don’t have to do anything in particular to confirm that. In contrast, Hill and the people he interviews have all had to give conscious consideration, in one way or another, to their racial/cultural identity.

Hill writes about a “brewing interest in my racial identity” (64). This quote stuck out to me, as I’ve never had to ‘brew an interest’ in my racial identity. Mom and I can’t fathom what it must be like to have to actively learn about racial identity, cultural history, etc. Mom pointed out that she has never considered herself ‘German-Canadian’ (her father came to Canada when he was 19 years old). She has never had to assert that aspect of her identity or consider it in the way that biracial Canadians do. She and I have never had to ‘choose’ to be White, i.e. choose to fit in with that community – that’s the White privilege we have.

The Question

Towards the end of the book, Hill presents an imaginary dialogue of the ‘race’ question, an infamously pervasive question in Canada (and similar countries, I imagine):

STRANGER: “Do you mind my asking where you are from?” [This is code for “What is your race?”]

ME: “Canada.” [This is code for “Screw off.”]

STRANGER: “Yes, but you know, where are you really from?” [This is code for “You know what I mean, so why are you trying to make me come out and say it?”]

ME: “I come from the foreign and distant metropolis of Newmarket. That’s Newmarket, Ontario. My place of birth. [Code for “I’m not letting you off the4 hook, buster.”]

STRANGER: “But your place of origin? Your parents? What are your parents?” [Code for “I want to know your race, but this is making me very uncomfortable because somehow I feel that I’m not supposed to ask that question.”]

Mom and I discussed how that question, “Where are you from?”, takes on a completely different tone depending on who it is presented to. If someone asks us (my White Mom or I) where are you from, we generally know they mean it literally. If they want to know our family background, they ask directly. It’s not a challenge; usually it’s just polite conversation. Rarely is that question asked of a person of colour for the sake of polite conversation. As Hill notes, it becomes a challenge to a person’s Canadian identity (177). Part of our White privilege is never having people challenge our Canadian identities.

Many Experiences

Hill’s stories about growing up biracial added another dimension to his exploration of race, as we had not considered the identity struggles a biracial child may experience. Mom told me about a friend with a biracial daughter. Mom had never considered that that child may have difficult time growing up because of the different racial identities of her parents.

We appreciated that Hill includes interviews with a number of other Black-White biracial Canadians. Sharing various points of views shows that everyone’s situation can be different. There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to the question of how to manage a biracial identity. Black Berry, Sweet Juice really hits home that a single voice cannot an entire community represent. Nearly all interviewees, however, understand they will almost always struggle with being defined against Whiteness. Because White people do not consider biracial people to be White, they cannot find acceptance in those communities like they may find acceptance in Black communities.

For many people with one black and one white parent, it appears to hurt more when we are rejected by the black community than when we are discriminated against in the wider community for being black (106).

“When white people look at you, they’re never going to see white. They’re always going to see black. Therefore you’re black.” (110)

Final Thoughts

Mom and I both learned a lot from this book. We highly recommend it, especially to White people who, like us, had never really considered how the experiences of biracial people may differ from those who are ‘all Black’ or ‘all White’.
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Read Diverse 2017
This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge!

Family Reads: Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan’s Save Me a Seat

Ash (my sister) and I had originally chosen The Queen of Blood for this month’s Family Reads. She tried reading it for a few weeks and couldn’t get into it. I suggested she choose a book from my Cybils reading stack instead. She chose Save Me a Seat because it sounded cute.

Joe and Ravi might be from very different places, but they’re both stuck in the same place: SCHOOL.

Joe’s lived in the same town all his life, and was doing just fine until his best friends moved away and left him on his own.

Ravi’s family just moved to America from India, and he’s finding it pretty hard to figure out where he fits in.

Joe and Ravi don’t think they have anything in common — but soon enough they have a common enemy (the biggest bully in their class) and a common mission: to take control of their lives over the course of a single crazy week.

Our Discussion

The authors write in first person, alternating chapters between Ravi and Joe. We have both had bad experiences with co-authored novels, but Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan have struck the right balance in Save Me a Seat. A reader might assume that Weeks wrote Joe’s chapters and Varadarajan wrote Ravi’s chapters. Though each boy has their own voice, the writing styles don’t differ hugely between them. The chapters flow nicely from one to the next. We both prefer this type of co-authoring (where you can’t especially tell who wrote what, and the style remains consistent throughout the book).

We both appreciated how realistic the story seemed. According to the author bios in the book, Weeks  was “born and raised in the United States […] and teaches in [an] MFA program in NYC”, while Varadarajan was “born and raised in India […] and now teaches second grade in Princeton, New Jersey.” Does that qualify this book as an own voices narrative? Ash and I think that it is at least safe to guess that the authors’ own experiences have informed their writing. Ash especially pointed out the frustration Ravi experiences when people cannot correctly pronounce his first name (rah-VEE, not RAH-vee), let alone his last name (Suryanarayanan). One might imagine Gita Varadarajan has encountered similar experiences.

Accents

I asked Ash if she ‘heard’ Ravi’s voice in an Indian accent. She said that she didn’t; that she never hears characters unique voices – it’s always just that ‘voice in her head’. I asked her that question because, although it’s usually the same for me (no differentiation in character voices), I actually did hear Ravi’s voice with an Indian accent. I wondered if this was because I’d  been tutoring an Indian student for about 10 hours a week and I was more ‘in tune’ to the accent. His voice was very clear in my head when I started reading. Some features of Ravi’s language that I noticed were the use of continuous tense (ex. “am playing”, “will be going”) and a slightly more formal vocabulary. After awhile, though, I stopped hearing his accent and he settled into my generic middle grade voice.

I note this observation because one of Ravi’s challenges throughout the book is that (apparently) nobody can understand his accent. When I finished the story, however, I started to think that was an assumption made by his teachers and friends. They weren’t really listening to him; they just assumed they couldn’t understand what he was saying because he had an accent.

Storyline

Joe and Ravi do not really interact throughout the story. This surprised me, as I imagined the book follow a structure of them directly arguing and fighting in the first part, then begrudgingly teaming up to take down the bully in the second half. Ash expected Joe and Ravi would defeat the bully in a stereotypical or negative way (ex. he would turn out to be a misunderstood new friend or they would bully him back). We liked how the alternating perspectives revealed how Joe and Ravi misunderstood each other (and other characters), and how they learnt about the problems with making assumptions. Overall, we enjoyed the plot of the novel, and we were happy with the conclusion.

Reading and Recommending Middle Grade

Ash doesn’t usually read middle grade. At the start of our discussion, she asked if she is judging the book for herself, or for other people (children or adults) who might read it. I explained that I generally evaluate a book for how it satisfied my taste, while making some general comments about aspects that other readers may or may not enjoy. At the end of our discussion I returned to this point, asking Ash if she thought this would be a good read for the intended audience (children 8 to 12 years old). She said, “A lot of the things I said I like will apply, I think, to kids as well and other adults. Especially in our current culture where there is a lot of immigration and many ESL learners in classrooms. The story is cute and interesting, not cliched.

Final Thoughts

We liked a few other components of this book. Non-English words are not italicized. “Ravi’s Glossary” (ex. tennikoit, Ovaltine) and “Joe’s Glossary” (ex. index card, tofu) can be found in the back. There are also two recipes – one for the cookies Ravi brings his teacher and one for apple crisp. Finally, Ash pointed out that the title (Save Me a Seat) can refer to the story’s conclusion, creating a full circle from the cover to the last page.

Save Me a Seat impressed us both with its storyline and well-written characters. Have you read Save Me a Seat or any similar middle grade books? What do you think about co-authored books? 
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Family Reads: Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Dad and Jenna read Every Hidden Thing

Why we chose Kenneth Oppel’s Every Hidden Thing

I had planned to attend Oppel’s talk, reading and signing at McNally Robinson at the end of September. As a Canadian growing up in the late 90s/early 00s, I devoured the Silverwing books. Recently I’ve enjoyed The Boundless and The Nest. Dad had accompanied me to a few other author events at McNally (Chris Hadfield and Will Ferguson come to mind), so I invited him along. Dad thought it would be neat to read the book after hearing Oppel give a presentation about it. I felt iffy about Every Hidden Thing (which has been described as Romeo and Juliet meets Indian Jones), but I decided to give it a go because I was curious to see what Oppel would do with dinosaurs and YA fiction.

Our Discussion

We used Every Hidden Thing as a jumping off point to discuss young adult literature. First, we tried to determine whether Dad had ever read YA literature. He recalls reading The Hardy Boys, The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia, which don’t quite make the cut.  I asked if he may have read The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, or The Outsiders (all of which were not considered ‘YA lit’ back when they were first published but are today popularly read among teens). He couldn’t recall, but he noted that there was no Goodreads back in the seventies, so it’s hard for him to keep track 😛

I asked Dad what he liked about Every Hidden Thing, considering it was a ‘genre’ (more on that later) new to him. He appreciated the novel because he found it a light read – in general, not necessarily because it was YA. We agreed that the story moved at a good pace and had some surprises. The shifting perspectives occasionally tripped both of us up. We had to reread some paragraphs once we realized the narrator was not who we thought (this despite the change in fonts!). Overall, though, the two perspectives kept the narrative interesting without being too distracting.  I appreciated knowing ahead of time that Oppel was riffing off Romeo and Juliet, so I was prepared for the teen romance that’s central to the novel. (I am not a big fan of romance.) Dad liked the contrast between Sam and Rachel’s relationship and their fathers.

Dad and I agreed that the dinosaur fossil hunting was what really sold us on this book. Oppel gave a great presentation about his research process for Every Hidden Thing. You can read about how he wrote it in this article  from the CBC.

Finally, I asked Dad if he thought he might like to read more from the YA genre. He questioned whether YA is really a genre, and not just a marketing recommendation. We discussed some of the debate surrounding the use of a YA as a genre term rather than a general audience target. Dad says he would assume YA novels are an easier read than some of the adult fiction he reads, but he wouldn’t oppose reading a YA novel if it sounded interesting. He appreciated that he could read Every Hidden Thing in small pieces during his workweek and still be able to keep track of the characters and the plot.

I think most of my readers have grown up reading young adult literature. What books would you recommend for someone new to the ‘genre’? Have you read any novels about the discovery of dinosaurs?

Family Reads: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister select a book for us to read and discuss.

 

Sister: I previously read Patrick Ness’ the Chaos Walking trilogy and More Than This. I kept walking past A Monster Calls at work and thought it looked really interesting. A co-worker highly recommended it, which finally convinced me to purchase it.

We both give this book 4.5 stars. You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve read the book (spoilers ahead!). Here’s our discussion on the illustrations, the role of the monster, and the intensity of the story.

He’d had a nightmare. Well, not a nightmare. The nightmare. The one he’d been having a lot lately. The one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming. The one with the hands slipping from his grasp, no matter how hard he tried to hold on. The one that always ended with – (1)

 Illustrations

Sister: I think the illustrations are really cool. I could see why it won an award for them! 
Reno: Yeah, I was thinking about why I like them – I enjoy dark images with lots of textures and layers. 
Sister: Agreed. I also like gray scale illustrations; I think it’s cooler to imagine the colours than to be shown them. 
Reno: Plus, these illustrations are actually scary at times! When you see the whole monster on that first two-page spread, I was like “OMGGGGG he’s coming in!!!” I didn’t expect to see an actual big scary monster. 
Sister: I saw a non-illustrated edition at work and I thought, “What is the point?” The illustrations add so much to the story. I wonder if the movie cinematography will match the atmosphere of the book.

Monster

Reno: I was surprised that there were ‘two’ monsters.
Sister: You don’t think they’re the same?
Reno: *considers this new idea*…I GUESS SO. I guess they could be the same! But what I meant was, you know at the beginning the boy is afraid it’s the monster from his dream but then he’s not scared because “Oh, it’s just a tree.” I was expecting the monster of the title to be the one from his dream. I was surprised when there was also an actual monster. When Conor’s dream monster finally appears, I thought “Here’s the monster I expected.” But then, like you said, maybe they’re the same monster…
Sister: I only thought about that once I finished the book and considered it from a certain religious perspective. As in – if I think the monster is God, and I’m the sort of person who think God has a hand in everything, then God is also cancer/the monster pulling his mom over the cliff? It was just something I thought of afterwards.
Reno: Ahh, right. I don’t think they’re the same, though, especially because of this paragraph.
Sister: I don’t actually think so either; it’s just one theory I thought of. I wonder who’s voicing the monster?
Reno: I don’t know…Liam Neeson or someone haha. Like Aslan, but – what’s his movie about kidnapping? – in a more serious crackly voice.
Sister: I did imagine a kind of crackly voice, though. Cos he’s a tree! *Googles film* Ah, the movie was written by Patrick Ness. Liam Neeson is the monster!
Reno: OMG are you serious?! That is so exciting! High five! Hahaha. I was just joking; maybe I read that somewhere earlier and forgot about it.

Story Intensity

Reno: Did you cry at any part? I mean, even just the quiet kind where your nose gets sniffly and tingly and your eyes sting and then suddenly your vision blurs.
Sister: I don’t cry at books…
Reno: I had a moment with this book. I think the passage where Conor finally admitted his fear to himself might have been that moment.
Sister: Yeah, this story is intense. It’s a veery real thing for everyone whose experience a loved one dying, I think. You just want them to go because you want their pain to end, you want them to die so it stops but you feel bad thinking ‘I want you to die’. I think it’s relatable for a lot of people. I now recommend this book when I have customers tell me ‘I need to talk to my kids about cancer’.
Reno: That’s not something I’ve ever really experienced so I can’t pinpoint that feeling but I did find the story SO SAD when I was reading it. Sad, and very intense.
Sister: Yeah, I was very ignorant of the outside world while reading.
Reno: I was happy his mom didn’t die before he got there. I was relieved. That would have been too nasty. But then, ‘in real life’, what are the chances that he would have made it? She could have passed at any time. But then again, you often hear stories about holding on for their loved ones.

Reno: I’ve read a few things (mostly promotional material for this book) that refer to it being ‘painfully funny’. Was this book funny at any point?
*long pause*
Sister: Nooooo?
Reno: I didn’t think so either! There were a few tiny moments of “Oh, haha.” for some of the monster’s dialogue.
Sister: Cos he acknowledges the boy is being a bit bratty.
Reno: Yup, but not enough to call it ‘painfully funny.’ I suppose the marketing department just don’t want it to come across as too depressing. Even though it’s sad, I don’t think it necessarily needs to humour to make it less sad. There is redemption in this story that prevents it from being too bleak.

At the end of our discussion, we wondered about Siobhan Dowd (who had the initial idea for this book) and what kind of life she lead. We learnt that she passed away from cancer after a three year battle. Have you read this book or any other that deals with a dying parent? Will you see the film version when it’s released in October?

Family Reads: Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. 

Why Dad chose this book: It was in my to read on December 25 (WPF review?) and then it was picked for CBC Books group read for June with a high rating so I wanted to try it, also because it has high aboriginal content which I have a special interest in. I reserved the ebook but I wanted to follow along with the group and didn’t want to wait, so I had my bookstore daughter buy it for me.

Dad gives this book 4.5 stars and I give it 4 stars. Here’s our thoughts on how this story kept us interested, even though it didn’t sound too exciting based on the back description.

He wondered how time worked on a person. He wondered how he would look years on and what effect this history would have on him. He’d expected that it might have filled him but all he felt was emptiness and a fear that there would be nothing that could fill that void. (232)

When Dad and I tried to summarize this book to each other, we agreed we would have a hard time convincing someone Medicine Walk isn’t as dull as we made it sound. We both enjoyed the steady pacing and the considered prose. I also liked the dialogue, which has a natural cadence and dialect that conveys a stronger sense of character. Wagamese writes in a calm tone while still building anticipation in a tale that doesn’t have a lot of hills and valleys. The story fills you with wonder about the questions it proposes without being melodramatic.

At times the plot surprised us. Dad never expected the connection between the old man and Eldon. I didn’t expect Eldon’s heartbreaking war story or that he didn’t try to find his mother. We both struggled to sympathize with certain characters (Dad with Eldon, me with Franklin’s mother). Even though a large part of this is Eldon telling his story, it’s still hard to understand without having gone through the same experiences. We agreed it can be too easy to judge people. I also thought this was quite a man’s story, as Franklin’s mother is a key but undeveloped character who has no story of her own. The only named characters are Franklin and Eldon; this is really their story.

As we talked about the book, Dad searched for reviews on his iPad. He thought these descriptions hit the nail on the head:

To be alive is to be vulnerable to the myriad shocks and disappointments of the human condition, but Medicine Walk is also testament to the redemptive power of love and compassion. (Globe and Mail)

For Frank, a “hunt was a process.” And so is the way Wagamese pursues his story: biding his time, never rushing, calibrating each word so carefully that he too never seems to waste a shot. But he isn’t after the kill. Rather, it’s something more complicated — finding a way to honor or at least acknowledge a life ill-lived as it enters its final bitter days. (NYT)

If you handed us this book five years and asked if we thought we would enjoy it, we both would have said no. Now, though, we find we have a deeper appreciation for realistic stories about human relationships Medicine Walk is a particularly fine example of the genre.  

Have you read any works by Richard Wagamese? Are there any similar stories by Indigenous authors you would recommend?