Monday, August 24, 2020

Lizard in a Zoot Suit by Marco Finnegan

It's June 3, 1943 and twin Latinx sisters Flaca and Curata have just stumbled upon Dr. James Rogers, a naval geophysicist and a few sailors digging in their Mexican American Los Angeles neighborhood of Chavez Ravine. After almost getting into a fight with the sailors for lewd remarks directed at Curata, the sister return home. Later that night, after their mother falls asleep, the girls take the family pickup truck and head to downtown Los Angeles to hangout and party with friends, all of whom are part of the city's Zoot-suit culture. But when a sailor bumps into Curata, a fight begins. 

Some of the sailors chase Curata into a dead end alley. Scared and with no place to escape, a manhole cover opens and a large lizard-like creature climbs out and scares the sailors away. When Curata faints, the lizard takes her into the underground tunnel he came out of, followed by Flaca. And unknowingly also followed by one of the sailors working for Dr. Rogers, who immediately calls the scientist. 

The lizard doesn't speak, but seems to understand Curata and Flaca and takes them home through the tunnel. It turns out that the creature, whom they call Chulito, has become separated from his family. The next morning, they decide that he should be reunited with them, if they are even still alive. After all, they understand separation and loss, they lost their dad, a soldier, in the war. But the night before, police and servicemen beat and arrested the mainly Mexican American Zoot-suiters in Los Angeles, resulting in the start of the Zoot Suit Riots. 

Deciding to disguise the lizard, they put him in one of Flaca's Zoot suits. But before they even leave their neighborhood, they encounter Dr. Rogers and his sailors looking for Chulito. A fight ensues between the sailors and the Flaca and Curata's other Zoo-suit friends, but the sailors manage to capture the lizard. Desperate to get him back and help him find his family, the sisters get some help from a very unexpected person. But will they find Chulito?

Done in two tone panels of black and yellow, Lizard in a Zoot Suit is an interesting look at a particular time and place in history. At first, it seems like just an excitying historical science fiction story, until you discover that some of it is based on reality. Curata and Flaca are great characters. Curata wears skirts that she's rolled up to make shorter and has a real soft heart for animals, which is why Chulito appeals to her so much. Flaca has a hot temper when it comes to racist remarks, especially when directed at her and her sister, which is how she sometimes gets into fights, and dresses in Zoot-suits when they go out. Both are proud Mexican Americans, proud of their father's service despite losing him, and both are kind, caring teens. 

Right from the start, readers will know that Dr. James Rogers is a smarmy corrupt scientist looking to make a fast buck and a claim to fame on the back of Chulito, and the sailors he gets to help are all white and racists, and all to happy to go after Zoot-suiters with their fists. 

The result is a graphic novel that brings together the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, the legend of an underground reptilian race living in tunnels under Los Angeles, and the treatment of the Latinx community displaced by housing discrimination. 

Written in English, Finnegan throws in lots of Spanish, most of which is easily understandable by context alone. I did look up pachucas, which in this case means Zoot-suiter. 

Pair Lizard in a Zoot Suit with Margarita Engle's verse novel Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots for another perspective of Los Angeles' Zoot Suit culture and riots.

You might also be interested in reading about how author Marco Finnegan can up with the idea for his graphic novel. You can find it HERE

And you might also like to read about the real person looking for the underground reptilians. You can find it HERE 

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby

This is the story of Francesca "Frankie" Mazza, narrated by Pearl, a teenage ghost who feels just a little bit closer to life when she is around Frankie. Frankie is a 14-year-old Italian American living in an Catholic orphanage run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow in Chicago with her younger sister Toni and her older brother Vito. The Mazza children aren't orphans, but were placed in the Guardian Angels Orphanage by their father, a shoemaker, after the death of their mother. And every visiting Sunday, he showa up bearing meatball sandwiches, spaghetti with butter, a apple for each and sometimes a new pair of shoes. Then one Sunday, he visits with news that he and his new wife would be moving to Colorado, and he would be taking Vito with him, but leaving the girls at the orphanage.

Left behind, and missing Vito, Frankie withdraws into herself for a while, at which point Pearl's story begins to unfold. Pearl is convinced she died as a result of the 1918 influenza pandemic that swept the world. And she has acquired a ghostly fox for company as she roams around the orphanage, the shores of Lake Michigan, reads The Hobbit over the shoulder of a library patron, where Pearl meets Marguerite, an African American ghost who can actually knock books off shelves. Like Frankie and Pearl, Marguerite also has a tragic story and also like them, her story slowly unfolds.

Once Frankie begins to join her friends again, she finds herself working in the kitchen, preparing meals for the nuns. And that's where she meets and falls in love with Sam. And the feeling is mutual. But Sam is almost 18-years-old and once war is declared in Europe, it is just a matter of time until, like Vito, he is drafted and sent to fight Hitler.

When the nuns discover what went on between Frankie and Sam, she is harshly punished, and then she and Toni are kicked out of the orphanage. Living with their father, their stepmother, and three of her children just may be a deal breaker for Frankie.

Thirteen Doorways doesn't just take the reader on a journey through the problematic and tragic lives of Frankie, Pearl, and Marguerite, to their individual ends, it also challenges the reader to think about the doorways we are confronted with in life and what might lie behind them. As events in their lives are recalled, as doorways are opened, wolves are revealed. Do we open the door and go through, not knowing what can happen, but taking control of our lives and our experiences or do we deny ourselves agency, staying ensconced in a life not really lived, however abusive and unhappy it may be?

Ruby has written a novel that is populated by a whole host of characters besides Frankie, Pearl, and Marguerite, who all play a part in their stories to greater or lesser but always relevant degrees. In doing so, to my mind, at least, Ruby just may have redefined the old Henry James' notion of the "loose baggy monster' and given it dignity and literary value.

Though not a book about WWII, it does, nevertheless, frame the world that Frankie lives in and the world that Pearl haunts. And in doing so, Ruby gives the reader some real insight about what life was like during those years, especially for poor Americans.

I began reading Thirteen Doorways slowly, much more slowly than I usually read books, savoring every word. But I found Ruby's writing so beautiful, so lyrical, so mesmerizing that it didn't take long before I realized I couldn't put it down. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but for those who like this kind of tale, I can't recommend it highly enough for so many reasons.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Summer We Found the Baby by Amy Hest

The country may be at war, but on the morning of the dedication and opening of a new children's library in Belle Beach, Long Island, Julie Sweet, 11, has baked an angel food cake (her first cake ever). And even though George, the dog, helped himself to some of it, enough was rescued and so Julie and her younger sister Martha, 6, are heading over to the library with it and that's when they find an abandoned baby - left in a basket on the library steps. 

On the same morning, Bruno Ben-Eli, 12, is heading for the train station without his parents permission or knowledge, to travel the 70 miles to NYC. His older brother, Private Benjamin Ben Eli is counting on him to find someone and to deliver a message to her. And it is a request Bruno has every intention of carrying out despite his mother being the head librarian at the library and in charge of the day's celebrations. 

By the time Martha waves Bruno over to the library steps, Julie has already fallen in love with her found baby, whom Martha has named Nancy. When Bruno asks what she's going to do with the baby, Julie decides to take off down the beach carrying the baby in the basket, Martha in tow. And even though he has something else to do, Bruno, really former friend Bruno, follows them, convinced Julie is heading for Camp Mitchel, an army base a few miles away.

As this is going one, each kid recalls how they got to this point. Julie and Martha are summer visitors to Belle Beach, brought there with their dog George, by their widower father who is working on a book, and who has also taken an interest in a woman from the army base. Julie, who remembers her mother Eleanor, thinks about her a lot this summer, and because of her name, she had written a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt inviting her to the library dedication. Martha, who has grown quite attached to Mrs. Ben-Eli, is always asking Julie for stories about the mother she never knew. And Bruno, who looks up to his brother, thinks about his enlistment and the girlfriend he had before he left for the army and to whom he wants Bruno to deliver his message. 

All this results in a wonderful historical mystery novel. The story is told in twenty short chapters and within each chapter, told from the alternating perspectives of Julie, Martha, and Bruno. Filled with many sweet moments, Ms. Yingling was right to compare it to Cynthia Rylant's Rosetown. That's just what it reminded me of, too. While the story unfolds with the same kind of slow and easy gentleness, it is never boring. In fact, it felt like a warm summer day at the beach towards the end of the season, and that is one of my favorite kind of days. It kept me reading. Well, that and the several mysteries that peaked my curiosity. 

Mysteries like: Who is the baby and why was she left on the library steps? And why is Bruno a former friend of Julie's even though she and Martha are so friendly with his mother? What is the message Bruno is supposed to deliver? Who is Tess and was that really Eleanor Roosevelt who showed up at the library dedication and enjoyed some of Julie's dog-tested cake?

The Summer We Found the Baby is a beautifully crafted story about family, loss, hope, and possibility in the midst of war. When I read it, I approached it without any expectations, by the time I finished it, I actually felt uplifted. I hope you do, too.

This book is is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was gratefully received from the publisher, Candlewick Press