Monday, May 28, 2012

Luv Ya Bunches!

The following is a review I wrote up for Lauren Myracle's book, Luv Ya Bunches. It's part of a series entitled "Where Are the Gay Parents in YA?" hosted on Look there for more info and some excellent books in the field! 

From Lauren Myracle regarding her first installment of the "Flower Power" series:
“A child having same-sex parents is not offensive, in my mind, and shouldn’t be ‘cleaned up.’… Over 200,000 kids in America are raised by same-sex parents, just like Milla. It’s not an issue to clean up or hide away… In my opinion, it’s not an ‘issue’ at all. The issue, as I see it, is that kids benefit hugely from seeing themselves reflected positively in the books they read. It’s an extremely empowering and validating experience.”

After trolling through the internet, searching for a good YA book with gay parents, this quote struck me. In October of 2009, Scholastic threatened to ban her tween novel, 
Luv Ya Bunches, from its book fairs. Its complaints? Language (instances of "geez," "crap," and "[oh my] God"). . . and Camilla's parents. Camilla, one of the four protagonists, has two moms, Mom Abigail and Mom Joyce. So, I sought to find out just what kind of objectionable portrayal Myracle had wrought in this novel.

When the book arrived at the Post Office in a package from Amazon - (unrelated, but) along with The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt and Marisol - my jaw dropped. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but 335 pages of flower power was not it.

"Oh, Gosh," I thought to myself (lest Scholastic censor this review for language). I was willing to commit to 150 pages of goofy tween drama, but 300+? Ay. All the same, I curled up on the sofa and opened to the first orange, swirly-curly flowery page. Some four hours later, I turned to the last orange, swirly-curly flowery page. As is Myracle's trademark, the writing not so much compels as gale-force-wind whirls you through it. Much of the novel is IM, or takes place on the "Flower Box" chat platform that Yasaman, one of the four, creates. This internet narrative, as well as the school scenes, were initially baffling to me. 
I teach high school English on a Pueblo reservation in New Mexico; my housemate teaches fifth grade. Though many of our students are avid texters, the virtual reality seemed utterly alien to reservation life. The privilege - Katie-Rose with her new yellow camera, the liberty of classroom instruction with the Potato Olympics, all four girls with their bedroom PCs - was odd and read as unrealistic. All the same, I kept reading. And despite the trite facade of these girls' lives, I found there were very real issues at work.

The best quality of the book, however, was that these real-world problems NEVER demand whole-hearted attention. To a critic, this could be criticized as trivializing these themes. I think, however, Myracle does a lovely job of normalizing. In fact, this is normalization at its best. As her above quote reflects, she is clearly seeking to empower her readers. Instead of puffs from publishers or professional reviewers, she has quotes posted on her website from tween readers. 
A look at the four flower girls:
Yasaman comes from a very traditional Turkish family. She wears a hijab and fears her kindergarten-age sister Nigar will be teased. At the same time, Yasaman is a computer whiz and has designed the very cool Never fear, as the fabulous four come together, it is renamed (check it out!)
Katie-Rose is half Chinese, half Anglo. She is the videoing whiz, has a quick quirky wit, and is widely regarded as an eccentric nerd. 
Violet is the African American new girl. Her family moved to California so they could be close to her mother, who is in a mental institution. 
And Camilla, who at the beginning of the novel is wildly popular, but can't decide whether she likes her queen bee compadres. She also has two moms.

With a cast like this, the text could easily be bogged down by the melodrama and hurt of prejudice based on: race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and mental illness. But for these girls, while their differences aren't ignored, the main conflict is finding Camilla's Tally the Turtle and thwarting the mean queen bee Modessa. Myracle chooses, rather than having her protagonists struggle against larger issues of homophobia or racism, affirm acceptance by having their differences lead to a far stronger result. Separate, they are all lorded over by Modessa and Quin. Together, they are - at least by 5th-grade standards - UNSTOPPABLE.

As you can see, this book is a highly offensive piece of smut. 

A closer look on how artfully Myracle handles Camilla's two mothers. Mostly, the references are a kid's to a parent. Mom will pick her up, give her advice in the car, Mom Abigail and Mom Joyce gave her her beloved Guatemalan bobble-head wooden turtle, Tally. Her friends ask casually about her moms in the some way someone would ask a question of any parents. 

There are only two instances of the book where Milla reflects on her lesbian moms. The first is on page 55, when Milla is experiencing inner turmoil about her summer friendship with Katie-Rose (the "weirdo") and her school identity as a Mean Girl. She thinks, "Sometimes Milla feels different from the other girls at school because of having two moms. Sometimes MIlla feels different from her two moms because of being. . . well, just a plain old normal girl, the sort who would rather be the same as everyone else than different." The first sentence is one of occasional alienation, but the next idea is admiration of her mothers. Here are strong women who aren't afraid to be themselves!

The second is on page 255 when Milla and Mom Joyce are driving to school in her convertible:
"Getting caught in rainstorms and having to put the top up are two of the many reasons Mom Abigail teases Mom Joyce about owning a convertible. Mom Joyce counters that Mom Abigail is a soccer mom in her bright red minivan, which isn't true, because Milla doesn't play soccer. She takes dance. 
But Mom Abigail says pff to mom Joyce's soccer mom comments, reminding Mom Joyce that a minivan is exactly what she needs for her catering business. 'Anyway, I love my bright red minivan,' Mom Abigail says breezily. 'It reminds me of cherries.' 
Her moms are so different - and yet they fit together perfectly.
Just like people can be different and still be friends, Milla thinks. They can be different and still. . . click."

Luv Ya Bunches is not a Newberry Honor Book. It does not transcend issues or shift paradigms in artful prose. What it does, however, is capture beautifully the nature of what friendship and love should look like in America today. It's a fast, easy read that has aesthetic and narrative appeal to kids both younger and older than our fictional heroines. For girls (and boys, given context) struggling with difference, it's ideal. It is a book that teaches us to not make assumptions (about a person or the caliber of a book by its cover). It also teaches us, through Milla's moms, that differences make us stronger. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

What a Week!

It's a sunny day in Zuni land!

To be fair, 95% of the time it is a sunny day in Zuni land. It seems the earth is finally catching up with the skies, for it feels like summer: a street ball tournament at the nearby playground, our little garden growing, the breeze in the 70s, and even a handful of little leggy yellow flowers peering upwards towards our living room window.

I have two weeks left of the school year, which seem as unbelievable as the fact that I still have 9 days left to teach. It's May NINETEENTH, which seems impossibly late in the year. It's hard to figure out what seems more surreal - the fact that a year ago last Wednesday, I was spraying champagne at my fellow class of 2011, dancing on tables and living, for the afternoon, carefree . . . or the fact that last Wednesday, I was celebrating Native American Day at my school, speaking broken Zuni and watching my students perform the deer dance and living, for the day, carefree.

Another bit of cognitive dissonance came with our periodic CC alumni newsletter:
Of course, it's not the CC garden today. . . it's the CC garden almost 2 years ago. I'd like to defend my (anonymous) position in the newsletter, however, to say that if they saw our backyard, they wouldn't be too disappointed: a chicken run for which I dug the posts and strung up the wire, a chicken coop crafted from a dog house, cabbage, peppers, tomatoes (numbering 27 plants total) each planted in their separate waffle plot, a 3-sisters garden in potentia, and the beginnings of a raised bed for potatoes.
But enough about plants.

To the week: 
First off, I had NWEA testing MT-TF this week, so it was the after school schedule largely that was so demanding.

MONDAY: I presented at the School Board Meeting to try to get a drama class / 2 productions approved for the coming year. I was petrified; people make the false assumption that because my major was in the performing arts, and since I corral 100-some kids every day, I would be not nervous in situations like this. Incorrect! That being said, I do believe my presentation went well. I don't remember much, other than that I went into "I-Love-Theatre Dreamland." I remember twining my fingers together and speaking of the cultural relevance and richness to theatre. The board was thrilled, I am happy to report. When I was defining dramaturgy (the course is a semester survey in history, performance, and technical theatre), I used for example a production concept of doing Our Town in 19th century Zuni. They grew agog and smiling at this, trying to find ways to get me funding and help with the course. It was unanimously approved! As was my colleague's forensics course. 
All this, I may add, after the chair of my department opened the school board meeting by not-so-subtly telling the board to NOT approve our courses. She cited finances and the irrelevance of it. Too bad it's cost-neutral and wildly relevant. Needless to say, a big battle this week has been trying to be kind to her.

TUESDAY: Two words: Sports Banquet. Again, fighting the odds, we had another successful evening. They put me at the end of the coach's long table, so I sat next to no one and across from the Ranch dress - no matter! They forgot to print my non-lettering girls' certificates - no matter, I'll take the time for supper to print my own. They put the wrong girl's name on my Most Spirited award - oh, geez, I guess I'll just make a joke to poor L.L. and get it fixed tomorrow. But on the bright side, I made the crowd laugh pretty uproariously when I retold my story of becoming the cheer coach. (". . . and they said, 'Will you please be our cheer coach? and I said, '. . . sure?'") 6-9pm. But there were cheese enchiladas!

WEDNESDAY: As I've mentioned, my Native American Day was a blast. Instead of showcasing my fearsome sunburn, I'll show this:
1-3 periods were my ever-popular Nature walks. I began first with a little blurb about my culture - a tough enough job, in my entitled culture of power / Western European mutts, which I communicated to them. I did, however, wear my mother's feedsack dress that my grandmother had made for her at the end of the 1950s. 1. I look more than a little cute in it and 2. I could say, "it represents a culture that wasted as little as possible and had a deep connection to the earth." These values, I know transfer through to this culture. . . generally, it was a lovely segue into nature + book talk: "in my family's culture, the two most precious things you can give someone are an appreciation for nature and appreciation for the written word as a means to understand and change art and the world."
Then, I gave them the middle handout. I bet you have NEVER handed out a similar sheet. On it, painstakingly searched in a dictionary and run by my savant student En.T., are a list of local plants and critters in Zuni. I set them loose - suffice it to say, by the end of third hour, I knew more of the words than a good deal of the students. My thrilling COMPLETE sentence I can say in Zuni: Ho' k'ets'iłdo t'sana u:lakkya. (I saw a small cricket.)
5th hour we met up with Iralu's class and traipsed to the Eagle Sanctuary. Yes, we have an Eagle Sanctuary full of golden & bald eagles within walking distance. Don't you? The speaker was obsessed with us knowing every facet of these birds - including the coloration of the pinion feathers of the juvenile birds - but was quite knowledgable. Standing in the sweltering in my off-the-shoulders dress (reader, here is where the sunburn enters), I would've preferred more time actually studying the birds. All the same, it's a really cool project - the Zuni traditionally practiced eagle husbandry, and so they're bringing that back with non-releasable birds given to them from the US Department of Fish and Wildlife (as opposed to euthanasia). The rest of the day was watching our students, in full regalia, doing their social dance performances and presenting the Zuni Native Ambassadors for the following school year. If you're interested in what the dance clothing looked like, these aren't my students (obviously), but the costumes are the same: (buffalo dance) and (deer dance)
When the bell rang for the end of the day, they all processed down the hall, the deer dancers moving their heads in the uncanny way of seeming actually animal. In their wake were the drummers and proud parents. I took a picture with my cellphone. If it hadn't been so blurry, I think I would've sent it to a few friends with the message: "how we end every school day in Zuni Pueblo."

THURSDAY: I judged 8 5th-grade portfolios. Enough said. It was delightful! AND we got fed chips + delicious salsa and a GIANT bowl of guacamole. YUM. Of the presentations, most were alternately sweet, impressive, fidgety, moving, and adorable. I got home, again, about 9pm. I sat on the porch steps in the dark, processing that sweet early summer air.

I've already been writing more than I've intended to, so I'll leave off fairly soon. But first, the mandatory book update:
I finished Geography of the Heart. It was my birthday gift from Ms. Lyl, and it was exactly the moving portrait of love and loss I hoped it would be. For a great blurb from NPR: I'm plowing through The (delightful) Hobbit, which my sophomores are ACTUALLY reading and ACTUALLY enjoying. Some fun monomyth / archetype study about heroes! And, as of today (and on the recommendation of my Indiana Read judge father), I'm more than halfway through A Girl Named Zippy. Talk about a delight of reflection, pith, and general Hoosier affection! I heartily recommend it for anyone in need of a laugh, a think, or a reconsideration of small-town, Midwest life. Ina May's Spiritual Midwifery continues to be a nice bedtime read.

On that note, both the prenatal group moderating doctors at the Zuni Hospital are thrilled at the prospect of having a doula  attend / help out / etc. Alllllllll right!

And, to wrap up this monolith of a week, another "you know you live in Zuni when:"
You pet sit for three periods when a student / cheerleader brings you a kitten she found abandoned that morning. Some cute pix to thank you for reading this far:

Over and out ~