Green Almonds: Letters from Palestine

Two sisters show life in different countries and different cultures in this graphic novel by Anaele and Delphine Hermans – a memoir of Anaele’s 10-month stay in Bethlehem while volunteering for a youth organization/NGO.

Presented as postcards and letters shared between the two sisters, ‘Green Almonds’ highlights the living conditions of populations in war-torn zones of the world. At the same time, it humanises these conditions as they accept them as a ‘normal’ part of life.

Anaele’s initial arrival presented anxious times from the word go, as she negotiated customs at Tel Aviv airport in 2008. Her stories about the months that followed illustrate some of the precarious situations faced by everyday people in these occupied territories. At the same time, descriptions of simple joys in life shared amongst friends show things she enjoyed with her Palestinian friends. Cultural differences aside, there is still a place where: “we sing, we laugh, we talk until late into the night”.

As the correspondence journeys between Bethlehem and Liege, great contrasts are displayed in the lives of the two sisters. Interestingly, the postcards from Delphine mainly chat about shallow day-to-day life events at home in Liege; Anaele’s letters provide greater detail, empathy and passion about her experiences, as she negotiates a world apart from Belgium.

Of course, ‘Green Almonds’ is also a reflection of the harsh world experienced by those caught in this massive ongoing battle. As a graphic novel, it provides some introduction and insight into a dangerous conflict. Perhaps a more detailed follow-up would look deeper into the lives and relationships Anaele experienced in her time there and since her return to Belgium. (It would be an interesting continuation as she has worked to enable international volunteering projects since her return.)

Green Almonds received the Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) award for the best travel diary highlighting the living conditions of populations in precarious situations when it was published in France in 2011.

Do you read non-fiction graphic novels?

Do they offer a worthwhile presentation of historic or real-world events? (e.g. the March trilogy which focuses on civil rights in the US)

Can such a memoir make you think about world events and conditions?

Future Girl – Asphyxia

What a beautiful book – the story, the illustrations, the things you can learn, the things you can think deeply about!

As an artist, author and activist (who also happens to be Deaf), Asphyxia has created a sumptuous book with a tale to be considered carefully. Her illustrations are just beautiful, as they reveal Piper’s emotions as she journals her personal insights.

Piper has been deaf since 3. Her mother wants her to be seen as normal. In a near-future dystopian society, life is hard enough, but Piper finds school and its demands more exhausting each day. With the ability to ‘tell it from the heart’ (as a Deaf person living in a hearing world), Asphyxia reveals through Piper just how hard it is being Deaf.

‘Future Girl’ is also coloured by the real characters Piper meets, as she struggles to find direction for her life outside of her school experience. There is so much more she learns (and teaches us) from these people.

Marley first helps her fix her bike, and becomes a future love interest. Robbie, his mother (who happens to be Deaf), opens up a new (Deaf) world to her – a new way of being herself. From her, in a world of economic chaos and rationing, she also learns ways to provide for herself (and her mother, Irene) and begins growing her own food.

Gradually, Piper becomes part of a different community, where her talents are applauded. Her voice is found in her art. At the same time, many upheavals in her life create challenges, and she has to decide what is important to her.

Asphyxia’s gentle education of the reader is fascinating.

I was re-introduced to the sign language alphabet which I had played with at school, and found quite exhausting (imagine having to spell everything you want to say!). Her explanation of Auslan through Piper’s gradual introduction to ‘whole-word’ signs was eye-opening. I found the concept of how exhausting it is for a Deaf person using a hearing device and lip-reading thought-provoking too. (It reminded me of Being Jazmine by Cecily Paterson.)

The importance of community and belonging is another element ‘Future Girl’ raises. Just starting out with a local community garden myself, I found this a wonderful and warm attachment to the story. It was also timely in this COVID climate where relationships, separation and restrictions mark our current world. But there is so much more… it is impossible to deliver it all here!

Asphyxia ‘speaks’

This is a book you want to read, hug and re-read carefully. Absorb the ideas, the beautiful illustrations and the inspiration it gives us all. Inspiration to look at the world differently, with hope and with concern for those around us. (Recommended 14+)

 

# Asphyxia gave permission to include some of her stunning artwork – I hope this entices you to pick up a copy soon. There is so much to learn through the story and the personal notes from her at the end.

# A younger series she has written also displays her creative puppetry skills – the Grimstones, a gothic fairytale series introduced here. 

(Apologies for the quality of the photo images taken…)

 

CBCA Awards 2020

With a delayed and adjusted awards ceremony this year, the CBCA Awards have finally been announced!

 

View the award ceremony today (October 16) below:

 

This year, I didn’t read all the shortlisted Older Readers books, but two of those I reviewed here were awarded the Honour Book status – The Boy Who Steals Houses and Ghost Bird. (I was disappointed When the Ground is Hard wasn’t also among the winners, as it was my pick.)

 

That said, how many people regularly pick the winner?

This year the winner in the Older Readers category was ‘This is How We Change the Ending’ – a tough book for the author, dealing with tough issues. Author Vikki Wakefield even expressed how writing this book made her feel uncomfortable.

It is inhabited by kids who are tough and prickly and aimless. Kids trying to figure out who they are and what they stand for. Kids who feel they have limited choices.

Hopefully, it is a book that kids, like this, will read with hope; and also one read by others better off, to develop empathy.

 

When the passionate Eddie Woo introduced the Younger Readers award category, he aimed to remind everyone about the power of books – including the power to help us inhabit other people’s thoughts, to embrace other people’s emotions, and thus, develop empathy for others.

Winner Pip Harry accepted her award and then showed viewers around the area of Singapore (where she now lives). However, her book, ‘the Little Wave’,  was inspired on the shores of Manly Beach, which she misses. She spoke about reading as a friend, as well as a place to learn empathy. She said she loves to write for kids “because they are the best readers”, and read the following poem which was sent to her by an avid reader:

“Writing a fiction story is like creating a world

Piece by piece

And your head forgets who you really are.” – Amelia, Grade 3

 

Empathy and understanding of people in different situations seem to be key elements in many of the books involved in this year’s awards. This is also reflected in the comments of readers interviewed in the video clips, as well as many of the books. Accepting the award for Eve Pownall Award this year, Bruce Pascoe for ‘Young Dark Emu’ expressed his desire for the younger generation to develop an understanding and appreciation of Australian heritage – another book where kids can stand in the shoes of others.

What inspired you the most from this year’s awards?

Our Chemical Hearts

Henry – at 17 has never had a real girlfriend. Lola – had a fling with Henry, but then moved on to a relationship with Georgie. Murray – comical crazy over-the-top Aussie friend is thrown into the mix. (Maybe he’s a good drawcard for Australian YA readers?)

Then, the elusive Grace turns up in their senior years of high school. Lola thinks Grace is competition for Henry. Muz (Murray) thinks she may be a zombie, werewolf or worse. But Henry is enamoured – he thinks.

When they are teamed as editors of the school newspaper, Henry and Grace have to spend more time together and things evolve. But Grace has an unexplained past – one she seems unwilling to reveal to Henry.

In ‘Our Chemical Hearts’ Henry is a somewhat gentle teenager – up till now, not too worried about what others think of him – until he meets Grace. Then, as he tries to understand a little bit about her, he finds himself in the throes of his ‘first love’. Grace, hurt by recent losses, is hot and cold in the relationship which confuses him and he digs deeper.

“I fell asleep… thinking of Grace Town and how, if people really were assembled from pieces of the universe, her soul was made of stardust and chaos.” (Is this Henry experiencing true love?)

Krystal Sutherland has a great story in this debut novel. There are moments of laughter and tears (I did both) as Henry and Grace search to understand each other, find their hearts and ultimately, themselves. Cute vignettes are exchanged between Henry and Grace (in texts, notes and letters) and funny (maybe over-the-top) quips from Murray and Lola add a friendly flavour to this touching and relatable tale.

# ‘Our Chemical Hearts’ is due for movie release sometime in 2020 – why not get to know the characters and read it before then?

## Why are there fish on the cover? (Maybe Ricky Martin Knupps II knows?)

There Was Still Love

This story oozes feelings and emotions; even in the little things. As you read, you can taste the meals Lucek has with his grandmother. They are deliciously described, even though they may be simple fare. You can also sense the atmosphere of their humble accommodation – a small apartment in Prague.

Told from two main perspectives – that of Lucek in Czechoslovakia under Communist rule, and his cousin, Liska living in Melbourne, it flicks between locations and periods of time as the family links are revealed. Relatives through their grandmothers (twins separated at 17), Lucek and Liska share a precious culture, though they too are separated by half a world.

Many of Lucek’s observations are innocent, but perceptive. His fondness of his grandmother, Babi and his great uncle is strong, even when they behave like grumpy old people. Beautiful moments break through in the story, which makes you want to hug Parrett’s characters. You laugh and cry at their playful antics, and feel their sorrow when things go awry.

Similarly, though Liska lives in a free country, her family lives simply. They save from her grandfather’s meagre wage so they can visit their homeland. Though they live in a relatively free country, they are not always treated well, and in 1980 suffer from prejudice and homesickness.

The home visits to Prague are joyful occasions for sisters, Eva and Mana (Babi), while Lucek ponders why he and Babi don’t have the same freedom to make a visit to Melbourne. He is also puzzled why his mother, Alena, continues to travel outside Czechoslovakia with the Prague Black Theatre troupe, leaving him in his grandmother’s care.

In an interview last year, author Favell Parrett revealed her book was inspired by a jar of gherkins! One she found in a Melbourne deli, which was the exact brand of gherkins her grandmother used to buy. The memories it sparked sent her on a journey to delve into her past to honour her immigrant family, and especially grandmothers. (Part of this novel was originally published as a short story – giving the flavour of the story here.)

Parrett encourages anyone with grandparents or older relatives to talk to them. “Because when they’re gone, those stories are just dust. And that’s what makes up a life really – what did you want to be when you were young, when did your heart first break, who was your first love.” From: An ode to the women who carry our world on their shoulders

‘There Was Still Love’ moves between different times as the family story evolves, and between Lucek and Liska as storytellers, so while I have read this story as an audiobook, I am keen to do a re-read with a physical book. (It’s so much easier to follow the changes in a physical book, don’t you think?) Also, I am late to discover the writing of Favell Parrett but ‘Past the Shallows’ will definitely be my next read.

# Can you describe your grandparents’ home? What does it feel like? 

## What is your favourite family memory?

### How often are you able to chat with the older generations of your family or neighbours? 

Hear me – Being Jazmine

‘Being Jazmine’ is the third book featuring Jazmine Crawford – part of the Invisible series by Cecily Paterson. That said, it was also a good read as a stand-alone title.

This story challenges readers to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else, as Jazmine struggles with the demands of high school. She is finding it increasingly hard and very, very tiring.

Alongside the usual teenage angst, she faces a change to her family life as her mother remarries and they plan to move out of her old family home. Even though it’s been five years since her father died, and even though her mother’s boyfriend is really nice, it’s a hard and unfathomable adjustment for Jazmine.

Even with good support from her school friends, certain school teachers and her grandmother, Jazmine still finds it all a bit too much. Why is she so tired all the time? How is she meant to accept this new phase of her life? With the added complication of being deaf, she feels caught between different worlds and the expectations of family and friends.

This story is one to make you think about the things we often take for granted, and things we don’t really see clearly. It highlights the importance of having understanding adults – parents, teachers and grandparents in particular. A book about belonging (or not), and seeing things from the perspective of others.

Recommended 12+

# Other titles in this series are Invisible and Invincible

the Definition of Us

What are your friends like? Do they talk, act and think the same as you? Or do they have a few quirky differences in their personalities?

In ‘the Definition of Us’ it would seem that Florence, Jasper, Andrew and Wilf have little in common, except that they attend the Manor Lane Therapy Centre. Each of them has their own problems and idiosyncracies, so why would they even think to do a road trip to Wales together?

It is when their therapist, Howard, goes missing without warning that they decide to track him down. How could he leave them without notice or explanation? Especially Florence, since she is facing a critical anniversary at the time, and is in need of his support to get through the weekend.

They want answers. They want distractions. They want to get away!

Each of the quartet has their own reasons for needing therapy, and while they are an unlikely friendship group, their shared goal (to find Howard) brings them into some interesting situations. As individuals, they respond differently to the events which happen, but together they rise above the challenges they meet along the way – eventually.

At crisis times, they are even able to provide some sort of reasoned therapy for each other, in the absence of Howard!

Author, Sarah Harris, has developed a fun but thoughtful way of looking at several mental health conditions; even if events are somewhat questionable at times. YA readers should identify with many of the issues within the group and should appreciate the ideas expressed by each individual.

(Even if you don’t have such an issue yourself, there may be food for thought about how others around you feel – though they may hide their own realities.) 

Florence is particularly likeable, with her love for words emitting strong emotions, and her observations seemingly narrating the story. However other characters, like Andrew, also have a lot to say:

“It’s not funny. You think I’m just one big joke. You call me names and put me down but I’m not a robot. I do care. I spend a lot of time trying to understad people because I want them to like me… Why does no-one ever try to understand me?” (Andrew, p. 101, found after he ran away from the group on the freeway)

‘The Definition of Us’ pries into the hidden lives of Florence, Jasper, Andrew and Wilf to make us question what is really ‘normal’ – and make us think about how we treat others and ourselves.

* Do you always have to conform to the expectations of others?

** How can we know our true selves? and the true selves of others?

*** What is ‘normal’ anyway?

Available as ebook.

Promise Me Happy

Nate wonders what really makes people who they are. Is it determined at birth, or is it a result of how you are raised? Either way, things are not looking good for him. His dad is abusive, his mother is dead and he’s just finished 18 months in juvenile detention. Now he is off to some unknown location to stay with some unknown family member – his uncle, his mother’s brother.

It’s like he has completely shut down in juvie, and can’t see anything positive ahead – especially when he first meets his uncle, Mick. Neither Nate or Mick are lovable characters when we first meet them – in many ways, they are alike.

As Nate slowly explores his uncle’s community and the people within it, he begins to recollect happier times with his mum and a personal connection with the local environment. Quirky characters like Gem and Henry cross his path, and his thoughts start to move outside himself. They are authentic characters and you will love them both for different reasons.

Nate sees Gem as unique, and more beautiful inside and out than any other girl he has known. Henry is an eccentric little 8 year-old, who provides a bit of local knowledge to Nate, and at times, some unwanted companionship – till he grows on him. Even his relationship with Mick moves well beyond its gruff beginning.

However, encounters with the local tough guys test his self-control, and he begins to wonder again, if he is destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, unable to control his anger.

‘Promise Me Happy’ by Robert Newton is a great journey which makes you wonder about the ways people deal with confrontation, being different and how people can react when someone important leaves their lives. Keep the tissues handy, but feel happy that you have been on the journey with Nate in the end.

What is it like to lose someone close to you?

In what ways can we deal with our grief and remember the important things? to keep our emotions in check?

# ‘Promise Me Happy’ is on the 2020 CBCA Longlist for Older Readers

## Robert Newton also wrote When We Were Two (which was awarded the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction in 2012) and Mr Romanov’s Garden. His other books can be found here.

### Available as an ebook.

Between Us: Barriers

Ana lives in a detention centre in Darwin, having escaped her home in Iran, and initially being transported to Nauru. From Wickham Point Immigration Centre, she is able to attend school, but that is about all. No freedom. No hope. No life.

On her first school day, a new guard (Kenny) feels sorry for her and tells her to look out for his son (Jono) if she needs help. Kenny later regrets doing this, as other guards warn him the refugees will take advantage of anyone they can – in their eyes, the asylum seekers do not deserve any special treatment.

Jono is quite taken with Ana, and does befriend her, even after he finds out about her refugee status. Disinterested in school, but interested in Ana, he creates a lot of anxiety for his father. Kenny tells him to avoid Ana, even though the impact of her friendship is a mostly positive one, so the conflict (and distance) between father and son grows.

Set in an actual detention centre, Wickham Point (now closed), ‘Between Us’ addresses the difficulties and misunderstandings which exist around many asylum seekers. In his naivety, Jono occasionally upsets Ana with his insensitive comments and actions, but he does try. Ana is caught between two worlds, with some freedoms at school that she has not experienced for a while, though her family’s refugee status is never far from her mind.

Wickham Point Immigration Detention Centre

In ‘Between Us’, Clare Atkins does a wonderful job raising the issues which confront asylum seekers – their mistreatment, misunderstandings, cultural conflicts and lack of human rights. This is a sometimes gentle, but then confronting tale. (Ana’s home flashbacks are particularly gruesome.)

It contrasts the lives of Ana and Jono as they both deal with normal adolescent issues, which are also tinged with cultural and family expectations, and societal blindness to their personal problems. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but makes you think.

Raw but real. Insightful but challenging. Highly recommended read.

Also good for group/class discussion – don’t let that put you off!

Winner, CBCA’s 2019 Book of the Year for Older Readers.

CBCA’s 2019 Notable Book of the Year for Older Readers.

iBBY Australia’s 2020 Honour Book for Writing.

# Available as an ebook.

The immigrant experience

Mia’s family has immigrated from China to the US for a better life – which is fine, until the reality of finding work hits. With little more than $200, the family takes on a job running a motel for Mr Yao, the wealthy owner. They soon realise life isn’t going to be as rosy as they first thought, as Mr Yao takes advantage of their desperate situation.

‘Front Desk’ reflects a lot of the personal experiences of the author, Kelly Yang, as she too helped her parents manage several motels in California from a young age. Just as Mia finds school difficult (hiding her poverty and facing racist taunts), so too did Kelly.

The exploitation of immigrant workers and racist attitudes facing people of non-white appearances is strongly portrayed, as Mia’s family struggles to get ahead. They find some comfort and support from the ‘weeklies’ who live in the Calivista Motel – though initially puzzled by the warning one gives them about the nature of their employer:

[Hank] “Everyone hates Mr Yao… Trust me, he’s anything but all right.”

Mia strives to get off the hopeless roller coaster of her situation. She  has ambitions to become a writer, even though her mother constantly directs her to devote her studies to maths. Is this an unrealistic ambition for a Chinese daughter of immigrants? Why is her mother so insistent on maths?

While Front Desk is fairly easy to read, many of the events and issues it raises are not. The ways Mia has to employ to cope with her family’s impoverished situation – both at school and at home, could make you sad. However, the other disempowered people she meets who spur her on and support the family provide hope.

It is HOPE that has to be continually reignited in this story, as Mia’s roller coaster takes her and her family on a rough, and sometimes dangerous, ride.

Kelly Yang wrote this story with purpose:

Finally, I hope that through this book, more people will understand the importance of tolerance and diversity…

This book is about what happens when you include, when, despite all your suffering and heartache, you still wake up every morning and look out at the world with fresh, curious eyes.

In this video, Kelly introduces Front Desk:

A recommended read for middle schoolers, and those who would like to see the immigrant experience through authentic eyes.

# The copy previewed has a different (newer) cover – why do you think the publishers have done this?

## Which of the things which happens to Mia and her family do you find most surprising? or most shocking?