Review: Flying Lessons & Other Stories

Like many of you, I’m concerned about the future of America. With hate crimes against so many minority groups on the rise, things feel bleak. Our country seems to have forgotten how to treat each other with common decency and respect (if we ever really did that in the first place, which is debatable), and it breaks my heart. Which is why I’m sharing this book review today, as part of the National Day of Resistance. I want to do my part to resist casual hatred and bigotry by sharing a book full of multi-culturalism and understanding.

One of the rallying cries around social justice circles is that representation matters, and nowhere is that more important than in literature for children. Too often, the only stories told with black characters are set during either the civil rights era or slavery. Jewish characters are only seen in the Holocaust. We reduce these characters to stereotypes of struggle, rather than real people. It’s past time for these kids to see themselves in modern contexts and in stories that center their experience. Flying Lessons & Other Stories is a beautiful example of just that. The rare anthology for middle readers, this books collects stories by authors with a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, and that is reflected in the characters within.

All of these stories are realistic fiction (though one is historical, not contemporary), which I think serves the purpose of this book admirable. While I love to see more diversity in fantasy in science fiction, it’s also important for people (maybe especially kids) to see themselves as they truly exist, and to see how other people actually live. Not as stereotypes or problems, but as multi-faceted human beings.

But beyond representation and concept, these stories are eminently readable. I enjoyed every single one immensely. None of them felt like they were moralizing. All the kids felt very real, with strengths and weaknesses, and they all dealt with their problems in ways that felt plausible for children. And the stories are fun! Surprisingly, one of my favorites was the first in the collection, which is a story about basketball. It’s only surprising because I am not a sports fan, but De La Peña tells a great story about perseverance. Which is to say, these are stories that transcend subject.

While this book is targeted at kids, it’s very enjoyable as an adult, as well. I genuinely adored every single story in here! I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to see more diversity in their reading material, and in their authors.

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2017 Diverse Reading Challenge

I am not, in general, a fan of New Years resolutions. Too much pressure, not enough room to adapt and adjust with the year, and way too much potential for turning the inevitable backsliding into a sign of failure for my taste. But I do like goals, especially frivolous seeming ones that actually support my larger hopes and dreams. I have one such goal for 2017. Namely, to make sure that half of the books I read this year are by minority authors.

With everything going on politically, with the rise of fascism and actual neo-nazis and hate crimes and fear, this seems like literally the least I can do. Supporting authors from all walks of life is important for a diverse and democratic society. Plus, I can’t effectively fight hate if I don’t make sure to listen to other points of view, and one of the easiest ways to do that by reading.

I don’t want to mislead you into thinking that I’m only reading political books this year. Not at all! Or at least, not overtly political books. I think that every book – no matter the subject or genre – carries the authors experience. So a fantasy novel written by a black woman or a Chinese American man is inherently coming from a different place than what someone who looks like me would write (not that everyone in the same ethnic group is coming from the same place! We all have different experiences, but race, religion, gender, and sexuality certainly influence our lives in ways that tend to be similar).

I agonized over my criteria. Do I count LGBTQ authors? Not everyone is publicly open about their sexuality, nor do I expect them to be. Do I include Jewish authors? I am half-Jewish, so maybe that doesn’t count as broadening my horizons. In the end, I’ve decided to be liberal in my definition of minority writers. Brown, black, Asian, Muslim, Jewish, queer, they all count.

So how does this support my larger hopes and dreams? One of those dreams is to see America become more open and accepting of all of its people, embracing the truth of different viewpoints. Reading from backgrounds other than my own is a very small step in that direction, but it is a step, particularly because I work in a bookstore and can then recommend those books to others when appropriate. The other dream/goal is to improve my writing, and reading excellent books by talented authors who I might not otherwise seek out can only help my own writing to improve.

I’m doing pretty well so far. I’ve finished three books, which is sort of insane for January 6, but two of them were graphic novels (Saga, volume 5 and 6, to be precise). The third book was The Kingdom of Gods, by N.K. Jemisin. So technically I’m behind, since I’m counting number of books read and not page count (I’m going by my Goodreads tally for “official” purposes), but that will even out soon enough. I’m already half-way through Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, and I have at least five more books lined up to help me on my way. But if you have any suggestions, please do send them my way!