Burn Baby Burn: A YA (Recent) Historical Fiction Top Book of 2016 Pick!

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Bruce's Pick

I’ve got another one for you folks!  Today’s Top Book of 2016 pick is one that I don’t like to think of as “historical” fiction, given that it’s set in the 1970s, but when you realise that is nearly forty years ago (!!) it definitely qualifies.  We received Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina from Walker Books Australia for review and were drawn in by the tumultuous historical and social setting, as well as the fact that Brisbane’s never-ending summer this year neatly reflects the sultry atmosphere of New York in 1977.

Well, that and the fact that I am intrigued by the dance move that you humans call “The Bump”.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous year 1977 in New York.

After a freezing winter, a boiling hot summer explodes with arson, a blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam, who is shooting young people on the streets seemingly at random.

Not only is the city a disaster, but Nora has troubles of her own: her brother, Hector, is growing more uncontrollable by the day, her mother is helpless to stop him, and her father is so busy with his new family that he only calls on holidays.

And it doesn’t stop there. The super’s after her mother to pay their overdue rent, and her teachers are pushing her to apply for college, but all Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own. There is a cute guy who started working with her at the deli, but is dating even worth the risk when the killer especially likes picking off couples who stay out too late?

Award-winning author Meg Medina transports readers to a time when New York seemed about to explode, with temperatures and tempers running high, to discover how one young woman faces her fears as everything self-destructs around her.

burn baby burn

So here are some of the reasons why I had to put this on my Top Picks list for this year:

  • As far as YA fiction goes, this is a finely honed piece of writing.  Meg Medina is obviously a writer who knows how to craft a believable, absorbing story with perfectly timed pacing and no filler.  Everything in this book is there for a reason and the various aspects – romance, family drama, social issues, friendship – are deftly balanced, resulting in a sense of authenticity that takes in the setting, the period and the characters.
  • Nora is an incredibly genuine representation of a seventeen-year-old woman from a poor family attempting to be pragmatic in a difficult situation.  A contributing factor to this sense of unfeigned teenage struggle is the fact that the author herself lived her teenage years in New York in the 1970s.  You don’t often see characters that are so deeply explored in young adult novels and Nora is a standout.
  • The parts referencing the Son of Sam killer are actually quite creepy.  Medina has captured the feeling of terror that would have no doubt flitted through the minds of young couples as they emerged from the cinema or disco, or sat together in a car during the time the killer was on the loose.  
  • If Nora is a standout character, she is flanked by a strong supporting cast who are equally believable.  There’s her friend Kathleen, who, despite having been best friends with Nora since childhood, is just far enough outside Nora’s social sphere that she misses the cues of violence and poverty occuring in Nora’s family; there’s Hector, Nora’s younger brother, whose personal growth throughout the novel more closely reflects a downward spiral; Stiller, the no-nonsense, feminist, socialist, advocate (the shelf’s favourite character after Nora!); and the collection of local shop-owners, landlords, school teachers and public servants who round out the community and add to the feeling of realism.

I had a good think after finishing this book and even put off writing this review for a few days to gauge whether my initial impression of the book waned after a period of reflection.  I can honestly say however, that there is nothing about this book with which I am dissatisfied.  The writing, the characters, the setting, the pacing – all of these contribute to the overall quality of the reading experience and I will definitely have to keep an eye out for Medina’s other works from now on if this is any indication of her talent.

Until next time,

Bruce

Retro Reading: Tikki Tikki Tembo and cultural sensitivity….

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It’s that time again! For those Joany- or Johnny-come-latelies to my musings, I am currently undergoing something of a personal quest to re-read some tomes from my distant past to see whether any new insights come to mind in so doing.

The next book in my meander down memory lane is one that has always stuck in my mind due to its amazingly catchy refrain and the challenge it presents for those who enjoy tongue twisters and saying things really really fast.  It is, of course, Tikki Tikki Tembo, a retelling of a supposedly traditional Chinese folk story, by Arlene Mosel, illustrated by Blair Lent.

tikki tikki tembo

Essentially, this tale claims to explain why Chinese first-born sons are traditionally given short names.  I say “claims” because, not having spent any time inancient China (or indeed its modern counterpart!) I cannot vouch for the validity of this tale as a traditional folktale, as opposed to something some Westerners made up because it is stereotypically amusing and fun to say.

I am quite, well, sensitive, to addressing cultural sensitivity in printed matter and believe that wherever possible, items that offend (when looked at in hindsight, or otherwise) should be re-worked to better fit a contemporary audience.  To that end, I was greatly relieved to discover the Little Golden Book edition The Boy and The Tigers had been re-worked both in content and illustration, from its now cringe-worthy 1970s incarnation titled Little Black Sambo. Although having said that, the original version by Helen Bannerman is still in print. I wonder, then, to what extent Tikki Tikki Tembo might offend the sensibilities of contemporary audiences….

boy and his tigers

Debates over cultural appropriateness aside, this book charts the significant difference in the emergency response times elapsed in the rescue of two young brothers in (separate) near-drownings in the town well.  Chang (son number two, as indicated by his short, not-very-honourable name) is fished out in a jiffy, while the unfortunate, fortunate-first-born Tikki tikki-tembo no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo has to wait considerably longer for help to arrive.

Re-reading this tale has been just as enjoyable as its initial reading. Just one glance at the distinctive illustrations – particularly those eye-catching kites and the bearded Old Man With The Ladder (an prototype for David Hasselhoff’s Baywatch character, perhaps?) – took me right back to my youth.  I could feel the urgency of the poor old second son, Chang, as he stutters over his brother’s ridiculously long (though fun-to-say!) name, while time is ticking away.

All in all, I was very pleased to find this story still in print and available for the new generation of readers who appreciate rhythm in their reading.  At the same time I wonder whether this tome needs a little re-working too, to bring it in line with modern standards of inter-cultural folktale appropriation.  Perhaps something as simple as removing the completely untrue bit  about the name Chang meaning “little or nothing” would suffice?  If nothing else, that bit is deeply hindering to anyone attempting to learn other languages through incidental mentions in children’s literature.

I would love to hear what others think about this – particularly how flesh-parents might go about explaining such issues to their mini-fleshlings!

Until next time,

Bruce