Flash Review: We Belong by Cookie Hiponia

By Maureen Tai, 29 August 2022

We Belong (ages 10+) is a middle grade novel that could just as easily pass – in my opinion, more so – for an adult memoir. Elsie, the mother of two energetic girls, is the novel’s main narrator. It is bedtime and the sisters are clamouring for attention, so Elsie tells them stories, weaving two tales with lyrical, sparse verse: one is an old Filipino myth about Bathala Maykapal, the Creator God, and his half-human children, and the other is Elsie’s real childhood story about her family’s immigration from the Philippines to America in the 1980s. The playful mother-daughter dialogue, the shifting points of view, and the pretty, monochromatic line illustrations balance out some of the darker themes that are lightly explored in Elsie’s stories: the violent maiming of one heavenly sibling by another, the abusive relationship between Elsie and her own mother, and the turbulent times leading up to, and after, the 1983 assassination of Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. in the Philippines. As a mother of similar vintage as the author and having personally experienced the immigrant life (albeit in my adolescence), We Belong was an emotional and resonant read. More importantly, the book was a springboard for sharing my life stories with my own children, making it a perfect bedtime tale to snuggle up with and experience together.

Flash Review: Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

By Maureen Tai, 22 August 2022

Other Words for Home (ages 10+) is a lyrical, thoughtful and ultimately hopeful middle grade, verse novel about the flight of a young Syrian girl and her mother from their conflict-torn homeland. Jude is like any other teenage girl: she has a best friend with whom she does everything, she loves snacking on her favourite teatime treats (to the detriment of dinner), and she adores movies, fancying herself a doppelgänger for a glamorous American movie star. Only now, Jude is miles away from her old life and from her old home: parted from half of her immediate family, her best friend, her favourite cafe, even Arabic, her mother tongue. Anxious and bereft, the young girl must be strong for her mother and learn to adjust to her new life in America. Jude replays her older brother’s parting whisper of “Be brave“, over and over again like a mantra as she faces the uncertainties of life as a refugee in a country that slowly, but sure, becomes another place she can call home. The honest and beautiful storytelling explores difficult topics – racism, war, death – with a reverent but light touch, making this novel suitable even for younger readers who might find such topics emotionally challenging. As an adult reader, I was particularly taken with the clever and subtle way in which the author weaves in references to the protagonist’s Syrian/Muslim culture, for example the Arabic proverb: She cannot give what she does not have. I feel that I too now, like Jude, better understand what it means, and am all the better for it.

Flash Review: Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, narrated & translated by David Jacobson, Sally Ito & Michiko Tsuboi & illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri

By Maureen Tai, 24 April 2022

Lost, but then found: the tender, luminous poetry of Misuzu Kaneko (1903 – 1929) and the story of her short, tragic life, unearthed through the obsessive, dogged determination of children’s writer, Setsuo Yazaki.

Are You An Echo? (ages 8+) is a beautifully rendered, picture book biography, the first English language publication of the Japanese poet’s works. Kaneko, the daughter of bookstore owners, stayed in school until her late teens, highly unusual for girls of that time. A reader and keen observer of every day life – from fish in the sea and pictures in a book to a flower seller and a pile of snow – Kaneko became a published writer of stories and poems for children by her early twenties, fading into obscurity after her premature death by her own hand. It would be many decades before Kaneko’s poems would be found by Yazaki (after a 16-year search!) and her voice rediscovered.

Kaneko’s poems, exquisite in their simplicity, sense of wonder and child-like playfulness, are now well-known and well-loved in Japan, in particular in the wake of the devastating 2011 tsunami. Despite her own dark troubles, Kaneko composed words of hope and joy that continue to touch and heal to this day, and this picture book – truly a labour of love – is a gentle, poignant and thought-provoking homage to the poet’s beautiful soul and her legacy. It is tempting to think that Kaneko herself would have heartily approved.

Flash Review: Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes

By Maureen Tai, 17 April 2022

In Ordinary Hazards (ages 14+), Nikki Grimes’ eye-and-heart-opening verse memoir for young adults, she recounts her trauma-filled childhood and tumultuous teenage years with unflinching honesty, breathtaking courage and luminous prose. Despite being born to a mother bedevilled by mental illness and alcoholism, forcibly separated from her only sibling, seemingly abandoned by her musician father and sexually assaulted by her mother’s lover (this list of harrowing life circumstances being, by no means, exhaustive), the author not only survives but thrives, sustained primarily by her unbridled passion for reading and writing. As the words of Kahlil Gibran gave the author solace and inspiration, so do her words – never self-pitying but always strong and hopeful and resilient – give solace and inspiration to her readers. Ordinary Hazards is a powerful, anything-but-ordinary, coming-of-age story of glorious triumph over heartbreaking adversity. A note for parents: the novel deals with mature themes and includes (appropriately) strong language.