Due to the impact of COVID19 on publishing, Stranger on the Home Front has been pushed back to Spring 2021 instead of being released September this year. You can preorder it here for any kid in your life who is interested in historical fiction, WWI, or the history of the Indian-American community.
STRANGER ON THE HOME FRONT has a cover!
Here’s the cover for my World War I middle grade novel, Stranger on the Home Front, featuring a young Punjabi-American girl whose father is caught up in the Hindu-German Conspiracy trial.
Image description: a young girl holding a newspaper that says WAR!, walking in front of a classroom chalkboard with an American flag over it.
Book description: It’s 1916, and Europe is at war. Yet Margaret Singh, living an entire ocean away in California, is unaffected. Then the United States enters the war against Germany. Suddenly the entire country is up in arms against those who seem “un-American” or speak against the country’s ally, Great Britain. When Margaret’s father is arrested for his ties to the Ghadar Party, a group of Indian immigrants seeking to win India’s independence from Great Britain, Margaret’s own allegiances are called into question. But she was born in America and America itself fought to be freed from British rule. So what does it even mean to be American?
Firebird – Elizabeth Wein
This novella was written specifically for teenage dyslexic readers, so it uses more dyslexic-friendly language, length, and formatting, while diving into some tough subject matter and using sophisticated narrative strategies. The book is framed as the written testimony of Nastia, a Soviet pilot in World War II who is accused of treason. She gives an account of her wartime experiences and the incident that led her to be accused.
A “the lady or the tiger” ending leaves readers uncertain as to Nastia’s eventual fate. Is she shot as a traitor or released? This also subtly gives the readers a clue that life in the USSR is not always as Nastia (the loyal daughter of Communist Party members) makes it out to be.
There’s a lot of information on the female pilots of World War II (Nastia is not a bomber pilot or Night Witch, but rather a fighter pilot). Wein clearly outlines her sources for different parts of the story in an author’s note. She is also about to release a nonfiction book on the pilots called A Thousand Sisters.
Part of the plot goes back to the Russian Civil War (which Nastia’s parents and her mentor the Chief participated in) and the fate of the Romanov sisters. I think the story would have been stronger without the somewhat implausible Romanov link, but I also think a lot of young readers will enjoy that aspect and after all, the book is directed at them.
The Chief and Nastia are great characters–indeed, characterization is a major strong point of the book. The Chief is a tough woman who wears her elaborate makeup as a shield and rebuilds her life over and over again. I read her as asexual or aromantic (or both) because of comments she makes about how loyalty has meant more to her than love in her life.
Nastia is an enthusiastic and idealistic young person. She worries, however, that her courage is not sufficient. She also experiences no romances over the course of the story, but in her case, this is less about fundamental aspects of her character and more about the circumstances she finds herself in. She is unquestioning of the Soviet system (and may even be playing up her loyalty to it, given the circumstances in which she writes her account). She deals with period-typical sexism, from being turned away from a recruiting office in the early days of the war to her otherwise supportive father not wanting her to learn to fly. Ultimately, she faces a dangerous choice–should she return to Soviet territory after ending up behind enemy lines?
The climax of the story was a little bit rushed, after being foreshadowed in the first pages, and I wanted a bit more out of those scenes. There were also a few details I thought were implausible, such as the Romanov link at the end and the letter Nastia’s father is able to send her from besieged Leningrad telling her of the horrors of the blockade–surely a letter from a besieged city to a serving airwoman would have been censored?
However, the novella as a whole is very strong. Wein commits to the quasi-epistolary nature of the novella, showing everything from Nastia’s point of view while leaving room around the edges for the things Nastia wouldn’t say or think. The reader does have to go in with some knowledge of the Soviet Union because of how deeply the novella is in Nastia’s point of view, which might be an issue for younger readers.
The details of wartime are fascinatingly portrayed and the author’s note is highly informative. Ultimately, I enjoyed this novella most for the characters, and found myself hoping that somehow against the odds, Nastia would be acquitted. The fact that we never find out her fate is daring for a YA/MG novel, but the author of Code Name Verity has never shied away from narrative sophistication or tearing up readers’ hearts.
The Horse and His Boy – C.S. Lewis
After selling quite a few copies of the Narnia books at the Christmas book drive in the bookstore where I used to work, I decided to pick up this book, one of the two Narnia books I hadn’t read. It always looked boring to me as a child, so I skipped it when reading the series.
The book has many virtues, including a female character with, well, character, a proud, haughty, brave, loyal, impatient girl named Aravis who accompanies main character Shasta on his journey from Calormen to Narnia. Faced with a forced marriage, the young noblewoman steals her dead brother’s armor and runs away from home. Unsurprisingly for an aristocrat or “Tarkheena,” she looks down on Shasta, a fisherman’s adopted son, but she learns better when he shows his courage, facing a lion to help her. Like most of Lewis’s sympathetic female characters, she’s a tomboy and finds her “friend” Lasaraleen, a girly-girl, silly and selfish–their interaction confirms for me that there really is some misogyny in the exclusion of Susan in The Last Battle. Lewis (correctly imo) sees traditional femininity as a trap. However (and here’s where the misogyny comes in), he doesn’t see that traditional masculine roles can also be a trap, and the always-up-for-a-fistfight minor character Corin is portrayed uncritically.
However, I absolutely loved Aravis. If I have a complaint, besides the big one that I’ll get to at the end, it’s that this isn’t a more character-driven book–Aravis’s grief for her brother is largely unexplored, and Shasta, though real enough, is not very deeply characterized. Aravis certainly isn’t the equal of Orual from Lewis’s post-Narnia book Till We Have Faces in terms of depth, but she’s flawed and vivid and good, and I was very happy to find such a character in Narnia, especially one who’s female and nonwhite.
Alas, as I could have predicted from The Last Battle, pretty much the entire country of Calormen is portrayed negatively and racistly. They’re a massive traditional stereotype of a decadent Eastern empire, dirty and superstitious and tyrannical, proud without much to be proud of. Someone on Twitter pointed out that Aravis from this book and Emeth from The Last Battle, the two “good Calormenes” we encounter, are some of Lewis’s best-drawn characters in the series, which is certainly true, and I give him credit for not painting them all with one brush. However, the racism was pervasive and disturbing enough–and it’s not just about culture, there’s emphasis on how much nicer-looking the white Narnians are–that I deducted a star from this otherwise five-star book.
However, it has Lewis’s usual sense of humor (the grown-up Aravis and Shasta marry so as to go on quarreling and making up “more conveniently”) and sense of the numinous in religion (Aslan of course puts in an appearance, in both his terrifying and comforting forms), and I enjoyed Aravis so much (though Shasta is really the main character) that it may be my favorite Narnia book.
Rosie Rinkstar – Janet Rosina West
ARC provided by NetGalley
I picked this book because I figure skate, though not at the level that the protagonist, Rosie, does. I’m not sure why this was categorized as YA, however, as it’s clearly Middle Grade, with fewer than one hundred pages and a simple plot and style.
British skater Rosie comes from a family that’s struggled financially since her father abandoned them, and she and her annoying younger sister, a talented gymnast, both participate in expensive sports and struggle to find the resources they need to excel. Luckily, Rosie has a strong support network, including her loving grandmother, her self-sacrificing mother, her best friend and fellow skater Sergei, and the cleaners at the rink, whom she’s befriended.
The beginning of the book gives the impression that it’s going to be a bit more technical about skating than it is, while it’s really about relationships, money troubles, and rink politics, so I think it would be easy enough to follow even if one doesn’t have a skating background. It’s refreshing to have a protagonist from a lower socioeconomic background, and the novel shows how that affects Rosie in various ways. She’s a lot more responsible and dedicated than I was at her age, but also resentful of her circumstances. The book makes several sharp psychological points; Rosie doesn’t like growing up because she wants to be shielded from the tough adult decisions and sacrifices a little longer, and she acknowledges that “skating can make you a horrible person” because you see other people as obstacles to your goals (as Rosie sees her little sister Bernice, among others). West also gives Rosie a great voice. I could almost hear her in my head.
The most annoying part of this book is the way things seem to happen to Rosie without her doing anything. Her troubles are all externally imposed– tight finances and the mean, pushy mother of another girl at the rink. The solutions are also handed to her rather than based on her actions– her grandmother literally wins the lottery, solving her problems for the time being. Rosie doesn’t really do much other than practice skating and work on a entrepreneurship project for school. There’s no conflict to force her to grow and gain self-knowledge, at least in this installment of the series.
However, Rosie Rinkstar was a charming, quick read, and I don’t regret spending my time on it.
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