Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Southern United States’ Category

Books such as Out of Darkness by Ashley Perez are the reason I read. The atmosphere that Perez creates is so rich that I felt transplanted into the world of Naomi and Wash in New London, Texas, 1937. Racial tension and family conflict and lie under the surface for most of the novel creating a multi-layered complexity not often found in fiction for young people. I read Out of Darkness slowly to savor the story, but also quickly to discover what drama would befall Naomi and her siblings who had recently arrived in Texas from Mexico.

While reading Out of Darkness, I felt hot and cold, isolated and crowded, welcomed and scared…. Whatever emotions the main characters experienced, so did I. That makes for quite the visceral experience! On one occasion, Naomi accidentally burns her arm with splashes of oil. During the entire time that her arm hurt, I felt hot and tortured right along with her. Another moment, Naomi felt too fearful of her stepfather to allow herself to sleep. When her body began to show signs of fatigue, my head ached and my stomach clenched right alone with hers. How exactly does Perez create such an intense atmosphere? One way is she allows herself time to fully explore a moment. And yet she never wastes words. That makes for quite the delicate balance! Another way is she shows a deep understanding of people’s feelings. A favorite passage of mine is near the start, when Naomi’s siblings are walking through nearby woods. Perez eloquently captures the contrast between their old and new environment in these few lines: “The woods gave him the feeling of being inside and outside at the same time. Full of birds and animals but hushed, like a church the hour before Mass. Back in San Antonia, there were no woods. If you were outside you knew it.”

When I picked up Out of Darkness to read, I knew that prejudice and hate would be part of the package. How subtle these emotions would be revealed is not something I expected, and shows the sign of a highly-skilled author. On one occasion, Naomi’s siblings join their father at a restaurant for breakfast. The pancakes were golden-fried and dripped in syrup. In every way, Perez tells us, the pancakes were perfect. The only way I even know that the siblings were feeling uncomfortable is that they chewed their food five times before they swallowed, and by the two sentences that summed up the scene: “Naomi would have loved the pancakes. But he’d read the sign on the restaurant door, and that changed everything.” Even when the discrimination is more overt, the reactions of the characters to it are so quiet that they’re powerful. After Naomi overhears teachers at her school talk about Mexican girls being retarded but also sluts, she stays secluded a long time, “working her fingers through the tail of her braid, fighting to get free of their words.” Many authors when writing about racial tension and other social wrongs tend to structure scenes as to make a point. Perez’s story always feels as if I’m reading a family saga, or a genre of literature that chronicles the lives and doings of a family, rather than a narrative about segregation. And so when the violence does happen, it feels all the more like a gunshot to the stomach.

As I reached about the halfway mark for Out of Darkness, I couldn’t resist sharing some of my excitement about this gem to my husband. At end of my chatter, he asked me to share some sample passages, and then he asked me to save the book for him to read. We have our own tastes, and don’t often read the same selections. However, Out of Darkness is one of those novels that defies labels and therefore becomes universal in its appeal.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

A native of Texas, Ashley has followed whatever paths that teaching and writing have led her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature and enjoys teaching Spanish language and Latin American literature. She’s also a writer of three books, and is passionate about literature for readers of all ages, but especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences.

On her website, Perez states that reading has always been one of her passions. “Maybe if I hadn’t also fallen in love with teaching, I might have become a librarian just so that I could be around as many books as possible. But I’m also a big talker, a tendency that doesn’t evaporate when I cross a library’s threshold.” As for those teaching experiences, Perez has many varied ones. She’s taught bilingual kindergarten, Montessori 6-9, high school English, and even university literature classes.

Perez credits her three years of teaching high school in Houston of transforming her into an author. “Many of my students were convinced they hated to read and write at the beginning of the year and equally persuaded of the opposite by the end of the year.” Even now that she’s a university professor, Perez jumps at the chance to reconnect with young readers through school visits and events.

Image from GoodReads

Image from GoodReads

Perez’s third novel, Out of Darkness, is historical fiction and deals with a deadly school explosion in East Texas in 1937 as its central event. She wrote it while juggling many other tasks: finishing a doctoral dissertation, changing jobs and geographical location, and giving birth to a second child. When Latinos in Kid Lit asked how she managed to “write such an ambitious novel with so much else going on in your life”, Perez responded that during this time while drafting the novel, she gave herself time off from academic research. Then when her family returned from France to the United States, she used the novel as a motivation:If I got my words on the dissertation done, I got to take some time for the fiction.”

Thanks to Ashley Perex for answering a few questions for me about Out of Darkness.

ALLISON: Why did you get interested in writing about the 1937 New London school explosion?

ASHLEY: I grew up about 30 minutes from New London, but I never learned about the explosion in school. I do have vague memories of I my grandmother and father discussing the tragedy in hushed tones. I had some sense that something scary and sudden had happened in New London and that children had died. That those children numbered in the hundreds was a fact I only learned later.

Initially, I became fascinated with the particulars of this event, what it meant for the community, and how the story went silent for nearly seven decades before survivors began sharing their experiences. I didn’t know how the historical event would become part of my fictional world, only that it would be.

ALLISON: How did you handle the challenge of writing about segregation and violence?

ASHLEY: Color lines and violence became central to the story of Out of Darkness because of the perspectives I chose to put at the center of my story, which focuses on Naomi, a Mexican American teenager from San Antonio, and Wash, the African American son of the “colored” school’s superintendent. Centering the story on Wash and Naomi was a very deliberate response to what I discovered in my research on the explosion. With very few exceptions, the explosion has been treated by historians as an event that impacted the white community. Yet I could not get over the terrible irony that African American children were spared precisely because they had been excluded from the unquestionably superior educational opportunities available in the (white) New London school. I wanted to delve into—and imagine—stories from the margins of mainstream history.

The details of the explosion are factual, and the fictional events—especially the darker turns in the plot—are consistent with terrible happenings in Texas and other parts of the South.

Racialization renders Wash and Naomi deeply vulnerable in public spaces. In 1937 East Texas, Wash’s mere presence in public space is read by white community members as a punishable threat. I know from speaking with readers that Out of Darkness can be deeply affecting but also shocking to some readers. And I had my own struggles to reckon with the pain and human weakness and failure that swirl at the dark center of this story world.

ALLISON: What do you hope readers will gain from reading Out of Darkness?

ASHLEY: I hope that readers think about how, in all its pain and difficulty, Out of Darkness speaks directly to our present moment. When readers are shocked by the violence and predation that occur in the novel or feel discomfort at the intensity of their own disappointment and sense of loss, I hope they will consider the deep and persisting vulnerability of brown and black bodies in many public spaces now, in 2016. I hope that readers’ deep attachments to Wash and Naomi and other characters will compel them to consider, in new ways, the high human cost of contemporary racialized violence.

These are painful conversations, but crucial ones as well. I feel deeply grateful for the opportunity to be able to traverse the painful legacies of our past, our vexed present, and the possibilities of our future.

When Perez isn’t writing or teaching, she enjoys hanging out with family including her two sons. In any other scraps of time that remain, she likes to run in marathons, eat local foods, bake, watch movies, and play the occasional game of Scrabble. I’ll review Out of Darkness tomorrow. Save the date: May 5!

Finding Someplace by Denise Lewis Patrick is more than just an adventure story about Reesie, who finds herself stranded at home during Hurricane Katerina. It’s also about the friction that boils over between her parents, the kiss that Orlando gave her on a rooftop, and the aftermath of being a survivor. All these events culminate in a thoughtful coming-of-age story, which for all of its positive elements at times feels overly rushed.

A lot happens in Finding Someplace. For starters, Reesie is about to celebrate her thirteenth birthday when Hurricane Katerina hits the city. No one in her family is prepared, which is why Reesie is left to rescue the family’s important papers and to take refuge with a neighbor. While the two wait out the storm, Reesie develops a friendship and learns about her African-American heritage. But Hurricane Katerina isn’t the sole focus of Finding Someplace. In fact, about half the book takes place after Reesie has been rescued. Reesie is upset not just because the storm drove the family away from their home, but because her parents aren’t together, and this leads to trouble at her new school. All these conflicts make for many riveting moments.

And yet, I sometimes found myself wishing Patrick had more deeply explored these scenarios. Take for example the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. In certain ways, Patrick’s description perfectly matches what I’ve heard about hurricanes. The storm starts out with clouds and rain. Then the lights started to flicker and the power goes off. Next, there’s a wind, which shakes the brick foundation of her neighbor’s house. So far so good. Unfortunately, the emotional reactions of the characters feel slightly off to me. Yes, Reesie does shout and tremble, but she also eats and asks questions and shares memories. And when her friends turn up, although they’re soaked, they seem to act pretty casual too. Reesie gets a call from her mom, her friends announce a surprise marriage, and no one wants to go up into the attic with spiders and stuff. I know there can be lulls, and maybe even moments of sun, wherein one might start to feel complacent or even be tricked into relief. Even so, I expected a little more terror and confusion.

An aspect of Patrick’s novel that makes it stand out from other stories about storms is that Patrick spends about half the novel on how the Reesie’s family struggles to pull themselves back together after Hurricane Katrina. Here, reviewers have complimented her in how she captured raw feelings, and I’d mostly agree with them. Reesie finds settling into a new home difficult. She can’t make friends, because none of them has ever faced a storm or mugging or a split of a family. She doesn’t care about grades, because she no longer has a home and her parents don’t seem to be handling life too well either. My only complaint is that some scenarios felt too quickly resolved.

However, I realize that this often the nature of middle-grade novels, and so I can’t fault Patrick too much for the fact that I wanted more complexity and layers. That is perhaps the adult side in me showing through. Combined with fiction for other age groups about hurricanes, Finding Someplace should spark much conversation in classrooms about how life-changing a storm can be to those who have faced one.

Reesie Boone knows that thirteen is going to be her best year yet. This will be year that makes her very first fashion design on Ma Maw’s sewing machine. She’ll skip down the streets of New Orleans with her best friends and everyone will look at her in admiration. But on Reesie’s birthday everything changes. Hurricane Katerina hits her city….

The above description comes from the inside flap of Finding Someplace, a middle-grade novel by Denise Lewis Patrick. Kirkus said that Patrick delivered a character who puts readers in the moment and creates a perfect storm of suspense. Publishers Weekly considered it an intimate look at the impact of a devastating natural disaster and the commitment of those dedicated to rebuilding a city after its destruction. The School Library Journal called it a powerful read for those already familiar with the hurricane or those learning about it for the first time.


DeniseLewisPatrickDenise Lewis Patrick is not only a published author, but she earned a degree in Journalism from Northwestern State University and is currently pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing from The University of New Orleans. She’s worked with budding writers in an afterschool program, and has managed middle and high school writing programs. In addition, she has been an editor in various areas of the publishing industry, and is now an adjunct professor of writing at Nyack College.

Patrick wrote in her Biography that nearly everything she writes is autobiographical in some way. There’s a little part of her, or something she’s experienced directly, or that’s happened to someone she knows in all of her work. With regards to Hurricane Katerina, at the heart of her middle-grade novel, relatives experienced the storm. According to Fictionaut, Patrick intended Finding Someplace for the people who were not directly impacted by Katrina. However, Patrick also has expressed gratitude to those who were impacted and have positively responded to her novel.

Race is also an aspect of Finding Someplace. When asked by Fictionaut how this issue played into her work, she replied that she “lives race”. Therefore, any characters she creates are going to live race in certain kinds of ways too. “This does mean, despite belief to the contrary, that each day there is some aspect of my experience that is influenced by race in a minute or large or subtle way.”


Hurricane Katerina changed everything for the main character of Finding Someplace. Its prediction altered her behavior, its arrival put her in danger, and its aftermath nearly broke up her family. As such, I wanted to know a little more about hurricanes themselves.

Hurricanes begin as tropical storms over the warm waters near the equator. As the airs gets warmer and picks up moisture, it can rise and start to swirl. This is when hurricanes, one of the fiercest storms known to man, can occur. Hurricanes rotate around an “eye”, with this center being the calmest part. When hurricanes come onto land, the heavy rain, strong winds, and large waves wreak havoc.

Ducksters breaks hurricanes down into these parts:

  • Eye – At the center of the hurricane is the eye, a cloud-free area of light winds. From the ground, looking up through the eye, skies may be clear around to see the stars at night or the sun during the day.
  • Eye wall – Around the outside of the eye is a wall made up of very heavy clouds. This is the most dangerous part of the hurricane. Winds at the eye wall can reach speeds of 155 miles per hour.
  • Rainbands – Hurricanes have large spirally bands of rain called rainbands. These bands can drop huge amounts of rainfall causing flooding when the hurricane hits land. Hurricane Science notes that there can be gaps between the bands where no rain is found. If one were to travel from the outer edge of a hurricane to its center, one might experience a progression from light rain to no rain back to slightly fiercer rain with each period of rainfall being more intense and lasting longer until reaching the eye.
  • Diameter – The diameter of the hurricane is measured from one side to the other. Hurricanes can span a diameter of over 600 miles.
  • Height – The storm clouds that power hurricanes can become very tall. A powerful hurricane can reach nine miles into the atmosphere.

Weather Whiz Kids points out that storm surges can be the most devastating part of a hurricane. As a hurricane’s winds spiral around and around the storm, they push water into a mound at the storm’s center. When the storm reaches land, the mound of water has nowhere to escape and cause major floods.

All this information helped me better understand the description of hurricanes in Denise Lewis Patrick’s novel. Tomorrow I’ll review Finding Someplace. Save the date: April 14!

Precious Bones by Mika Ashley-Hollinger is my favorite Advanced Reader Copy this year. It’s partly a murder mystery, and it’s partly a tribute to a natural world which is being lost. But there’s also a depth to Hollinger’s novel that goes far beyond either of these two elements. That’s the biggest reason I’m recommending Precious Bones to anyone who appreciates quality literature for young people.

In the summer of 1949, all is going well for ten-year-old Bones. Idyllic days have been spent with her best friend fishing, hunting, and exploring the swamp that borders her family’s land. This peace gets interrupted when two real estate agents start poking around the family homestead. Her father, Nolay, drives them off with a loaded gun. His actions seem innocent enough until Bones finds Nolay’s knife nearby a buried human leg and then discovers his red handkerchief is gone too. Within the space of just a couple of weeks, two murders occur for which her father is arrested as the prime suspect. Then not only does the sheriff, but also Bones herself, start to wonder if everyone is really who they say they are.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, author Mika Ashley-Hollinger grew up on a small East Coast community in Florida surrounded by swamp and forest. In the former, one might live with pigs and raccoons and run into snakes and alligators. One will also be surrounded by beautiful greens and golds. Silver rains will fall in the daytime and stars will twinkle at night. Hollinger saw nature at its finest during her childhood, a heritage to which she pays glowing tribute to in Precious Bones. Within that world, thanks to there not yet being television and internet, there is room too for Bones to imagine explanations for the odd smells and noises she encounters in nature. And so more mysteries develop. As do more questions about who people really are or want to be.

The depth of Precious Bones can be found in the answers to those questions. For example, is Miss Eunice otherwise known as Soap Sally really a witch who kidnaps children? That’s what Nalay’s wild stories have led Bones to believe. And if Bones is right, what will happen when Bones is no longer able to avoid her? Or what’s the real meaning behind the sometimes cryptic words of Mr. Speed? Are they simply the ramblings of a man broken by war? This is what Bones initially thinks. But then she realizes his words may hold a clue to the two murders. Speaking of which, why is Sheriff LeRoy taking so long to solve the cases? Does he really believe in Nolay’s innocence or does he just visit to take advantage of the family’s hospitality? As he fills his belly, is he collecting evidence for or against Nolay? Not all is as Bones thinks. Or what the neighbors think. And in this realization, Bones starts not only to figure out who she can really trust but also to mature.

Hollinger wrote Precious Bones to give justice and honor to a time and place that no longer exist. Not only do I believe that she has succeeded in this goal, but she’s also written the type of novel one often doesn’t have the joy anymore to encounter. Precious Bones is partly a slow-brewing mystery, and it’s partly a sweet lullaby of a quieter world. And it’s also a complex kaleidoscope of eclectic characters, who together help Bones piece together the puzzle of life.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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