As soon as I found out about the existence of this book and saw who was going to be contributing to it, I hit that “Want to Read” button on Goodreads faster than you can say “gimme”! And then I pre-ordered the book, and waited, and waited, and waited, and I finally got my hands on my copy of it, and it did not disappoint.
In order to do this anthology justice, I’m doing a mini-review for each story. At the end, I’ll give my thoughts on the anthology as a whole.
“How to Transform an Everyday, Ordinary Hoop Court into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium” by Matt de la Peña
Summary: In San Diego, a young Mexican American boy from a working-class background finds his place among Black basketball players at the Municipal Gym and learns to navigate the dynamic of a team.
This story is told in the second-person, which can be pretty hit or miss for me. In this case, it worked. I felt like I was being given a pep talk that guided me through the figurative basketball court of the main character’s life. There’s a certain kind of rhythm to the writing that captures both the vivacity of urban environments and the suspense and maneuvering action of a basketball game. It sucks you in.
At its core, this story is a celebration of urban POC, and it doesn’t hesitate to address the racial tensions that structure the urban social landscape. The narrative references racial profiling and internalized racism as well as inter-POC, specifically Black-Latinx/Mexican, relations. Stereotypes are brought up and then unpacked. The author pays tribute to the artistry that pervades basketball, which is overlooked because it’s a physical exercise that’s not really associated with finesse.
On top of that, the story is also about father-son relationships, and the different ways people choose to express their love and care.
There’s something high energy yet also subtle about this story that leaves you in a good mood and ready for more and makes it a great pick for the first story in the anthology.
“The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin
Summary: Lingsi grows up not expecting much out of her mundane life and the path that is prescribed to her by her lower social status. By luck, she is given the opportunity to learn to read, and this skill, rare for a girl of her station, takes her somewhere she would never have imagined.
So while I was reading this story, something felt strangely off about it. Then I realized why: there are no illustrations, and I’m used to seeing illustrations in Grace Lin’s work. Illustrations would have made a nice added touch, but the story itself was lovely on its own.
This story had a surprising twist that I wasn’t expecting, but it was a great one. To me, it’s a celebration of words: poetry, stories, and so on. It’s also a story of girls claiming agency and finding their path, as the title suggests. I don’t want to give away anything too major, so you’ll have to read the story to find out the details.
“Sol Painting, Inc.” by Meg Medina
Summary: Merci Suarez comes a working-class Cuban American family. In exchange for waived tuition to the fancy school Seaward Pines, her family will do a paint job for the school building. Unfortunately, this job leads to an unpleasant encounter that teaches her a lesson about a harsh reality of the world.
Narrated in the first-person, this story delves into the life of a young girl who’s about to enter a new environment. There’s a sharp contrast between the world of her comfort zone and the school she will attend. The burden of the American Dream is on her generation’s shoulders, and the story hints at the conflict once she starts school. It’s a poignant tale of the sacrifices people make to get a leg up in a stratified society.
The story contains English-Spanish code-switching without translations, which was nice to see as someone who’s multilingual and code-switches when talking to my family/ethnic community. I am fairly fluent in Spanish (6 years of study in secondary school plus 6 weeks of study abroad in college), so I understood exactly what was being said, but those who aren’t hispanohablantes should be able to infer through context clues the gist of things.
“Secret Samantha” by Tim Federle
Note: I’m using they/them pronouns for the main character because the story is in first-person and doesn’t explicitly mention Sam’s pronouns and they/them seems to be the most fitting pronouns to use for Sam’s gender expression.
Summary: Sam’s class is playing Secret Santa, and they happen to pick the name of the new girl, Blade, who fascinates Sam with her clothes, black-and-white painted nails and wicked shoes, so different from what they’re used to. They want to give Blade the perfect gift, but their mother has other plans in mind.
Okay, I was not expecting this story be so cute and queer. It’s largely a light-hearted story, but it touches on the policing of gender. Sam is gender-nonconforming but is forced to present femininely and go by “Samantha” because they don’t want to deal with the prejudice that comes with it. They’ve addressed the issue of wanting to be called “Sam” with their mom but getting her to gender them properly is a work in progress.
The story is also about first crushes, and this story is so important because we rarely get to see non-hetero attraction portrayed in middle grade fiction because it’s so often automatically sexualized. Here, the attraction is emotional and age-appropriate and honestly I dare anyone who finds it “scandalous” that a twelve-year-old feminine-presenting gender-nonconforming kid might crush on a girl to fight me.
One of the little things I liked about the book was the inclusion of diverse supporting characters. They weren’t described in detail but you can tell from their names that they’re POC.
“The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” by Kelly J. Baptist
Summary: Isaiah struggles to keep his family afloat; his single mother has an addiction problem and he’s tasked with taking care of his younger sister even though he’s still a kid himself. He finds solace in the notebooks his dad left behind, which contain stories about a fictional version of himself in larger-than-life situations. These notebooks may just be what he needs for a better future.
My heart went out to Isaiah and his family because they’re short one person, his dad, and I myself recently experienced a similar loss when my mother passed away last year. However, unlike me, Isaiah doesn’t have the same support system, and he’s still a kid, whereas I’m an adult, albeit a young and inexperienced one.
His only escape is the stories his dad wrote, which allow him to see himself empowered while connecting with the memory of his dad. It reminds me of the way I listened to a bunch of cpop and Taiwanese pop songs after my mom passed away because my memories of them were associated with her; those songs came from dramas that I watched with her as a kid.
Although Isaiah situation isn’t looking good, with the help of a caring adult, he’s able to take steps toward healing and hope.
AAVE (African American Vernacular English) is integrated into both dialogue and narration, not as a cheap accessory but to add realism to Isaiah’s character and his voice. Fiction has a tendency to play into the stigma against AAVE as a non-standard English dialect, [mis]using it as a tool to other Black characters and depict them as being uneducated or unintelligent. But in this case, the story normalizes the use of AAVE. It’s familiar and fundamental to Isaiah.
One of the small details I enjoyed about the story was a part where Isaiah mentions watching Bruce Lee movies with his dad. It reminded me of what I read in my Asian American Media Cultures class about Afro-Asian intersections. Bruce Lee was a cultural icon with special significance to Black Americans, particularly Black men, because they empathized with his position as an outsider struggling against a society that devalued and subjugated him.
“Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains” by Tim Tingle
Note: The narrator’s gender and pronouns are never specified or described in this story, so I will use they/them pronouns.
Summary: At a large family gathering, the main character, nicknamed “Turtle Kid” by their Uncle Kenneth, listens to their uncle tell a story about Naloosha Chitto, Big Hairy Man, a Choctaw analogue to Bigfoot, against their mother and other relatives’ warnings. Soon, they and their cousins are gathered around Uncle Kenneth for an outrageous tale full of twists and turns.
The whole giant family gathering scenario isn’t altogether foreign to me. Though it hasn’t happened much in recent years, I can recall a time when I was younger when a large number of my paternal extended family gathered together for meals and celebrations during the summer, when I was free to visit relatives in Taiwan. I have a ton of cousins myself, so Turtle Kid’s situation felt familiar to me, though I was one of the younger ones.
Uncle Kenneth’s way of storytelling is interactive in two senses of the word. One is that he allows for audience reactions to interrupt the story, thus making it more organic in how it takes shape and the plot proceeds. The other way is that he plays with his audiences expectations, throwing red herrings before revealing what really happens, giving the impression that it’s over when there’s still more complications ahead. The result is funny and engaging. And at the end, even if the kids are scared or confused by the tale of Naloosha Chitto, they have fun, and it’s a family tradition that brings them all together.
“Main Street” by Jacqueline Woodson
Summary: Nicknamed “Treetop,” the white protagonist reflects on her experiences of loss and love. Her mother passed away a few years ago, and her best friend, who is Black, has moved away.
I was surprised that the viewpoint character was white, but as people have said, when a POC writes white characters, it’s different than a white person writing white characters because they have a different perspective on whiteness.
Treetop’s losses are intertwined. Following the loss of her mother, a Black girl named Celeste moves into her neighborhood, and the two become best friends. But eventually, Celeste moves away, leaving Treetop to cope with a new loss.
Family is central to the story. The main character feels pain because of her mother’s illness and then death, and that pain is compounded by her father’s lack of empathy toward her.
Her friendship with Celeste brings to the fore interracial interactions. They each come from very racially homogeneous areas where everyone looks like them. It’s Treetop’s first time meeting a Black girl, and she doesn’t hold much explicit bias. However, her curiosity and entitlement to satisfy it (e.g. touching her hair) cause some friction between her and Celeste. Until she learns to respect Celeste’s boundaries.
Reading this story made me feel a sense of longing for times past that can’t be changed. I have experiences with moving as a child and losing my mother, so the narrative resonated with me on a deeply personal level.
“Flying Lessons” by Soman Chainani
Summary: Santosh gets dragged on a trip to Europe by his grandmother. He goes in expecting cultural learning expeditions to increase his worldliness and is instead caught in one awkward situation after another. Eventually, his grandmother comes clean about the purpose of the trip, and he gains something completely unexpected from it.
Usually in anthologies there’s one story with someone from the LGBTQ+ umbrella, and that’s it, token diversity quota met, so I’m happy that there is a second cute and queer story in this anthology. I can’t say too much about it because I don’t want to give anything major away, but I was thoroughly entertained.
Santosh’s nerdy awkwardness is so familiar to me since I was That Kid at that age, and in some ways I still am That Kid. More bookish and academic than social, a wallflower, a person who declines social invitations because I don’t think people actually want my company, etc.
His relationship with his grandmother and his grandmother’s quirky personality make for a great deal of comedy. Aside from offering humor, she also offers him some wisdom.
This book’s ending was slightly confusing and hard to categorize, but I’m labeling it magical realism. It shocked me, but at the same time, it was bittersweet.
“Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents: A Story-In-Verse” by Kwame Alexander
Summary: A seventh grader named Monk Oliver is given an assignment to write a memoir about himself. Because he finds his life boring, he decides to exercise creative license and spin a wild story about mindreading and vindication that mixes fact and fiction.
Unreliable narrators are always interesting because you’re given the task of trying to puzzle out how much of what they say is true and how much is false. The most obvious truth is that Monk is a nerdy type of kid. His detailed knowledge of various subjects pervades his verses, often in the form of figurative language or pointed asides.
When his semi-fictional memoir self acquires mind reading powers, he experiments a little and then sets out to use it to his social advantage, canceling a pop quiz, winning favor with his classmates, and getting revenge on his crush, Angel, who spurns him as a lowlife.
The verses seem to take the mood up a notch with each trial Monk faces in proving his psychic ability. It builds up and up and up in a crescendo until the grand finale, which then slides into a blissfully perfect denouement and an epilogue that leaves you wondering what Monk’s life really looks like, without the hyperbole and supernatural additions. It’s a riot to read.
“Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push” by Walter Dean Myers
Summary: Chris Blair becomes a wheelchair-user due to an accident. His dad, a former pro basketball player, thinks it’s the end of his hopes for Chris to follow in his footsteps. But Chris joins a newly formed wheelchair basketball game, and his dad may just be the key to making the team shine.
This story echoes the first with its focus on basketball and father-son relationships, thus making it a fitting closing story.
In this case, the main character is disabled, and from my limited knowledge, he seems to be portrayed fairly respectfully. The narrative doesn’t objectify him or reduce him to his wheelchair. Offensive language like “wheelchair-bound” is never used.
Refreshingly, the story does not center on the trauma of losing the use of his legs or any kind of struggle with internalized ableism. Instead, it chronicles Chris’s adaptation to a different kind of movement, a new way of playing a familiar sport. He doesn’t talk about wheelchairs as a hindrance. Instead, he admires some players’ chairs for having specialized features that make them more suitable for the game.
Here, Chris’s father is the one who has to unpack his ableism and learn to see his son’s disability through a new lens. Once he is able to do that, he becomes a more empathetic person and assistant coach for the wheelchair basketball team.
Overall Impressions and Miscellaneous Notes:
There were a few places where I noticed problematic language, but it was relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Overall, this was an outstanding anthology, each story with its own appeal and strengths. The order of the stories was arranged well.
My only regret is that there weren’t more stories included. I think it would have benefited from a story showcasing religious diversity, one about a Muslim or Sikh or Jewish character, especially given the recent rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism. It would have rounded out the racial, ethnic, gender, attraction/orientation, and disability diversity.
I hope to see more like this from We Need Diverse Books, and I’m eagerly anticipating the YA counterpart, Lift Off, which is coming summer 2018!
Recommendation: Enthusiastically recommended!
2 thoughts on “Review for Flying Lessons & Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh”
Aaah, I can’t wait to read this! I loved that you reviewed each story – I always think I’m going to do that when I read a short story collection, but I never end up doing it.