Shifting Sands: Life in the Times of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad (2014), by Kathy Lowinger

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.5.

Lowinger-Shifting SandsWhen I first picked up this book, I thought it was a non-fiction account of these three religious figures. The subtitle at the top of the cover dominates, despite its smaller type; the title itself blends into the image below. (It’s the colour of the sky in the picture, and the colour of the type in the title, I think…) Regardless, readers should look past any assumption about the content and be prepared for three very human stories of young people living through three formative moments in history.

Dina is a slave in the House of Weavers who makes a difficult choice in following Moses and her people; Mattan is a farmer’s son who leaves his home and whose path crosses that of Jesus and his disciples; Fallah and his older brother have left their tribe and become victims in a conspiracy against Muhammad. Their histories twine seamlessly into the historical accuracy of Lowinger’s narrative, allowing readers to feel the insecurities of life the common people of these times endured. Although from our modern perspective we believe we know the benefits and dangers associated with the choices Dina, Mattan, and Fallah make, Lowinger helps us to understand how hard it would have been for simple young men and women to leave all that they knew and follow a new path, cutting themselves off from family and community. Little details of every-day life accentuate our narrative experience of history: the broken sandals Dina is given for her excellence in weaving; the small infected scrape that – with no antibiotics to prevent infection – kills Mattan’s sister Nirit; the dried fruit, nuts, and mare’s cheese that Fallah takes on the road. The minutia and the focus on human emotions and experience combine to give us powerful images of the effect these three religious leaders had on the people around them, and thus on the history of our world.

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Boy Meets Boy (2003), by David Levithan

Another guest review from my friend Rob Bittner, who has just started in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies PhD program at Simon Fraser University. I really enjoyed Boy Meets Boy for its almost utopic representation of tolerance. Here’s what Rob has to say:

Boy Meets Boy (2003)

Considered by many to be a revolutionary novel within the GLBT (Queer) YA genre, Boy Meets Boy is a feel-good story about two boys who fall for each other in a small town where homosexuality is relatively well-accepted, except in the case of Tony, who has strict, Christian parents.  The idea of social tolerance is not a main theme in the novel; however, the presence of Tony’s sub-story does highlight a desire for social, as well as religious, tolerance.  The sub-plot of Tony being sequestered in his home and kept from socializing with his friends is the one instance in the entire novel that breaks the norm of tolerant behaviour throughout.

The majority of Levithan’s novel is so optimistic, however, that some have even gone so far as to call this book fantasy or at least fantastic realism.  Just take this line, for instance: “I’ve always known I was gay, but it wasn’t confirmed until I was in kindergarten.  It was my teacher who said so.  It was right there on my kindergarten report card: PAUL IS DEFINITELY GAY AND HAS VERY GOOD SENSE OF SELF” (8).

There are instances of stereotypical characters, such as Infinite Darlene, the football player/drag queen who struts around the school in large wigs and high heels, spouting bitchy turns-of-phrase.  But the book, for the most part, is wonderfully fast-paced, fun, and dare I say, Fabulous!  Levithan’s prose is quick and simple but not at the expense of plot and depth of character.  I highly recommend this book!

Desire Lines (1997), by Jack Gantos

Today we have a guest review, by my dear friend Rob Bittner, an academic specializing in GLBTQ literature for children and young adults. I had the pleasure of teaching Rob years ago, and now he has taken off and left me behind. Desire Lines was one of the novels we read for the Directed Studies course he took with me.

Desire Lines

Jack Gantos, an author I greatly admire, especially since reading his Newbery Medal winning novel, Dead End in Norvelt [2011], wrote Desire Lines with a much more disturbing and depressing tone about it, mirroring the time in which it is set, as well as the time in which it was published. This makes the ending of the book sad and frustrating, and also more heartbreaking than many gay and lesbian books that have been written in the 15 years since its publication.

Desire Lines is filled with undesirable characters and tragic consequences. It is a good example of those novels still often used to portray homosexuality not as something necessarily evil, but as something that leads to negative and destructive consequences. Through the eyes of a sexually ambiguous narrator, the story tells of two lesbians who are ratted out to an overly zealous son of a pastor and eventually attempt a murder—suicide. The novel is an ideal example of the ways in which homosexuality and religion can be caricatured.  The religious aspect of the novel is so extreme as to be almost comical at times, if it were not for the fact that it is what leads to the downfall of the queer students in the end.

Gantos, in keeping with his very sarcastic and cynical nature, writes as though he wants to find someone to blame. In the case of Desire Lines he latches on to a very charismatic Christian pastor, giving readers someone to point a finger at. While this may be helpful for some who avoid religion at all costs, I personally find Gantos’ choice unfortunate, and rather than taking an opportunity to break down a barrier, he chooses to reinforce an already bitter, mutually destructive relationship. I cannot say that this is a terrible book, because it is actually well written and contains some interesting and unique perspectives, but for those who wish to read it, keep in mind that the world is changing. (Rob Bittner)

Silver Bells (2010), by Susie Bragg

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 16.3.

An interesting little note about this book: I received the book for review from a friend of the author, actually John Bishop of restaurant fame. When we visited his restaurant for our anniversary in early December, 2011, he had just received his copy, and was excited to share it; I liked it enough to want to review it.  I did so with the promise that I would donate it to my daughter’s school library when I was finished, but when I tried to do so, I was told that it was inappropriate for the library shelves due to its Christian message (which is not overt, but inherent in its being a Christmas book).  Now, at first this seemed like blatant censorship, but the truth of the matter was that adding it to the library would disturb the balance between Christian and non-Christian holiday texts.  So it ended up in the school office, where they keep books for students to read while they are waiting for parents, to see the principal, etc.  What do we make of this?

Silver Bells

Illust. Merry Meredith.

This is a delightful tale, presented partially in rhyme with colourful paintings of a traditional family Christmas.  The young protagonist tells her readers of Christmas “When I was one or two, or maybe three,” complete with snow and “woollies and mittens and scarves and bows” and a special hat with two sliver bells jingling on top, that her mother knit especially for her.  There is no deep plot or mystery here, just a nostalgic memory of the dog who came to church, the silver bells that the parent tease are Santa’s, and a little girl tired out after a long day of family fun, who drifts off to sleep dreaming she hears silver bells…
Susie Bragg’s playful presentation of a young child’s even younger memories is completed by Merry Meredith’s friendly paintings of the young girl, her dog Prince crouched under the church pew, her parents teasing her while they walk smiling home through the snow.  Parents will love the simplicity of the tale; children will love the magic of Christmas and the family memories it builds.