Preparing for a flight, one must decide: checked bags or carry-on only? Much depends on the trip, of course (duration, destination), but some of the decision comes down to preference. How much baggage do we want to carry?


Elizabeth Acevedo's Clap When You Land brings the reader face-to-face with two young women, strangers to each other despite how much they share. When Flight 1112 from New York City to the Dominican Republic crashes, leaving no survivors, Camino and Yahaira learn the truth: sometimes you are forced to carry baggage you did not choose.

Returning to her novel-in-verse format (see also: The Poet X), Acevedo alternates the narrative between these two girls - Camino (in the DR) comes to life in three-line stanzas; Yahaida (in NYC) in couplets. Both have lost their father on the flight, and both will suffer mightily in their grief and in the way their lives will change as a result. But all is not grief and suffering, for this book is also a light shining on the twin beacons of love and sisterhood.


Camino lives in Sosúa with her Tia, her mother having died years before, and her father spending most of the year working in NYC. It is his annual trip home for the summer that is Camino's cause for celebration, the thing that has her skipping class to meet him at the airport. In his absence, she works alongside Tia as a healer-in-training, hoping one day to go to Columbia University and on to medical school. She wants to be an obstetrician, to help women in the birthing process, the phrase for which (dando a luz: giving to light) she has always loved.


Yahaida lives with her Mami and Papi, who was until last summer a trusted confidante and beloved teacher. He taught her to play chess, stoked that fire in her until she was among the best, competing in tournaments and surprising them all with her skill and her cunning. But a year ago, she quit. Quit playing chess, quit speaking to her father.


As the narrative oscillates between these two girls, the story that entwines them unfolds, and we begin to understand just how much they have in common. Besides the complications of family, they are also coming to terms with the realities of being a woman in this world. After an encounter with the threatening El Cero, Camino says, "Because in this moment, I am a girl a man stares at: / I am not a mourning girl. I am not a grieving girl. / I am not a parentless girl. I am not a girl without means. / I am not an aunt's charity case. I am not almost-alone. / None of those things matter." Yahaida understands this notion, having faced her own Thing That Happened, having learned from chess that "a queen is both: / deadly & graceful, poised & ruthless. / Quiet & cunning. A queen / offers her hand to be kissed, / & can form it into a fist / while smiling the whole damn time." Both girls have to learn what it looks like to carry on after such a great loss. Grieving and becoming, carrying on without their father, carrying on into womanhood.


Many verse novels move quickly, allowing young readers to clip through the pages without sacrificing their engagement with the characters or investment in the story. They can allow struggling readers a "long" book that doesn't feel that way as it reads. And while those are undoubtedly things to be celebrated, Clap When You Land is not that book. The poetry here is not just prose in poem form, not just short lines of dialogue. It is craft, it is art, it is a magic spell. Acevedo uses words to tell the story, yes, but more than that her words layer in rhythm and texture, music and force. This book demonstrates all that is possible in a novel-in-verse, and it does it in style. Like Tia, it knows the strength of words - those spoken and left unspoken. It knows that your words could "stunt unknown possibilities" just as it knows that words can speak into being a milagro.


Near the end of the book, Camino is about to board a plane, and describes the moment of looking back at her Tia: "I whisper blessings under my breath, / divide a piece of God / from my heart / for her to carry. / I know she does the same for me." And just like that, she brings it home: we will not always be able to choose our baggage, but we can choose what to carry. And in the choosing, we also learn how to carry on.


The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to email me at sarabethwest52@gmail.com. I promise a reply.

Every Wednesday, I send out something of a hodgepodge of ideas, a gathering of thoughts on books, culture, and unexpected moments of joy. Sign up here to stay in the loop!

Here in the land of Sheltering-in-Place, it feels obvious to say we understand waiting. We wake up and do the same things each day, and we sigh and wonder when our real life will get back to being real. We are tired of waiting. We are tired of the uncertainty of our futures. We are tired.


For some, of course, this time is covered over with personal tragedy, some are grieving the very real loss of loved ones, some are waiting for test results or for the escalation of this disease that they definitely have and can only hope to come through. But for the rest of us, the waiting is all there is. When our faces in the mirror is all we see, it becomes easy to think our story is the only story.When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed are able to remind us of how small our waiting really is.

Though some might find it an unusual choice, Jamieson sees the immersive quality of the graphic novel as an ideal medium through which to tell Omar's story. And it is his story, his voice, and his community that jumps off each page. A native Somali, growing up in a UNHCR refugee camp in Kenya, Omar's story is already a departure from the standard fare of kid lit graphic novels. Add the fact that his father was killed in the conflict and he is caring for his younger brother alone, and you might be tempted to read this story as fiction. Reader, do not make that mistake. Omar's story is true -- as is the story of countless refugees who will likely never that camp. And it is important that we hold that truth for them and for ourselves.


At several points in the narrative, Omar returns to the familiar refrain of waiting: In the opening pages as he describes his daily routine of morning prayers, fetching water, and cleaning their tent, he explains, "for me, one of the worst parts of living in a refugee camp is . . . it's really boring. Every day is basically the same." And then again, some years later, after they have finally been granted an initial interview with the UN regarding resettlement:

"In a refugee camp, it felt like all you ever did was wait. Wait to see if your brother gets well again. Wait for water. Wait for food. Wait to hear from the United Nations. Wait for your life to start. Wait for your life to get better. Every single person in this camp was waiting for something better. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. How long can you wait before you lose all hope?"

For Omar, the wait at least had moments that helped keep that hope alive. For others in the camp, like his friend Maryam, life is a series of disappointments. The brightest and most driven student in school, Maryam hoped to win a scholarship to a university in Canada. Her father, however, wants her to marry. She is fifteen. She is also at the heart of perhaps the most profound, convicting lesson to Omar, and to readers everywhere. Upon learning that Maryam will not return to school and will be married, Omar is angry on her behalf, rightly so, but the mother of another school friend gentles him, saying, "There are many people in the world less fortunate than you and I. Remember that, Omar."


Remember that, reader. Omar doesn't have to believe his life is perfect; he can know - fully - the pain and difficulties of his journey and still recognize the pain and difficulties of others. Your fatigue at the waiting, the isolation, the tension between your brain and your body, the murder hornets, the everything of this season is real and true; and "there are many people in the world less fortunate than you and I." Goodness. What a reminder.


Omar's community delivers several such reminders, but my other favorite is this:

LOVE IS A GIFT!

Omar's guardian in the camps, Fatuma, reminds him that every human is a gift and that the love and protection of a community is a gift. We may feel disconnected from our communities right now, but the disconnection is a form of love, a way to protect each other. And so we wait. Each day the same. Waiting. But like Omar, we wait with hope.


====


The 2021 Newbery Medal selection committee spends the whole year considering titles. As always, I will be reading and reviewing along with the committee, keeping one eye on today's young readers and the other eye on each book's prospects. After each review, I'll offer my one-sentence take (OST) on medal-worthiness.


OST: Moving, well-drawn, and a story that should be heard, but lacking some of the narrative complexities of other graphic novels, it won't be enough to compel the committee's final decision.


Previous titles under consideration:


The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to email me at sarabethwest52@gmail.com. I promise a reply.

Every Wednesday, I send out something of a hodgepodge of ideas, a gathering of thoughts on books, culture, and unexpected moments of joy. Sign up here to stay in the loop!


Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

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