A Review of Cara Chow’s Bitter Melon

Bitter Melon by Cara Chow (Scholastic 2011) has great moments and weak ones. The protagonist, Frances, is complex and engaging, and there is some great interaction between her and her best friend, Theresa. The core ideas — finding a way to speak one’s truth, navigating the path between loyalty to one’s mother and to one’s self — are important and compelling. It takes on the experience of a first-generation teenager in valuably familiar and unfamiliar ways.

However, the plot has trouble finding its rhythm in many places — we no sooner find out that Frances despises Theresa than they become instant best friends, for example, and the key conflict reaches several false climaxes.  The characterization of Frances’s mother is confusing because she borders on psychotic at times, yet we seem to be expected to take her instead as a very flawed but ultimately loving person. In addition, two key characters, Frances’ speech teacher and her boyfriend, veer on flawless and thus flatness.

All that said, Frances is a character you root for, and Chow’s voice is original. And of course, there is a lot to be said for any young adult book with an Asian-American woman on its cover. Chow might tell Frances’s story inexpertly, but her truth is worth listening to.

“I am the wrong/sex the wrong age the wrong skin”

“the point being that I can’t do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
there by myself thinking about God/or thinking
about children or thinking about the world/all of it
disclosed by the stars and the silence:
I could not go and I could not think and I could not
stay there
as I need to be
alone because I can’t do what I want to do with my own
body and
who in the hell set things up
like this”
— from “Poem about My Rights” by June Jordan (1936-2002); originally published in Passion (1980)
The whole blazing, amazing poem can be found on the (fabulous) Poetry Foundation website: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178526

On Race and YA Lit: A Reading List

Here is a list of good sources about race in YA literature; most came out in 2012.

Commentary by best-selling writer Anderson about the lack of racial diversity in NPR’s 2012-best-of-YA list:
Anderson, Laurie Halse. “Happy & Sad about the NPR Top 100 YA List.” LaurieHalseAnderson.com. 12 Aug. 2012. http://madwomanintheforest.com/happy-sad-about-the-npr-top-100-ya-list/

Want to see some YA covers with some color? Look here:
Bajpai, Nandini. “100+ YA Book Covers of Color!” Pinterest. http://pinterest.com/nandinibajpai/one-hundred-ya-book-covers-of-color/

Despite the explosion of YA lit, Jen Doll argues we have a long way to go to diversify representations of race. She asks, “What does it mean when kids don’t see themselves on, or in, the books intended for them?”

Doll, Jen. “The Ongoing Problem of Race in Y.A.” The Atlantic Wire. 26 Apr. 2012. http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2012/04/ongoing-problem-race-y/51574/

The group responsible for the YA anthology Diverse Dystopias provides us with more reading material featuring characters of color in dystopian settings:
Hannah. “Diverse Dystopias: A Book List.” The Open Book. Lee&Low.com. 30 Aug. 2012. http://blog.leeandlow.com/2012/08/30/diverse-dystopias-a-book-list/

Holmes looks at reactions and analyses related to some viewers’ responses to the character of Rue in the Hunger Games movie:
Holmes, Anna. “White Until Proven Black: Imagining Race in Hunger Games.” NewYorker.com. 30 Mar. 2012. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/03/hunger-games-and-trayvon-martin.html

Like Anderson, Shaker Laurie responds to the lack of racial diversity in the NPR best-of list: “Such an exclusive list isn’t just problematic for teens of color; when white teens are told that the “good” books are all about white people, it normalizes the white experience and bolsters white privilege.”
Laurie, Shaker. “On NPR’s Very White Best Young Adult Book List.” 9 August 2012. http://www.shakesville.com/2012/08/on-nprs-very-white-best-young-adult.html

A reaction to Jenn Doll’s Atlantic Wire article, addressed to YA writers:
Ockler, Sarah. “Race in YA Lit: Wake Up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors!” sarahockler.com. 30 Apr. 2012. http://sarahockler.com/2012/04/30/race-in-ya-lit-wake-up-smell-the-coffee-colored-skin-white-authors/

As mentioned in the Anderson article, a great website for finding YA books with characters of color:
Reading in Color. http://blackteensread2.blogspot.com/p/booklists.html

African American writer Jacqueline Woodson gives us a great list of good reads with characters of color:
Woodson, Jacqueline. “Good Minds Suggest — Jacqueline Woodson’s Favorite Books about Real Teen Problems. GoodReads.com. Feb. 2012. http://www.goodreads.com/interviews/show/649.Jacqueline_Woodson?utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=editorial&utm_campaign=goodminds

Finally, check out http://www.diversityinya.com and/or http://diversityinya.tumblr.com. Created by YA writers Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo, they’ve been “puttin’ a little diversity in YA since 2011.”