Are you really a unicorn? (A book review)

I’ve been following author Jess Hernandez on Twitter for a while and was so excited to see her debut picture book, First Day of Unicorn School (available for pre-order now!), is out on NetGalley. Sooo I logged in for the first time in two years (yikes), requested the book, and was thrilled to be approved within the hour. I sat down to read it with my four-year-old this afternoon and I was NOT disappointed.

First of all, look at that gorgeous cover! The whole book is full of bright, fun illustrations just like the cover art. My daughter loved them, and we spent a while just looking at the pictures and talking about the animals.

So, does the content live up to the expectation set by the cover? Yes! Milly is a donkey with a party hat (NOT a Unicorn), but gets accepted to Unicorn School anyway. She’s so nervous on her first day that her classmates are going to discover she’s not actually a unicorn and she won’t fit in, but it turns out her classmates all have a secret of their own . . . My four-year-old caught on quickly to what was happening (“Mom, she’s not a unicorn!”), and had a great time pointing out all the different “unicorn horns” throughout the book.

Ultimately, it’s a feel-good picture book showing kids that everyone has something they’re worried about, something they fear will keep them from fitting in — which actually means we’re all more similar than we thought, and really have nothing to fear. It’s about accepting ourselves and each other, and gets that message across in a totally kid-friendly, non-preachy way. I think it’s fabulous!

The book is actually geared for kids in grades K-2, so I’m looking forward to reading it to my first grader, too, and seeing how well she picks up the message. I give this one five stars, and recommend it to everyone with little kids at home.

Thanks to the author and NetGalley for the advanced reader copy!

Books that Transformed my Views of Racism in the US Criminal Justice System

This is the third time I’ve started this post. I’ve been thinking about it in general for weeks, specifically for days, I’ve been bursting at the seams with all I want to say and yet I’m incapable of putting it effectively into words. My thought process is so complicated, so convoluted, that I feel unable to distill it in any meaningful way. So, I’m going to do what you all expect here at The Edifying Word and talk about some books. I’m going to mention three books that have been truly transformative in shaping how I think about this issue. These books, together with current events, have helped me come to some important conclusions. I’m uncomfortable with how long it has taken me to reach these conclusions, but I’m trying to focus on growth: life is a journey and as long as I’m still living I’ll still be learning, growing, and improving.

So, first conclusion: The criminal justice system in this country does not provide impartial justice, particularly to people of color. I should have known this, you say. I studied criminal justice at a top university, where I learned the following, among other things (thank you, my bestest friend and classmate for neatly summarizing this for me):

  1. The school to prison pipeline disproportionately affects minority inner city youths.
  2. Black men receive disproportionate prison sentences.
  3. The drug wars disproportionately affect/ed minorities.
  4. Poor, diverse communities are disproportionately affected by crime (broken windows theory).

There’s a lot of “disproportionate” in that list. By definition that cannot be justice. Knowing these things, it seems illogical that I could walk away from school with faith in this system. But I did.

And that faith remained until 2018 when I read two books: The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton, and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Before reading these books, I could delude myself into thinking that all of this “disproportion” was unfortunate but unintended, that the system was working from within to remedy these wrongs, actually seeking justice. Anthony Ray Hinton spent 30 years in prison–28 of those on death row–for a crime he did not commit. That the police and prosecutors instrumental in his conviction knew he did not commit. After reading his book, I moved on to Just Mercy, written by Bryan Stevenson, the attorney who ultimately helped Hinton win his freedom and who has dedicated his professional life to helping people like Hinton. Hinton and many others were intentionally targeted by the very people who were supposed to provide justice because of their race. It is incomprehensible to me, and sickening. I came away from both of those books with a sincere loss of faith in the criminal justice system in the United States. I saw it for the first time as truly broken.

This brings me to the second conclusion. The system is racist because our society is racist. It’s a hard pill to swallow. I viewed racism is an “other” kind of thing — a past thing, a very black and white “racists are bad people who hate,” without a recognition of the inherent sociological structures that perpetuate racism in the United States. (As a side note – it’s no wonder, because that’s really how things were taught to me as a kid – the Civil Rights Movement fixed us, right? Even today I read “I Am Rosa Parks” to my six year old and it presented inequality very clearly as a thing of the past. Segregation by law, sure; inequality, no.) Which brings me to the third book, A Drop of Midnight by Jason Diakite (which I previously wrote about here). Reading this book earlier this year is the first time I really saw societal racism. I’m not sure what it was about Diakite’s experiences, about his writing, that finally caused me to see what’s been in front of me my whole life, but I know after reading his book I lost the illusion of a free, just, equal America. Diakite’s memoir is about his search for identity as the Swedish-born-and-raised, half-white, half-black son of American parents. His portrayal of the United States as a racist society was eye-opening, compelling, and disheartening. I don’t think I’d ever considered before that a Black person not from the United States wouldn’t want to come here because of racism.

The first two books show overt racism. I needed to see this blatant hatred, this flagrant miscarriage of justice, to see finally understand the system is broken. But I needed to understand the structural racism, the biases and internal judgments that are often unintentional and not born of hatred, to see the true scope of the problem, and that’s what Diakite’s book provided for me.

There’s a lot more to be said about all of those books (Hinton’s book, incidentally, is what finally pushed me over the edge to be anti-death penalty, which, as a Catholic, is kind of embarrassing, but that needs a post all of its own). But for now, I think the above is enough. I’m grateful for my education, and I believe there are many, many very good, well-intentioned people in our country’s criminal justice system. I respect and support the police; just this weekend my parents brought dinner to my brother’s precinct to show their support and I respect and admire that. We need laws, police, the court system. But we have a long way to go before we have a system capable of achieving justice for all.

How do we get there? On a structural, practical reform level I can’t begin to say. On the most basic, human level it’s very clear to me: all humans are equal and derive their worth from being created children of God. Until we all recognize the inherent dignity of every human being and treat them accordingly, we will fail at implementing justice. And that, friends, is a spiritual battle.

Check out the books I mentioned, and give them a read. You won’t be disappointed.

The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

A Drop of Midnight by Jason Diakite

Indie Author Spotlight #10: Lee Richie

Indie Author SpotlightI’m back with Indie Author Spotlight #10, and I’m moving to a biweekly rather than weekly format. I really enjoy writing and sharing these posts, but I’d like to have time to write some other posts, too. I just don’t have enough time to do this weekly, blog about anything else, edit, AND, you know…do real-life stuff! So! Thank you for your patience with me, and please keep reading to learn more about one of my favorite indie authors, Lee Richie, and the stories behind his new release, Black Bones, Read Earth

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black bones red earth

Black Bones, Red Earth is one of the best books I’ve read this year – it’s thought-provoking, emotional, and edifying. My interview with Lee Richie is focused mostly on the stories behind this book and how it came to be, as well as how it led him to become an advocate for the rights of indigenous Australians. I think you’ll find his interview compelling, and I do hope it’ll lead you to purchase and read his phenomenal book. I read it during my possible-COVID-19 isolation, and I have so many thoughts that I do intend to share in a separate review post. For now, I’ll let Lee speak for himself.

Why do you write?

Like most writers, there’s a compulsion to write. I think it’s a need to share thoughts and opinions, experiences and beliefs without having to justify them. I hate arguing. I’d sooner state my position and let others debate it, take it or leave it. For that reason, I hate forums. I think they can be very destructive places where anyone who has a differing point of view is often ridiculed or bullied by those who want only their opinion to be recognized. Writers of novels tend to see everyone’s point of view. We empathize with others and that allows us to get inside the heads of characters to tell a story. One of the biggest challenges is to write from another gender’s point of view. Or another culture. There’s been a lot of controversy lately surrounding who has a right to tell a story. Can someone of one color write a first-hand account of another? Is it right for a rich white author to tell the tale of a poor black slave, a German Christian to portray a holocaust survivor? I believe strongly in the freedom to write anything, on any subject, from any point of view, as long as it does not promote hatred and as long as the author is not trying to misrepresent themselves or their story. Obviously, you can’t pretend to have climbed Everest if you haven’t but you can write a fictional account of so doing. We are all human beings and have the ability to imagine what others are going through, be they saint or killer, rich or poor, black or white.  Of course, if you’re writing about certain sensitive topics like race or religion for instance, it comes with responsibility.

Are you a Panster or Plotter?

I’d have to say I’m primarily a panster. That’s what I love about writing fiction, you never quite know where it will take you and which characters will assert themselves in the story.  But it’s not quite as clear-cut as panster or plotter. When I’m writing a novel it’s like taking a road trip with different versions of me coming along for the ride. It starts with an idea I’d like to explore. For example: I heard about a little place out there somewhere and it might be fun to find it without a map. We then all jump in the car and head in that vague direction and see what we can find along the way. The panster in me takes the wheel first and is the carefree risk taker, sometimes driving a little too fast, taking a sudden turn on a whim and just going for it on winding roads and unknown territory. Once a novel begins, I write until the end without a plan and without reading it until finished. That’s when we change drivers and I take a nap in the passenger seat while another me takes control of the wheel and starts the re-writes. Then there’s the couple of kids in the backseat arguing over where to go next and what our final destination should be. Writing a novel is hard work and it would be easy at times to take a shortcut home. I enjoy the start of the journey – the first write – and the end when it finally comes together. But, the graft in the middle is navigating those long straight roads and takes a lot of discipline and concentration just to stay the distance.

You previously wrote a young adult novel, Alexander Bottom & the Dreamweaver’s Daughter, which I got to beta read and look forward to sharing my kids when they’re a bit older. Why the switch in genre?

Alexander Bottom & the Dreamweaver’s Daughter is the first in the Alexander Bottom series, and came about after writing weekly installments for my grandson. He liked it so much that I decided to turn it into a book. I never intended to write for that age group. At the same time, I don’t want to restrict myself to any one genre. I write whatever offers the best challenge at the time, whatever takes my fancy.  I currently have two thrillers finished as first drafts and I’m working on the second book in the Alexander Bottom series.

What inspired you to write Black Bones, Red Earth?

There were several threads of inspiration for Black Bones, Red Earth. The main one, and the starting point for the book, being my mum’s story. When she was almost eighty, it was accidentally discovered that she had been orphaned with her two sisters; she was four years old at the time. Mum had kept this secret all her life. I was astonished that she had been able to hide her story and wondered why she felt the need to do so. Her mother died of TB and her father – my grandfather – just gave the girls up to an orphanage. They told the sisters that men weren’t made to raise girls. Mum came out of the orphanage at thirteen when she was sent to work as a parlor-maid. She vowed to keep her past a secret and created a fantasy childhood in which she attended boarding school while her father roved the world during a distinguished army career. Mum confided that she created her new childhood because she felt ashamed of the truth. Eventually, she almost believed her own story. It got me to wondering what it would be like to keep a secret, even from family, all your life and what terrible stories from their past must some people be hiding?

The second story to inspire the novel came from my dad’s brother. He came to Australia after WWII as a young lad under the Big Brother movement, a charity created to help British youth start a new life after the war in Europe. His initial experiences were extremely traumatic after being despatched to a remote sheep station and into the care of a cantankerous old land owner. His tales of those early years in Australia and the stories of thousands of migrant children sent from Britain to Australia played a big part in the crafting of the novel.

Black Bones, Red Earth was an emotional story to read –  I can only imagine it was so much more emotional to write.

Yes, it was emotional on many levels. My mother’s story obviously stirred personal emotions; the thought of any small child being wrenched away from home and into care is awful to imagine let alone your own mother. How does a child of four understand why she’s been abandoned? Then, there’s the thousands of child migrants who were sent away across the world under the pretense of going for a better life. Some were orphans but many had been given up by parents who felt they could no longer cope, or unmarried mothers shamed into giving up their children. The children were often told their parents and siblings were dead. They were raised in homes and institutions, were often treated cruelly and subjected to abuse. The treatment of Aboriginal children and adults was even worse. The Australian government policy of separating families, sending children to live on missions and forcing them to abandon their culture was absolutely shameful. These true events play deeply into the novel and caused a great deal of emotional turmoil during the writing process. 

How did your contact with the Aboriginal community shape the novel and your understanding of First Australians and their history?

As I said previously, once writing begins, the story takes on a life of its own. New characters enter the story and, being set in the Australian outback, it was inevitable that Aboriginal characters would emerge. Sensitive to cultural aspects and the need for authenticity, I began to research and sought help on Indigenous issues. It wasn’t long before I realized how little I knew about indigenous Australian culture and the true history of a country I have come to call home. The more I learned, the more upsetting I found the stories of a people overtaken by white settlement and discriminated against in their own land. At first I found it difficult to get help with my research; there is a natural distrust in Indigenous communities after years of inequality and repression. Eventually, I was able to sit with Aboriginal Elders and hear first-hand accounts of life in the fifties, during which time the novel is set, as well as their stories going back in history. Of particular help was Gundungurra Elder, Aunty Val Mulcahy, who allowed me to sit with her week after week of my research. Aunty Val was raised on an Aboriginal mission by order of the Aboriginal Protection Board. She told of a life which denied her basic rights and kept her a virtual prisoner until laws were changed in the sixties. “They wanted to breed the black out of us,” she told me. Aunty Val went on to get a university degree – though it took her into her fifties to achieve it – and worked in promoting Aboriginal health and welfare until she retired from active employment. Her work in health and education earned her the Order of Australia in the Australia Day honours. It’s stories like Aunty Val’s and others like her that feature in the novel, many of which are true accounts of real events.

We’ve seen protests around the world with the Black Lives Matter movement. They must resonate with you in Australia and the issues depicted in your novel.

Definitely. Recent events in America have brought Australia’s own racial issues to the forefront. Protests have highlighted the ongoing problems with racial inequality, particularly in rural and remote parts of the country where there have been 437 Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1991. A Royal Commission (a major public enquiry) set up in 1987 to investigate deaths in custody resulted in over 330 recommendations for change. Thirty years later only a very few recommendations have been acted upon. It’s just not acceptable. The Indigenous population makes up 2.8% of Australia’s population, yet statistics show they make up a fluctuating rate of around 20% of all deaths in custody.  It’s a complex problem but one that can be addressed if the government committed to the solutions already recommended in their own report. Many of the core causes behind the high percentage stem from poor healthcare, lack of educational opportunities, poor prospects for employment and substance abuse. Like most remote and rural communities around the world, the exodus to city living has left those most vulnerable behind. Aboriginal Australians have spent the years since colonization being brought to their knees and dominated (where have we heard that before?). Now, when it suits us, we expect them to get up and get on with it.  Perhaps there will be progress after the protests but it’s up to us all to make sure it happens.

The protagonist in Black Bones, Red Earth, struggles with her faith; how does her story relate to your own?

My own spiritual journey is a lot like Katherine’s in the novel. My faith wavers from time to time but is always there behind me, propping me up. Mum was a devout Christian. I’m one of five children and she brought us up as such. I followed my three older brothers into the church choir and had to attend three services each Sunday. Mum did a lot of work for the church and for the Church of England Children’s Society. Now, of course, we know why she was so passionate about that particular cause. But, as I got older, I began to question my faith and the church itself. I stopped going because I felt church was too focused on literal interpretations of faith. I saw this kind of battle between religions, each promoting their brand at the expense of another, and it made me shy away from it. I think anyone can find God in their own way without having to claim they have the only true franchise on the story. I believe you are just as likely to find God in a synagogue or a mosque as in a cathedral in Rome. Personally, I now find my faith everywhere and in everything. I don’t need a church to help me connect. I’ve had my struggles in life but I’ve been blessed to have Angels watching over me and guiding my faith.    

Please visit Lee Richie’s website for monthly blog posts and to learn more about Lee and his books.

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Would you like to be featured, too? Please contact me at kristin@theedifyingword.com!