January’s #YADiversityBookCLub pick:
The Way We Bared Our Souls by Willa Strayhorn
If you could trade your biggest burden for someone else’s, would you do it?
Five teenagers sit around a bonfire in the middle of the New Mexico desert. They don’t know it yet, but they are about to make the biggest sacrifice of their lives.
Lo has a family history of MS, and is starting to come down with all the symptoms.
Thomas, a former child soldier from Liberia, is plagued by traumatic memories of his war-torn past.
Kaya would do anything to feel physical pain, but a rare condition called CIP keeps her numb.
Ellen can’t remember who she was before she started doing drugs.
Kit lost his girlfriend in a car accident and now he just can’t shake his newfound fear of death.
When they trade totems as a symbol of shedding and adopting one another’s sorrows, they think it’s only an exercise.
But in the morning, they wake to find their burdens gone…and replaced with someone else’s.
As the reality of the ritual unfolds, this unlikely group of five embarks on a week of beautiful, terrifying experiences that all culminate in one perfect truth: In the end, your soul is stronger than your burdens.
SOURCE: ARCs provided by the publisher (Thank you!)
This month I’m hosting the book club chat. Let’s see what we chatted about. . .
Teen Lit Rocks: Ok, well let’s start with the idea of intention versus execution.
We Heart YA: I admired the ambition of this story but it was a lot to juggle.
Gone Pecan: I loved the idea behind it! Because we all want something we don’t have. . .
Teen Lit Rocks: I mean, in the spirit of Gene Yang I appreciate that she attempted to portray so many different kinds of people with such a diverse set of backgrounds and issues. . .
We Heart YA: Yes, and very out-of-the-norm problems, too. We don’t see much about diseases like MS, or traumas like being a child soldier (not in YA, that is)
Teen Lit Rocks: And it’s so intriguing — that someone else’s problems could be more bearable than yours.
The Reading Date: I like the idea of learning empathy for others who may have struggles that are not visible.
Teen Lit Rocks: Yes, invisible disabilities are a hot topic in general. And so many of the issues the characters had would’ve made an interesting spinoff/standalone story.
Gone Pecan: The child solider idea disturbs me more than anything. . .like that definitely deserved a commitment of its own book.
We Heart YA: Oh, that reminds me: Was I the only one who had expected 5 POVs? Or 3rd person rotating between the 5 characters? Based on the blurb, I was surprised that we stayed with Lo’s perspective all the time. I didn’t mind it! Just surprised.
The Reading Date: I got that impression too- interesting choice.
Teen Lit Rocks: Yes, I was surprised too. I expected it to go from POV to POV.
Gone Pecan: I assumed it would be 5 as well.
We Heart YA: Hehe, glad it wasn’t just me! Willa did kind of explain why she stuck with Lo’s perspective, in the Q&A she graciously sent us.
Teen Lit Rocks: Which story struck you the most?
We Heart YA: I think I was most *interested* in Thomas’s story (the child soldier) but most grounded/invested in Lo’s, since that’s whose head we were in. I also appreciated learning a bit more about what living with MS is like, because I had a lovely neighbor with MS. (“Had” because she moved away, not because she passed away or anything!)
The Reading Date: It is an interesting and diverse group, though Lo’s story stands out the most to me.
Teen Lit Rocks: I enjoyed Kit’s story as well, because I’m a sucker for grief and I thought he actually seemed invested in Native American culture.
The Reading Date: I was reading the author q&a and there is a lot of food for thought in question 4. (About author’s choosing to write from their own race and culture perspective)
Teen Lit Rocks: Interesting, so yes, it would have been hard for her to write from the other POVs.
We Heart YA: Briefly, my thought on that is an author should do what they’re comfortable with. If they don’t feel confident writing outside of their own culture/gender/whatever, then it’s fine to stick with their perspective. But they shouldn’t feel like they’re not *allowed* to write outside their own experiences. That would be so limiting! (As long as an author is willing to do research.)
Teen Lit Rocks: Right — then there would be no men writing from female POVs and vice versa. The research and the attempt at authenticity is what is important.
The Reading Date: I totally agree that author’s should write what they are comfortable with, and sometimes that is about a different experience then the one they are living.
Teen Lit Rocks: What did you guys think of the various romances?
We Heart YA: So, that’s an interesting question. To be honest, I found it hard when Lo talked about Thomas being “hot” (for ex) — BUT I think that’s as much a reflection on me as on her. Like, to me it seemed weird/callous not to respect his traumatic background — but by holding him apart for his experiences, I was kind of limiting him, defining him by his past. So I appreciated having that challenged, you know? Making me think about what I was doing, and how I could be more sensitive (even if Lo wasn’t being perfectly sensitive either)
Gone Pecan: well no one is perfect 🙂
We Heart YA: Hehe true. I just mean that if something bad happened to me, or if I had done something I wasn’t proud of, I wouldn’t want that to be the only thing people saw in me.
Teen Lit Rocks: At least she had reasons beyond his hotness to be into him — unlike a book I read where the hot Latino was completely defined by his “hot Latinoness”.
We Heart YA: Yikes, Sandie! Yes, like I said, I don’t think Lo was reducing him the way I initially did, which is good.
Teen Lit Rocks: I’m not sure I needed the other hook up to occur, but I guess Kit needed to move beyond his grief. I was actually really interested in his relationship with his dead girlfriend.
Teen Lit Rocks: She clearly taught him a lot (or he learned a lot on his own) about her culture.
We Heart YA: Yeah, that’s a good point, Sandie. I got that impression too. I guess maybe one of the big themes of this book is how caring for other people can raise your awareness?
Teen Lit Rocks: Oh — I will share one disappointment speaking of Thomas — I disliked that he was often described as African. If someone’s from England, you don’t call them European, and I know from my Rwandan/Nigerian friends that they hate being referred to as African as if it’s all the same place.
We Heart YA: Hmm… That’s interesting, and totally legitimate. You’re so right, re: Europeans. We specify the countries, maybe because we’re more familiar. (At least with Western Europe) but like, I’m half-Asian and I say it that way all the time: half-Asian. I don’t usually specify Chinese (or even more specifically, Taiwanese) unless someone seems interested.
Teen Lit Rocks: Right — but you aren’t describing your nationality.
We Heart YA:
Another thing worth questioning…
Teen Lit Rocks: You are describing your racial makeup.
We Heart YA: Ah true.
Teen Lit Rocks: It’s just something I know from friends (many of whom are aid workers who’ve lived in various countries) and it’s a pet peeve.
We Heart YA: Yes, that’s a very good observation and a valid point.
Teen Lit Rocks: Anyhow, small quibble, various ethnicities.
Teen Lit Rocks: I liked that Lo explained that she was white but that her parents had gotten into the whole New Mexico theme with her name. Otherwise I would’ve spent a lot of time assuming she was Mexican. That actually happened the other day with a book.
Gone Pecan: Before starting the book I assuming Lo was a guy. I would have assumed as well.
We Heart YA: Yes on both counts! Although didn’t they move to New Mexico after she was born? Or did I misread that? I remember being confused.
Gone Pecan: Yes but her mother loved it there and her parents went there on their honeymoon and fell in love. Right?
Teen Lit Rocks: Ah yes, thanks for the reminder.
We Heart YA: Aaahh yes, thank you.
Teen Lit Rocks: The other book I read, I had a picture of a white MC the whole time and then he mentioned his mom jumping the broom with his stepfather. I was so confused!
Teen Lit Rocks: What did you think of the aunt and her influence? She’s mentioned fairly early on because she died of aggressive early onset MS and it’s the reason the mom can’t really talk about certain things.
Gone Pecan: Well I can tell you based on personal experiences I hate when people avoid topics causing someone else to be left out and feel alone about something so big that obviously involves them.
Teen Lit Rocks: What about Kaya? Did you connect to her? I found her the hardest to understand since that disease is so rare.
Teen Lit Rocks: Did the book make you interested in the Native American experience? I would love to read more books about Native American teens.
We Heart YA: Yes! I totally would too. This book wasn’t really *about* the Native American experiences, but it piqued my curiosity for that. The only one I’ve read is ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie, which is great.
Gone Pecan: I find it is probably one of the topics I’ve rarely heard of in books.
What did you think of this one? Let us know! Want to read more about the author? Read posts inspired by the book? Check out the posts linked below by the other ladies of the book club!