Book Talk: The Radical Element by Jessica Spotswood

Book Talk: The Radical Element by Jessica SpotswoodThe Radical Element by Jessica Spotswood, Dahlia Adler, Mackenzi Lee, Erin Bowman, Megan Shepherd, Anna-Marie McLemore, Marieke Nijkamp, Dhonielle Clayton, Sarvenaz Tash, Stacey Lee, Meg Medina, Sara Farizan
Series: A Tyranny of Petticoats #2
Published by Candlewick on March 13, 2018
Genres: Historical, Anthologies, Short Stories
Pages: 320
Format: eARC
Source: NetGalley
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In an anthology of revolution and resistance, a sisterhood of YA writers shines a light on a century and a half of heroines on the margins and in the intersections.

To respect yourself, to love yourself—should not have to be a radical decision. And yet it remains as challenging for an American girl to make today as it was in 1927 on the steps of the Supreme Court. It's a decision that must be faced whether you're balancing on the tightrope of neurodivergence, finding your way as a second-generation immigrant, or facing down American racism even while loving America. And it's the only decision when you've weighed society's expectations and found them wanting. In The Radical Element, twelve of the most talented writers working in young adult literature today tell the stories of the girls of all colors and creeds standing up for themselves and their beliefs—whether that means secretly learning Hebrew in early Savannah, using the family magic to pass as white in 1920s Hollywood, or singing in a feminist punk band in 1980s Boston. And they're asking you to join them.

“Daughter of the Book” by Dahlia Adler

As a big fan of Dahlia’s, I was thrilled to see the anthology beginning off with what I knew would be a strong story, and Dahlia didn’t disappoint. “Daughter of the Book” tells the story of Rebekah, a young girl who loves her community and her family, but who desperately wants to learn more about Judaism, which at the time is not allowed for girls. She fights for her right to learn, maintaining that people will value their religion and heritage more if they are educated about it. Like Rebekah herself, the story is quiet but fierce and strong. “Daughter of the Book” opens the anthology on a strong note, focusing on a young woman who very much embodies the spirit of the anthology and serves as an inspiration for modern women to attempt to tear down those walls of tradition and patriarchy. ★★★★

“You’re a Stranger Here” by Mackenzi Lee

Though a touch on the dry side, Lee’s “You’re a Stranger Here” provides a window into an aspect of history with which I’m almost entirely unfamiliar: the early years of the Mormon religion. The heroine, Vilatte (who makes me wants some coffee ironically), followed her mother from England, unsure if she believes but wanting to believe as fervently as her mother does. She’s an interesting albeit distant heroine, without strong opinions of her own. I find her sort of fascinating because I think more people in history are like her than ever appear in novels, but I don’t feel any connection to her or her struggle, mostly because her struggles on behalf of the Mormon faith she seems to do by rote rather than any actual passion. Good history, so-so story. ★★★½

“The Magician” by Erin Bowman

Bowman’s truly hit her stride with westerns. Both Vengeance Road and Redemption Rails are great, fast-paced reads with boss heroines. “The Magician” follows in that tread, but it’s a quieter tale. Ray, adopted as a lost and hungry child by Mrs. Lowry and with her name taken from a piece of newspaper she carried, pretends to be a boy, so that she can work and live safely in Yuma. She dreams of heading to California, and she’s trying to save up enough money with her work as a stevedore. “The Magician” focuses on her big ambitions and the magic she relies on in the face of the incredible odds and danger she faces daily. ★★★★

“Lady Firebrand” by Megan Shepherd

I’ve only read one Megan Shepherd book, and I really wasn’t that impressed, but apparently the time has come for me to give her books another try, because this short story rocked my socks. Of the stories thus far, this one’s by far the most fun; they’ve all been good, but a bit more staid where this one’s straight up enjoyment. The concept of a white girl in a wheelchair and her friend/free black woman servant working as the vigilante Lord Firebrand to help the Union is totally amazing. I wish this one were a full book tbh, but it does work as a short story. There’s even a smidge of romance, though obviously I’d have liked more because hello I’m me. ★★★★½

“Step Right Up” by Jessica Spotswood

Before this story, I’d never read Jessica Spotswood, but clearly I should based on the quality of this story. Or, wait, did she have a story in the first anthology? “Step Right Up” is about a young girl who dreams of running away to the circus, to escape a family that doesn’t understand her to the unusual but kind, accepting bosoms of her friends in the circus that passes annually through Tulsa. Fairly simple but well-executed with some Anne of Green Gables vibes in the walking a roof and big dreams. Spotswood covers the circus without exoticizing and highlighting the freedoms it could offer in a time that was greatly restrictive, particularly of young women. ★★★★

“Glamour” by Anna-Marie McLemore

My first experience with McLemore proved to be too dark and sad for me, but “Glamour” hit right in that place where it’s sad but also beautiful and with a little bit of hope. I was definitely thrown off by the magical realism, despite McLemore being known for writing that genre, because the collection has been solely historical thus far. It works though. “Glamour” tells of Graciela who dreams of a career in Hollywood but who will have to very literally give up herself and her identity to have a chance of getting there. Her romance with a transgender boy is very sweet, and I wish I got to know more about what will happen to these two. ★★★★

“Better for All the World” by Marieke Nijkamp

Though I liked Nijkamp’s debut, it pales in comparison to the powerful voice and emotions that this short story wrought in me. “Better for All the World” is one of those elusive stories very much driven by a message that doesn’t feel preachy at all. Carrie’s narrative voice is lovely, and I would read a whole book about her journey to become a lawyer and fight for the rights of atypical people like herself. I want to know more about how her relationship with Alexander Holmes would evolve over time, and I also really love Carrie’s aunt. ★★★★★

“When the Moon Isn’t Enough” by Dhonielle Clayton

Another magical realism offering about a young (or so she seems anyway) black girl during World War II. Her family knows the secret of capturing and consuming the moon’s light, granting them life without aging. Emma’s been 16 for…a while. Fearing what could happen if this magic fell into the wrong hands, her family moves to avoid wars, but they’re tired of doing so and hopeful that WWII won’t come to the contiguous 48 states. Emma’s longing for something more after 191 years is understandable, but she didn’t fully come to life for me; perhaps because of her circumstances, there’s a distance to her narration. The history, however, and the tension of being black in America during the fervor of WWII is fantastic. ★★★½

“The Belle of the Ball” by Sarvenaz Tash

Tash’s story of an aspiring female comedy writer feeling stifled by her mother’s debutante dreams and expectations is another highlight of this collection. Rosemary has been writing little sketches for an actress friend, but her real dream is to be a writer for a television show, like I Love Lucy, one of her favorites. She doesn’t want what her mother wants for her; instead, she wants a career and the cute boy next door, Tomás. I love YA about characters with less common dreams, like being the writer behind the comedic lines, not a comedian on a stage or an actress. One of the cutest stories in the collection and quite inspiring, especially combined with Tash’s note at the end. ★★★★★

“Land of the Sweet, Home of the Brave” by Stacey Lee

Lana Lau is Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Californian, and American. Despite skepticism, she enrolls in a contest to be the model for a sugar company, the same one her mother toils for every day. The money would mean opportunity, maybe college. She doesn’t think an Asian face could possibly win, but she decides to try. This story is lovely, funny, and sharp. Lana’s wit and refusal to be cowed by cruelty won me over, and, though it’s a microcosm of a journey unfinished, I really felt her character arc. ★★★★★

“The Birth of Susi Go-Go” by Meg Medina

Caught between her Cuban family and American culture, Susana watches and admires her slightly-older neighbor of the gorgeous go-go boots. This story doesn’t have quite as much plot as the other ones do, but I did enjoy Susana’s voice and feel her struggle in trying to figure out who she is or really understand what the truth is between her parents’ point of view and America’s. ★★★½

“Take Me with You” by Sara Farizan

The anthology closes with another strong story, one that dovetails beautifully with Medina’s. Soheila’s a refugee from Iran, staying with her uncle and controlling aunt until the war ends and it’s safe to return. She makes a cool American friend and finds solace and inspiration in American music. I haven’t read Farizan since her debut novel, but I’m thinking I should. ★★★★

The Radical Element may just be my favorite anthology ever. There wasn’t a bad story in the bunch. I love the diversity in the characters, the subject matter, and the authors. A Tyranny of Petticoats was good, but The Radical Element is outstanding across the board.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

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