Book Review: The Radical Element
Edited by: Jessica Spotswood
Published By: Candlewick Press
Publication Date: March 13, 2018
Page Count: 320
Source: ARC Kindly Provided by Publisher via NetGalley
Audience: Young Adult - Historical Fiction, Anthology
I thoroughly enjoyed the first historical anthology, A Tyranny of Petticoats, that Jessica Spotswood edited, so I was thrilled to see that she had another edition coming out with new stories bringing the female historical experience to life. As with the first one, this installment has a wide range of time periods and strong diverse heroines to offer readers. There is truly something for everyone lurking among these pages. I love how Spotwood explains this installment in the opening by writing, ".. The Radical Element was born, shifting the focus slightly - and I think empoweringly - from girls who were outsiders to girls who were radical in their communities, whether by virtue of their race, religion, sexuality, disability, gender, or the profession they were pursuing" (Kindle Location 31).
Story #1: "Daughter of the Book" by Dahlia Adler
1838 - Savannah, Georgia
Rating = 4
The main character, Rebekah, is a Jewish teen living in Savannah in the antebellum period. Savannah was known for being more religiously tolerant than other Georgia cities, so there was a thriving Jewish population in the town. Rebekah is frustrated that only the males in her community are allowed to be fully educated in the history of the Jewish faith. She longs to know more about the history of her people, but is told that she is to learn domestic skills that all good Jewish wives should know and leave the education to the men. Rebekah can't let go of her quest for knowledge, so she recruits her friend, Caleb, to tutor her in secret. The pair are tempting consequences as teaching a woman about certain aspects of the Torah and Jewish history in that time was not permissible. I was fascinated by the lengths Rebekah was willing to go to in order to further her education.
Furthermore, in addition to learning some fascinating Jewish history and seeing how women had to challenge traditional gender roles, I loved the Savannah setting. Savannah is one of my favorite cities and I loved seeing glimpses of it through a new historical lens.
"I cannot believe no one speaks of Yael."
"A woman who lulled a general to sleep and then stabbed him through the temple with a tent peg is not generally considered a topic for polite conversation."
~ Kindle Location 220
Story #2: "You're a Stranger Here" by Mackenzi Lee
1844 - Nauvoo, Illinois
Rating = 4
This story, like the first one, focuses on a religious history that was new material for me. I am largely ignorant of most things revolving around the Mormon Church, aside from some basic general knowledge that I have gleaned from friends who belong to that faith. The main character, Vilatte, has moved to Illinois with her mother from Liverpool, England, so that they can be part of the Mormon town. The beginning of the story focuses on the death of Joseph Smith and the chaos that ensues as the group tries to determine a new leader and course of action. I knew that Mormons had faced persecution throughout their history, but I was unaware of how violent it became. As such, Brigham Young and other church leaders decide to move to Utah, where they hope the church will be allowed to grow in a safe location free of violence and discrimination.
"Fear's a potent poison."
~ Kindle Location 439
Story #3: "The Magician" by Erin Bowman
1858 - Colorado River, New Mexico Territory
Rating = 3
Ray, the main character, of this story is radical because she hides her true gender in order to obtain employment in the rough and tumble west. She works hard and saves her pay in the hopes that one day she will be able to buy a ticket to California, where she believes her family lives. She has no idea why she was left behind, but she knows that they would want to reunite with her. In order to supplement her income working as a stevedore, she plays cards with the other workers around the docks. She earns a reputation for being unbeatable, but winning is easy when you can cheat without detection. The story largely focuses on Ray's most impressive feat to date as she hopes to win enough to clench her dream and keep her gender under wraps.
The Mohave Canyon greeted the crew with some of the worst rapids yet, and cries to adjust the steam power were constant while the General Jesup battled its way up the rocky-bottomed river.
~ Kindle Location 803
Story #4: "Lady Firebrand" by Megan Shepherd
1863 - Charleston, South Carolina
Rating = 5
Rose, the main character, is an abolitionist from Boston who is visiting relatives in the Charleston area amidst the raging Civil War. Rose decided to come South after a riding accident left her paralyzed. She wants to continue to help the abolitionist movement, but not having the use of her legs makes her old skills and antics out of reach. Instead, she works with her best friend, a freed girl named Pauline. The pair has crafted a persona, Lord Firebrand, who sabotages cotton shipments and other Confederate plans within the area. The girls soon join forces with a dashing Union spy to intercept a shipment of weapons headed to the Confederate Army. It is not often that females with physical disabilities like Rose's take center stage in YA Literature. I loved that Rose was still one of the strongest characters I have had the pleasure of meeting and despite a few moments of trepidation, she does not allow her condition to keep her from being brave. Rose's brilliant mind and courage coupled with Pauline's bravery and tenacity make for a wonderful superhero. I would love to see this one turned into a larger work as I feel like Rose and Pauline have a lot more to say. This was one of my favorites in the collection.
Her father had shaken his head. You don't need to walk to make a difference for the Union.
~ Kindle Location 1063
Story #5: "Step Right Up" by Jessica Spotswood
1905 - Tulsa, Indian Territory
Rating = 4
This story revolves around Ruby, a girl who craves a bigger existence than her small town can provide. Her father used to take her to the circus each year when they would roll into town and Ruby has always craved the glamor and spotlight that the performers receive. She has been practicing her skills to one day be a tightrope walker. The story opens with her scaling the roof of a local church and attempting to walk across its peak. After an embarrassing tumble, Ruby is punished by her uncle for her outlandish stunt and he decides to take away the one thing she loves most - her time at the circus. Stuck behind a locked door, Ruby fears that she will miss her adopted family this year when they roll into town, but a cunning younger sister and best friend, help spring Ruby. This story focuses on the camaraderie of the circus and the different notions of what it means to be family.
Circus performers are meant to look exotic, like they're braver and more mysterious than regular folks. That's part of the illusion.
~ Kindle Location 1407
Story #6: "Glamour" by Anna-Marie McLemore
1923 - Los Angeles & the Central Valley, California
Rating = 4
In her typical fashion, McLemore has crafted a beautiful and mystical story full of magical realism. I love that she dusts a bit of fairy dust on every story that she writes. This particular story focuses on Graciela aka Grace who has always longed to be a leading lady in the movies. She has obsessively poured over magazines and waited in line to see films all in the hopes that one day she can take her spot alongside the starlets of her daydreams, but Graciela learns that Hollywood is all about glitz and glamor if you have the right sort of look. Sadly, the roles for Latina actresses are not glitzy or glamorous. In order to circumnavigate the discrimination, Graciela uses an old family magic to change her appearance. While she's on set in LA, she morphs into Grace with snowdrift skin, blue eyes, and blond hair. Hiding her true identity takes a toll on her and when she heads home for the Easter holidays, Graciela allows her true self to show once more. This Easter everything is different because she brings home Sawyer, a boy she met on set who seems to be hiding secrets of his own. Graciela must decide if she wants to be who she was born to be or if she's willing to cast it all aside to follow a dream with someone else's face.
She loved her family's generous laughter, how they invited strangers to their table for tamales at Christmas and chiles en nogada in the fall. The warmth of masa and the dark sugar of pomegranates was the smell of their kindness.
~ Kindle Location 1694
Story #7: "Better for All the World" by Marieke Nijkamp
1927 - Washington, D.C.
Rating = 3
Carrie Allen has always been different. She's never quite fit in with her family or society's expectations. She keeps people at arms length and affection isn't one of her fortes. She has no desire to fill the gender norm of the time by marrying and having children. Carrie finds that she is most content when she is in a courtroom or studying; her lifelong dream is to become an attorney. It's this desire that has her sitting in the upper levels of the Supreme Court as they hear and deliberate on the case of Buck v. Bell on the topic of forced sterilization. I knew that people in the past had been forcibly sterilized for a variety of reasons including mental illness and socioeconomic status, but I didn't know that the Supreme Court had set a precedent for such behavior. It is shocking and appalling to think about the rights that were stripped from so many without their consent and at times, their knowledge.
When it's better for all the world that we are not given chances, the only option we have left - the only option I have left - is to grab them instead. To fight for them, even if it means courting probable failure.
~ Kindle Location 2107
Story #8: "When the Moonlight Isn't Enough" by Dhonielle Clayton
1943 - Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts
Rating = 5
This story was another favorite of mine from this collection. It focuses on Emma, who appears to be sixteen, but is actually over one hundred years old due to her family's ability to drink moonlight. I really wanted to know more about this strange ability, but I didn't get all my answers due to the length of the story. In spite of that, I loved this as it showcases the African American experience during WWII. I cannot imagine what it would be like to want to fight for a country that denied me my rights because of the color of my skin. Emma struggles with her loyalty to her parents, her cultural identity, and her desire to forge her own path. Despite her appearance, Emma is truly able to make her own choices and decide her own future. The balance between patriotism and race is a concept I have never had to consider, but I am so thankful for stories like this one that help me understand history through another set of eyes. I want to be cognizant of these things as I craft lessons about history. I want my students to see events through multiple perspectives and to see themselves reflected in the historical narrative as well as fiction. I'm already considering how I could use this as a read aloud text or use an excerpt with students. I also think Clayton makes an excellent point in her author's note section when she states, "I like history with a teaspoon of magic. I need it to counteract the pain and bitterness, making history more palatable for me as a black American" (Kindle Location 2425). I think it is so important as white educator that I remember statements like this when I am choosing how to present history and choosing texts to use in my classroom. I would love to see Emma's story evolve into a larger work.
I watch the sky. It looks different now. Maybe gunpowder gets trapped in the clouds and these have drifted across the Atlantic from the battlefields. Maybe it's just me - and my eyes have changed and I can't see the same things anymore.
~ Kindle Location 2133
Story #9: "The Belle of the Ball" by Sarvena Tash
1952 - Brooklyn, New York
Rating = 4
Rosemary lives to make people laugh. She and her best friend at school are constantly working on this passion. Rosemary writes the script and her friend is the leading lady. In a time when "I Love Lucy" was on most television sets, Rosemary is striving to enter a career field that is male dominated. She wants to write comedy for tv, but she is also trying to balance the role her parents want her to fill. She could care less about attending her debutante ball and making her debut to society, but she agrees to things like this in order to please her mother. Rosemary learns throughout the course of this story that women are indeed capable of being truly funny and that standing up for yourself is often the hardest and most rewarding experience of our youth. She has to forge her own path and that includes choosing who she wants to be romantically entangled with in spite of what people might say about her Latino neighbor, Tomas. She might as well knock down all the barriers in order to make her dreams come true.
There was probably more to be said on a beautiful moonlit spring night, standing in front of a boy I liked in a ball gown and bare feet. But there was something more important that I simply had to do right then, before the jumbled words in my head had a chance to escape into the abyss.
"I have to go. To write."
~ Kindle Location 2735
Story #10: "Land of the Sweet, Home of the Brave" by Stacey Lee
1955 - Oakland, California
Rating = 5
Lana Lau comes from a family of tenacious people who are doing everything in their power to grasp the rung of the ladder that will elevate them to the American Dream, but when you're mother is half Japanese and your father is Chinese that climb seems more difficult than it does for others. In spite of WWII being over for around a decade, Asian Americans still face their share of discrimination and mistrust. Lana's parents work difficult jobs for less pay than their white counterparts and they want to give Lana opportunities they never had. The family escaped the internment camps during the war because they lived in Hawaii working on large plantations. Mainland Japanese Americans weren't a vital labor source which made them the primary target and left the groups on the Hawaiian islands spared to continue their agricultural work. Her family immigrated to California after the war and her mother began working for a local sugar company. Lana agrees to enter a contest looking for the next Miss Sugar Maiden to grace the companies billboards and promotional materials, but she is convinced that the title will go to a white girl. Lana is one of those girls I would certainly want in my group of friends. She is sarcastic, humorous, and isn't afraid to put people in their place when the situation is warranted. This story reminded me that family is our most important treasure and humor binds humanity. This story rounded out my trio of favorites.
Anyway, maybe it was time for a nonwhite on the box. Sugar Maiden's product comes directly from Hawaii, born of the sweat of thousands of islanders - Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Korean, and Filipinos - yet the girls on the boxes have always been as snowy as its contents.
~ Kindle Location 2800
Story #11: "The Birth of Susi Go-Go" by Meg Medina
1972 - Queens, New York
Rating = 4
Susana is a Cuban immigrant who is struggling to balance her Cuban heritage and her American upbringing when she can barely remember the island nation she escaped as a child. While her parents wax rhapsodic about the good old days when Cuba was pre-Castro, Susana can't remember a Cuba without the stain of Communism and violence; she has worked hard to forget the last days before her family fled Cuba. Part of her wants to erase her past and forget that Cuba ever existed. Susana's story is an all too common one for immigrant youth. It has varying degrees based on the age they moved to the U.S. but trying to reconcile two halves of yourself can't be an easy process. The symbol of Susana's desire to become more American is a pair of white go-go boots. They become a visual reminder for her parents that their daughter is creating a new culture for herself in their adopted homeland.
A book can bring bad dreams, but memories are more efficient enemies. Soldiers know this. Children of War. And Susana.
~ Kindle Location 3034
Story #12: "Take Me With U" by Sara Farizan
1984 - Boston, Massachusetts
Rating = 3
While teens in the U.S. are debating which record to buy and discussing the values of various brands of hairspray, Soheila, a teen from Iran, is just trying to make it day to day. Her parents sent her to the states to escape the the war raging in her homeland. This story added a different element as Soheila's refugee status adds another dimension to her character. Knowing little English, Soheila relies on her younger cousin to translate for her as she is more comfortable in her native language of Farsi. The cousins eventually meet their upstairs neighbor who will open a whole new world up to Soheila and help her learn more about America than she ever imagined. Music has the power to provide roots and a sense of home even in the darkest of times. It's through music that Soheila finds comfort from worrying about her family in Iran and dealing with new stresses of American life. It provides her a lifelong that she was desperately seeking and gives her confidence.
My hair whipped side to side, and the more I poured all my rage, all my hurt, all my heartsick, into the void, the more the audience responded. The roar of the audience quieted the footage of the tanks, silenced my aunt's words, and briefly killed my worry about my parents and friends back home.
~ Kindle Location 3525
One Last Gripe: I don't have one, but I truly hope we continue to get more anthologies and novels like this one that showcase history through new eyes.
Favorite Thing About This Book: The diverse assortment of leading ladies
First Sentence: In 2015, when I finished editing A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers, & Other Badass Girls, I knew I wanted to edit another feminist historical fiction anthology.
Favorite Character: Emma from "When the Moonlight Isn't Enough" by Dhonielle Clayton
Least Favorite Character: Ray from "The Magician" by Erin Bowman
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.