Book Reviews Books

“21 Questions” uses a tried-and-tested formula for YA and misses the mark

21 Questions is a book about two high school teenagers, Brock and Kendra, who despite their differences form a meaningful relationship with each other and grow as individuals because of their bond. The book explores themes of grief, love, and friendship – all through the lens of the characters themselves. 

The book is set in Laguna Beach in California. This setting is important because Kendra is training to become a professional surfer. Her brother, who died before the book begins, was primed to enter the professional surfing sphere before he died of a drug overdose. Kendra has been experiencing anxiety attacks ever since. Surfing and meditation are what help her get through it.

Brock, on the other hand, could not be more different. His parents run a successful drug-dealing operation and Brock has been roped into the family business. He sells to classmates and friends. When we first meet Brock, it is clear that although he seems to enjoy this life, his first love is music – something he cannot pursue because of his parents’ expectations. When Brock and Kendra meet, they have an undeniable and immediate mutual attraction. The chapters alternate between Brock and Kendra’s points of view, giving the reader more insight into their thoughts and motivations.

I have mixed feelings about the style of language in this book. I admire the switch in the tone of language between Kendra’s and Brock’s points of view. Brock’s chapters are narrated the way he thinks – with a lot of slang and curse words, while Kendra is less angry and shyer. However, the excessive slang and text language make the book hard to read at times.

The novel is full of tropes. The underlying themes of this book are predictable. The bad boy male protagonist charms the straight-as-an-arrow female protagonist. He teaches her to relax and she teaches him to be a better person. It’s a formula that’s been applied many times before. Kendra is Brock’s muse in the sense that she is his motivation to stop selling drugs and play music. This is not to say that such formulae cannot be used – after all, they are so popular because they mostly work. But I personally do not think that was the case for 21 Questions.


Although it was heartening to see the characters learn and grow, I did not feel that inexplicable sympathy a reader needs to root for the characters. Kendra’s thoughts veered towards the ‘I’m not like other girls’ territory, throwing the feminism of the book into question. In fact, all the characters seemed to be one-dimensional. The girls who are not Kendra are overly superficial. Brock and his friends seemed to be obsessed with sex and not much else. Brock’s love for music does add another layer to his personality – but the troubled musician character is not one that I have patience for after reading and watching him so many times.

The story is on the whole predictable but is not without its surprising twists and turns. I would not have much of an issue with the plot if only it was told better. Two teenagers who have past family traumas that they are trying to get over in order to live their own lives. As a reader, I would have liked to root for the main characters a little more. Perhaps if they had more depth this would have been easier. I also felt that the epilogue was entirely unnecessary, but I will concede that I have a personal disinclination towards epilogues.


If you like knowing what the characters are up to in the future, then this book has a comprehensive epilogue that ties up the characters’ journeys nicely, albeit rather self-indulgently. By the end of the book, the characters have grown up. I just wish the same could be said of the book itself.

Want to give this book a try? Buy it on Bookshop or Indiebound and support local bookstores.

Race Books Pop Culture Inequality

YA author canceled her debut novel, ‘Blood Heir,’ after accusations of racism

Over the past few weeks, what started as quiet exchanges and carefully censored commentary on inclusive fiction within the young adult community exploded into controversy.

The heart of the furor? Blood Heir, a Russian-inspired fantasy from debut author Amelie Wen Zhao slated to release later this year, was pulled after fellow YA authors raised concerns that the book was racially insensitive in its handling of slavery and the death of a black character.

Many have lamented the situation as a loss to Zhao, despite her publisher acknowledging that they will be publishing the books bought from her in her original deal and her agent stands behind her, meanwhile, the two women of color authors who originally offered critique have been brigaded and sent death threats.

Blood Heir is not the first book to be the subject of such debate and upheaval.

From Laura Moriarty’s take on potential Muslim internment camps in American Heart to Jack Gantos’ A Suicide Bomber Sits In A Library, the concept of what makes inclusive fiction worth reading has included a great deal of criticism for books that do not make the cut.

The fact that Zhao’s removal has caused such upset seems to touch on this ignorant rule that all-inclusive fiction should be accepted for its existence and effort.

In many of the articles that denounce Zhao’s critics as part of a jealous, vicious mob of “PC culture,” they’ve seemed to have seized on Zhao being a fresh-faced immigrant who had no idea of the cultural implications of making a Black character enslaved and doomed to die first for the sake of a white protagonist.

By pointing out that Zhao is a woman of color, her defenders suggest that less scrutiny should be placed on her efforts of representation. After all, how can a woman of color be racist against other people of color? And how can an immigrant be held to account for America’s history of racism and bigotry?

This is one argument that is often raised in regards to the critique of inclusive fiction. It cannot be denied that American exceptionalism does not apply to all writers’ backgrounds and personal missions in writing their narratives.

However, anti-blackness and colorism are global issues that are apparent in both Asian and Asian-American communities. So to give Zhao a free pass because of her ethnicity is reckless and dismissive of the societal triggers these portrayals of past trauma causes.

Many point to Zhao’s cancellation, a rarity in an industry where books are more often given the chance to be rewritten, as a double standard that would not have occurred if she were a white author. While this may be true that still does not excuse the pain that she acknowledges she caused these marginalized groups.

Speaking from personal experience as being one of the bloggers who braved the Islamophobic premise of American Heart, inclusive fiction done wrong is not an easy thing to swallow. It is never easy to read narratives in which your existence is stereotyped, demonized, and belittled.

The fact that such narratives are defended and marginalized voices are instructed to “read before critiquing” proves that there is nothing revolutionary, important or educational about them. It is a perpetuation of what inclusive fiction sets out to deconstruct.

Representation isn’t valuable if it means diminishing the others.

Like it or not, inclusive fiction does not merely mean plopping in a marginalized character or two and calling it a day. Writing about people who have historically been denied respectful representation can never be taken so lightly.

It requires thought and research, and understanding in some cases about who gets to tell a story and whether or not that person is you. There is no divorcing real-life histories, divisions and suffering from fictional narratives.

In the case of American Heart, the premise of a potential internment camp wasn’t actually the issue so much as the author’s decision to deny her Muslim character any real presence and place all focus on a white protagonist.

Meanwhile, author Samira Ahmed’s upcoming Internment, on the same topic, has been welcomed. The difference is not merely the fact that Ahmad is a Muslim-American author, but rather the care and research that she has repeatedly referenced in the process of writing the title.

Even if an author decides to write about marginalized communities outside of their own, they have the option of sensitivity readers. These are paid readers —some are often authors— who are solicited by the publisher to scour a manuscript for insensitivity and problematic materials. This route would have been useful for writers like Zhao, who despite having an immigrant background and experiences with oppression, are not accustomed to the lived traumas of others.

So if nothing else, Blood Heir has certainly demonstrated that the We Need Diverse Books movement does not stop at that simple, stirring statement. Rather than denouncing this situation as censorship, this an opportunity to discuss what is really needed to move forward with the inclusive fiction movement.

Books Pop Culture

Muslim Terrorist Main Character? Aw, hell naw!

A few days ago, a blurb about a book titled American Terrorist by Todd Strasser went up and caused an uproar in the book community. Here’s the blurb of the book:

Khalil feels trapped. No matter how hard he works to assimilate or to be a good American boy, he hits a wall. He’s called names and is profiled daily. Although his best friend has aspirations to build an app and make both of them teenage millionaires, Khalil finds his future bleak. Especially since his parents had to move back to their country of origin to assist the family they’ve left behind, and he’s left living with his older, more radical brother.

As Khalil struggles to continue being the star student, he becomes more bitter about his situation, and he begins searching for a way to make peace with himself. He wants to take action like his brother has. Like they are called to do. The people who have created this system of oppression must pay.”

There are so many things wrong with this book. As most people stated on Twitter, this book description is so beyond the realm of okay and throws the whole “We Need Diverse Books” movement beneath the table. I have no idea how a young adult book that stereotypes a community of one billion people is being published during a time when so many minority authors have pushed back against these types of books.

I’m so done with authors who decide to write about a minority group and clearly know nothing about the group. I’m not against authors writing about characters whose backgrounds are entirely different than their own but for the love of god and all things chocolate, please do your research.

[bctt tweet=”I’m so done with authors who decide to write about a minority and know nothing.” username=”wearethetempest”]

If Todd had consulted actual Muslims and reached out to Muslim beta readers, I’m sure they would have told him that having a book with a Muslim character who wants “wants to take action like his brother has. Like they are called to do”  and who thinks “the people who have created this system of oppression must pay” is highly offensive and does nothing but perpetuate stereotypes.  Also, what the hell does the phrase “the people who created this system of oppression” mean? It seems this book is playing into the us versus them (the West vs. Muslims) narrative that’s thrown all over the place and is so incredibly misinformed.

[bctt tweet=”Or maybe a Muslim teenager will pick up this book and feel further marginalized. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

Authors, especially those of young adult books, have a responsibility to truthfully portray the cultures that they are depicting. A number of the teenagers who may pick up this book will have never met a Muslim before and this book could potentially be the first book they have read with a Muslim main character. Or maybe a Muslim teenager will pick up this book and feel even further marginalized. There are certain questions that author Todd Strasser really needed to think through before producing this book and that his editor at Simon & Schuster should have considered before approving this book to be published. A few of the questions that come to mind are: what kind of message will a book about a Muslim kid who wants to make “oppressors” “pay” send to someone who has never met a Muslim?; What message does it send to the Muslim high schooler who only ever sees himself represented in books as a terrorist?; How does this book help a Muslim kid who is already bullied for being different?; Does this book cause more harm than good? Based on the description of this book, these questions really haven’t been considered and all likelihood, this book only only further hurt an already misunderstood community.

[bctt tweet=” I want books that showcase Muslims but don’t emphasize stereotypes.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I have a couple of friends who said that maybe this book is just showing the process of being radicalized and isn’t really trying to paint a negative image of Muslims. I don’t fully buy that argument because even if the goal of this book is show how terrorist become terrorists, the very fact that it’s about a Muslim teenage boy who becomes a terrorist is reinforcing a stereotype. There are very very few young adult books with Muslim main characters out there so when I do see one being released, I’m always looking for ones that don’t discuss topics that are traditionally surrounding Muslims. In the news, Muslim men are always discussed in the context of terrorism and Muslim women in the context of arranged marriage — however,  there’s so much more to Muslims than those flashy headlines. Chaplain Khalid Latif recently released a piece on the New York Times about purchasing his first dining table. I loved that piece because it offered a perspective of Muslims that is usually not highlighted in media — Muslims buy dining tables guys! I want books that showcase Muslims but don’t feel the need to emphasize stereotypes surrounding Islam.

[bctt tweet=”I don’t frame every minute of my life in religion. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

I want books with Muslim characters that showcase the reality of what it is to be Muslim, which means that the book should not only focus on their being Muslim. Believe it or not, I don’t wake up in the morning, look in the mirror while getting ready and think “I’m a Muslim woman who is putting on mascara” or “I am a Muslim woman who is brushing her teeth.” I don’t frame every minute of my life in religion. Instead, in the morning I think things like “damn, I look like hell” or “gah, need coffee now!.” I want books with Muslim main characters who like to bake cupcakes, fall in and out of love, or buy freakin’ dining room tables. I don’t need any more books that sensationalize Muslims and just further make them out to be “the other.”

[bctt tweet=”The rule is simple: Get it right or don’t publish.” username=”wearethetempest”]

For future authors who want to write about Muslims, or any minority groups for that matter, and for publishing houses who want to publish that book, please do your research first and make sure that the book offers an accurate portrayal of the minority group. The rule is simple: Get it right or don’t publish.