Monday, September 29, 2014

Unstoppable Octobia May

Bestselling and award-winning author, Sharon G. Flake, delivers a mystery set in the 1950s that eerily blends history, race, culture, and family.

Octobia May is girl filled with questions. Her heart condition makes her special - and, some folks would argue, gives this ten-year-old powers that make her a "wise soul." Thank goodness for Auntie, who convinces Octobia's parents to let her live in her boarding house that is filled with old folks. That's when trouble, and excitement, and wonder begin. Auntie is non-traditional. She's unmarried and has plans to purchase other boarding homes and hotels. At a time when children, and especially girls, are "seen, not heard," Auntie allows Octobia May the freedom and expression of an adult. When Octobia starts to question the folks in her world, an adventure and a mystery unfold that beg some troubling questions: Who is black and who is "passing" for white? What happens when a vibrant African American community must face its own racism?

And, perhaps most important: Do vampires really exist? In her most and probing novel yet, Sharon G. Flake takes us on a heart-pumping journey.

Unstoppable Octobia May is the first book I read on the Kindle app on my phone. What took me so long? I read this book in a flash because I was always able to sneak in a page or two, no matter where I was.

I'm a big fan of Sharon G. Flake; all of my students, no matter where I live, have read The Skin I'm In. Now that I'm back in The Bahamas, I like being able to add to the collection of titles with main characters that are African American. Even better, this is a mystery that will have readers puzzling until the very end.

Still, I didn't adore this book the way I enjoyed others by Flake. At times, I found it confusing to follow the plot, or even who was speaking. It's very rare that I have this problem, so I think it would be a big issue for younger readers. While Octobia May and her best friend Jonah were very developed, there were far too many other adult characters to keep track of, often with only one or two distinguishing characteristics and no physical descriptions. Despite being geared towards middle grade readers, it may be challenging for them to read.

For me, the best part of the book was the friendship between Octobia and Jonah. It reminded me of the relationship between Scout and Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird: the mischief, loyalty, and closeness that comes from growing up together and being through so many adventures. I often ask my students what is the residue of a story, what sticks with them. For me, it will be the image of Octobia forcing Jonah to perm her hair and then being angry with the results. This affected me more than any of the mystery that followed.

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