Last week, I read two books from Filipino writers, mostly by coincidence. My friend Chachic (who’s from the Philippines herself) had mentioned Candy Gourlay’s books and I found a copy of Tall Story at the library. I had also heard good things about Erin Entrada Kelly’s Blackbird Fly (Kelly is Filipino American). Given that Chachic is also promoting Filipino books and authors this month, it seemed like a good time to review these two!
Tall Story by Candy Gourlay is told in alternating narration by Andi, who lives with her Filipino mom and British dad in the UK, and Bernardo, her older half brother who has been raised by his aunt and uncle in the Philippines. At the beginning of the book, he is finally allowed to rejoin his mom in the UK. But unbeknownst to her, Nardo has grown tall. Very, very tall. Meanwhile, Andi and her parents have just moved, leaving Andi’s beloved school and basketball team behind.
Bernardo struggles with leaving his village in the Philippines behind. This is understandable regardless: moving to a new place is often hard and moving half-way across the world to live with a mother you barely know would be especially so. But for Bernardo, there’s also the fact that his village believes he is good luck for them, protecting them from the earthquakes in the region.
And for Andi, there’s also a disruption as she was just named point guard in her school’s basketball team when her parents announce that they are moving. She finds out that her new school does have a team, but when she shows up to the try-outs, she discovers that it’s an all-boy team.
I liked this one quite a bit; Bernardo and Andi obviously care about each other even though they sometimes find each other baffling and even annoying. Their mom and Andi’s dad are somewhat oblivious to their kids, but they way Gourlay writes this, it came across as human and real rather than them being terrible parents.
At any rate, I thought this was a nice depiction of families, of the tension between the place you have left behind and the place you find yourself, and finding your own strengths. I think it would resonate with a lot of kids.
Apple Yengko in Erin Entrada Kelly’s Blackbird Fly, has some similarities to Andi. Her mother is a widowed Filipina who emigrates and builds a new life (this time in America). Also like Andi, Apple has a frustrated passion: music. Her most prized possession is her father’s old tape of Abbey Road, and her deepest dream is to learn to play guitar.
But Apple’s mother refuses to let her buy a guitar, and as the story opens she finds that she is on the middle school’s Dog Log, a list of the supposed ugliest girls in the school. Her old friends distance themselves from her, and Apple spends most of the book wishing for a way to be someone else, and to make music.
I found this one a somewhat difficult book to read, not because it’s badly written, but because everything seems so awful for so long. Kelly writes about the torments and anxieties of middle school very well, and perhaps for that exact reason, I found the middle portion of this book tough. As Apple rebuilds her sense of self, finding new friends amongst the other outcasts of the middle school, things definitely improve. And the end is lovely and triumphant, especially with a surprise revelation from Apple’s mother that ties up the themes of family and memory.
I also suspect that part of what made this story a hard one to read is the fact that as an adult it’s very easy to see what is happening and Apple’s own missteps. It’s quite possible that for a younger reader, the whole experience of reading this book would be different.