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Kaleidoscope cover

Kaleidoscope is a short fiction anthology on a quest—or, more accurately, on three simultaneous and parallel quests. It's first and foremost a collection of speculative fiction stories, invested in exploring the possibilities and impossibilities of contemporary fantasy and science fiction. It's also aimed at young adults, those most mercurial readers between the ages, from what I can tell, of four and a hundred. And finally, it's a collection of diverse stories, which means the authors and protagonists here reflect the world we live in, in all its kaleidoscopic glory.

As a collection of speculative fiction, Kaleidoscope represents a buffet-like sampling of science fiction and fantasy themes. Some of the flavors are familiar—there are time-travel stories and shape-shifting stories, a handful of aliens and vampires—but almost all of them offer something unexpected and valuable, the way good stories are supposed to.

Tim Susman's "The Lovely Duckling" does old-made-new especially well. Told through a series of phone transcripts, emails, and arrest records (I am such a sucker for documentary-style framing in fiction), it's a story about a young girl's application to Mt. Hood Special Abilities School. If you read "special abilities" and thought: "I bet it's about teens who are born with semi-magical mutations for which they suffer discrimination, and a school that serves as a refuge and training ground," then good, we're all on the same page. But Susman does X-men with skill, remaking it into a story about the dysmorphic pain people suffer when their inner and outer selves don't match, and the bravery necessary to bring them into alignment.

As a collection of young adult fiction, Kaleidoscope also succeeds—but the criteria here are murkier, because no one can agree exactly what young adult fiction is supposed to be. Is it any fiction starring a teen protagonist? Any fiction read by teens, or marketed to them? Or, as Ruth Graham recently argued at Slate, is it a fundamentally simplistic genre whose popularity among adults is a sign of our dying culture?[1]

If nothing else, Kaleidoscope can help lay that last fear to rest. These stories vary between optimistic and ambiguous and grim; they feature romance and loss and friendship and isolation; they happen in classrooms and gritty streets and bedrooms. They're YA only in that the protagonists are young and the writing is accessible.

And, I suppose, they're all essentially coming-of-age stories, or finding-yourself stories. But this is such a big, fundamental-to-the-human-experience theme that it strengthens the collection rather than makes it repetitive. In Tansy Rayner Roberts's "Cookie Cutter Super Hero," a young girl enters a super-hero-maker-machine and emerges with a body of her own choosing. In Faith Mudge's "Signature," a bookstore cashier faces her fears and finds her strength (and defeats a vampiric Rumpelstiltskin). And in Amal El-Mohtar's recently reprinted "The Truth about Owls," a Lebanese immigrant comes to terms with her family, her past and her identity—and finds her own complicated truth. These are not, in Graham's charming turn of phrase, "maudlin teen dramas."

Kaleidoscope's final quest, however, is its most unique, successful, and satisfyingly realized: every story is intentionally, beautifully diverse. And "diverse" doesn't mean there are a few characters of color thrown in as sidekicks or tragic victims—it means an intersectional tapestry woven from the unheard voices and unseen faces in our literary landscape. Out of twenty stories, thirteen feature protagonists of color and eleven take place outside the US. Even more rarely, non-neurotypical characters are featured in four stories, and physical disabilities are represented in five.

If you're reading those stats and shrugging your shoulders—or even, god help you, rolling your eyes—I'm not sure I can explain the entire history of exclusionary fiction and the subversive power of intentional representation in a single paragraph. So I won't try. Instead, let Shveta Thakrar (whose story "Krishna Blue" is a gorgeously visual piece on finding your artistic voice) explain its effects on a personal level:

"I wished so fervently to be white with blue eyes so there would be a place for me. When I started writing, I wrote about characters like that, because they were the ones stories happened to . . . No one should ever feel like that about any part of their identity. And for that to change, we have to change the stories we tell." [2]

Books like Kaleidoscope, and movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks, are fighting against the still-depressing statistical realities of children's and YA publishing, trying to change the stories we tell. [3] From Ken Liu's charming, whimsical reinvention of a Chinese tale in "Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon," to William Alexander's story of border-crossing between the moon and Earth ("Welcome"), the stories collected by Krasnostein and Rios succeed in their mission, and prove that stories happen to everyone—not just those teenagers who happen to look like the Hardy Boys.

There's just one story left I need to talk about, saved for the end of this review like the last slice of cheesecake on a hot summer day: Sofia Samatar's "Walkdog." I need you all to pay very close attention to what I'm about to say, so set down your coffee and lean towards the screen.

Closer.

"Walkdog" is something very close to perfection. I knew it from the first line:

"This paper is in response to the assignment "Know Your Environment". In this paper I will discuss an animal called Walkdog which is native to my local environment which is South Orange, New Jersey."

When I saw that darling period wandering outside its cozy quotation, I realized this was the most heartbreakingly authentic voice I've heard in a long time. By the second paragraph, I'd lassoed my partner onto the couch with me to peer at the Kindle screen and read it together:

"What is Walkdog? Well Mrs. Patterson you probably know better than me. However, I am writing this paper and not you, because I need the grade as you know very well, so here is what I know."

If those two lines make the same twanging sound in your chest as they did in mine, just bow out of this review early and go read it yourselves. If you need convincing, let me explain: this is a monster story (or maybe an urban legend) told through a high-schooler's assignment. It's about the Walkdog ("contrary to it's name is not a dog. It is more like a beaver or large rat," which came to the Americas from Europe or Asia, or maybe in the hold of a slave ship from Africa. Now it haunts the sewers and steals children away, maybe to walk and walk for years, trying to come back home.

It's a story about bullying, and first love, and the survivor's guilt of being the kid who stayed under the radar while others suffered. I literally—out loud, in the physical sense—laughed and cried when I read it.

Part of the story's great charm is hidden in the ample footnote-age. Now, some people have very strong feelings about footnotes in works of fiction, on the grounds that the information in the footnote is either necessary (in which case it should be in the main narrative) or unnecessary (in which case it should be summarily deleted (some purists even feel the same way about parentheses, if you can imagine)), but this story could melt even the hardest of hearts. [4]

You can sit back in your chair. I've let the fanatical light in my eyes fade.

So, read Kaleidoscope to witness the successful navigation of three quests. Read it for the charmingly sweet stories and the chilling, ambiguous ones, for the aliens and urban legends and super hero machines. Read it to remember the terrifying, heartbreaking process of finding yourself as a teenager. Read it for "Walkdog."

Read it to see the world for the "gorgeous kaleidoscope" it truly is. [5]

Endnotes

  1. Ruth Graham, "Against YA," Slate.com, and Joel Stein, "Adults Should Read Adult Books," New York Times.[return]
  2. Shveta Thakrar, "Kaleidoscope—Guest Post," Visibility Fiction.[return]
  3. For example: African Americans still make up less than 4% of children’s authors; books by nonwhite authors tend to receive less marketing and advertising spending from publishers; and books by people of color are disproportionately suppressed by book challenges. Amy Rothschild, "The World of Children’s Books is Still Very White," FiveThirtyEight; Malinda Lo, "Book Challenges Suppress Diversity," Diversity in YA.[return]
  4. But other people, myself included, feel that footnotes are the delightful detours, the half-hidden fairy roads at the corners of my favorite stories. They represent all things messy and nonlinear and indulgent, the written equivalent of coloring outside the lines. For my favorite example of the Power of Footnoting, read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. [return]
  5. Kate Linnea Welsh "How to Make Young Adult Fiction More Diverse," The Atlantic. [return]

Alix E. Harrow teaches history and posts speculative fiction reviews on her personal blog. She lives in a romantically dilapidated farmhouse with her partner in Kentucky.



Alix E. Harrow recently resettled in her old Kentucky home, where she teaches African and African American history, reviews speculative fiction, and tinkers with fiction. She and her partner spend their time rescuing their gloriously dilapidated home from imminent collapse, and accumulating books and animals.
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