Ada Twist, Scientist – Andrea Beaty (author), David Roberts (illustrator)

Ada Twist CoverFirst Published: 6th September, 2016
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Ada Marie Twist loves to explore things and ask questions. It might just be that she’s a scientist.

The story is in rhyming verse and broadly splits into two parts. The opening has Ada as a baby growing up. Her family notice that she loves to explore things, along with the chaos this causes. Once she starts talking, she has endless questions about the world. This introduces the general idea of the things that make a good scientist.

I liked that Ada doesn’t speak until she’s a toddler. Children don’t follow an exact timeline of development, and it’s treated as something to not worry about. However, the text does assume she will speak eventually. This could hit the wrong way for children who are non-verbal, in presenting speech as something that will happen for everyone.

This thread wouldn’t have sustained the whole book, but it then switches to the second part. Ada notices a really terrible smell, and decides to investigate what’s causing it. She doesn’t find the solution, but the evidence is there in the pictures and the answer can be guessed. This shows science doesn’t have all the answers and encourages readers to come up with the answer. However, it does mean the plot trails off rather than having a firm resolution. This may not work for some readers.

The artwork is done with watercolour, pen and ink. Graph paper and pencil elements are used for the backgrounds. The characters have great expressions. I especially like Ada’s sibling, who is often shown pointing at Ada when she’s made a mess.

This book is in a series of similar books about children with science and technology interests. There’s some reference to that, as they all go to the same school, but it isn’t needed to read the others before this one. It is very clear that it’s an American school, as Ada’s class is referred to by grade, so it could cause some confusion for children in other countries.

My biggest reservation happens outside the story, because there is an author’s note at the end. Ada’s namesakes are introduced: Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie. There’s also a comment that women have always been involved in science. This is true, but the book shows Ada as a black girl. The two named examples are not. I’d have liked to see at least one black woman named, even if she wasn’t Ada’s namesake. The obstacles Ada (and readers like her) will face are not only going to be about gender.

In general, I thought it was a cute book with a positive message about young girls interested in science. The way the plot ends is likely to work for some readers and not for others, so that’s worth keeping in mind. The family cat does face some peril at points in the story, but it’s stopped before the cat comes to any harm.

The Light of the World – Ellen Simpson

Light of the World CoverFirst Published: December, 2015
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Eva is coping with the loss of her grandmother, Mary. When she finds Mary’s teenaged diaries, she has a mystery to unravel about a girl called Wren and the light of the world.

This wasn’t quite the novel I expected. It sounded like it’d be more epistolary, but the diary entries and other documents are scattered through occasionally. It’s mainly a standard narrative in structure. What I did expect were the two contrasting love stories. One is in the past, as Wren and Mary fall in love at a time when such things weren’t very public. The other is Eva meeting Liv, who works at a local bookstore. Along with Liv, the other bookstore workers are Theo (the owner) and Al (his son), who help Eva uncover more information about her grandmother.

Eva is depressed and has previously attempted suicide. The early part of the book is the hardest to read from this perspective, as her family did not react well. They fell into labelling her as selfish and cowardly. As it begins at Mary’s funeral, and then sorting Mary’s apartment with Eva’s parents, there’s no rest from this atmosphere. It makes Eva think about her suicide attempt, and also means Eva isn’t exactly the best version of herself. She’s very judgemental and quick to anger at the people who attend the funeral. Once her parents disappear off, things do calm down. Eva has her own space and isn’t constantly being forced to push back against her family’s reactions.

There are things I liked about the handling of depression. Medication is shown as something positive, rather than something to be avoided. Eva isn’t a different person when she takes it. She’s just a person who is better able to cope with daily tasks. There’s also discussion of generational differences in handling depression. Her older relatives don’t like to talk about such things and certainly wouldn’t want to admit they needed help.

There are some relationship hierarchy terms used with Mary and Wren, such as debating whether they are more than friends. Overall though, the narrative doesn’t devalue friendship. It’s not all about Eva falling in love with Liv. It’s important that Liv and Al are Eva’s friends. Eva’s time at the bookstore is about finding a support network, and overcoming her past issues making friends, rather than being a story about romantic love conquering all. This is a refreshing change from books that jettison all other relationships once the romance starts. Also, none of the relationships mean she suddenly doesn’t have depression anymore.

The identity of people in relationships is left open in some cases. Eva is bi (stated directly) and Liv appears to be a lesbian. But Eva is hesitant to assume an identity for Mary or Wren. At first, I wondered if this was going to be about not liking labels, but it was more that Eva acknowledged it was hard to know how people in the past would identify, and easy to erase by assuming. An example would be bi erasure by assuming Mary must be a lesbian based on one relationship.

There are a couple of Jewish supporting characters. The first, Elsie, is from Mary’s diaries. There’s very little about her, other than she seems something of a social rebel who doesn’t feel like she fits in the Jewish community. The other is Al from the bookstore.

Al has a grandmother from Ethiopia, who moved to Israel, then to the USA. She married an Ashkenazi Jewish man. The other side of the family are white. He’s described as someone who is clearly non-white, though in an ambiguous way. He’s Jewish in a casual does-the-major-holidays way. A more complex mixed race identity is a realistic thing that doesn’t get touched on much in fiction. However, it does come with a few microaggressions, like Eva assuming his family aren’t from the US (the “where are you from” discussion gets old really fast), and making special note of how his skin looks in the dark whenever the lights go out.

Religion and belief are mentioned, though the narrative doesn’t confirm or deny any particular religion. It’s more that the light of the world has been mentioned in many cultures, sometimes with religious connections. Eva’s family is agnostic from a Catholic background. She’s generally open to believing stuff and not hostile to people from other religious backgrounds.

The pacing didn’t entirely work. The beginning moves slowly, only really getting going once Eva’s parents leave her alone. The end moves very quickly, skipping over scenes that would have explained a lot. An example is Eva is apparently told something of the origin of the light of the world in a conversation, but this conversation is not shown. Instead, she offers the reader a few words to sum it up. I’d have liked to read that conservation, as it sounded important.

A few things didn’t work for me. The light of the world is repeated a lot, to the point of it being distracting. Using gross to describe women in relationships wasn’t something I liked, though I acknowledge there may be cultural differences in this being used as a cute saying between friends. Gross really only ever means bad things to me. The pressure to drink alcohol from Liv also stood out. She doesn’t consider reasons why Eva wouldn’t, other than age, and presses Eva about why she hasn’t been to such places. In Eva’s case, the main reason was social isolation, but there are a lot of reasons why someone might not drink or want to be in places where alcohol is served. There wasn’t much pushback about this in the narrative.

I enjoyed this more by the end than I thought I would. I didn’t like Eva’s early interactions with her parents, but there are fewer of those as it gets going. I did like her finding support with the bookstore crew. It’s a quieter take on urban fantasy, with a focus on personal stories and how the supernatural elements impact them. Note that it does describe suicide and that the historical love story is tragic. However, the book’s present is a lot more hopeful.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Power Rangers (Film)

Alternate Titles: Saban’s Power Rangers
Genre: Young Adult Superhero / Film
Main Creative Team: Dean Israelite (director); John Gatins (screenplay); Matt Sazama (story); Burk Sharpless (story); Michele Mulroney (story); Kieran Mulroney (story)
Main Cast: Dacre Montgomery; Naomi Scott; RJ Cyler; Becky G; Ludi Lin; Bill Hader; Bryan Cranston; Elizabeth Banks
First Shown: 22nd March, 2017
Available: Cinemas

Five teenagers find coloured coins, which lead them to an alien spaceship. It turns out they’re Power Rangers and only they can save the Earth from Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks).

This reboot of the franchise shows the formation of the first team of human Power Rangers. Jason (Dacre Montgomery) is the Red Ranger and the leader of the group. Kimberly (Naomi Scott) is the Pink Ranger and a former cheerleader. Billy (RJ Cyler) is the Blue Ranger and is a nerdy tech genius. Zach (Ludi Lin) is the Black Ranger and is a carer for his sick mother. Trini (Becky G) is the Yellow Ranger and a loner. They come together by being in the same place at the same time, where they find the coins that give them their powers.

Consequences are important in this story. Jason is introduced with a prank gone wrong, which leads to animal abuse and reckless driving. It’s lucky that no one dies. Kimberly has also behaved badly towards others. Initially, it looks like her former friends are being randomly mean to her, but it becomes apparent that she did something to cause that reaction. There’s no magic to put things back how they were, but it is possible to rebuild. It also shows a more grey approach to characters, where generally decent people can do awful things.

The rangers all start out as strangers to each other. There’s a lot of friendship building going on. Jason and Billy get the most development time. I also liked that Kimberly and Trini are shown hanging out, and offering each other support, after Trini’s initial distance from the group. It’s interesting to see how different friendships develop within the group.

There’s some suggestion of romance between Kimberly and Jason, but it felt natural that they’d identify with each other, given their situations. It also doesn’t go beyond a few looks and comments. There may be a kiss in the trailer, but this isn’t in the film, which is a good choice. I’m all for a bit more slow building in relationships.

I had mixed feelings about the camera angles used. There’s a lot of switching around views on things like car chases. It does create the feel of confusion, and the difficulty in staying aware of surroundings, when in such a situation. I did generally like the sets and shooting choices, but this one was a little difficult for me as someone who gets motion sickness.

There are a number of differences in the casting compared to the original series. Jason is the only remaining white character in the new team, though I’d note that he’s also the leader and the one set up as the initial character the audience meets. I realise this can come from a place of trying to get through the system, where a film with an apparent white lead is more likely to get funding, but it’d still be nice if this wasn’t needed to play the system.

In general though, the group is more diverse than the original series. The positive is that the new casting means Billy is African American, Trini is Mexican, Kimberly is South Asian and Zack is Chinese. This does broaden it out from the source material, and avoids having the Black Ranger as the black character, and the Yellow Ranger as Asian. The negative is that Trini used to be played by a Vietnamese actress, and there are no new East Asian girls in any role, so that’s an area where representation was lost. This is always a difficult issue, as the change will mean some people will see themselves who wouldn’t have before, and some won’t see themselves the way they did before. It’s a problem with media in general lacking diversity, that any such changes can have a big impact. This film is what it is in terms of who is shown, but I’d hope they’ll consider continuing to reimagine characters. I would love to see them consider an East Asian girl for the new ranger hinted for the sequel.

Billy is autistic and states directly that he’s on the spectrum. He describes himself as having a different way of thinking, rather than describing himself in negative ways. There’s a lot that I related to with Billy, from the tendency to monologue during difficult tasks, using scripts to introduce himself, and not liking to be touched. It’s also notable that he’s black, as portrayals of autistic people are often white people. This relates to wider problems, such as the underdiagnosis of black autistic people and issues faced dealing with groups like the police. It’s important for people to realise that autistic people can be anyone.

Trini is queer of some description. Zack guesses she might have girlfriend problems, based on her reaction to him assuming she has boyfriend problems. It’s uncertain exactly how she identifies, and the feeling I got was she was questioning. She’s figuring out labels, which aren’t the ones her family want for her. There are arguments both ways for having a clearer statement. On the one hand, films often avoid using the words, so it’s nice when it is made clear. On the other, this is the first section of a longer story, so it’s possible they’ll pull off questioning turning into figuring things out.

There were bits I didn’t like. The opening scenario with the prank was my least favourite part, because it felt like I was supposed to find it funny. It’s pretty hard to find something funny when it involves an unhappy animal.

Another part I wasn’t fond of was Kimberly stripping down to a bikini as Jason watches without her knowing. This is so she can swim, and if she’d later shown her awesome swimming/diving skill, it might have fit. But this isn’t shown again. I’d compare that to Trini, who is a hiker, being the first to figure how to use her powers to move quickly across terrain. There isn’t a similar swimming/diving moment with Kimberly. There could have been, given the locations used. So she appeared to be in her bikini in order to be seen by Jason.

There’s some throwing around of terms like crazy and lame, though the crazy part is more a description of the rangers rather than their opposition. Rita is mainly described as evil, rather than crazy.

The armour designs do have the thing where the girls get rounded breast plates and the boys get angular ones, though at least their armour covers them equally. The exception is Rita’s armour, as apparently the more evil a person gets, the sexier their armour and the less skin it covers.

There’s a little bit of swearing, some sexual references, and violence. It does take care to have monsters raised by Rita as the main opponents. In other words, opponents that aren’t sentient. The scariest parts are down to Rita, who threatens and murders people. That could be a little heavy for younger viewers, though most in the suggested range of tweens and up should be fine. I’m noting this because the original series was aimed a little younger, which some may not realise when deciding on this film.

I was pleased they did actually say, “It’s morphin time!” It may be a small thing, but I will never forgive Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer for not including, “To me, my board!” Some catchphrases really need to be there.

It was a fun film. It had the colourful action expected from the franchise. The serious aspects covered a range of issues that teenagers can face, without getting too heavy. Combined with the diverse cast, it means a lot of children and teens will be able to see themselves, as well as enjoy the action. There were some scenes I didn’t like very much. There are also a few things I hope they develop in the sequels, such as Trini’s identity story, and how they cast future rangers. I will be on board to see where it goes next.

Hidden Figures (Film)

Genre: Biography / Film
Main Creative Team: Theodore Melfi (director, writer); Allison Schroeder (writer)
Main Cast: Taraji P. Henson; Octavia Spencer; Janelle Monáe; Kevin Costner; Kirsten Dunst; Jim Parsons; Glen Powell; Mahershala Ali; Aldis Hodge; Olek Krupa
First Shown: 10th December, 2016
Available: Cinemas

NASA needs to figure out how to put someone in orbit and stop being racist.

This film is based on the real stories of black women in the early days of NACA/NASA, as written about in a book by Margot Lee Shetterly. It’s a fictional version of those events, though the general core of the story is there. My focus is on the story as presented in the film, rather than a comparison to the real events.

There are three main storylines, following the paths of the three leading characters. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a mathematical genius. When they need a computer for the main team, Katherine is the one who gets the job. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) decides to apply for a job as an engineer. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) has been working as a supervisor for the colored computers department, though hasn’t been given the job officially. She also realises their days are numbered, as NASA prepares for its first mainframe.

Discrimination is shown in a variety of ways in the film, from general society things such as separate water fountains, to the working environment in NASA. Katherine faces issues as the only black woman in a department of mostly white men. Someone sets out a coffee pot marked “colored” after she uses the general shared coffee pot. There are no toilets for black people in the building, so she has to travel back to her old work place. It’s a hostile working environment, designed to make it harder for Katherine to do her job.

Dorothy and Mary don’t face issues from their direct co-workers, but hit problems when it comes to the system. Everything is designed to make it harder for them to advance, which is explained away as only being fair. Their stories highlight how systematic discrimination means that everyone doesn’t start from the same place.

I liked that it touched on the ways that marginalised people can both help and hinder each other. Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa) uses his own experiences as a Polish Jewish man to empathise with Mary. He encourages her to apply for the engineering position. On the other side, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), a white woman, does not use a shared identity as a woman to empathise with the additional issues the black women face. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), a black man, is initially dismissive of Katherine working at NASA on the basis of her being a woman. Sharing one marginalisation does not automatically mean understanding another. Intersectionality can be complicated.

I did raise an eyebrow at Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), Katherine’s new boss. His presentation seemed very much for the comfort of white audience members. He doesn’t hold racist or sexist attitudes: he just wants the best person for the job. He’s the one who eventually takes a sledgehammer to the signs on the colored bathrooms. He’s the person that white people can feel they would be, because they wouldn’t support segregation and they’d do something about it. However, it is notable that he doesn’t notice what’s going on until Katherine tells him. If any message should be taken from that, it’s that being anti-prejudice in personal beliefs is not enough to stop discrimination. Seeing what the system is doing to people requires paying attention and talking to those it impacts.

It’s a polished story, with decent pacing, and good performances by the actors. I liked all the casting choices, and noted that Karl was actually played by a Polish actor (this is an area where casting often falls down, as Western Europeans get cast for all European roles). I’d had concerns that it might be difficult to watch with the discrimination themes, but there are moments of triumph to break up the tough sections, and it ends on a positive note for the main characters. There is always a bittersweet element to this sort of story though. For every person who succeeds, there will be numerous people who never made it over those extra obstacles. For every person who gets the spotlight showing what they did, there are others who’ll remain obscure. I find stories like this a reminder that we still have a long way to go.

Project Mc2 (Season One)

Project Mc2 LogoGenre: Children’s Spy / Television Series
Main Cast: Mika Abdalla; Ysa Penarejo; Victoria Vida; Genneya Walton; Danica McKellar; Melissa Mabie; Antonio Marziale
First Shown: 7th August, 2015
Available: Netflix

A space launch is threatened, so teenaged spy McKeyla McAlister (Mika Abdalla) is sent to investigate. When some of the girls at her new school figure out she’s a spy, McKeyla is forced to work with them.

Project Mc2 (Project Mc-Squared) aims to promote S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) among girls. The series is linked to its own toy range, including fashion dolls, science experiment kits, and fashion dolls that come with science experiments kits. I’m all for encouraging girls to blow things up (in totally safe ways) but my review focus will be on the programme side of it. However, I think it’s useful to know the full context of the series.

The characters are the core of the series, so I’ll start there. McKeyla is the lead spy. I liked that she was a generalist, rather than a specialist. Her focus is learning to be a leader, as she’s used to working alone. She’s the most serious of the girls. I’m pretty sure she’s intended to be read as white.

The two girls who initially notice something is odd about McKeyla are best friends. The first is Camryn Coyle (Ysa Penarejo). She’s into skater fashions and carries her skateboard around. She’s also the engineer of the group. Not a lot is discussed about her background, but the actress is Filipina-American. Her hair is dyed red (in an obviously dyed way), which I presume was to make each fashion doll have somewhat different hair.

Bryden Bandweth (Genneya Walton) is the computer expert and is very into social media. She talks in hashtags and posts everything to social media, even at times when she really shouldn’t. I did find this a little difficult at first, as she speaks very quickly. Bryden is black with wavy hair.

When the two girls realise they don’t have all the skills they need to figure out what McKeyla is up to, they approach Adrienne Attoms (Victoria Vida), a culinary chemist. Adrienne is very feminine, wearing skirts and heels, and carrying all her stuff around in a handbag. She’s the only character who has her background really expanded on in this season. She’s from Spain and speaks with a Spanish accent. I’m noting her as a Latina character as I’ve seen the actress say that’s the case (the actress is Latina herself). This is where I didn’t like the styling, as Adrienne has bleached blond hair. Though the initial thought may have been to have a doll range with different hair colours, much like Camryn’s hair dye, it also serves to make Adrienne look whiter. That didn’t sit well with me.

This is a short season, coming in at only three episodes. It tells one long story across the episodes. The space flight in question is a publicity thing for Prince Xander (Antonio Marziale), who is teenaged British royalty. I wasn’t too keen on this as the central plot. I never did the celebrity crush thing, so this has always been rather outside my experiences. Swooning over hot British royalty is more of an American thing, so I had a certain amount of eyerolling as a British person. It’s not that anything is wrong with this as such, but it wasn’t to my tastes. Fortunately, the plot focuses more on the girls learning to work together, so there is something there for people who aren’t interested in the celebrity crush angle.

The science ranges from things that are somewhat improbable to things that are rather simple. For example, Bryden’s hacking is mostly shown with her typing quickly without showing the screen. She is improbably fast at hacking things like this. Later, she hacks a security code with a simple number generator, which is a project most viewers could code with a little training. This may not be science realism, but it did work for the concept of the series. It means some of the science shown could be done by viewers, without being science geniuses. I also liked that The Quail (Danica McKellar), the woman who oversees the girls, is played by a real mathematician.

This season doesn’t push science at the expense of feminine girls. Adrienne is taken seriously from the start, as the other girls approach her for help. There’s a running joke of people not knowing what culinary chemistry is, but it’s more that this is a rarely represented field, rather than the practise of it being funny. I did enjoy the moment where she adds a dash of cinnamon to fingerprint powder, and no one else really knows enough about the subject to question it.

In general, this isn’t a “not like other girls” story. The leads are supposed to be the smartest, but there isn’t criticism of other girls and women. It’s adult men who are their main obstacle, as they don’t take the girls seriously. This is handled in a light way, but is unfortunately a very real thing that girls are likely to face if they go into science.

The girls are quite diverse when it comes to race. However, the show is weaker in other areas. Everyone is relatively thin, there are no disabled people, no QUILTBAG characters, and so forth. It wasn’t negative in those areas. There wasn’t fat-shaming or similar, and I’m glad they ate the baked goods Adrienne made without any comments on calories or diets. But I’m always pushing to see more representation in shows for this age group.

I think this series mostly hits its targets. It’s very colourful and bubbly. The central focus is on friendship and awesome science experiments. The girls don’t face more than some mild peril, so it’s not going to be scary for anyone but the youngest of viewers. It’s targeted very well at the tween and younger market, particularly for those looking for something fluffy and silly, rather than serious. My biggest issue is I’d like to see them broaden out who is included.