This summer Penumbra Online hosted a Book Club to help promote our summer edition. We decided to select a book that celebrated our summer series theme of self-love. We chose a book that has self-love and all of its complexities at the center of it, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega (2021) by Crystal Maldonado. The contemporary YA novel is about Charlie Vega a high schooler who is a hopeless romantic. The only problem? She has never been in love. All of that changes when she starts her first budding romance. The novel intricately encapsulates the ache of first love and heartbreak so well that it feels familiar to the reader. While on the surface the novel sounds like a simple YA romance, the novel is much more complex and poignant. It delves into much deeper themes such as self-love, grief, body positivity, and what it means to be a mixed race Latina. Maldonado does an excellent job balancing the lightheartedness of the YA genre with the importance of the topics she covers. While never completely abandoning the YA genre Maldonado dives into the realities of what it means to be a modern day teenager with all of its complexities.
When I first picked up Fat Chance, Charlie Vega I expected a lighthearted, fun, and easy book and while it certainly is all of those things the story is so much more. The novel captures the feeling of youth without the rose colored façade of youth that most YA novels craft. Maldonado’s heroine, Charlie Vega is a flawed and fleshed out character. Charlie carries pain from the loss of her father and struggles with being constantly compared to her best friend Amelia. Charlie’s character is authentic because the truth is most people by the time they reach Charlie’s age have faced hardships. Teenagers are not exempt from pain in fact most the weight of their pain everyday. Perhaps the most heartbreaking and realistic aspect of the novel is Charlie’s relationship with her mother. Charlie and her mother are incomprehensibly different and without her father to bridge the gap between them they struggle to connect. The novel does not shy away and captures both Charlie and her mother having low moments with each other. While the reader is often sympathetic with Charlie her mother is never pigeonholed into the villain role either. In the end, their relationship is not tied up neatly with a bow but it makes the novel feel more authentic. By subverting the genre's tropes Maldonado produces a realistic YA novel.
Maldonado also sets her novel apart with the use of realistic representation. With Charlie, Maldonado displays the struggle to find acceptance. Charlie is a mixed race Latina straddling two worlds and like many teenagers she struggles to find her footing in either world. Her disconnect with her mother over her mother’s obsession with diets, has her feeling uncomfortable in her own home. Yet, she has lost her relationship with her father’s family after his death and as a result she lost touch with her cultural roots. Charlie’s unease in her own family is juxtaposed with Amelia’s comfortability in any situation. While Amelia may have an air of ease in any environment she also faces realistic struggles as a Black Queer teenager. Charlie and Amelia’s different reactions to similar situations display the fact that despite different outlooks, acknowledging that we all struggle can connect people. Tangible and well represented characters are just one of the many reasons to read Fat Chance, Charlie Vega.
With witty dialogue, layered characters, and important themes Maldonado’s novel is a YA novel that stands out. The novel is a fun escape with layers of importance that sneak up on the reader the further you get into the story. If you want a novel that is a relaxing read without being superficial Maldonado’s Fat Chance, Charlie Vega is the perfect read for you. Join Charlie Vega as she has her first chance to fall in love and read Maldonado’s exciting novel.
If you are interested in Book Club, Penumbra Online is hosting a Fall Book Club starting in October. To learn more about Book Club click on our Clubs and Recommendations page.
A few weeks ago, my daughter and I were having a rough day. I was overwhelmed with work and school and she was grouchy and impatient. Despite my attempts to fix the mood we continued to fall further down the rabbit hole parents and guardians know all too well, that seems to only end in frustration and parental guilt. As I guilted myself for not being a better, more relaxed, or more present parent I decided to extend an olive branch. I closed my laptop, grabbed a bag of popcorn, and offered to snuggle and watch a show. My daughter and I are vastly different. I love to read, she loves to dance. I love sports, she loves baking. One thing we both have in common? We love to watch movies, especially musicals. So when I extended the olive branch, I turned on a show I had a hunch we would both love, Julie and the Phantoms: a Netflix show about a teen girl (Julie) who has lost her love for music after the loss of her mother. How does she get it back? With the help of three ghosts (the phantoms) who only Julie can see except when they perform together. The show is a heartwarming dramedy that is easy to watch. We spent hours in bed watching and talking about the show, with the best part being Julie and the Phantoms was not just a show that I watched for my daughter, but a show that I enjoyed watching with her.
As I reflected, I thought about how the show was able to keep both my daughter and myself entertained, and I realized that Julie and the Phantoms teeters between being youthful while also dealing with very adult issues. The show centers around the deep theme of grief, but it handles it with all the fun of a teen dramedy. The songs are catchy enough to make a kid sing along, but they are poignant enough for adults to enjoy as well. In particular Julie played by Madison Reyes and Luke played by Charlie Gillespie have the show's best moments duet wise and acting wise.
While the musical numbers are powerful, perhaps what is most impactful about the show is the way it is so well rounded with its representation. Julie and her family are Latinx and her identity, while never discussed at length, is interwoven into the show. For example, her father and aunt often speak in Spanglish to Julie and her brother. While Julie never has a conversation about the importance of Spanglish in Latinx culture, she lives it on screen. Another example of how the show handles representation is the character of Alex (Owen Patrick Joyner). Alex is gay and he has a romantic storyline with another ghost, Willie (Booboo Stewart). While Alex and Willie have an adorable arc, the fact that Alex is gay is not a storyline at all; in fact, it wasn't until I watched the show for the second time that I caught Luke reference it to Alex in episode 2. As a parent, the show encapsulates why all types of representation are so important. While it is important to tell BIPOC and LGBTQ+ stories that are centered around that experience alone, there is huge value in everyday representation as well. Julie and the Phantoms gave me the ability to converse with my daughter on matters like race, grief, and sexuality in an organic manner that allowed me to take the wheel and steer the conversation. The show doesn't tell watchers what the Latinx experience is, it shows it. So when my daughter pointed out that Julie's dad said a Spanish word she hears me use, I had the ability to steer the conversation towards the importance of language in our culture. Or when my daughter told me she thought Alex "had a crush" on Willie, I was able to remind her of what she has been taught about love in all its forms. These things were received as typical by my daughter because it is her normal. She has a Latina mother, LGBTQ+ family members, and is surrounded by people of various backgrounds and ethnicities. Her life, like Julie's, is full of colors and seeing that on screen is important for her growing up, and as a parent I am grateful to see a show that has echoes of our own family in it.
Of course, the show is not just for kids or families. I would argue it can be enjoyed by any demographic. If you grew up on Disney musicals this show will speak to you (It's director Kenny Ortega is a Disney legend). If you are interested in supernatural elements, the show has something for you. Or, if you just want something you can watch and sing along with while you clean, this show has something for everyone. The only negative I could find about the show was the fact that nine episodes just do not feel like enough. I found myself wondering why the show didn't get the typical 10 episodes most shows get. I would have loved for the show to have the time to show more about the death of Julie's mother and the year that followed. Or if the show had just one more episode, the jam packed finale could have been explained in much more detail. That being said, I will keep my fingers crossed that these questions will be answered in Season 2 (if Netflix every announces it). So, next time you have some free time, put on Julie and the Phantoms and enjoy the fun.
Julie and the Phantoms can be found on Netflix.
Every time the Olympics come around people gather to watch the extraordinary seem ordinary. Millions around the world watch as their respective countries search for gold. The Summer Olympics have it all yet there is only one sport I find myself willing to wake up at 4 am for: Women’s soccer.
Soccer and I have a complicated relationship. I always loved soccer. I loved talking about it, playing it, and watching it. I remember watching in awe of USWNT greats like Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy. Something about watching them play struck a chord with me. They were unabashedly competitive and aggressive. They were teams of women that were different from each other yet, on the field, they played as one. As a child, what stuck with me was the way it was common knowledge how much better they were than their male counterparts. It may be the only time in my memory that I recall announcers referring to a women’s sports team as The U.S. Team. Of course, there could be novels written about the unfair financial and opportunity disparities female soccer players were/are subjected to, but as a child I remember feeling inspired by the fact that these women were doing something men couldn’t and the world watched in awe.
Soccer and I continued to have a tumultuous relationship. I played through High School but my talent never quite matched my love for the sport. After school, I thought I found my sweet spot by coaching. The cliché seemed to ring true for me and where I couldn’t do I could certainly coach. Then I had family tragedy. I lost my baby cousin, the only person who I truly shared my passion for soccer with. Someone who didn’t just placate my obsession but also felt that fire. I made her watch World Cup games and coached her youth teams. I saw in her a potential for greatness further than I ever thought myself capable of and then I lost her and all those dreams with her. In the midst of my grief I lost my love for the game. I stopped playing, I stopped coaching, and eventually I stopped watching. Even when my own child played I couldn’t bring myself to fully enjoy it again. It felt too raw at first then as years went by it felt too awkward. Like an old friend you see in the grocery store and want so desperately to say hello but instead you hide in aisles avoiding them, I avoided soccer to avoid the pain.
Then something happened recently that brought the two of us back together. I was listening to a new podcast, We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle and the host spoke about the USWNT. The episode titled, “FUN: What the hell is it and why do we need it?” featured Doyle’s wife Abby Wambach (Pro USWNT player and two time Olympian). In the episode, Wambach asked Doyle why she liked watching the Women’s national soccer team and Doyle’s response triggered something in me. Doyle said, “Watching women use their bodies to compete instead of perform to the way they just try so hard and don’t give a shit what it looks like. They’re not trying to be pretty. They’re trying to be fierce, they’re sweating and, they’re doing it for themselves and for each other” (Doyle 29:00). Listening to Doyle felt like I had just turned the corner in the grocery store and accidently bumped into that old friend. Carts clashing and eye contact made. Here soccer was again and this time I could not avoid it.
Watching women compete and not perform inspired me to be more competitive and less performative in my own small ways growing up. I realized that was the true lesson I wanted to pass to my little cousin all those years ago, not how to be better soccer player but how to be truer and braver woman. In a world that has a lot to say about what a woman should be I wanted to show her and the USWNT did that. They showed the world what womanhood really looked like. I realized that there was honor in keeping that feeling alive in myself; I could honor my cousin by honoring that spark and passing it onto the next generation. A few weeks later the Olympics began and I found myself looking up statistics and following the players on social media till eventually I was up at 4 A.M. watching them play. When my little one cuddled up next to me wiping her eyes and watching in awe asking each player’s name, I realized soccer still had that spark. While soccer and I may never be the same, we had found our way.
It couldn’t be a better time either, women’s soccer has never been more popular. The players understand their importance and value, just read "American Girl" by Crystal Dunn or look into the off-field endeavors of stars like Christen Press or Megan Rapinoe; this USWNT shows up on and off the field for their country. Also, Women’s soccer in general is on the rise. Former stars are doing their part to create a sport that is better than when they left. Wambach, Foudy, and Hamm are all investors for the newest NWSL team Angel City FC which is majority owned by women who hope to restructure the way soccer is managed and how players are treated. Many former soccer stars are also finding their own in other avenues as announcers, board members, and activists. While this is not the USWNT’s year for gold (they will play for Bronze on Thursday), the future is bright for Women’s soccer in America and I will be watching no matter how early the game is.
You can catch USWNT games anywhere you find Tokyo Olympics coverage. We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle can be found on Apple Podcast, Audible, Spotify and more.
Watching television has always been a favorite pastime of mine. A pastime that has never been more helpful than the last year. Many of us spent more time inside than usual and television shows were one way that I coped with everything else going on. Many nights after a long day spent working, sanitizing, and parenting all inside I would escape into another world with different shows. While I explored the world of television there are a few shows I came across that I completely fell in love with and I thought I would share them here.
Of all the shows I enjoyed in the last year, I decided to start with Apple TV’s criminally underrated Dickinson. The show created by Alena Smith, is made for introverted book nerds like myself. If you have ever exaggerated just to have time alone to read or write, trust me this show will speak to you. Watching the show felt both familiar and fresh. Shocking me with its wild trips into Emily’s imagination and in the same breath echoing the memorable feelings of growing pains or first love. The delicate dance between genre bending explorations and the relatable is perfectly displayed in Episode 3 of Season 1. “Wild Nights” sees Emily dance with a giant bee (yes, you read that right) and in another scene she cries, “Life is an endless sea of pain!” after inconveniently getting her period (relatable). The episode has 19th Century Americans twerking, yet it ends with the well-known love triangle trope. The show both pushes the boundaries and leans into what we all know and love about TV. Part of why it succeeds at this is because of the actors who bring it to life.
One of the show’s largest assets is its leading lady. Hailee Steinfeld’s Emily is a troubled artist with more potential than opportunity. Steinfeld portrays Emily in such an endearing manner that the audience invests in her every move, even the most outlandish ones. Creator Smith leans into Steinfeld’s talent and it pays off. Dickinson’s Emily might be the truest version of a struggling writer on TV. Not the white guy walking around New York with a satchel type of poet, instead a woman who sees the world differently and builds worlds with her words. Steinfeld impeccably portrays Emily with both the immaturity of her youth and the boldness of an artist talented beyond her years. Emily’s counterpart Sue Gilbert portrayed by Ella Hunt also delivers, especially in season 2. While Steinfeld and Hunt do an impeccable job selling the tense dynamic between Emily and Sue, the show also stands out because of its ability to surprise the audience with its limited parameters.
Dickinson is a show about a poet who died in the same house she spent most of her life in. It could have easily been a melodrama, but instead it goes wild. While the show is labeled a comedy, it constantly blends genres. In its two seasons the show made me laugh, cry, and scratch my head wondering what the hell just happened? What makes the show stands out is the way Smith does not shy away from taking risks. Some risks pay off in a huge way. Season 2 Episode 8 “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?”, might be one of the riskiest episodes of television I have watched in recent years, and it pays off. Other risks take a minute to get used to like, Wiz Khalifa playing Death or the use of modern music (Lizzo and Emily Dickinson? It works!) Of course, other risks miss the mark completely. That is what makes the show so exciting, it is unpredictable. The show turns left when you are looking right and the result is a wild ride that makes the life of a woman who spent decades in one house seem absolutely thrilling.
Dickinson’s Emily is young, dramatic, confused, and a prodigy. In the first season Steinfeld does an impeccable job capturing the feeling of Emily’s restlessness. Emily is stifled by her patriarchal society, unrelenting father, and overbearing mother. She is a genius without an outlet, yet the show also balances that with light hearted fun. Just as the show tracks Emily’s growing pains the show itself also grows. If Season 1 is high school, Season 2 is Freshman year of college for Dickinson. Season 2 is still growing but it is also much bolder. By the end of Season 2’s powerhouse finale “You Cannot Put a Fire Out", each character knows what they want and the timing is perfect because war is coming to Dickinson and it wont be civil. It seems Dickinson is heading into a more important and mature Season 3 and I hope more come along for the ride.
You can catch Season 1 & Season 2 of Dickinson on Apple TV and look out for Season 3 coming soon.