YA Diversity Book Club: Under a Painted Sky Discussion

Diversity Book Club
Welcome to the June edition of the YA Diversity Book Club, a monthly feature we created in partnership with three other book bloggers: Kristina at Gone Pecan, Lucy at The Reading Date, and Kristan at We Heart YA. This month we read debut author Stacey Lee’s historical western “Under a Painted Sky,” about two teenage girls — a Chinese orphan and a black slave — who run away together posing as boys in hopes of making it to California on the Oregon Trail. We all agreed that the book spurred our interest in more Westerns, and that YA desperately needs more books where the focus is on female friendships rather than (just) romance.

We’re hosting the book club discussion, and we hope that you’ll be prompted to put the book on your immediate TBR list; we promise you won’t regret it!

Many, many thanks to G.P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin Teen for sending us all review copies of the book!

Under a Painted Sky
Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 384 pages | March 17, 2015 |
Amazon ~ IndieBound

Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

This beautifully written debut is an exciting adventure and heart-wrenching survival tale. But above all else, it’s a story about perseverance and trust that will restore your faith in the power of friendship.

Below is an excerpt of the discussion we had about the book and its themes. We hope it encourages you to check out the book for yourself! Mild spoilers ahead.

Teen Lit Rocks: Let’s start. What did we like? I enjoyed the friendship between the girls and the way they challenged and took care of each other.

We Heart YA: Yes. That was by far my favorite aspect of this story. I really liked Annamae/Andy, in general.

Reading Date: The friendship was stellar and the historical setting was really unique.
Teen Lit Rocks: Yes, I can’t remember reading another Western in ages
Gone Pecan: I like that they both were ready to leave no matter what they had to face.Yes, westerns seem to be the 2015/2016 fad.  Lots coming out.
Reading Date: I also liked the dialogue a lot and found the book very engaging and readable.
Teen Lit Rocks: Yes, I really cared about what happened to the girls. I was afraid for them.Have any of you read The Kingdom of Little Wounds?
Gone Pecan: No but that sounds familiar?
Teen Lit Rocks: It won a Printz honor last year
Gone Pecan: AH!
Teen Lit Rocks: Anyhow, it’s a fantasy historical with two young women who become unlikely co-conspirators and eventually friends. But the guys were all “enemies” in that book.
Anyhow, I like making connections, and the theme of a friendship forged out of desperate circumstances is compelling to me.
We Heart YA: I think it was powerful to see two outcasts banding together, too. They weren’t the same, but their Otherness bonded them.
Teen Lit Rocks: And she tried to explore their vastly different backgrounds — one girl relatively privileged but still discriminated against and one treated as chattel but still quite clever and worldly in her own way
We Heart YA: Yes! I would imagine that concept could resonate powerfully today still. I see it in all the talks of “intersectionality”
Reading Date: When I first read about this book I expected the two girls to have a romance. I loved how they had each other’s backs.
Gone Pecan: I’m like Sandie.  I didn’t expect a romance at all. Just a friendship and tales of the trail.
Reading Date: It’s the rare YA book that doesn’t have a romance. But this one didn’t really need it – there was enough going on.
Teen Lit Rocks: Right, Kiki! But then it was almost too obvious at times (since we were in her head, natch)And yes, Lucy, during the WNDB Chat last night there was discussion of how hard it is to get a YA book published if it has no romance.
Reading Date: Ahh interesting!
We Heart YA: A shame. I’m all for romance, but I’m all for friendship too! There has to be room for both.
Teen Lit Rocks: But speaking of the romance, did you find one relationship more organic than the other? Were you rooting for the romances to work out, or did you think they were unnecessary?
Gone Pecan: I found them both unnecessary IMO. Like everything just wrapping up nice and neat.
We Heart YA: I didn’t object to it, but the secondary romance kind of came out of nowhere, for me…
Reading Date: I wonder if the author was pushed into emphasizing the romance.
Teen Lit Rocks: Me too. I think given the theme of sisterhood that it would’ve been fine for the guys to consider the girls as such. But I’m not opposed to these girls getting a HEA!Since we all know it had to be tough for them no matter what.
Gone Pecan: But then give me an epilogue. I don’t need to know everything but the wrap up was quick.  Even something a little like from Ruin and Rising (not to reveal anything there either).
Teen Lit Rocks: Yeah, I can see that. Especially considering how pulse-quickening the climax was!
We Heart YA: I think my favorite subplot was with Andy/Annamae’s family
Teen Lit Rocks: Since my husband is Year of the Rabbit, and I’m Year of the Dragon, I enjoyed some of the Zodiac descriptions too.
We Heart YA: I wasn’t expecting that either, but it really rounded out her character for me, AND spiked the plot.
Teen Lit Rocks: Yes, Andy’s commitment to her brothers was so touching.
Gone Pecan: It was but I think we could have had more time with that part of the story too?IT seemed like there were several great things to talk about but we just brushed on all of them.
We Heart YA: Re: the zodiac stuff: I appreciated the way Sam/antha’s Chinese culture caused conflict within her. Like, she didn’t feel Chinese in some ways, but she was categorized as “yellow” at every turn, and she obviously had internalized a lot of the cultural stuff she grew up with.
Teen Lit Rocks: It’s hard to discuss without being completely spoilery, but I too wish there had more time with the reunion, Kiki.
Reading Date: Maybe if she ditched the romance the other plot points could have been fleshed out better.
Did any of you guys play the OREGON TRAIL video game? I’ve seen a lot of GR reviews mention it as kind of a selling point for them.
We Heart YA: I loved Oregon Trail, nevermind how many times I died…But I’m actually glad the story wasn’t just like playing the game. The Oregon Trail was more of a backdrop rather than a feature.
Gone Pecan: I honestly don’t know. . .I don’t remember playing it but it sounds familiar enough that I might have.
Reading Date: Hah! If I did play it I don’t remember. There should be more YA westerns  I think.
Teen Lit Rocks: The guys were more side dressing, but their banter was funny Definitely passed the Bechdel Test!
Reading Date: Yes!
We Heart YA: Yeah, Cay did liven things up.
Teen Lit Rocks: Totally like Jeremiah, Lucy.
Reading Date: Cay? Yes! Though I’m Team Conrad forever.
Teen Lit Rocks: I think there were a few little plot holes and characterization issues I would’ve loved addressed, but overall I actually read it really quickly and wanted to know how it would all turn out for the girls.
Gone Pecan: agreed!

Interested in the book? Make sure to enter our book giveaway and read our Author Q&A with Stacey Lee at Gone Pecan, The Reading Date’s feature “Strong Female Friendships in YA,” and We Heart YA’s feature “Let’s Hear It For the Sidekicks.” Stay tuned in July when we celebrate the YA Diversity Book Club’s one-year anniversary with giveaways and reflections.

This post fulfills our monthly participation in Reading Wishes & Rather Be Reading’s Dive Into Diversity Challenge.

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