My reviews this month focus on small presses and their unique contributions to the publishing ecosystem. These contributions may be in the form of subject matter, point of view, language, or style. As John Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press pointed out at a BEA panel in 2014, nearly half of all diverse books come from small presses. They are often the first to take on difficult subject matter, and if their efforts find an audience, the more cautious major houses then rush in. Many diverse authors initially appeared with smaller publishers and then jumped to bigger houses or went back and forth between the two.
Breath to Breath is Asian-American screenwriter Craig Lew’s first novel. The novel began with Little Pickle Press’s founder and social justice activist Rana DiOrio meeting a spiritual healer named William, who had survived horrific sexual abuse as a child. DiOrio (herself a sexual abuse survivor, as she writes in the book’s introduction) wanted to turn William’s story into a YA novel that explored his experiences and his resilience. She advertised for a writer and selected Lew, a mentee of Ellen Hopkins who created a powerful verse novel combining suspense and magic realism to draw readers into William’s life.
Breath to Breath begins with 17-year-old William’s arrival in California. He has been living in Kansas with his grandparents, but his beloved grandfather’s death and his arrest for seriously injuring a pair of bullies meant that he could no longer live in that safe home. His single father drinks, makes him sleep in the laundry room, and bans him from the house’s second floor. His mother disappeared when he was very young, and he doesn’t know whether she’s even alive. William struggles with anger – particularly against those who bully younger children – and with visions of a stray dog and Patches, a red-shirted four-year-old boy who is running away from some kind of cruelty. William’s athletic ability gains the notice of Coach, but he cannot escape a new crop of bullies who threaten his two friends in California – or from what his obsession with Patches represents.
The climax of the novel achieves that perfect balance of believability and unpredictability. Whether or not those events actually happened to William, this is a gripping story that the reader will not forget easily. From the beginning, readers are on William’s side. He’s had a difficult life and made mistakes, but he wants to do the right thing. He also struggles with demons that even he does not understand. When he does come to terms with them, readers will appreciate his choices and how he moves beyond his past. His past affects him, but it does not define him. Well-drawn secondary characters, notably love interest Shasten and lab partner Ollie, add richness and dimension to the story.