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The Spiritual Lives of Teens in YA Lit: A discussion of faith and science in Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande (guest post by Ramona Lowe)

When Ally Watkins and I put up our announcement that we were going to host a series discussing the spiritual lives of teens in YA lit, Ramona Lowe sent me a beautiful, long email saying “I hope you discuss Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande because . . . ” And I replied, “I think everything you have said here is wonderful and can be made into a post.” So she turned it in to a post sharing with you today why she is a huge fan of Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature. . . .

I’m a sucker for anything on television with cute kids, so I watched Lifetime’s Child Genius and found the family dynamics of the children competing in a Mensa challenge to be nothing sort of fascinating, if at times, disturbing.  During the portion of the competition that focused on astronomy, one mother quizzed her ten-year-old son in preparation and then asked what he would do if the judges asked him something that was contrary to their Christian beliefs. What?  I did a double take. Addressing the camera later, he says the Big Bang Theory is “stupid” and, since they are “Christians” they don’t believe anything other than God created the heavens and the earth. Before the quiz competition, he addressed the judges and audience with a statement of faith that God created the universe. The repeated claims by mother and son seemed to be expressing “I’m a Christian . . . and you’re not if you believe science.” (Fortunately, his questions did not include age or origin of the cosmos.) I wanted to immediately send that family a copy of Robin Brande’s Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature (Knopf, 2007) to make the point that Christians can believe in science.

When her fundamentalist church decides to push back against the teaching of evolution in freshman biology, Meena Reece isn’t exactly in the middle.  She’s been “kicked out” of the church that was her family’s life (and business since they sell insurance and most of their clients are church members) because she wrote a letter of apology to a fellow student targeted by members of her church youth group. After the boy survives a suicide attempt, Meena feels guilty and wants to do what her Christian faith expects and sends the letter without talking the idea over with her parents or her friends at church. The letter leads to the student’s parents suing the church and the parents of the youth group (minus Meena). In an instant, everyone in Meena’s life—including her parents—turn on her.

Meena isn’t excited for the start of school, but along with dodging the insults and bullying from her former friends, school brings her biology with Ms. Shepherd and her project partner, Casey Connor. Casey is a cute science nerd who idolizes Ms. Shepherd and fills Meena in on the teacher’s backstory, which is she is basically a brilliant scientist who teaches to give back.  Her love of science is evangelical:

“You are the people whose curiosity will uncover the riches of our universe. You are the ones who will show us what greatness the human mind is capable of. YOU are the people who will save us from ourselves.” (p. 9)

Aware that her parents would never let her go to a boy’s house to work on schoolwork (or, gasp, watch Lord of the Rings), Meena lets them think Casey is a girl. Her conscience bothers her, but her parents aren’t speaking with her since the incident and she lives in a state of permanent punishment (grounding and isolation). At the Connor’s house, Meena sees a different type of family: truly decent people who don’t go to church, and it makes her stop to think about what she believes and doesn’t believe anymore.

Mrs. Shepherd begins her unit on evolution, and Pastor Wells has once again primed the youth group for action.  Led by Teresa—whom Meena considers the master of mixing “church and sleaze”—the students turn their backs to Ms. Shepherd and demand equal time for instruction on intelligent design.  Meena sees the pastor in Teresa’s memorized speech, which calls evolution an “unproven theory.”  Ms. Shepherd, however, isn’t buying it. She maintains science is about facts, not philosophies, and goes right ahead with her lessons. Even when Pastor Wells himself visits the classroom and speaks with the principal cowering in the background, Ms. Shepherd holds firm.

Meena sees all the things she wishes she could be in Ms. Shepherd, namely, someone who can stand up to Pastor Wells and the church kids. Meena begins to take steps to own her life by working with Casey’s sister, Kayla to write a blog as Bible Grrrl  (who presents a very interesting take on the Parable of the Talents)  and eventually confessing her duplicity about Casey to her parents. Through everything that happens in this novel, Meena holds fast to her belief and love of God. It’s everything else that is confusing.  “I’d die if I didn’t have God. But I also believe in science. Does that make me a bad Christian?” (p. 151)

This book addresses head on the issue of evolution, with a big reveal as a sort of anticlimax near the end of the book. Meena, the Connors, and even Ms. Shepherd are well-drawn characters who express their struggles quite well.  The church folk do not fare as well. They are exclusively one-dimensional and their motivation isn’t godly—it’s based on a lust for power so their actions mostly ring hollow.  However, it’s Meena who is the voice of faith in this book and her journey makes this a very important book for the classroom library.

Meet Our Guest Blogger:

Ramona Lowe has a newly acquired PhD. Her Twitter biosays this: Unrepentant reader, newly-minted PhD, literacy advocate, expatriate Okie, NBCT, Comic Sans fan, love my boys Fergus and Sir Walter. She works for a school system in Texas where she is currently a Secondary Reading Intervention Specialist with Lewisville ISD (TX). She taught in the classroom for 25 years at Title I campuses, rural schools,  affluent suburban high schools and higher ed before moving into a role that lets her support teachers in their reading instruction. She’s also been at various times an atheist, an agnostic, a fundamentalist Christian, a mainstream Christian and a universalist. Romana love literature that features honest representation of spiritual issues and am excited about this topic.

Publisher’s Description:

I knew today would be ugly…

It’s the first day of high school for Mena, and already her world looks bleak: she’s an outcast, all her former friends hate her, even her parents barely speak to her anymore. And why? Because she tried to do the right thing. And then everything went wrong.

But can a cute, nerdy lab partner; his bossy, outspoken sister; and an unconventional, imaginative science teacher be just what Mena needs to turn her life around?

Or will the combination of all of them only make things worse?

As Mena is about to find out, it’s the freaks of nature who survive…

Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande was published in 2007 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Want to join the discussion? Email Karen Jensen at kjensenmls at yahoo dot com

The Spiritual Lives of Teens in YA Lit: A Discussion

Introductory Post

YA Librarians Ally Watkins and Karen Jensen Talk the Spiritual Lives of Teens in YA Lit, part 1

Upcoming posts include Muslim Representations in YA Lit, Catholocism in YA Lit, Judaism in YA lit and more

Serving Full T.I.L.T.: Teen Brain Science 101

Our series continues with a brief look at the teen brain. Why? Well, first of all, it’s just really fascinating stuff. But those of us who serve teens need to understand where our patrons are if we are to structure environments, programs, and services that are appropriate to their developmental phase. Additionally, gaining a greater understanding of what is going on physiologically will help us advocate for teens by placing their behavior within the correct developmental context, and by knowing what to do about it.

We’ve known for years that teens’ brains aren’t done maturing until their early twenties, but just what that means, and what is going on as this maturation is happening, is becoming clearer thanks to the newer Functional MRIs (FMRI) technology. These discoveries are fascinating, and go a long way toward explaining the behavior, idiosyncrasies, and habits of the teen years.  Turns out, some of the seemingly illogical, frustrating, dangerous, and otherwise difficult behavior that we see from teens has a neurological basis.

Like a car with a hair-trigger accelerator and soft brakes

Laurence Steinberg, in his 2014 book Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, uses the above phase to describe the interplay of different brain structures in the actions of teens. Like driving a car with a touchy gas pedal and bad brakes, teens are quick to act – sometimes in risky endeavors – but it takes a lot longer to regulate their behavior and slow down. We see this happen all the time, and now there is a neurological explanation for this behavior.

In the above analogy, think of the limbic system as the accelerator, and the prefrontal cortex as the brakes. The limbic system is made up of a group of brain systems closely connected with strong emotions. Fear, love, sexual excitement, anger – all of this happens in the limbic system. As you might guess, the limbic system in teen brains is highly active, and much more sensitive than that of an adult. In the teen years, the thrill seeking behavior we often see can be explained, in part, by this brain structure. Doing thrilling, dangerous, exciting things gives the limbic system the extra jolt that it is seeking.

What’s more, recent studies have shown that that jolt is even bigger for teens who are observed in these thrill seeking behaviors by their peers. So when teens act differently, brasher, louder, more daring when they’re with their friends than they do one-on-one, it’s not just that they want the social validation that they get from being exciting and brave, their brains are actually craving that encouragement and the limbic system rewards the brain when it gets it.

As all of this is happening, the prefrontal cortex, the logical brain, is in charge of moderating the behavior. It’s the brakes. But in the teen years, it’s still maturing with a long way to go. Teens understand what behavior is risky. They don’t think they’re invincible. But the part of their brains that should catch them and pull them back from dangerous behavior is not as quick as the part that’s shouting Go! Go! Go!

It’s a dangerous combination, and one that we need to be aware of and help guide teens through. That said, it’s a duality not without an evolutionary purpose.

Risk and Reward

The interplay of limbic system and prefrontal cortex incoordination explains some of the risky behavior, but not all of it, and the jolt to the limbic system seems a fairly short lived reward for all that risk. That’s because there’s more to it. The teen brain is now thought to be going through a similar level of growth to that of a young toddler. That’s immense!

Part of the task of the teenage brain is to make the most of its plasticity. It’s very malleable at this age, and that malleability is what will help teens grow into intellectually curious adults: it’s the activities and experiences during these teen years that will reinforce the neurological pathways that will remain into adulthood as others fall off through the process of synaptic pruning. Risk taking, or novelty seeking, is a way to stretch the brain – and the person – beyond the familiar, and to introduce new and thrilling activities that will serve the adult. Here, thrilling and novel could be anything from learning a new hobby or sport to exploring the world through travel, to learning a new language… or less productive and more dangerous pursuits. The point is that the brain craves newness at this age, and it has a good reason for it.

The brain in real life

All of this is well and good – it’s hardwired and there’s nothing we can do about it so why even bother trying to moderate teen behavior, right? Well, yes and no. The synaptic pruning mentioned above is happening as a result not just of old, unused pathways dying off. The pathways that are reinforced during this age are the ones that will stick around for a lifetime. This is why drug addiction that emerges during adolescence can be much more difficult to quash than those that are acquired in later years. This is also why adults (that’s you!) being involved in and guiding the lives of teens are so crucial. When we offer help, lead them toward library activities, remain steadfast as confidants, encourage them in positive pursuits, welcome them back when we see them, and generally reward the behaviors and attitudes that we hope to see more of, we are essentially tending the pathways that are going to survive the radical pruning that goes on in teen brains.

But don’t just take my word for it.

I’m a librarian by training and education, not a neurologist or psychologist. So let this brief overview pique your interest, but please learn about all of these amazing developments from the researchers and scientists who know far far more about this topic than I do. My resources for this article:

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain

National Geographic: Teenage Brains

Frontline: Inside the Teenage Brain

Laurence Steinberg, PhD Research articles and his excellent interview on Here & Now

Next week, the 40 Developmental Assets . . .

Serving Full T.I.L.T. series:

January 14 By the Numbers, making the case for teen services using basic demographic information (Karen Jensen)

January 21 Sarcasm, Spice and Everything Awesome: The Developing Teen (Rebecca Denham)

January 28 Teen Brain Science 101 (Heather Booth)

February 4 Asset Building 101, How using the 40 Developmental Assets can help us plan and evaluate teen programming (Karen Jensen)

February 11 Diverse teens, diverse needs (Eden Grey)

February 18 Sharing stories, how knowing and sharing the stories of our teens can help make the case (Heather Booth)

February 25 Empathy, remembering what it means to be a teen and how it makes us better teen services librarians (Heather Booth)

March 4 A Teen Services 101 Infographic (Rebecca Denham and Karen Jensen)

March 11 Talking Up Teens: Discussing Teen Services with Library Administration (Eden Grey)

Book review: Better Than Perfect by Melissa Kantor

In Melissa Kantor’s Better Than Perfect, 17-year-old Juliet seems to have it all. She lives a privileged life, she’s been dating her boyfriend, Jason, for four years, and they’re both on track to go to Harvard. But after her parents split up and her dad moves out, her mother spirals. Juliet knows her mom has Good Days and Bad Days, but doesn’t really have any idea just how bad things have gotten for her mother until she finds her passed out on the bathroom floor after having overdosed on some pills. Later that night, Juliet makes out with Declan, a cute boy in a band, which sets in motion many weeks of self-analysis. Unfortunately for Juliet, this period of reassessing what she actually wants in life comes while she’s living with Jason and his family, who have taken her in while her mother is institutionalized. Suddenly, that 2400 on her SATs and future that looks all planned out doesn’t look like the thing she’s worked for and wanted—it looks stifling. Juliet is forced to consider if her family was ever actually happy, just how miserable her mother has been, and if being “perfect” is all it’s cracked up to be.

 

This realistic look at the pressures teenagers put on themselves both to be high-achieving and to somehow get their whole lives figured out by 18 follows a predictable path, but readers will root for Juliet to finally make her own choices. Secondary characters are not as well-developed as Juliet is—some of the friends mentioned may as well not exist—and Juliet never fully owns up to the mistakes she’s made, but that sort of blindness/self-absorption fits with her character.

 

Also, though her mother is clearly suffering from mental illness, this is not a book about mental illness very much. Yes, it’s a little about how it affects Juliet (she has to live with Jason, it forces her to interact with her father, she worries about her mother, she starts to take stock of her life), but the mental illness is mostly off the page. Her mom is “sick” and “sad” and apparently had been abusing her pills/drinking with them. She’s briefly institutionalized and the doctors mess with her meds, but much of her story is left to the imagination. Again—this is Juliet’s story. The ending isn’t tidy—there are a lot of unknowns still in her life and relationships that will need work—but what in life ever is?

 

Overachievers who’ve ever considered stepping off the path will relish Juliet’s journey to finding out who she really is.

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF EDELWEISS
ISBN-13: 9780062279231
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date
: 2/17/2015

Book review: Cut Me Free by J.R. Johansson

One of these days, I’m going to post the list of “things in YA books that are pet peeves/we’re so over/we flat-out hate” that I started with my YA book club. I referenced it in my review of The Prey (things from our list that that book hits: dystopia-fatigue and love triangles). I bring it up here because one of my reading pet peeves is when the entire plot of a book could be resolved or diverted by a character having one conversation or taking one step.

 

In J. R. Johansson’s Cut Me Free, Piper, the main character, has a ton of really compelling reasons to go to the police. Now, ostensibly she doesn’t do this because (as you’ll learn when you read the book), she doesn’t trust them. She’s worried about the consequences because of past incidents. But the reasons to go to the police multiply and at a certain point I shoved this book aside and shouted, WHY?! Let’s see: Piper has been kept captive and tortured for YEARS by the Parents (her Mother and Father, whom she always capitalizes and never refers to as “my,” always “the”). They killed her little brother. Piper managed to escape. She then, while living under the radar, stumbles across a little girl whom she thinks is being abused. She saves her, but they’re now being hunted and played with by some sicko who knows her real name (she now goes by Charlotte), repeatedly breaks into her apartment, and threatens her life. GO TO THE POLICE. Or get someone to go to the police on your behalf. But who could she ask? Probably not Cam, the boy who sets her up with new forged documents and has connections to the mob. Probably not Janice, her neighbor who is also apparently living under an assumed name/on the run from something/one. I know it’s not that simple—something bad is happening, just go to the police. In books or real life. But because of how the plot unfolds and how much is at stake, I was desperately irritated that she was not trying to ensure her safety or the safety of Sanda (the young girl she rescues). Sure, go take on this complete psychopath on your own, Piper. Sounds great. If it’s the Father come looking, you know he’s VICIOUS and crazy. If it’s Sanda’s captor, you know he’s VICIOUS and crazy. (Yes, that sound was me screaming at my computer.)

 

Here’s the thing: based on the blurb, I wanted to read this. I thought it might be a really interesting look at abuse. When she rescues Sanda and learns she lived in an orphanage in Myanmar, was taken, worked cleaning for a rich family, and then was sold to her captor, I thought, ugh, but also, tell me more. Too bad, me! You don’t get more! I thought maybe there would be more about child trafficking, some greater plot or information or something, but no. Here’s what we do get a lot of: really horrific scenes of brutality. REALLY HORRIFIC. Like, to the point that I eventually almost couldn’t read them because they felt less necessary to the story and more gratuitous. I felt like a voyeur. There are some flashbacks to the nightmarish 10 years Piper spent living in an attic and being abused (though, again, I wanted more of her story filled in). There’s what Piper sees when she begins to observe Sanda’s situation and what she discovers when she eventually rescues her. But it’s everything that happens once Piper comes face to face with her stalker that is just shocking. I know some people like books that are like this—graphic, violent, bloody, disturbing—and I’m usually okay with them. But this one was rough.

 

Fans of thrillers who like mind games will tear through this. I found it overwritten, sensational, lacking in meaningful world-building, and outside the bounds of believability. Much like The Prey, it features a completely unnecessary romance storyline. Cam could still have been a large part of the story and a significant person in Piper’s life without having to be the forced-feeling love interest that shows Piper she can trust and love someone (and really, a lot of their relationship made me uncomfortable, from his savior complex to their physical interactions in Krav Maga). Honestly, a more compelling story (to me) would have been more of a focus on the 10 LONG YEARS Piper spent locked up and tortured, more about what she did to escape the Parents, and how exactly she managed to travel from Wyoming to Philadelphia (especially after having spent nearly all of her life completely removed from all society and having, in theory, only a very rudimentary understanding of how real life works. I mean, we’re supposed to believe that she can’t figure out how to remember how much coins are worth, but she can escape, flee, and take on a crazed lunatic all on her own? Oooookay). At the end, an author’s note says she is “passionate about advocating for victims of human trafficking.” I believe that, and of course admire that and any attempt to bring more attention to this issue. Human trafficking is but one small piece of this psychological thriller. Read this one if you like suspense and don’t mind suspending your disbelief long enough to go along with what most of this story asks of you.   

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF NETGALLEY
ISBN-13: 9780374300234
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 1/27/2015

Middle Grade Monday – Weeding in the Age of Online Subscriptions

I’ve been weeding a lot this year. I’m usually a gradual weeder. I take a section of the collection each year and go through it with a fine tooth comb looking for items that are missing pages, moldy, defaced, or severely out of date. How often do I find moldy items? I work in a middle school library. This age is really hard on books. Probably harder than any group I’ve worked with except for toddlers. The students put everything in their book bags – open Capri Sun pouches, mud covered gym sneakers – everything.

But this year is different. I decided to go through the non fiction collection and pull out anything that is severely out of date. Now that we have ready access to regularly updated information in our online subscriptions, I find that my definition of severely out of date is changing. Has this happened to you? We still have our opening day collection of country information books (their copyright ranges from 1992 to 1999.) Before we had a subscription to Culture Grams online and a computer for every student, they were indispensable. Now they just collect dust. I find the same to be true of almost everything that was purchased for the opening collection that was intended for ‘report writing’ type of research. The information we have available online, whether through a paid of free resource, is updated regularly and much more appealing to my students. I know that without these books cluttering up our shelves, my students will have an easier time finding reading materials they really want. But the shelves will be so empty! Of course, that might have something to do with 8+ years of woefully inadequate budgets…

Anyway, here is a picture of my weeding carts, just for inspiration (if you, like me, need to take a serious look at your collection.)

And, because I can’t resist, here is my favorite from weeding so far:

The #SVYALit Hangout on Hazing: January 28, 2015

Join us on Wednesday, January 28th, 2015 at 12 Noon Eastern for a Google Hangout led by Press Play author Eric Devine and featuring Brutal Youth author Anthony Breznican and Leverage author Joshua Cohen. The topic will be hazing. Learn more about the #SVYALit Project. Noon Eastern, 11 AM Central

Have a question you want to ask? Leave it in the comments or Tweet me at @tlt16.

Google Event Page: https://plus.google.com/events/cn9nkrfe4sff5vauinlij7kbkqg

YouTube Event Page: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVIEZDALC_g

You can watch live or come back here any time to watch the archived footage.

Sunday Reflections: A Road Trip, A Book Festival and a Teachable Moment

We  have entered a new and glorious era in my home – The Tween is now reading YA. And the best part is now I get to take her with me to all the book festivals I go to and she enjoys it. I love getting to share these moments with her. I love how the two things I love, my kids and librarianship, come together in these glorious moments. So yesterday we went to YAKFEST 2015 in Keller, Texas.

This road trip began and ended as all good road trips to: with loud music, stupid dancing, great stories, and laughter in the car. We brought along the Bestie, who is now on her 3rd book festival and seems to love it as well. I believe I am raising a book lover and my heart swells with pride as our memory book is filled with these moments.

There were lots of highlights to this book festival, but our two favorites were hand down Tim Tingle and Matt de la Pena. Tim Tingle got up and did some good old fashioned storytelling. Because they are 12, the girls kind of snickered when they heard his name. But in the end they learned a very valuable lesson because they were blown away by his storytelling which was full of humor and pathos and awe and wonder. He told a story about his own roa dtrip with a friend who sadly had passed away at the end of last year. In this road trip they were saved by a fox in the road. He spoke about honoring that fox that had saved their lives on that road trip, about a No Weep Tree where he honored his buried pets, of a flood that almost took his home (and collection of John Steinbeck first editions), and of being visited by his father’s ghost. It was moving and beautiful.

Meeting author Lindsay Cummings at YAKFest 2015

Then Matt de la Pena got up to speak and as a mother and advocate for kids in low income homes, I was moved by Matt’s personal story of how he almost didn’t graduate high school. Of how for him college didn’t seem an option because he knew his family couldn’t pay for it. Of how he got a scholarship and was amazed by the doors that were open to him, suddenly his future was in his hands, choices were open to him that he didn’t know he had. And of course in the midst of it all he talked about falling in love, writing bad poetry, and learning to love reading.

So after this day of authors and panels and standing in lines to get books signed, we got back in our car for the road trip home. The radio was turned back on and we flipped the dial to find the best songs for rocking out and singing along. During one scan we landed on a Christian station to a song the girls knew. They began to sing-a- long but then The Tween stopped and asked me, “Do they have Jewish songs on Jewish radio station?” And the Bestie asked, “Or Hindu or Buddhist?”

Meeting author Victoria Scott at YAKFest 2015

Suddenly my life was imitating my blog as we started to talk about religions that were different than our own.  And the conversation turned to the Holocaust, mostly because this past weeks the girls started a unit on the Holocaust in their social studies classes. And it reminded me of some of the behind the scenes conversations we have been having with some of the various authors who are working on guest posts about Judaism in YA lit. One of their concerns is how Judaism seems to be almost limited to Holocaust fiction in much the same way that the African American experience in YA lit often gets boxed into historical fiction on slavery or the Civil Rights movement as if there aren’t other stories to be told.

I’ve been learning so much in planning and organizing the discussion on the Spiritual Lives of Teens in YA Literature and in this moment I had knowledge and perspective that I didn’t have before that I could share with these girls whose hearts were open. So we turned off the radio and talked about what they were learning in school and I reminded them that yes probably some of their friends practiced a faith different than their own, and that some of them had no faith at all. The Tween is actually very used to the concept of Atheism because one of my very best friends in life is an Atheist and we have talked about what that means and how to respect that belief when talking to our friend.

Last year, because I hadn’t yet had all the discussions that I have been having about the spiritual lives of teens, I would not have had answers to some of their questions. I wouldn’t have tapped into the hearts of these generous people who have agreed to share their lives and heart and faith with me and I would not have been able to share that with these girls. My own personal teachable moment spilled over into a teachable moment for these girls questioning a world with diverse faiths, which is exactly why Ally and I decided to have this discussion. I just didn’t know that a song on the radio would spark it, but that’s how teachable moments work. That’s why we need diverse literature, because every moment can be a teachable moment, that’s the power of story to help us peek into lives different than our own and build community.

INTERVIEW+GIVEAWAY from YA Author Trisha Leaver (interview by Cuyler Creech)

Trisha Leaver is a seasoned guitar player, but not the kind you’re thinking of. This author plays emotional ballads, not with guitar strings, but with heartstrings. And she rocks them hard.

This author, rightly referred to by some as the ‘Queen of the Reveal’, is so good at building tension, both exciting and terrifying, it is a feat just prying your eyes from the page. With her upcoming YA contemporary, THE SECRETS WE KEEP, the Queen definitely keeps her title.

This is a story about sisters, twins cut from different cloths, whose lives change drastically: one by death and another with lies and deceit. Ella, an artistic wallflower, wakes up in the hospital after a horrific car accident with her loved ones calling her by another name: Maddy, her ever-popular sister who now lies dead in the morgue with “Ella” on the corpse’s name tag. Overcome with grief and confusion, Ella takes a dark and twisted plunge and assumes the life of her dead sister, donning Maddy’s life to keep her name alive while everyone Ella knows thinks she’s the one who’s six feet below ground.

THE SECRETS WE KEEP is a book who truly earns the title “gripping,” and refused to be put down until the very last page.

Here’s what are people saying about THE SECRETS WE KEEP:

 “Trisha Leaver crafts a powerful and haunting novel that will keep you up long after you read the last page. Full of twists and turns and FEELS, this book questions how far a person will go for her family . . . even if it means losing herself.” – Lynne Matson, author of NIL.

Haunting and beautiful, THE SECRETS WE KEEP, is a gripping, evocative examination of siblings’ complex relationships. It compels us to question what we know, or think we know, about our loved ones and–most of all–ourselves. ~Karen Rock, Award-winning YA author and co-writer of the bestselling CAMP BOYFRIEND series.

“The love and loss of a twin sister leads to a powerfully complex and heart-wrenching journey of self-discovery. The depth and complexity of Ella grows on each page, and I soon found myself immersed in her personal struggle. She is so fully developed that her seemingly unbelievable choice is not only believable, but completely understandable.” —Scott Blagden, author of Dear Life, You Suck.

Want to hear from the Queen of the Reveal herself? Check out this interview with Trisha Leaver and the TLT team:

At what point did you want to become a writer?

I’ve never considered myself a writer, more of a chronic daydreamer. When I was in elementary school, I used to dream up alternate endings to my favorite books or reimagine how the story would play-out if my “real-life” friends were in those situations. I still do that today. I can’t walk into an airport or a crowded coffee shop without wondering about the lives of the strangers surrounding me. Are they in love? Did they just have an argument with their girlfriend? Did they make the baseball team? Are they happier on stage or in the tech crew? No matter where I am or what I am doing, I can’t seem to turn that creative side of my brain off.

As for when I actively made the decision to become a writer, well technically, I owe that one to my seventh grade English teacher, Sister Yvonne.  She was constantly redirecting me, pulling me out of my daydreams and back to whatever grammar lesson she was teaching that day. (Hmm… it was probably about cumulative commas, which may explain why I still, to this day, have a problem with them LOL) Anyhow, she got tired of me constantly zoning out and called me out in the middle of class, told me I had two options: I could take a detention for not paying attention or I could write down “whatever had my brain so occupied.” I took door number two and have been sketching out stories ever since.

What is your favorite genre to read? Write?

My favorite genre to write, hands down, is YA Contemporary. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good fanged monster, and I am in awe of those crazy talented writers who can create fantastically magical words, but for me, it is all about the here and now.

When it comes to reading, however, you more often than not will find me curled up with a good historical fiction.  I think because I spend so much time in the contemporary world, that being transported to a different era is like a mind-vacation for me. My current fascination is with the Tudor dynasty, and I am constantly scouring the library and bookstores for historical fiction from that time period.

Who are your literary influences?

On the horror side, I guess I would say I am a huge fan of Robert McCammon. I’ve pretty much read everything Kurt Vonnegut has ever written, although SLAUGHTER HOUSE FIVE still ranks as my favorite. And Edward Gorey…wow he is just an artistic genius. I think reading so much of their work while I was a teenager may be why my writing tends to lean towards the darker side, favoring characters who make all the wrong decisions for all the right reasons.

What is your writing process like? (outlining, schedule, etc.)

Outline!?! What’s an outline?  No, seriously, I would probably fork over half my life savings to anyone who could teach me how to effectively outline.  I have tried. I’ve taken writer’s workshops on it, downloaded sample story maps, even tried reverse-outlining my existing manuscripts in the hope of leaning the process. And still… I can’t do it. I find the whole process suffocating. I don’t like to be boxed into a specific path, and my writing seems to suffer when I try to do that. But that doesn’t mean I am a complete panster either. When I start a book, I have a solid feel of the mc’s plight, her strengths and weakness, and how the setting will work against her. I also have a vague idea of where I want the book to end, both emotionally and physically. What’s creatively open is everything in the middle. Those chapters are built off the previous day’s writing with the characters literally driving the plot.

What I am locked into, however, is a writing schedule. I thrive on deadlines. Toss me down a hard and fast commitment date, and I will flourish. On average, I spend about 6-7 hours a day doing something writing related.  I may be editing, making copy-edits, or creating new content, but I try to get a solid six hours of writing in a day.

What is your must-have writing fuel?

Chocolate covered expresso beans.  They are tiny, crunchy bits of caffeine smothered in chocolate.  I eat them like Tic Tacs – a handful at a time!

Where do most of your ideas come from?

Dreams.  Every single one of my manuscripts stemmed from one of my dreams…or more accurately, nightmares. I only dream in black and white, (I know, odd but…) and even though my dreams lack color, they are insanely vivid. I can wake at two in the morning and describe the smells of the factory my subconscious had tossed me in to, the texture of the concrete walls, and the feel of the cold, damp floorboards beneath my feet. It is all right there as if I dragged those details into the waking world with me.

Do you write full-time? If no, what do you also do, and if yes, what did you do before you became a full-time writer?

I have three kids, so I write full time when they are in school. Summers and school vacations can get a bit hairy, but luckily my kids are older so they spend more time with their friends, playing sports, or working on the school play then they do at home. It is a balance, a delicate balance that is in a constant state of flux.

Before I was a writer (or a mom) I was a social worker in the juvenile justice system.  It was a heart-wrenching job, and although I got to see some of the darker shades of life, I also got to witness some of the most amazing displays of courage, strength and recovery.

Being a writer involves a lot of creativity. Any other creative hobbies?

I inadvertently gave up a lot of my hobbies when I started writing full time. I vowed to change that in 2015. I love to play the piano.  It’s been over three years since I actually sat down and played, but my son has recently showed an interest in learning and his enthusiasm has transferred to me.

I have an herb garden that I’m religious about. It seems kind of ridiculous since I am a horrible cook. (You want a Crème Brule or a chocolate pecan pie and I am your girl. Ask me to cook you a meatloaf, and I fail every time) I dry the herbs and give them out as gifts each year to my friends. I like grow them, they like to cook with them so in the end, it all works out.

Any advice to young/aspiring creators of any kind out there?

We are our own worst enemies. Self-doubt and fear will wiggle its way into your mind and stall you if given the chance. Trust your instincts, be bold, and challenge the norm. Create bravely!

And now for the Giveaway!

We have a signed ARC that we are giving away generously donated by Trish. To be entered to win please leave a comment below and include a Twitter handle or email address so we can get a hold of you if you win, or do the Rafflecopter thingy. Hint: There’s 1 Free Entry just for doing the Rafflecopter thingy. The giveaway is open to U.S. residents until Saturday, January 31st at Midnight.
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Friday Finds – January 23, 2015

This Week at TLT

Sunday Reflections: Impoverished Youth: Over half of public school children now live in low income homes

Bearing Witness to Violence, a guest post by author Eric Devine

Middle Grade Monday – Publishing and Diversity

Book review: Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman

In the most recent issue of SLJ

Serving Full T.I.L.T.: Sarcasm, Spice and Everything Awesome: The Developing Teen by Rebecca Denham

Early Word YA Galley Chat

Book review: The Prey by Tom Isbell

STEM/STEAM Programming for Teens (an Infopeople webinar) (TPiB)

YA Librarians Ally Watkins and Karen Jensen talk the spiritual lives of teens in YA lit, part 1

Around the Web

Lone Star author P.J. Hoover offers her thoughts about a Texas school library without a librarian.

We Need Diverse Books is holding a short story contest.

Meet Lee & Low Books’ 2014 New Voices Award Winner!

The Multiracial Population Is Growing, But Kid Lit Isn’t Keeping Up

This week, in very sad news.

A focus on test scores has led policymakers to overlook other important trends that affect U.S. public education.

 

YA Librarians Ally Watkins and Karen Jensen talk the spiritual lives of teens in YA lit, part 1

Karen Jensen:

A long time ago (sometime in December) in a galaxy far, far away (erm, not so much), two librarians met on Twitter asking a simple question: Why isn’t there more discussion about the spiritual lives of teens in YA literature? You see, Ally Watkins (more about her in a moment) and I couldn’t help but notice that although a great many of our teens (recent stats indicate 6 out of 10 teens are engaged in some type of weekly spiritual activity) go to some type of religious service or event, this is not the case in YA literature. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, in FAKING NORMAL by Courtney C. Stevens the teens discuss their faith and even go to church. In the upcoming EVERY LAST PROMISE by Kristin Halbrook the teens discuss their faith, with one teen even mentioning that another person goes to church but isn’t sure what they believe, which is a pretty accurate representation especially for this age group. In BURNING NATION by Trent Reedy, groups of people stop and pray in the midst of some difficult situations. These books are not about faith, but they integrate the faith of their main characters into the text in the same ways that many teens integrate their faith or faith quest into their daily living.

But by and large, there isn’t a lot of discussion of faith, especially if you move outside the realm of the evangelical Protestant faith. How, for example, we wondered is the Muslim faith represented in YA literature? What about Buddhism? Hinduism? Mormonism? Judaism? But these questions are bigger than Ally and I, in part because we don’t feel able to discuss faith representations outside of our own in any meaningful way. But have no fear, we have been in contact with some cool people who are joining the conversation. We’ll be hearing from them soon and throughout the year.

In this big push for diversity in YA lit, a good and necessary push, we would love to see a push for a better representation of the spiritual lives of teens in YA lit. I understand the hesitation, faith, religion and spirituality is deeply personal and varied. The topic of faith can be controversial, the basic premise of some faiths are the belief that they are right which makes everyone else wrong, which is a hard place to start from when trying to promote love and acceptance. But I remember being a youth ministry major at my conservative Christian college and thinking how much we would all benefit from understanding some of the basic tenets of faiths different than our own. And I wondered, for example, as I read last year’s LIKE NO OTHER by Una LaMarche if it was an accurate representation of that faith that I could/should add to my collection or if it was somehow flawed in it’s understanding of the Judaic faith which would be problematic. I don’t want materials in my collection that misrepresent or stereotype people of any faith anymore than I want materials that misrepresent or stereotype people of color or people on the spectrum or people with some type of disability. I want books with rich, fully developed characters and spiritual lives that expands my world view, but I don’t always know what to look for when making those evaluations any more than I know if the representation of epilepsy in 100 SIDWAYS MILES by Andrew Smith is accurate or harmful. That’s why we need to have conversations. Dialogue is good.

One of the things I really liked about LIKE NO OTHER was the way the main female character, Devorah, struggled with her religion and her family’s seeming view on women (they did not support college education for women) and how she tried to hold on to the basic tenants of her faith while also trying to assert her worth as a woman and her desire to get an education. As a feminist and a Christian, which depending on your denomination doesn’t always go together well, I completely understood this wrestling of dueling belief sets. I have sat through sermons where I have been told that I am worth so much less than a man and felt the heartache of rejection as I realized that some of the foundational beliefs of my faith were openly hostile towards me. But as I grew I learned that there were other churches that more openly embraced the idea that all people were created equal by a loving God who wanted the best for His children. I learned that the church you grow up in, the church of your parents, doesn’t necessarily have to be your church. Just as Devorah learns that there are nuances to her faith, I learned that there are nuances to mine. Don’t get me wrong, I still wondered about the accuracy of the faith as presented in LIKE NO OTHER, and it’s possible that someone is going to discuss that with us as part of this series because apparently it is not, but I completely identified with the faith struggle that Devorah goes through even though we are talking about different faiths. That is the beauty of story, it shows how we can be alike even when we may seem so different, it opens doors of understanding and weaves us together in our journeys.

Teens have spiritual lives. They ask big questions. They seek out answers and are trying to find out who they are and what they believe. Some teens go to church or synagogue or temple with their families and are strong adherents of that faith, some are questioning their faith, some will abandon it all together. Your faith, or choosing no faith, can inform who you are and what decisions you make. It seems like we are doing a disservice to teen readers by neglecting this part of their lives all together in the literature we write for them (or collect for them). This series will, we hope, help us discuss these issues more so that we can make sure that when we are buying books to put on our shelves, we’re also making sure that we have some good, authentic religious diversity on those shelves as well.

Ally Watkins:

Hi.

I’m a person of faith. It’s an integral part of me.

When I was a teenager, I was a person of faith. I was just learning how to be. And I was passionate about it. It was a way for me to explore who I was and who I was becoming, and it was and continues to be a way for me to grapple with the world around me.

One of Karen’s recent posts said that a study shows that 6 out of 10 teenagers claim some sort of faith or spirituality. When you’re a teenager, you’re figuring out who you are. You’re figuring out your identity, your sexuality, your preferences, your personality, and you’re figuring out what your religious life is going to look like or not look like.

That’s why I think it’s so important to look at what at faith and spirituality look like in the books that teens are reading. Are they seeing themselves reflected? Is it positive? Negative? Is it there at all?

I serve teens in the Deep South. Religion is a big part of life here. There are many kids that use my library who are in church or temple or synagogue or mosque three or four times a week.  And a lot of times, they’re not seeing that lifestyle reflected in what they’re reading. Like any other group of teens, religious teens deserve to be represented. The good, the bad, and the ugly. We’re hoping this series helps to shine a light on what that looks like across a wide swath of YA. We want this to be a discussion. We want you to tell us what you think, and what your teens think. We want to know why this is important to you. So let us know what you’re thinking, and if there are books you think we should read and talk about, be sure to tell us that, too.

Watch this space for reviews and discussion. We hope you’re as excited as we are.

Meet Ally Watkins, MLIS

I’m a youth services librarian in the metro Jackson, Mississippi area. I supervise a staff of 2 and the three of us provide services to kids from birth-18 at a midsized suburban library. On a typical day, I might be doing toddler storytimes, ordering materials for middle graders, or facilitating teen book club! I’ve worked in libraries for 5 and a half year. My reading habits are voracious, but I can stop anytime I want, really. (Guarantee: any time you’re reading this, I’ll have at least 2 books on my person.)  My favorite author is Melina Marchetta, and if she called me and asked me to be her friend, I would quit my job and move to Australia tomorrow. You can follow Ally on Twitter.
Previous posts on Faith and Spirituality and Teens:
Cause You Gotta Have Faith, part 2 (includes a book list)
And no, I really couldn’t think of a better title for this post. Sometimes titles are hard. :)