Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

You’re graduating high school, now what?

I stayed up all night last night reading an ARC of GLORY O’BRIEN’S HISTORY OF THE FUTURE by A. S. King (dear lord people, so much glorious goodness coming this fall – make a note to read it!). This book is many amazing things, but it perfectly captures that moment when you graduate from high school and realize you have to figure out what comes next. For a lot of teens, the what next is college. For some, like Glory, it is a gap year. For others, it is straight to work.

Yesterday we talked about high school, but here are a couple of books from Zest Books that can help us all with the moments that come after high school.

77 Things You Absolutely Have to Do Before You Finish College by Halley Bondy

I’m not going to lie, my favorite item in this book was number 23: Spend quality time in the library . . . without doing homework. I was lucky enough to go to college in a town with two colleges, and the other college – Kenyon College – had the most amazing bookstore ever. We used to go all the time and hang out there; you would find wondrous things that you never knew existed. If you ever find yourself in Mount Vernon Ohio, go there. Even if you are kinda maybe a little bit close, drive in for a visit.

Some other good tips include taking a class that has nothing to do with your major, learn a language you’ve never studied, try a sport you’ve never tried (intramurals can be a good way to do this), and join an a capella group (or at least watch the movie Pitch Perfect and do this vicariously). And as an aside, many of these will apply to those who choose an alternate, non-college plan after high school. You can even find alternate ways to do some of the education related ones – like study a language or take a class outside of your major – by using your local library resources or taking a local community class.
Undecided: Navigating Life and Learning After High School by Genevieve Morgan
The truth is, most of us don’t have our lives figured out when we graduate high school. I changed majors mid-stream and have a whole extra year of credits (and debt!) to show for it. Want to know what’s even better? I have an undergraduate degree in youth ministry that I basically don’t use (although I will admit the info was very informative to being a YA librarian). And college isn’t the right choice for everyone. And sadly, for many teens, it isn’t really an option at all.Undecided is a pretty good look at the many options that one has after high school, including not only higher education but military services and internships. There is a brief section on gap years (I just like saying gap years because I only learned they were called that last year – in a YA book no less!). Undecided also acknowledges the issue of money and has a chapter dedicated to budgets and planning. I really liked that this section talked about debt and acknowledged that anything they said in the book might already be irrelevant because the conversation kept changing so quickly: “Media reports regularly address what is going on with student loan debt, and things are changing so fast that what I tell you today probably will be out of date tomorrow” (page 68).  But the reality is, “Many college students and grads (even not-so-recent grads) are shackled by debt and the inability to get a job with a high enough salary to pay off that debt” (page 69). I thought the end advice was very spot on: “Take on as little debt as possible to pay for your education – even if this means needing more time to get your degree and working. Or going to a state school instead of a private college. If you do get a loan, read your contract carefully” (page 70).

So while I thought 77 Things You Absolutely Have to Do Before You Finish College was fun and even insightful, I found Undecided to be a very important and helpful tool. Of course one is aimed more at high school students who are trying to figure out what comes after high school and the other is aimed at students who are past that point and are already in college.  They both meet their stated goals and are good resources.

77 Things You Absolutely Have to Do Before You Finish High School by Halley Bondy. Zest Books, 2014. 191 pages. ISBN: 978-1-936976-00-3.

Undecided: Navigating Life and Learning After High School by Genevieve Morgan. Zest Books, 2014. 247 pages. ISBN: 978-1-93676-32-4.

Duct Tape! Check out Sticky Fingers, plus learn from my mistakes – cool tips

I own no less than 20 rolls of Duck/Duct Tape. Okay, technically I bought them for the Tween. But you know, I get to play with them too! Plus, I have regular Duct Tape crafting days at the library. Suffice it to say at this point, I am an expert on Duct Tape crafts.

In fact, I have some important tips for you:

1. Don’t use scissors! Buy an exacto knife and a cutting mat. So much easier to use. If you do use scissors, have lots of Goo Gone on hand to keep cleaning your scissors.

2. To make strips, you can in fact use a scrapbook paper cutter thingy. They look like this. They work wonders. I find this particularly useful to make strips to make a piece of “duct tape material” as it is sometimes called, which you can use, for example, as a duct tape wallet base.

3. You can save little pieces you cut off, like corners and such, on a removable surface, like the backside of your cutting mat, and use them to make picture collages on canvas. Or folders.

4. Once a piece of duct tape gets stuck to itself there is no saving it. Just throw it away and get a new piece.

5. Always make sure you have solid color options to balance the cool print options.

I have shared several posts of some of my favorite activities and books, but here is a new book coming out in July from Zest Books called Sticky Fingers: DIY Duct Tape Projects by Sophie Maletsky (ISBN: 978-1-936976-54-6)

I love the step-by-step instructions in full color! And how the activities are not the same ole’, same ole’ activities again.

Duct Tape Crafts and Even More Duct Tape Crafts

Life Hacks with The How To Handbook (Plus, some of my favorite Life Hacks posts/resources)


noun: life hack 
1. a strategy or technique adopted in order to manage one’s time and daily activities in a more efficient way.
If you spend any time at Buzzfeed or Pinterest, you know that Life Hacks are a thing. Kitchen hacks, school hacks, craft hacks . . . you can always find fun posts that highlight fast and creative ways to solve a problem, re-use an item, etc. I am obsessed with finding fun and creative life hacks.
But here’s the truth, I don’t do very many of them because, well, I am not overly domestic. True story. So kitchen hacks? Cool, but not practical for me because I avoid the kitchen like the plague.

So then I was reading this story about how teens don’t know how to do a lot of the basic skills that we used to take for granted because no one is teaching them.  Know how to sew on a button? Most teens don’t. Know how to tie a knot or pitch a tent? Sadly, a lot of teens don’t.

Every time I see the book The How-to-Handbook I keep thinking that I want to put together a program series called Life Hacks – perfect for a series of Throw Back Thursday themed programs – where we teach teens how to do these basic types of skills. Family Circle has a really good highlight of some of the things we need to make sure teens know, including money skills and clothing skills (there’s that sewing on a button thing again).
And because of the cover of the The How-to-Handbook, I always think I want to do is as an old school badging program. Or, if you want, electronic badges. In my mind it is set up in one of two ways:

1) Do it over spring break with a different themed day every day. Set up stations where tweens and teens do different tasks.  For example, you could have a clothing themed day where at one station they sew a button, in another they sort baskets of clothes for washing, and in another they fold fitted sheets. And a lot of these activities can be turned into types of relay games to make it fun.

or . . .

2) Do a series of Thursday programs (because, you know, Throwback Thursday) for say a month. Again, each week of the month gets a theme.  You can also throw in some old school board and video games. And crafts!

Here’s a look at some of my favorite skills in the book that I think might make for good elements in the series:
Part 1: Everyday Essentials
Manage Your Money
Pack a Suitcase (this could be a fun racing type game)
Wrap a Gift
Part 2: Looking and Smelling Good
Iron a Pair of Pants
 Tie a Bowtie/Tie a Tie
Part 3: Get to Know Your Kitchen
Kitchen essentials
Set a table
Eat a balanced meal
Part 4: Clean Up Like a Pro
Clean your room in five minutes
Do the laundry
Fold a fitted sheet (again, another fun relay type activity could be done here)
Unstick chewing gum
Part 5: Do It Yourself
Fix a flat
Pitch a tent
Sew on a button
Part 6: Emergency Skills 101
Dress a cut
Extract a splinter
Help a choking victim
Take a pule
And of course you could add to this in any way you wanted to. Basic computer skills, job seeking skills, etc.

Here are some of my favorite LifeHack posts/resources:
Huffington Post: 20 DIY Lifehacks with Office Junk that will Blow Your Mind
Tumblr: Daily Life Hacks on Teenager Posts
Bored Panda: 40 Life Hacks That Will Change Your Life
Buzzfeed: 26 Clever and Inexpensive Crafting Hacks
Lifehacker.com: Tons of life hacks

Please people, feed my obsession! Share your favorite Life Hacks in the comments.

Take 5: Your High School Survival Pack

Some people are busy preparing to survive the zombie apocalypse, but the truth is there is something much harder that we all have to survive – High School!

Don’t get me wrong, there were some awesome things about high school. Friday night football games are fun. First love is fun (and terrifying). Watching scary movies with friends, also fun. But I would definitely not want to go back and do it again. Nope, not at all.

So here are some tools to help you – or someone you love – survive high school. While preppers are busy hoarding food and building underground tunnels, all you need is to throw a few good books in your survival pack. And I know just the books . . .

Real teens share their high school stories and survival tips. Been There is divided into 3 sections: Social advice, Academic advice, and Practical advice.  This is a very practical guide for not only your Freshman year, but just your middle school and high school years in general as only some of the advice would specific to your Freshman year.  The advice is real, and you can tell it is written by real teens.  What’s the number 1 thing not to do while making new friends? Fart of course.  And yet there is some real honest, raw and heartfelt advice given here: For instance, it can be really disorienting when your best friend since 3rd grade starts eating lunch somewhere else . . . But your friend’s behavior probably has very little to do with you.  Maybe he’s wanting to expand his own circle of friends. . . Friends come and go, and losing and gaining friends is all part of the experience of growing up and . . . surviving high school (page 18).

Forget the Oxford English Dictionary, THIS is the dictionary you need. From acne to varsity, this mock dictionary provides you with humor and insight into high school life. Want an example, look at this entry for GPA:

I get parents coming in a lot and asking for books to help their kids learn how to study. We talk about studying, but we don’t often really teach kids/teens HOW to do it. This is a really informative guide that helps you get organized, learn techniques, and discusses things like how to take notes and understanding your teachers expectation. At 135 pages it tackles the topic without being exhaustive and overwhelming.

Every time my Tween opens her backpack I cringe and shudder, simultaneously. Papers are shoved inside, all wrinkled and chaos. Then she cries because she can’t find the paper she needed to tell her how to do her science project. She needs this book! Where’s My Stuff is an older title, but one of my favorites because it discusses things like organizing your backpack, organizing your school work, organizing your room and even organizing your time. A little organization can help you be so much more successful in school.

I am a complete sucker for a book of lists. They’re fun and browseable, and who doesn’t like to go through them and mentally check things off? This title is not only a fun list, but it gives a brief overview of some interesting topics like connecting with a role model and ending a argument. The items are divided into various categories including things to do for in each category. The categories are highlighted here with examples in parenthesis: Things to do for your personal development (attend a theater performance, develop the art of conversations, make a public speech), with or for friends (make a gift, start a book club, take a road trip), with or for family (record an oral history, make peace with a sibling, cook a three-course meal), for you body (establish an exercise routine, determine your blood type, study food labels, learn about safe sex), get to know the world around you (create a comic strip, design a t-shirt, write a real letter), to benefit your community and environment (volunteer, go green, understand how a farm works), because you should (write a resume, learn basic car maintenance, learn CPR) and, finally, because you’re only young once (confess a crush, build a bonfire, bury a time capsule).

Guess what? You can win this high school survival pack – for you, for your library, for someone you love. Just do the Rafflecopter thingy below for a variety of ways to enter. Open through the end of this week to U.S. residents. 

Zest Books Week 2014

This week is once again Zest Books week here at TLT. Zest Books is one of my favorite nonfiction publishers for young adults. Here’s a look at the various books we’ve talked about so far on TLT, including book reviews and program/party outlines. There’s a little bit of something for everyone.

Dear Teen Me, authors write letters to their teen selves edited by E. Kristin Anderson and Miranda Kenneally
The End, a look at books containing epidemics based on The End: 50 apocalyptic Visions from Pop Culture That You Should Know About . . . before it’s too late by Laura Barcella
Uncool (Book Review)
Girls Against Girls (Book Review and Discussion)
Historical Heartthrobs (Book Review)
How Not to be a Dick (Book Review)
Little Fish, a different kind of memoir (and a different kind of TPiB)
Super Pop! (Book Review)
Prom (TPiB)
Where’s My Stuff? A look at organization (and a TPiB)
My First Love (and Break Up): Books about falling in and out of love
Scared Stiff: A Look at 50 Famous Phobias (Book Review)

Book Review: Scared Stiff, Everything you need to know about 50 famous phobias by Sara Latta

Crowds. I don’t like being in a crowded place where people are pressed together wall to wall and you look around and think, if this place catches on fire there is no way I can get out. I always want to make sure there is a solid exit strategy. Apparently, this is claustrophobia which is not just a fear of tight, confined spaces, but a fear of no escape.

Have you read Coraline by Neil Gaiman? It taps into an interesting fear called Koumpounophobia: the fear of buttons (page 96).

And today’s current zombie craze? A possible product of Kinemortophobia: a fear of zombies. Interestingly enough, people aren’t so much afraid of being eaten by zombies (not high on my list), but of being turned in to a zombie (even lower on my list). And although there seems to be no such thing as zombies, there really are zombie ants. These ants are taken over by a fungus (page 92).

I imagine a lot of people have the newer phobia Nomophobia, a fear of being out of mobile phone contact. If you feel anxiety when you have to turn off your phone or get jittery or headaches if you’re separated from your phone, you may have this (page 113). My cell phone dies all the time and I’m okay so I’m pretty sure that this one isn’t an issue for me.

My daughter refused to read Doll Bones by Holly Black because she thought the cover was too scary – she may have Pediophobia: a fear of dolls.

Scared Stiff is a look at 50 Famous Phobias, from the fear of different types of animals (including cats, dogs, mice, pigs, snakes and birds) to the fear of clowns (which Stephen King did nothing to help with his book It, also Johnny Depp has this fear). A phobia is an extreme fear and can have dramatic impact on how a person lives their life. There are literally hundreds of types of phobias out there and they are a source of interest for many readers, which will make Scared Stiff a very popular title.

Like most Zest titles, this is a quick, interesting read. It’s organized alphabetically by fear and gives some basic information, including the word origin, examples of the fear, and some quotes about the fear.

Although the topic is interesting, it can also be quite serious because phobias are very real and can have very dramatic impacts on people’s lives, which is why they include an appendix on overcoming one’s fears. It is noted that social phobias and more general anxiety disorders usually require professional help to overcome. There is a brief overview of some of the techniques that a therapist might use to help a person learn to manage their phobias. Scared Stiff manages to be informative and fun to read while giving thoughtful recognition to the impact that a phobia can have on a person’s life. Elizabeth McMahon, Ph.D. is noted as a contributor and it seems her input was used to make sure the information was both accurate and respectful.

And thankfully, there is an index. I am a geek who loves a good index.

I highly recommend this book. It’s the type of nonfiction title that is browseable and of interest not just for school reports.

Scared Stiff: Everything you Need to Know About 50 Famous Phobias by Sara Latta. Zest Books, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-936976-49-2.

Take 5: VOYA’s Nonfiction Honor List 2012

While historical fiction may be my Achilles hill (although I have now read 10 historical fiction titles this year – please hold your applause until the end of the post), nonfiction is something I like but just don’t ever read enough of.  As a reviewer for VOYA, they occasionally send me a nonfiction title to review.  For example, I reviewed Friend Me! Six Hundred Years of Social Networking in America by Francesca Davis Diapazza, which was a really interesting way to look at communication throughout history and compare it to our current social media craze.  I also just checked out and read Robotics: Discover the Science and Technology of the Future with 25 Projects by Kathy Ceceri, which had one of the best explanations of coding that I havw read and really helped the Tween understand what we were talking about.  Every year VOYA puts out its Nonfiction Honor List, and this year you can find it in the August 2013 issue of VOYA.  Here are 5 of my favorite titles from the list, which is always a really good list.

The End: 50 Apocalyptic Visions from Pop Culture That YOu Should Know About . . . Before It’s Too Late.  Zest Books, 2012

Okay, so this is a no brainer.  It’s about the apocalypse! It’s pop culture! And, of course, it is from Zest Books, whom I adore for their fun nonfiction titles.  This is a great resource for so many reasons.  Readers of all ages can flip through and learn some fun tidbits about the apocalypse as depicted in various books, movies, televisions shows, songs and more.  It’s easy to flip through casually.  BUT, as a librarian I can’t help but think of how I can use it to put together apocalypse themed displays, trivia contests, and social media contests.  With The Walking Dead season 4 getting ready to premiere (October 13th), it’s a great time to be plugging into pop culture at the library.  Plus, Catching Fire comes out in November.

What’s For Lunch? How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World by Andrea Curtis.  Red Deer, 2012.

Food is a huge issue, especially school food.  Today, 1 in 5 children go to bed hungry and for many American children, their only meals may be those that they have at school.  But is Ketchup a vegetable? (I say no by the way).  This is an interesting look at how children around the world eat lunch at school and how our school meals compare.  I am fascinated with Bento Box lunches from Japan.  I pack my daughters lunch each day and can assure you, they greatly pale in comparison.

Screen grab of a Bento box lunch image search on Google, aka not what my lunches look like

Learn to Speak Fashion: A Guide to Creating, Showcasing and Promoting Your Style by Laure deCarufel.  Owlkids, 2012.

Pair this with The Look Book, Fashion 101, and The Book of Styling (all from the style section on the Zest Books webpage), and you have a pretty thorough collection for budding fashionistas.  Learn to Speak Fashion provides details for putting together everything from your personal wardrobe to a runway show.  And we have already outlined some great fashion programs for you to use as a tie-in, see Project Fashion and Project Fashion, part 2.  And think of all the craft ideas you can do around fashion, from making Duct Tape accessories to upcyclying your jeans.

Rightfully Ours: How Women Won the Vote, 21 Activities by Kerrie Logan Hollihan.  Chicago Review, 2012.

I am the mom to 2 little girls and helping them understand how women used to be treated, how we got to the place that we are at, and how we need to keep fighting for equality (women still earn less then men for doing the same jobs, for example) is really important to me.  I don’t want them to take this life that they are living for granted and become so complacent that we lose the rights that we have gained.  So this book was a title that I jumped on.  It is chuck full of photographs, a timelines and even some hands-on activities (which make this a great title for schools).

The Secret Life of Money: A Kid’s Guide to Cash by Kira Vermond.  Owlkids, 2012.

I never carry cash so my kids think you can just whip out a magic plastic card and take things home from the store.  Financial literacy is so very important, and complicated.  The writing style of Secret Life is very irreverent, which makes it more accessible and less boring.  I remember economics from high school, it could be very dry.  The format of this title helps break down those barriers of interest while still providing the information teens need to become better financial stewards.

It was really hard for me to just pick five from the list.  In fact in this post I actually talk about and recommend 10 nonfiction titles great for tweens and teens.  I just wanted to point that out because I think I don’t talk about nonfiction enough.  Or read it enough.  Many of the titles I didn’t include were equally awesome and cover things like adventure (The Impossible Rescue, which is awesome), civil rights (We’ve Got a Job), and animals.  You can never go wrong with animals.    Check out your August 2013 VOYA for a complete look at the list.  Tell me in the comments, which titles would you add to your 2012 Nonfiction Honor List?

Little Fish: A different kind of memoir for a different kind of teen (and a different kind of TPiB)

I don’t know about you, but graphic novels and graphic novelish type books are hot at my library.  Heck, they are hot at my house.  And with the school year just starting, it’s great for Juniors and Seniors to start thinking about WHAT COMES NEXT.  So, tada: Little Fish, a memoir from a different kind of year by Ramsey Beyer. (Zest Books, 2013 ISBN: 978-1-936976-18-8)

Ramsey Beyer was a teenager from a small town in Michigan.  My family is from a small town in Michigan.  They have one blinking stop light and thought they were a big deal when they got a McDonalds.  Trust me, I know all about small towns in Michigan.  And most people growing up in a small town anywhere just want to escape.  To find a way out to something bigger.  Beyer did that when she went to college.  She became an apartment dwelling, city living art student.  And she created this artistic book to chronicle her experiences.

Little Fish is told in a series of comics, illustrated poems, and illustrated lists.  So you know where you see all those journals that are “destroy this book” and “make it yours”?  Beyer did that.  And it is pretty cool.  In fact, it is a built in program (TPiB).  You can buy blank books from Oriental Trading and invite your teens to come in and create their own journal.  Duct tape, markers, torn pages from magazines and glue . . . anything goes.  You can take anyone of the different lists from the books and asks teens to do the same.  Or just let them freestyle it.

In Little Fish, Beyer captures all the hopes and fears of moving away and embarking on a journey like starting college and moving away from home.  I remember packing up what I could fit in my little car and setting out from California to drive cross country and go to college in Ohio.  Why Ohio?  My then fiance’s family (now my husband) was from Ohio and after his dad died from Cancer, he needed to move back there because living in California without a good job is super expensive.  So he moved back to Ohio to help his mom and go to college and a semester later, I followed.  The first winter there I remembered all about winter snow and the need for gloves – the hard way (and almost lost a couple of fingers to frostbite.)

I have always journalled.  I write poetry (not necessarily good poetry, but poetry).  I collect my favorite quotes from the books that I read.  And when my first daughter was born I wrote in a journal to her every day.  And now I blog, which is kind of a journal.  It’s great to have this little book of your life that you can look back through and remember who you were and how far you have come.

Little Fish by Ramsey Beyer is a must have.  It is definitely in a popular format that has huge teen appeal.  And it is great insight for all of our high school students who are about to venture out into the big unknown of what’s next.

More Memoirs for Teens

Carnegie Library List

More Memoirs from Zest Books

Have more memoirs to add to our list? Add them in the comments.

Book Review: Holy Spokes: a biking bible for everyone by Rob Coppolillo (with a TPiB)

It’s January, which means your TV is being flooded with weight loss ads and 1 out of every 1 person it seems is making a resolution to lose weight and get in shape.  Cycling is a great way to do that.

When The Mr. and I were dating, we spent a lot of time – at times almost daily – cycling through the canyons in California.  This was the first I had ever done it, and yes, I did it for a guy, but it turned out to be a lot of fun and living in the suburbs now, I miss those adventures.  I started out knowing exactly nothing about buying my first bike, what the various gears meant, and how to be safe.  Oh how I could have used this book!

Holy Spokes is divided into several informational chapters that include a brief history of the bike, finding your book type, and more.  There is some discussion about the environmental impact (or lack there of) in using a bike as opposed to a car and a look at using your bike for work.  Think Premium Rush starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (or if you are older, Quicksilver starring Kevin Bacon).  Also – movie tie-in!

Some interesting facts learned from Holy Spokes:

  • Many cyclists shave their bodies while racing, not for aerodynamics, but to aid in first aid and recovery in the event of a crash.
  • Crumpling your race number before pinning it on your jersey will help prevent it from keeping air and becoming a drag, literally.
  • There are bikes that fold to make commuting easier.

The one draw back to Holy Spokes: Lance Armstrong.  Holy Spokes was published just a few days ago,
right as the proverbial doodoo was hitting the fan for Armstrong.  He is, of course, mentioned in the book.  There is a brief mention of his wins with a disclaimer regarding “Lance Armstrong’s Dark Cloud”, which as we all know finally burst.  However, this is by no means the focus of the book and does not negate the depth and coverage of the information presented on the topic of biking.

Holy Spokes looks at all types of bikes, and all types of biking, from those who just want a leisure ride to those who want to cycle competitively.  What type of book you need depends on what you want to do with it.  Picture from Zestbooks.net

Holy Spokes is published by Zest Books (I am a fan), which means that it is presented in a way that is quick and easy to read while being engaging and informative.  There are information inserts, some short stories and interviews, and a few line illustrations that help you define and label various parts of a bike.  High recommended.


True story: I once had a bike festival at a library I worked at. It took a ton of work by a great committee, but we put it together.  A team of BMX stunt riders came and did a show in the section of the parking lot that we had closed.  The local police can come out and talk bike safety.  Do a giveaway for some bike helmets and, if you can get a generous donation or a grant, a bike.

You can do bike related crafts from the very simple to the more sophisticated, like using fabric markers to design your own bandanas.  For the simple, make a huge bicycle mural out of butcher paper on the wall and have tweens and teens decorate the bike.  Thinks stinkers!  For younger kids, it could even become a fun bike version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey: Put the Sticker on the Bike.  You can even use discarded magazines (Eco Craft Alert!) to make your own stickers as part of your event.  Information here.

If you have a big enough space you can set up a fun tricycle obstacle course and have teens race to see who can complete the course first without banging their knees completely off.

We have a local pizza vendor set up in the parking lot and they were selling slices and cans of pop.  It really was a fun little parking lot festival with a few indoor activities designed to move people into the library to browse so they didn’t just watch the BMX team in the parking lot and leave without thinking about using the library.

If you want to make a health festival out of it you can have a martial arts demonstration, someone talking nutrition, etc.

Holy Spokes, a Biking Bible for Everyone by Rob Coppolillo.  Published January 22, 2013 by Zest Books. ISBN: ISBN-13: 978-1-936976-23-2.

P.S. I looked, but I didn’t have any pictures of The Mr. and I during our biking phase.  It’s hard to ride and snap pics.  Plus, it was long enough ago that we didn’t have smart phones.  Yes, I realize I just aged myself.

Book Review: October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Leslea Newman

I first heard about October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard from Terri Lessene at the 2012 YALSA YA Literature Symposium, who described it by saying:

“it introduces Matthew Shepard to a generation too young to remember him.”  

My heart sank when I heard that. Matthew Shepard’s story was pivotal for me and many of my contemporaries.  I was two years younger, three inches taller, and twenty pounds heavier than him when this slight, bright, trusting young gay man was beaten to death in a hate crime that would later play a part in national hate crime legislation. A number of of my friends and classmates were in the midst of coming out, and Matthew Shepard’s murder was a shattering event.

With the passage of time, most names and lives and stories will be forgotten,  but this is one name, life, story, that needs to remain in the public memory, and this slim volume is a beautiful, powerful way to aid in this.

For those too young to remember Matthew Shepard’s story, too young to get chills and feel an ache at the bottom of your heart when you see it, the fence pictured above may just look like a fence.  It is the fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming where Matthew Shepard was tied for eighteen hours, beginning October 7th, 1998, after being lured into a truck by two men, beaten savagely with fists and a gun, and left barefoot, alone, for eighteen hours, before he was discovered, hospitalized, and later died from his devastating injuries.  He was twenty one.  He was a college student. He was gay.
October Mourning doesn’t tell Matthew’s story as a straight narrative, it invokes everything involved in the incident, giving each element a distinct voice thorough poetry:  the man who didn’t invite Matthew to stay for an extra drink, the bartender who offered him his last kindness, the truck, the killers, the  fence, the moon that saw it all, the biker who discovered this beautiful blonde boy, who was so crumpled and beaten he was first mistaken for a scarecrow, the parents who heard the news, the nurse, the tree that became the urn that held his ashes, the friends who wore angel wings to shield mourners from the protesters that picketed his funeral, Matthew’s own heart:

This is just to say
I’m sorry
I kept beating
and beating
your shattered chest

Forgive me
for keeping you
so long
I knew it would kill me
to let you go

I am no great fan of novels in verse.  They can seem affected, using the form as a gimmick more than a deliberate and correct choice to tell the story.  But when they work, they really, really, really work. This one really works.  You may note that the poem above is written in the style of William Carlos William’s famous piece.  Newman uses this device a number of times, turning the wry apology of the original into genuinely grief filled moments of regret here.  She also employs classic forms to great effect a number of times, notably in her use of the rhythmically echoing pantoum as the fence speaks in THE FENCE (that night) (excerpted from page 16 below)

His own heart wouldn’t stop beating
The cold wind wouldn’t stop blowing
His face streaked with moonlight and blood
I tightened my grip and held on

The cold wind wouldn’t stop blowing
We were out on the prairie alone
I tightened my grip and held on
I saw what was done to this child

The rallying repetition of a villanelle is employed in a pair of poems, one from the perspective of anti-gay protesters who spewed hate filled epithets at the mourners, and another, on the opposite page, from the silent counter protesters from the Angel Action group, formed for this event and still active today to provide a silent, peaceful barrier between mourners and protesters.
But this is not a book filled with strict poetic forms.  Free verse, found poems, and notably a concrete poem from the perspective of the stars overhead, scattered across the page like stars in the sky keep the reader connected to the voice of the various speakers.  A note at the end explains the forms and construction of the poems.  Many teen readers will be unfamiliar with the references to famous works and use of forms, so I wish this note had been a part of the front material.
Because the crime was so far beyond words, so senseless, so divisive (will today’s teens even understand why it was divisive?), the impact so far reaching, spawning plays and movies and crime tv shows and counter protest measures and federal legislation, it is not just a crime story, not just a hate story, not just a story of gay bashing.  And while the facts of Matthew Shepard’s murder are startling enough and certainly could and have been told in narrative form, Newman’s “song” gives voice to the players in such a way that the reader moves through the event with a different kind of understanding.  It forces the reader to think of the event not as a story – it is not a fiction – rather a life and an experience that has a power all its own and needs to be remembered.