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Book Review: The Closest I’ve Come by Fred Aceves

Publisher’s description

ra6The Closest I’ve Come is a must-read from talented first-time author Fred Aceves, in the tradition of Walter Dean Myers.

Marcos Rivas yearns for love, a working cell phone, and maybe a pair of sneakers that aren’t falling apart. But more than anything, Marcos wants to get out of Maesta, his hood, away from his indifferent mom and her abusive boyfriend—which seems impossible.

When Marcos is placed in a new after-school program, he meets Zach and Amy, whose friendship inspires Marcos to open up to his Maesta crew, too, and starts to think more about his future and what he has to fight for. Marcos ultimately learns that bravery isn’t about acting tough and being macho; it’s about being true to yourself.

The Closest I’ve Come is a story about traversing real and imagined boundaries, about discovering new things in the world, and about discovering yourself, too.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

closestThis was phenomenal. Why was I not seeing any buzz about this book before reading it? Well, let’s work to fix that. This book is great. It’s unusual. It’s immensely readable. Your library needs it. Buzz, buzz–go order it!

 

It’s sophomore year and Marcos Rivas is sad, lonely, and frustrated. Sure, he has his group of guys to hang out with, but while they’re tight, Marcos feels like he can’t really share his feelings or complicated thoughts with them. Boys aren’t supposed to talk to each other like that, right? But he wants to. He’s poor, doesn’t have enough t-shirts for each day of the week, longs for money for new shoes, and is pretty sure the reason he’s never had a girlfriend is at least partially because he’s broke. He’d like to have a girlfriend—he’d like the companionship, to be able to really talk to someone. To his surprise, he falls for blue-haired Misfits-shirt-wearing punk girl Amy. Musically, they might not have much in common (she listens to some hip-hop and rap, Marcos listens to the Smiths, so there is some overlap), but their home lives and backgrounds give them more in common than they could have guessed. Amy’s outspoken and confrontational. Marcos would just rather walk away than fight. Together, they begin to share more about their lives after they wind up in the same Future Success class. For the first time, Marcos begins to understand that adults can have his back and believe in him. His cold mother and her abusive boyfriend mean Marcos’s home life is hellish. The thought that someone could see the potential in him, could call him intelligent and encourage him to think about life beyond daily survival in his neighborhood of “luxury projects” is revolutionary. But just being pegged as someone not living up to his potential isn’t enough to fix his life. He’s still lonely. He’s still called slurs by Brian, his mom’s scumbag boyfriend, and regularly beaten up by him. He’s still worried about how poor he is, the bad choice his best friend is making, and where he’ll get enough money for a haircut. It’s all well and good to be in a class focused on the future, but for Marcos and his friends, what about right now? Their worries are much more immediate and concrete, and no amount of learning how to study better or any of the other things the class is teaching will help them out in the present. Not in the ways they need help. But through his new friendships with Amy and Zach (also from the Future Success class), a brave move at home, the encouragement of his teachers, and his own fortitude, Marcos begins to see that the future may be brighter than he’d thought, and that maybe the present will be okay, too—not ideal, but okay.

 

Marcos is so achingly honest and vulnerable. He longs for connections—real, meaningful connections, where he can truly talk about his life. His loneliness is palpable. He makes mistakes but owns up to them and learns from them. Despite having every reason in the world not to, he allows himself to be real and open, tentatively at first, seeking so hard to find understanding and compassion, and to offer it to others. He’s loyal, smart, and brave enough to move beyond the expectations for him. It takes guts to make new friends, to be authentic (all while still trying to figure out just who you are), to try new things. It takes guts to go home day after day only to be greeted by abuse and neglect and indifference. It takes guts to tell your friend he’s making the wrong choice, to tell a girl you might be in love with her, to tell the police what’s been happening at home. Though the story is filled with violence and sadness, it is ultimately a hopeful story. Aceves shows how terribly painful life can be, but also how beautiful it can become through friendships, support, growth, and hope. A powerful look into the life of one kid trying to answer the question of “who am I?” in the midst of both bleak circumstances and increasingly deep friendships. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062488534
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/07/2017

Book Review: Wired Man and Other Freaks of Nature by Sashi Kaufman

Publisher’s description

wiredmanBen Wireman is partially deaf and completely insecure. The only two things that make him feel normal are being a soccer goalie and hanging out with his best friend, Tyler Nuson. Tyler is the golden boy, worshiped by girls and guys alike, and he no longer seems interested in Ben. Without Tyler, Ben isn’t sure who he is anymore, or if Tyler is really as “normal” as Ben thought he was. Maybe hanging out with freaks like Ilona Pierce, who has tattoos, blue hair, and almost no friends, is what he needs.

This captivating novel explores the shifting dynamics of friendships and complex art of growing up.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Ben and Tyler have been best friends since elementary school. Filipino Tyler is a super popular soccer play who’s increasingly acting like a jerky bro—hooking up with girls, drinking at parties, being obnoxious—and seems to be distancing himself from Ben. Or maybe from everyone. Partially deaf Ben is the goalie on the soccer team and pretty insecure about his hearing aids. He wears his hair long to try to hide them and is skilled in the “perfect art of projected normalcy.” Never mind that there’s obviously no such thing as “normal.” He doesn’t have a lot of friends. He’s close with his family and comfortable at home, and he’s not exactly excited to get cracking on those college applications. College means leaving home behind—and would it be super pathetic if he just followed Tyler to BU? Throughout the school year, Tyler’s behavior continues to change and worry Ben. He’s moody, seems secretive, is failing classes, and just isn’t himself. At one point, Ben witnesses Tyler having a total crying meltdown… but Tyler didn’t see him and Ben doesn’t want to push him to talk about something he obviously is keeping secret.

 

Besides, Ben has some other things going on. He hooks up a few times with a sophomore, Darcy. Then he gets paired  for a project with Ilona, a part-Japanese blue-haired weirdo who happily lets her freak flag fly and believes everyone else should do the same. Initially Ben is rather offended by her references to him as a “freak” until he starts to understand that being a freak, and being honest about what makes you a freak, is something Ilona values. They start to spend more time together and Ben grows to appreciate her “honest and peculiar take on things.” During this time, Tyler continues to fall apart, eventually broaching a conversation with Ben about sexuality and incidents from their past. He doesn’t tell Ben what really has him so bent out of shape, but eventually Ben puts the pieces together and encourages him to get some help.

 

There was so much that I enjoyed about this book that I can overlook the few things I felt were flaws (like Darcy just ghosting out of the story, or Ilona treading a little too close to being a total MPDG, or many small pieces of the plot feeling abandoned or unresolved). The writing is fantastic, the characters, for the most part, are really engaging and dynamic, and the dialogue is exactly how I best like it—abundant and with a biting edge. I like that not only is this a book that revolves around a close male friendship, but the characters really examine what that means—on its own, in comparison to their other relationships, and in light of what appears to be going on with Tyler. I wanted them to explore some of these issues deeper—maybe be more honest with each other, or something. While I enjoyed following the ways Ben changed and the uncertainties that come with senior year for him, I do also wish the story had been as equally weighted toward Tyler. Seeing only bits of his story through Ben’s eyes was, at times, frustrating, because we know there was so much more going on. Minor quibbles aside, I really dug this book and flew through it, partially because I truly had no idea where parts of the story would go. I’ve seen a few professional reviews compare this to books by Ron Koertge and Carrie Mesrobian—two of my favorites. Those are apt comparisons and should prepare readers for what they will get in this story: a complex look at teen characters who behave and sound like many actual teens. A smart and thoughtful look at friendship, insecurity, and uncertainty. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781467785631

Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group

Publication date: 09/01/2016

 

#MHYALit Book Review: Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow

girlinpiecesPublisher’s description

Charlotte Davis is in pieces. At seventeen she’s already lost more than most people do in a lifetime. But she’s learned how to forget. The broken glass washes away the sorrow until there is nothing but calm. You don’t have to think about your father and the river. Your best friend, who is gone forever. Or your mother, who has nothing left to give you.

Every new scar hardens Charlie’s heart just a little more, yet it still hurts so much. It hurts enough to not care anymore, which is sometimes what has to happen before you can find your way back from the edge.
A deeply moving portrait of a girl in a world that owes her nothing, and has taken so much, and the journey she undergoes to put herself back together. Kathleen Glasgow’s debut is heartbreakingly real and unflinchingly honest. It’s a story you won’t be able to look away from.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Do you like nearly unremittingly bleak stories? Then do I have a book for you! Now don’t jump ahead and assume that I mean that in any kind of damning way. I like bleak. I like real bleak. I like books where I think, good lord, more bad stuff? So keep reading, okay?

 

We meet Charlie as she is just getting settled in a treatment facility. She’s a cutter who has done too thorough of a job and just spent a week in the hospital. At the facility, she’s silent—selective mutism. She’s been through a lot. Prior to landing in the facility, she was homeless for nearly a year. Now in treatment, she’s getting the help she so desperately needs, grateful to be indoors, warm, and fed. But money and/or insurance doesn’t last forever, and way too soon she’s being cut loose, released to her abusive mother. Instead of going home with her mother, she’s handed some money, her birth certificate, and a bus ticket to Arizona. Great parenting. Charlie heads out there alone. Her friend Mikey is there, but Mikey’s tied to a lot of her past. He’s also not around much, so when he leaves on tour with a band, Charlie is truly alone. She gets a job washing dishes at a cafe, where she meets Riley, a sometimes charming junkie ten years her senior who quickly gets into her head, heart, and pants. Riley is horrible for Charlie. She’s trying so hard to move on from her past, but that’s not easy. Every day is a struggle for her to not cut herself. She makes a lot of crappy choices around and because of Riley. There are small good things mixed in among all this bleakness. Charlie finds solace in drawing and is going to have some of her art in a show. She’s making… I wouldn’t say “friends” at work, but she’s interacting with her coworkers and coming out of her shell a little. And when things fall apart in a pretty epic way, Charlie learns she has more support, resources, and hope than she had imagined.

 

Glasgow’s writing is stunning, moving from lush and poetic to choppy and spare. We’re in Charlie’s head a lot and slowly learn about her background—her father’s suicide, her best friend’s near-suicide, her abusive mother, her life on the streets. She isn’t much for talking, even with Riley, who’s far too self-absorbed to really think to ever ask her anything  about herself. Glasgow’s story is gritty and grim and at times almost too much to bear. I admit to taking lots of breaks while reading this one. People bend, break, leave, disappoint, hurt, die, suffer, and harm. In most cases, they also heal, change, recover, and hope in this astoundingly sad, astonishingly poignant debut.

 

For more on Girl in Pieces, see Glasgow’s previous piece for our blog, “This Book Will Save Your Life.”

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781101934715

Publisher: Random House Children’s Books

Publication date: 08/30/2016

Book Review: The Girl Who Fell by S.M. Parker

Come back later today for a guest post from S.M. Parker, author of The Girl Who Fell

 

Publisher’s description

girl whoIn this gripping debut novel, high school senior Zephyr Doyle is swept off her feet—and into an intense and volatile relationship—by the new boy in school.

His obsession.
Her fall.

Zephyr Doyle is focused. Focused on leading her team to the field hockey state championship and leaving her small town for her dream school, Boston College.

But love has a way of changing things.

Enter the new boy in school: the hockey team’s starting goaltender, Alec. He’s cute, charming, and most important, Alec doesn’t judge Zephyr. He understands her fears and insecurities—he even shares them. Soon, their relationship becomes something bigger than Zephyr, something she can’t control, something she doesn’t want to control.

Zephyr swears it must be love. Because love is powerful, and overwhelming, and…terrifying?

But love shouldn’t make you abandon your dreams, or push your friends away. And love shouldn’t make you feel guilty—or worse, ashamed.

So when Zephyr finally begins to see Alec for who he really is, she knows it’s time to take back control of her life.

If she waits any longer, it may be too late.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Two things I would wish for readers of this book: don’t read the blurb and skip the initial chapter, which shows us a scene from near the end of the story. I know—neither wish is realistically going to come true, but skipping those two items allows for a much slower reveal and unraveling of who Alec really is. I was on high “I HATE YOU” alert from the second he appeared in Zephyr’s classroom, thanks to knowing ahead of time what a monster he turns out to be. That quibble aside, this book was a phenomenally powerful read. 

 

Zephyr’s life is in transition. It’s senior year and while she’s excited to leave Sudbury, New Hampshire for college—hopefully Boston College—she’s also a little nervous and adrift. Her dad bailed on her 18th birthday, moving out and leaving behind an extremely hurt and rejected kid. It seems like everyone is figuring out their futures, but Zephyr’s plagued by doubts and insecurities. When her best friend, Gregg, kisses her, their friendship becomes yet another thing that feels uncertain. They’ve been close friends forever and are planning to go to college together. Zephyr’s upset that he put them in that situation (with the kiss) and her rejection and reaction sting Gregg. Enter Alec, the new guy, transplanted to the public school from a private boarding school. He instantly makes it clear that he’s into Zephyr. She can’t believe that this cute, considerate, doting guy is into her. Their relationship becomes intense really quickly.

 

Because the blurb and first chapter set us up to have our radars on alert for troublesome behavior from Alec, it’s easy to see all of the worrying signs of what becomes an abusive relationship. Before long, Alec doesn’t want her to hang out with Gregg (he’s threatened), wants her to ditch important events, is calling her obsessively, gets bent out of shape about EVERYTHING, and wants her to completely change her future plans for him. Zephyr goes along with all of this because she thinks it’s love. She’s lost and hurting and craves Alec’s attention and, at times, affection. She often understands that things he’s asking her or ways he’s behaving aren’t right, but she erases those thoughts every time by remembering they’re in love and how planning a future.

 

The story plays out how you think it will: Alec’s increasingly controlling and abusive. Parker doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing what a terrifying and violent creep Alec is. This book wasn’t easy to read. As an adult, as a woman, as a parent, I kept wanting to jump into the book and help Zephyr. Her other best friend, Lizzie, repeatedly tells her that this isn’t what love looks like, that she’s letting herself get too involved in Alec’s wishes, that there are too many red flags. Zephyr does tell her mom some of the scary things about Alec, eventually, but she also keeps many important details back. We are right there, as readers, for every second of violence, control, and isolation that Alec orchestrates. It’s a well-written and truly terrifying story. Parker builds the tension throughout the whole book, making Alec more of a monster in every chapter. It’s hard to watch Zephyr not see him for who he truly is and really hard to watch her stay him with him, give him second chances, and keep his abuse a secret. This suspenseful and upsetting look at an abusive relationship will appeal to readers who like dark stories of relationships gone bad. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481437257

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication date: 03/01/2016

The Sexual Violence in LGBTQIA+ YA Literature Project Index

SUPERNEWEST PURPLE

For the past two weeks, Teen Librarian Toolbox focused on sexual violence in LGBTQIA+ young adult literature. This is part of our blog’s larger ongoing sexual violence in young adult literature (or SVYALit) project.

 

We’re grateful to Vee Signorelli, admin and co-founder of GayYA, and Nita Tyndall, a moderator at GayYA. who have helped us brainstorm, organize, and facilitate this project. This series launched on August 3, 2015 with this introductory post. 

 

Below is a listing of every contributor and a summary, link, and excerpt of each of their posts. We greatly appreciate all of the support we’ve had during this project—every retweet, favorite, or comment we’ve gotten has meant so much. Check out the index and see what posts you might have missed. Please share this index and these posts widely. Not much has been written on the subject of sexual violence in LGBTQIA+ YA literature. This project goes a long way toward helping change that.

 

Meet the contributors to our series and get an overview of the posts:

 

Rob Bittner (@r_bittneris a PhD candidate in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University. He has a history of working with children’s and YA literature in various contexts, including his MA degree and various award committees through the American Library Association. In his post, Violence in LGBTIQ Fiction for Young Adults,” he writes about the obligatory sexual violence scene in YA books.

 

While I understand that authors often include these instances of violence in order to lend a sense of realism to the story, I feel that having an overabundance of such situations in YA gives the impression that to come out as L, G, B, T, I, Q, etc., inevitably leads to violence or unavoidable negative consequences. The same goes for uses of homophobic/transphobic language in novels as a way of realistically portraying the cruelty of homophobic/transphobic individuals. The use of such language, however, also troubles many readers who hear these words being hurled at them in real life. Sometimes I think it’s okay to have a book that contains challenges for characters, and references life’s complexities, without necessarily including scenes of violence and/or homophobic language.

 

 

Eden Grey (@edenjeangrey) is the Young Adult Programming Librarian at the busiest branch library in Kentucky. Eden is a reviewer for Young Adult Books Central and School Library Journal. In her post, “Sex and Consent in LGBT Manga,” she explores the differences between portrayals of sex in lesbian and gay manga and heterosexual romance stories in manga.

 

Should we be sharing these stories with our teens? Is it our place to decide what kind of sex they should and should not have access to? Is the answer as simple as ordering popular and requested manga and placing the explicit ones in the Adult section? These are questions rarely asked or discussed in Libraryland, and that’s really unfortunate. If we’re ordering these manga for our teens we should be discussing the sexual violence in them with readers. We should use this as an opportunity to talk about the issue of consent.

 

 

Dahlia Adler (@MissDahlELamais an Associate Editor of Mathematics by day, a blogger for B&N Teens by night, and writes Contemporary YA and NA at every spare moment in between. She’s the author of the Daylight Falls duology, the upcoming Just Visiting, and Last Will and Testament. In “Why Heteronormativity in YA Hurts More Than You Think,” she examines consent and power dynamics in LGBTQ YA.

 

Whether the participants are straight, queer boys, queer girls, queer non-binary people, or any combination of the above, when writing people having sex (especially teens), I think we do a great disservice by glossing over the existence of a power dynamic. Especially the first time, the existence of one is nearly always present; sometimes we just have to dig a little deeper to find it. Writing YA lit is an incredible opportunity to show what consent can and should look like, how much closer it can make you, how sexy it can be. If YA sex scenes often seem like wish fulfillment, well, that’s an aspect I’m okay with teens reading and thinking, “That’s what I want and I’ll settle for nothing less.”

 

 

Marieke Nijkamp (@mariekeynis a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, geek. She holds degrees in philosophy, history, and medieval studies, and wants to grow up to be a time traveler. In the midnight hours of the day she writes young adult stories as well as the occasional middle grade adventure. Her debut young adult novel THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS will be out from Sourcebooks Fire on January 5, 2016. In her post, “Microaggressions and Sexual Violence,” she looks at how microaggressions and sexual violence are closely related as symptoms of a culture that both sexualizes teens’ experiences and others or even fetishizes experiences that deviate from a supposed norm.

 

That doesn’t place microaggressions side to side with sexual violence, but they are closely related. They are a both symptoms of a culture that both sexualizes teens’ experiences and others or even fetishizes experiences that deviate from a supposed norm. A culture where the mere presence of queer characters means a YA book isn’t “clean” and where queer characters making out is still too often perceived as “having an agenda” while a cishet couple is simply romantic.

 

Vee Signorelli (@rausicabklvrspends their time writing, reading, hunting through queer book tags on tumblr, and keeping up with school. They’re a passionate feminist, a huge fan of actual representation in media, and a lover of theatre, mythology, and biology. Vee is the admin and co-founder of GayYA.org. In their post, “Sex and Romance in Trans YA,” they look at the books in which trans characters have sex, get swept off their feet by a dashing love interest, and explain to their date that they’re trans and have them respond affirmatively.

 

Trans YA can have a strong impact on what trans youth understand about themselves. I’ve learned about identity politics through tumblr and non-fiction works, but reading trans YA helped me figure out how I could exist happily in the world. Seeing someone like you go through the things you’re going through, and things you never thought you’d experience can change a lot. Reading about trans characters in romantic relationships helped me see a future for myself and expel most of the seemingly infinite amount of shame I had around being trans.

 

Rachel Gold (@RachelGoldis the author of Just Girls (Bella Books 2014) and the award-winning Being Emily (Bella Books 2012), the first young adult novel to tell the story of a trans girl from her perspective. She has an MFA in Writing from Hamline University and has spent the last 14 years working in Marketing and Publicity. In her post, “Tough Girls Talk About Rape,” she talks about female-female partner/date rape in her book Just Girls and shares her own personal story.

 

I wrote about it because I wish something like this never happens again to another girl in the history of the world. And I wrote about it because that the same kind of partner rape that happened to Tucker happened to me when I was 17 — so I know how confusing and devastating it feels.

 

I know how alone you feel when you’re still trying to understand what the hell happened and wondering if it’s ever happened to anyone else. I know what it’s like to try to tell people and have them look at you like they want to help but they can’t begin to understand what you said. I know what it’s like to be afraid that you’re the only person bad enough for this to happen to.

 

Sarah Benwell (@SWritesBooks) is a queer, genderqueer author. She lives in the picturesque city of Bath. Which is nice, but she’d much rather be off exploring deserts and jungles elsewhere. Having seen a good chunk of the world, Sarah is a keen advocate for diversity in life and on bookshelves, and she loves nothing more than acquainting herself with both. Her debut novel THE LAST LEAVES FALLING is published by Penguin Random House (UK)/ Simon & Schuster (US). In her post, “Why We Need Abuse and Sexual Violence/Abuse in LGBTQIA YA,” she argues for the importance of these narratives as they show us that we’re not alone and that others have walked this same path.

 

And when you’re growing up and you already feel different and misunderstood and scared, books can help. Yes, they might show us some of the worst possibilities – but they allow us to read through to the end and survive. To learn how, to learn that it’s possible.

They show us that we’re not alone. That others have walked the same paths. And if – gods forbid – you do find yourself in similar awful situations, the last thing you want is to feel that you’re the only one, that it’s you.

 

Megan Honig (@vonmeggz) is a writer and editor and the former Young Adult Collections Specialist for the New York Public Library. She is the author of Urban Grit: A Guide to Street Lit, published by Libraries Unlimited, as well as the popular 30 Days of Street Lit blog series. In her post “Misrepresentations of Violence in Julie Anne Peters’ Rage: A Love Story,” Megan looks at one of the few YA titles depicting an abusive relationship between two girls–a book that, unfortunately, conceals more than illuminates abusive behaviors.

 

There are a few things Rage does well. One is to illustrate the challenge of being a young lesbian in a town where possible partners seem scarce, a situation that surely has an impact on Johanna’s persistent attitude toward Reeve. Another is to depict a teen character for whom finances are a consistent stressor and concern—another situation that is chronically underrepresented in teen fiction. But overall, Rage fails more than supports its teen audience. Many people enter into their first romantic or sexual relationships in adolescence, and teens—especially LGBTQ teens—need tools to help them navigate these often complicated and emotionally intense waters. Rage does not provide such tools; in fact, it makes some kinds of relationship violence harder to perceive.

 

Nita Tyndall (@NitaTyndall is a tiny Southern queer with a deep love of sweet tea and very strong opinions about the best kind of barbecue (hint: it’s vinegar-based.) She attends college in North Carolina and is pursuing a degree in English. In addition to being a YA writer, she is a moderator for The Gay YA and a social media coordinator for WeNeedDiverseBooks. You can find her on tumblr at nitatyndall where she writes about YA and queer things, or on Twitter at @NitaTyndall. InCoercion and Sexual Violence in LGBTQIA Lit,” Nita focuses on what coercion is and why “positive” or commonplace depictions of it are harmful, particularly in LGBTQ lit, through examining ASK THE PASSENGERS and SHE LOVES YOU, SHE LOVES YOU NOT.

 

Coercion or pressuring someone into coming out, or assuming their sexuality, is a problem that extends beyond YA literature. The narrative of forcing someone out of the closet or insisting they’ll be happier if they are, particularly if the person doing the pressuring is already out, is extremely problematic. Choosing whether or not to come out is a heavy decision, and insisting that you know better than the person who’s coming out, or making them feel like they have no choice but to, is not only incredibly disrespectful but speaks volumes about our treatment of other queer people: That you can only be happy if you’re out, or that staying in the closet is something to be ashamed of. That other people can make that decision for you, or pressure you into making it. Upholding such narratives as okay or romantic, especially to teenagers, is awful.

 

Cheryl Rainfield (@CherylRainfield) is the author of the award-winning SCARS, a novel about a queer teen sexual abuse survivor who uses self-harm to cope; the award-winning HUNTED, a novel about a teen telepath in a world where any paranormal power is illegal; STAINED, about a teen who is abducted and must rescue herself; and PARALLEL VISIONS, about a teen who sees visions and must save a friend. Cheryl is a lesbian feminist and incest and ritual abuse torture survivor. In her article “The Need For Realistic, Compassionate Portrayals of Sexual Violence In LGBTQIA+ (and all YA) Lit ,” she talks about the importance of realistic portrayals of sexual violence and abuse in queer YA lit and how they can help.

 

I felt so alone and in so much pain as a child and teen; I wanted to die most of the time and did actually try a few times to kill myself. I desperately wanted to know that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t the only one going through these horrific experiences or the only one was queer, and I tried to find that in books. I found small bits of validation, such as a character who was bullied or survived incest or a lesbian character, but I didn’t find enough—which is part of why I write the books I do. I write the books I needed to read as a teen and couldn’t find. I want others to know they’re not alone.

When we feel alone in traumatic or painful experiences—including abuse and homophobia—it makes the pain so much worse. I think when we see reflections of ourselves and our experiences, it helps lessen our pain, reassure us that we are not alone, help us feel healthier and happier, learn new ways of coping and surviving, and feel that we, too, can survive since characters with similar issues did.

 

Amanda MacGregor (@CiteSomething) is a librarian with a MA degree in children’s literature, a longtime book reviewer for School Library Journal, The Horn Book Guide, and Voice of Youth Advocates, and also a contributor at Teen Librarian Toolbox. In her post, “‘Our Kisses Were Seismic': Positive Sexual Experiences in LGBTQIA+ YA Books,” she shares some of her favorite positive sex/consent books, scenes, and relationships, as well as those offered up by friends on Twitter.

 

While it’s important to look at and discuss rape, consent, abuse, and violence, it’s equally as important to present plenty of healthy, positive, and enjoyable experiences for teen readers to show them what desire looks like and how it can play out. The field of books about LGBTQIA+ teens is growing in leaps and bounds. We are lucky that we can hand so many books to teenagers where the characters have happy and fulfilling relationships, where things are not all doom and gloom, and where sexual behaviors actually take place on the page, rather than some fade to black scenes. There is power in representation, in being seen, in seeing hope and happiness.

The Need For Realistic, Compassionate Portrayals of Sexual Violence In LGBTQIA+ (and all YA) Lit, a guest post by Cheryl Rainfield

By Cheryl Rainfield, author of YA novels SCARS, STAINED, HUNTED, and PARALLEL VISIONS (@CherylRainfield)

 

cheryl-books-prideWhen I was a child and teen, I lived through daily/nightly rape, torture, and mind control at the hands of my parents and other abusers; my parents belonged to intergenerational, interconnected cults. I was also queer. When people hear that, they often ask me if I’m lesbian because I was raped. My answer—and that of my queer survivor characters—is a resounding no. I was raped by both men and women in the cult, and by both of my parents, grandparents, and other relatives. Each rape traumatized, disgusted, and terrified me, no matter which gender raped me. And if rape could make survivors queer, then there’d be a heck of a lot more queer people in the world since at least 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys have experienced sexual abuse by the time they reach age 18Queer teens experience more rape than heterosexuals and have to face homophobia on top of it—sometimes in the form of rape, being beaten, being turned out of our families and homes, or other forms of hatred and  fear turned on us. I think we need books that talk about these experiences in an honest and real way. LGB teens are four times as likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual teens and half of transgender teens have seriously thought of suicide and 1 in 4 attempt it.

LGBTQIA+ teens (and adults) need to know they’re not alone and it can get better, and LGBTQIA+ survivors of rape, abuse, sexual violence, and torture need to know it even more.

 

#WeNeedDiverseBooks-lgbtq-rainfieldI felt so alone and in so much pain as a child and teen; I wanted to die most of the time and did actually try a few times to kill myself. I desperately wanted to know that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t the only one going through these horrific experiences or the only one was queer, and I tried to find that in books. I found small bits of validation, such as a character who was bullied or survived incest or a lesbian character, but I didn’t find enough—which is part of why I write the books I do. I write the books I needed to read as a teen and couldn’t find. I want others to know they’re not alone.

When we feel alone in traumatic or painful experiences—including abuse and homophobia—it makes the pain so much worse. I think when we see reflections of ourselves and our experiences, it helps lessen our pain, reassure us that we are not alone, help us feel healthier and happier, learn new ways of coping and surviving, and feel that we, too, can survive since characters with similar issues did.

Reading about characters who’ve experienced similar trauma or painful experiences can also help us decrease our shame, self-blame, and self-hatred; increase our compassion and acceptance for ourselves and others; and give us a tool to talk about the issue with others. And we all deserve to have that.

 

Readers have told me many times that because of my books, they were able to talk to someone for the first time about being queer, their abuse, or their self-harm; get help; stop self-harming; have more compassion for themselves or for someone who is a sexual abuse survivor, queer, or uses self-harm; feel less alone; survive the pain they’re living through; feel stronger in their own lives; and even keep from killing themselves. Books help heal.

 

#WeNeedDiverseBooks-everyone-reflections-rainfieldI don’t think there are enough YA novels with survivors of sexual violence written in a sensitive, realistic way, especially from someone who’s been there and knows what it’s like from the inside out; not enough YA books with queer characters; and definitely not enough books with both. And yet there is a need—not only for the queer community, but also for the world to help lessen homophobia and help increase awareness of sexual violence and its effects. An emotionally honest book about painful experiences can help readers whether they are queer or heterosexual, whether they have experienced sexual violence or some other form of abuse, or even if they haven’t experienced any of that at all but know someone who has. Books help us increase compassion and understanding by temporarily slipping into the soul of the character.

 

 

“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” –Joyce Carol Oates

 

cheryl-sometimes-be-own-heroI write about many of the traumatic experiences I’ve been through—rape and incest, self-harm, being queer and experiencing homophobia from a parent in SCARS; rape, being held captive, being withheld food and water in STAINED; oppression, betrayal, and being hunted in HUNTED; homophobic-based rape and gang rape, suicidal thoughts, and depression in PARALLEL VISIONS. I write strong-girl characters, emotionally-strong boy characters, and both queer and heterosexual characters who help each other. I try to write queer characters, characters of color, and characters with mental- or physical-health issues into my books, reflecting our real world. And I also write about many of the techniques I’ve used to heal and cope—creating art, seeing a therapist, talking to friends, reading comics and collecting superhero items, creating my own superhero from myself.

I always write strong-girl characters who have to save themselves. That is what I had to do—rescue myself—over and over again until I was finally safe.

I write honestly from my own trauma and healing experiences, opening up to my intense emotions, bleeding them out onto the page so the reader can feel. So that they understand—whether they’ve been through something similar or not. So that if they’ve been through it, they know they’re not alone.

 

And I show some of the possible side effects from rape, sexual abuse, trauma, and abuse—PTSD, dissociation, cheryl-superman-tanxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, isolation—all things I’ve experienced and know well. It’s important to me to show what the effects of rape and sexual violence are really like. They leave deep emotional scars. It’s not something we walk away from and shrug off like a second skin—the way some movies, TV shows, and comics suggest. And it’s not something that I think should ever be used just for dramatic effect or to make another (usually male) character become a hero. If we don’t show the intense pain, despair, depression, and other resulting effects from  rape and trauma, I think we are doing us all a great disservice by telling survivors, perpetrators, and everyone else that sexual violence leaves no trauma or side effects aside from the physical. I believe that the worst and deepest wounds aren’t physical, but are emotional and psychological. So it’s important to me to write realistic stories of sexual violence and trauma that teens can relate to, and yet are also full of hope and healing.

 

cheryl-rainfield-nobody-knows-im-lesbianIt’s also important to me to write books where the queer characters are happy with their sexuality—not just books where the character is coming out, but books where the story is about something else and the character just happens to be queer—and books where the queer characters are in relatively happy, healthy, consensual relationships, where the tension and strife is coming most from the outside, and a queer character doesn’t get penalized or killed off because they’re queer. I think books with queer characters can help normalize being queer, fight homophobia and hatred, and increase compassion.

Queer readers need books we can enjoy and experience the way heterosexuals can most any time they pick up a book—and heterosexual readers need to be exposed to queer characters as just a reflection of the world we live in.

 

I think there is a great need for LGBTQIA+ YA books that have positive queer characters, that explore rape, abuse, homophobia, and trauma in realistic, sensitive, and hopeful ways, and that include both. I hope to see many more such books in the future. I will keep writing the books I need to. And I hope that you will read, write, or share the books you need to, the books that help you feel alive or the books that moved you. Read on!

 

Meet Cheryl Rainfield

CHERYLCheryl Rainfield is the author of the award-winning SCARS, a novel about a queer teen sexual abuse survivor who uses self-harm to cope; the award-winning HUNTED, a novel about a teen telepath in a world where any paranormal power is illegal; STAINED, about a teen who is abducted and must rescue herself; and PARALLEL VISIONS, about a teen who sees visions and must save a friend. Cheryl Rainfield is a lesbian feminist, incest and ritual abuse torture survivor, and an avid reader and writer. She lives in Toronto with her little dog Petal.

Cheryl Rainfield has been said to write with “great empathy and compassion” (VOYA) and to write stories that “can, perhaps, save a life.” (CM Magazine)  SLJ said of her work: “[readers] will be on the edge of their seats.”

You can find Cheryl on her website CherylRainfield.com or her blog http://www.CherylRainfield.com/blog, on Twitter: http://www.Twitter.com/CherylRainfield, Instagram: http://www.Instagram.com/CherylRainfield, and FaceBook http://www.facebook.com/CherylRainfield.

Misrepresentations of Violence in Julie Anne Peters’ Rage: A Love Story, a guest post by Megan Honig

by Megan Honig (@vongmeggz)

rage coverRelationship violence—sexual, physical, and/or emotional—among LGBTQ young people is underdiscussed and, unsurprisingly, underrepresented in teen literature. Because there are so few books depicting LGBTQ relationship violence, Julie Anne Peters’ Rage: A Love Story, a book about two teen girls who enter into a violent, unhealthy relationship, is still notable six years after its publication.

Unfortunately, the picture Rage paints of a lesbian abusive relationship is distorted and incoherent. Characters are built around two recognizable tropes—abusers hit; survivors stay—but these tropes are divorced from a broader understanding of how abuse functions in intimate relationships. The result is that a book that aims to depict domestic violence in a lesbian relationship actually mischaracterizes and conceals violent behaviors.

The central relationship in Rage is between Reeve and Johanna. Judging by reviews, it is most often read as a story where Reeve is an abuser and Johanna her target. It is easy to read the book this way because tropes about domestic violence point uncomplicatedly to Reeve as a perpetrator and Johanna as a survivor. “What’s wrong with me,” Johanna asks early on, talking about her stressful workplace, “that I stay and no one else does?” Later, bearing a visible mark from having been hit, Johanna covers up the truth with a classic lie: “I fell down the stairs.” These sound like popular understandings of what intimate partner violence looks like. But when read carefully, the story becomes much murkier.

When Rage opens, Johanna knows Reeve only from a distance. She fantasizes about Reeve in segments called “Joyland,” imagining the two of them together in a variety of passionate sexual and romantic scenarios. The two finally meet when Johanna is assigned to tutor Reeve’s brother Robbie.

Reeve initially wants nothing to do with Johanna, but Johanna persists in trying to get closer. Johanna follows Reeve home one day and witnesses intense family violence. Later, after Reeve has explicitly told her “Don’t follow me!” and “I don’t want you coming to my house. Ever. Again,” Johanna goes back to her house.

Reeve, meanwhile, hits, bites, and shoves people at the slightest provocation. If Johanna has any reaction to seeing Reeve hurt others, it isn’t conveyed. There is, in fact, jarringly little reflection or contexualization overall. Johanna does react to Reeve’s family situation, but only by vowing to help her out of it—in direct contradiction to Reeve’s stated wishes.

Johanna slowly insinuates her way further into Reeve’s life until, midway through the book, we reach the pivotal scene that leaves Johanna with a black eye. For a date, Reeve goes to Johanna’s house and Johanna cooks dinner. Early in the evening, Reeve gets frustrated and decides to leave. Johanna grabs Reeve’s wrist to stop her. To get away, Reeve punches Johanna in the face.

This is the scene that is meant to position Johanna as the survivor. Afterwards, we see her bearing the mark of having been hit—a classic symbol of physical abuse. But in fact, Johanna is the one who has engaged in violent and threatening behaviors: stalking, violating explicitly stated boundaries, and finally, attempting to physically control Reeve by grabbing her. Reeve’s hitting, in this moment, is not an act of abuse but an act of self-defense.

Later, Reeve’s behavior aligns more with typical acts of relationship violence. She comes to Johanna’s workplace and sabotages Johanna’s job. She manipulates Johanna into spending her already limited funds on Reeve. And, yes, she hits and bites and hits again. But the story remains, at its core, troubling. A book that claims to depict relationship violence between two lesbian teens encourages Reeve’s act of physical self-defense to be read as violence while letting Johanna’s acts of stalking and physical aggression pass without comment.

Two popular misconceptions about abusive relationships are at play here. One is the myth that leaving an abusive relationship is easy, a sentiment often expressed with the handwringing lament, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” To stay, according to the logic of this myth, is to choose—freely, deliberately, and perversely—to be abused. But abusive relationships are often very difficult to leave. Survivors stay not because they want to be abused but because they are being manipulated.

This dynamic is well illustrated through a different relationship of Johanna’s. Johanna’s friend Novak, who has a boyfriend, nevertheless flirts with Johanna and deliberately uses Johanna’s attraction to Novak to manipulate Johanna into giving her time, energy, and living space against her better judgment. Every time we see Johanna on the brink of saying no to Novak, Novak touches Johanna deliberately, playing on Johanna’s romantic and sexual desires with the intention—and effect—of making it hard for Johanna to deny her requests.

Johanna’s persistence with Reeve is also informed by her romantic and sexual desires. Johanna’s role with Reeve, however, is very different and much more sinister. Unlike Novak, Reeve isn’t manipulating Johanna—she’s telling Johanna very clearly to leave her alone. We are told early on that Johanna is “the one who stays” but when she follows Reeve home repeatedly, against Reeve’s wishes, Johanna isn’t staying—she’s stalking.

The second myth at play here is that abusers are easy to identify. According to this myth, the only abusive relationships that exist are ones where the abuse is immediately obvious to onlookers. Abusers, by this logic, are monsters; anyone who appears kind, well-intentioned, or in any way sympathetic could not commit abuse.

The reality, however, is that abusers are often outwardly charismatic and commit violence only in secret. Abusers leverage the myth that abusers are monsters by insisting that a committed activist, or a valuable community member, or a compelling artist couldn’t be capable of abuse. One look at current events tells us that this is a chillingly effective strategy.

In Rage, Reeve reads as an abuser because her violence is exaggeratedly apparent. She hurts people constantly and blatantly, in scenes that are, when read carefully, difficult to make sense of. Consider the passage in which Johanna sees Reeve kissing another girl:

Britt was moaning and breathing hard, and then she went, “Ow!

“You bit me!” Britt said.

“Did I?”

“I’m bleeding. You did that on purpose,” Britt whimpered. “Why’d you do that? I never did anything to you.”

Reeve said, “You asked for it.”

Britt crumpled to the ground and started to cry.

Why does Reeve bite Britt? Is it an act of sexual aggression, as Reeve’s “you asked for it” seems to imply? Of anger or revenge, as Britt’s “I never did anything to you” seems to indicate? The text offers no explanation. The scene feels, more than anything, like an incoherent collection of tropes about relationship violence, and one can only draw the circular conclusion that Reeve hurts people because she is an abuser, and an abuser is a kind of person who hurts people.

The assumptions around which the central characters are created are rooted in these two myths: that abusers irrationally hurt people and that survivors irrationally stay in abusive situations. The result is both incoherence—Reeve’s strange and chaotic hitting—and masking of violence—Johanna’s stalking, portrayed as victimhood.

From her author bio, it seems as if Peters may not have intended to depict a relationship where one partner abused the other. The jacket flap tells us,

The spark for Rage was ignited via a “why don’t you write a story about…” request from a devoted teen reader in an abusive relationship. After firmly and repeatedly turning down the inquiry, Ms. Peters began to feel drawn to the challenge of portraying a relationship in which neither party was wholly victim or villain…”

Maybe Peters recognizes that Johanna too behaves violently, and maybe her intention as an author is to create a situation where both parties are equally at fault. The problem with that approach, however, is that the idea of “mutual abuse” in LGBTQ relationships is another dangerous myth. A partner who acts out physically in response to another party’s violent behavior is not equally at fault. But it is common for an abusive partner to convince a survivor she is at fault, or to convince authority figures or service providers that she—the abuser—is “the real victim.” This is particularly a problem in same-gender relationships because of prevailing myths about gender. If you believe that men can’t really be targets of abuse, or that women can’t really perpetrate abuse, than “mutual abuse” becomes an easy—but false—explanation for whatever violence has occurred.

There are a few things Rage does well. One is to illustrate the challenge of being a young lesbian in a town where possible partners seem scarce, a situation that surely has an impact on Johanna’s persistent attitude toward Reeve. Another is to depict a teen character for whom finances are a consistent stressor and concern—another situation that is chronically underrepresented in teen fiction. But overall, Rage fails more than supports its teen audience. Many people enter into their first romantic or sexual relationships in adolescence, and teens—especially LGBTQ teens—need tools to help them navigate these often complicated and emotionally intense waters. Rage does not provide such tools; in fact, it makes some kinds of relationship violence harder to perceive.

Rage stands out not because it is a book that addresses violence in lesbian relationships well but because it is one of the few teen books to address this subject at all. As representation of LGBTQ characters grows in teen publishing, I hope that this subject too will receive broader and more thoughtful treatment. Teen readers need it.

 

Meet Megan Honig

WIN_20150504_134259Megan Honig is a writer and editor and the former Young Adult Collections Specialist for the New York Public Library. She is the author of Urban Grit: A Guide to Street Lit, published by Libraries Unlimited, as well as the popular 30 Days of Street Lit blog series. Find her on Twitter at @vonmeggz

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