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Book Review: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

Publisher’s description

history-twoFrom the New York Times bestselling author of More Happy Than Not comes an explosive examination of grief, mental illness, and the devastating consequences of refusing to let go of the past.

When Griffin’s first love and ex-boyfriend, Theo, dies in a drowning accident, his universe implodes. Even though Theo had moved to California for college and started seeing Jackson, Griffin never doubted Theo would come back to him when the time was right. But now, the future he’s been imagining for himself has gone far off course.

To make things worse, the only person who truly understands his heartache is Jackson. But no matter how much they open up to each other, Griffin’s downward spiral continues. He’s losing himself in his obsessive compulsions and destructive choices, and the secrets he’s been keeping are tearing him apart.

If Griffin is ever to rebuild his future, he must first confront his history, every last heartbreaking piece in the puzzle of his life.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

There are not enough positive words in the universe (this one or alternate ones) to convey how I feel about this book. I was torn between burning through it, so I could see what happens, and forcing myself to slow down, so I could be sure to read every single beautiful word. I absolutely loved More Happy Than Not, but I think it’s possible that I love this book more.

 

The novel begins with Griffin gearing up to go to Theo’s funeral. Theo is his ex-boyfriend, one of his best friends, and his first love. In an act of self-sabotage (or self-preservation), Griffin broke up with Theo when he moved to California over a year ago for college, but they’ve remained in each other’s lives. Griffin thinks of Theo as his once and future love. He figures Theo will find his way back to him at some point. That theory is obliterated when Theo drowns. Griffin unravels. Toggling between their history and the present (where Griffin is directly addressing Theo, who he believes is with him even in death and observing him), Griffin fills in every detail of their relationship and everything that happened after they broke up (though it’s a slow reveal).

 

As I read, I kept thinking of that Stevie Smith poem, “Not Waving but Drowning,” specifically the lines “I was much further out than you thought/And not waving but drowning.” I was thinking of it not in the context of what happened to Theo, but what’s happening with Griffin. As we get to learn more of Griffin’s story, both the history and what he’s currently experiencing, we learn that he’s a real mess. He’s keeping a lot back from everyone (including the reader). He’s doing worse than anyone realizes, for so many reasons. Even when it seems like he’s letting people in, coping a little, trying to process and heal, he’s not. And who can blame him?

 

Both the history and the present are riveting, unexpected storylines. Griffin and Theo’s relationship is powerful and complicated, especially once they break up. I loved seeing them get together and watching their close friendship morph into intense first love. They have loving, supportive families. The third member of their squad, Wade, barely blinks when the two start dating—he just doesn’t want to feel like a third wheel with his longtime best friends. When Theo begins to date Jackson while in California, Griffin tries to keep his cool, jealous, but figuring the relationship won’t last. After Theo dies, Griffin has the love and support of his family, Theo’s, and Wade, but it’s through Jackson that Griffin tries to seek solace. Though at first not really excited to get to know Jackson at all, Griffin realizes that he’s really the only person who can understand exactly how he feels. Plus, he believes Theo is watching him, and he thinks Theo would like to see him working so hard to get along with Jackson and to understand what they had.

 

Predictably, growing closer to Jackson and learning more about his time with Theo is agonizing for Griffin. It’s all hard to hear and pretty heartbreaking. Through this entire grieving process, Griffin is growing more and more heartbroken, learning things about Theo that hurt him and avoiding pretty enormous things that need to be dealt with. One of those things is Griffin’s “quirks,” as he thinks of them—really OCD and depression and the whole thinking Theo is currently with him somehow thing. Though surrounded by love and support, Griffin is hellbent on forging his own way through the quagmire of grief.

 

This profoundly devastating, heartbreaking, and brilliantly rendered look at love and grief will captivate readers. An absolute must-read. Bump this to the top of your TBR lists and be ready to not move until you finish it.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781616956929

Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated

Publication date: 01/17/2017

Book Review: Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

Publisher’s description

underNorah has agoraphobia and OCD. When groceries are left on the porch, she can’t step out to get them. Struggling to snag the bags with a stick, she meets Luke. He’s sweet and funny, and he just caught her fishing for groceries. Because of course he did.
Norah can’t leave the house, but can she let someone in? As their friendship grows deeper, Norah realizes Luke deserves a normal girl. One who can lie on the front lawn and look up at the stars. One who isn’t so screwed up.
Readers themselves will fall in love with Norah in this poignant, humorous, and deeply engaging portrait of a teen struggling to find the strength to face her demons.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This book was really a mixed bag for me.

 

We really get to see Norah’s various mental illnesses and how they affect her and her life. We get great, intense descriptions of panic attacks and the urge to harm herself and what it can feel like to have agoraphobia. We see how small her world has become—she has hardly left the house in four years. We see her have multiple therapy sessions in various places. We are right there with Norah in her panic and fear and distress. Gornall’s writing, for the most part, is great. The writing is also funny. Though Norah’s a wreck who is often really caught up in fighting against her own brain, she’s also really self-aware and clever. She’s funny and gives good banter.

 

Norah’s mental illnesses are BAD. They are in no way under control. Yes, she’s in therapy, but often it has to be at her house or in her mom’s car because she can’t get as far as the clinic. Just stepping one toe past her front door is terrifying. She’s unmedicated. She’s hoping to keep depression at bay and often gives in to the urge to harm herself. All of this, and her mother leaves her alone while she travels for work. Really? Yes, she’s 17, but she’s NOT OKAY. She should not be alone. And her mom’s two day trip turns into a week or more when she gets in some mysterious car accident that requires multiple days in the hospital and feels completely unrealistic/never satisfactorily explained. All of this is to say, as a person who both battles mental illness and parents another human with mental illness, I wanted her to be taken better care of. Yelling at her mom for leaving her alone took me out of the book. But, seeing her alone is what makes us really understand how bad her panic attacks and agoraphobia are.

 

Then there’s Luke, the new neighbor boy. At first all Norah can really do is spy on him from the windows. Then they start talking through the door (closed and open). It’s pretty much insta-like. Norah is consumed with thinking about him, considering her appearance (after lots of time not really worrying about it). She forgets therapy appointments because her head is so in the clouds. She feels something small and awake inside of her thanks to him. He adorably slips notes through her front door when she can’t handle talking. She describes him as “10 percent human, 90 percent charisma” and she’s right. He feels too good to be true. It’s not that I don’t think there isn’t a chance that a charming and super understanding boy could fall for a girl who can hardly interact with other humans, but Luke just doesn’t feel real. He’s too good. And, while he doesn’t magically or instantly cure her, it very much does feel like Luke, and love, do save her and speed up her progress in ways that other things can’t. The hopeful ending is necessary, but also feels rather unbelievable.

 

So. Like I said, mixed bag. Here’s the thing: minus the “love will fix you” story line and the worrisome fact that I think Norah needs way more care than she’s getting, this is a good book. It’s well-written. It’s amusing. The clever banter between Norah and Luke and Norah and her mother is good. But I am a hard one to please when it comes to mental health plots. I want to see good work being done in multiple ways. And it IS being done here, but I really felt the story needed more. Norah is VERY UNWELL. You can tell, even without reading Gornall’s author’s note about her own mental health experiences, that she knows what she’s writing about. I really wanted to feel like there was more to Norah than just her mental illness. And, most importantly, I want her to get better because of what she’s doing and for her own sake, not because of a boy. I don’t know that any of these issues were a flaw in the story or writing, necessarily, so much as my own desire for more out of Norah, for more concern over her mental health.

 

All of that said, I hope this book finds an audience because of its vivid and powerful descriptions of what living with mental illness can be like. And while I wanted more out of this book than I got, I really did enjoy the writing and look forward to future books from Gornall. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544736511

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 01/03/2017

Book Review: The March Against Fear: The Last Great Walk of the Civil Rights Movement and the Emergence of Black Power by Ann Bausum

Publisher’s description

march-againstJames Meredith’s 1966 march in Mississippi began as one man’s peaceful protest for voter registration and became one of the South’s most important demonstrations of the civil rights movement. It brought together leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael, who formed an unlikely alliance that resulted in the Black Power movement, which ushered in a new era in the fight for equality.

The retelling of Meredith’s story opens on the day of his assassination attempt and goes back in time to recount the moments leading up to that event and its aftermath. Readers learn about the powerful figures and emerging leaders who joined the over 200-mile walk that became known as the “March Against Fear.”

Thoughtfully presented by award-winning author Ann Bausum, this book helps readers understand the complex issues of fear, injustice, and the challenges of change. It is a history lesson that’s as important and relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This powerful book examines one of the greatest civil rights protests and the last great march of that era—a march that is often forgotten, was fraught with complexity, and led to divisions in the civil rights groups and leaders of the time.

 

Bausum begins with the shooting of James Meredith, who was the first African American to earn a degree at Ole Miss, among the first to integrate the Air Force, and felt he had a “divine responsibility” to be a leader for his race. Meredith’s walk across Mississippi was for a simple reason: he was tired of being afraid of white people and he wanted black people to stop being afraid. He felt that if he could walk through his state like this, he might inspire people to be less afraid and get them out to vote. His plan was cut short when he was shot. However, his walk was then taken up by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists and groups. Their focus was on voter registration and civil rights bills. They created a document calling on President Johnson to enforce legal rights of African Americans, provide increased economic opportunities, improve voting access, and have great representation by black people on juries and police forces. Meredith’s Walk Against Fear morphs into the March Against Fear, an undertaking that lasts most of June 1966 and eventually involves thousands of people bringing attention to segregation and the legacy of slavery. It is at this march that Willie Ricks and Stokely Carmichael first use and encourage the phrase “black power,” changing the call and response from “What do you want?” “Freedom!” to “What do you want?” “Black power!” for many in the march. Bausum’s book looks at the role of the news media and of the governments and police forces of the areas during the march as well as the unity and divisions of the civil rights groups during the march and effects after.

 

With plenty of source material, including many pictures from the march, this book is both well-written and well-researched. A large appendix details Bausum’s source material, including personal conversations with Meredith. Civil rights and social justice will always be relevant topics, and contemporary readers will be struck by just how little has been done to really move our country forward and how the topics important to the leaders during the march remain just as significant today. An important look at racism, protest, and the slow move toward progress. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781426326653

Publisher: National Geographic Society

Publication date: 01/03/2017

Book Review: Factory Girl by Josanne La Valley

Publisher’s description

factoryIn order to save her family’s farm, Roshen, sixteen, must leave her rural home to work in a factory in the south of China. There she finds arduous and degrading conditions and contempt for her minority (Uyghur) background. Sustained by her bond with other Uyghur girls, Roshen is resolved to endure all to help her family and ultimately her people. A workplace survival story, this gritty, poignant account focuses on a courageous teen and illuminates the value—and cost—of freedom.

 

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Sixteen-year-old Roshen intends to continue her schooling to become a teacher. Her plans are changed for her when she is sent away to work in a factory in southern China. Roshen is devastated to have to leave her Muslim Uyghur family, who live near the Taklamakan Desert in northwest China. In addition to leaving behind her plans for school and her family, she leaves Ahmat, the boy she shares a special connection with and who it seems likely she will soon be engaged to. Roshen’s family isn’t told exactly where she will be taken, only that she will be gone for a year and is not allowed any devices or contact with her family. She and Ahmat set up a secret email address for her and devise a code, hoping she will be able to find internet stations and at least get a little information back to him. They expect that Roshen will be mistreated at the factory and discuss how she shouldn’t fight back. There may be spies and traitors among the girls, too.

 

Roshen and eleven other Uyghur girls are taken on the long journey to their factory. They’re led by Ushi, who is not only mean, but unfortunately also one of their bosses. They arrive to learn they will cut, sew, and finish work wear. It’s grueling work that’s hard on their bodies. The girls work very long hours, are hit with a rod if appearing unsatisfactory, are forced to speak Mandarin only (and penalized  if they speak Uyghur), aren’t allowed to wear their headscarves, and are often served meals with pork in them. They’re served tea with a drug in it to keep them awake so they can work longer hours. Many of the Chinese girls use clothespins to keep their eyes open. Additionally, the girls don’t even make money for many months as they are forced to pay for their trip from home to the factory, their meals, their uniforms, and the many unfair penalties they are assessed.

 

The twelve Uyghur girls are isolated from the rest of the workers and though they don’t all get along, and Roshen can’t stop wondering is someone is a spy, they bond together to help and protect one another. Roshen becomes a leader and learns how to work the system and avoid punishment as best she can. Roshen’s closest friend, Mikray, is defiant and determined to escape. Young Zuwida is in very poor health and only getting worse. Proud and haughty Hawa is selected to help the bosses by looking beautiful and being available to help placate clients. Eventually, Roshen, who speaks English in addition to Mandarin and Uyghur, is forced to go out with the boss and some clients. She is horrified by what is expected of her and receives some very unexpected (and heartbreaking) help. After returning to the factory, she is determined to allow herself to become gaunt, unwashed, and unappealing to avoid further assignments like this. Her decision has unintended consequences that leave her feeling incredibly guilty but also move her to further action.

 

Throughout all of her time at the factory, Roshen tries to remember the power of words. She clings to the songs and poems she has been taught and formulates her own. Her experience as a factory girl changes her forever. Roshen knows now that she will write, that she will tell the story of the factory girls. Generally well-written, the story’s one real downfall is the lack of development of many of the Uyghur girls, who don’t feel necessary beyond showing they are part of the block of girls isolated and most abused. At the same time, it’s the development of the girls who do carry pieces of the story, and their friendships and support, that make this story especially interesting and powerful. My ARC didn’t include the afterword, which apparently provides more context for the story and how La Valley came to tell it.  This harrowing story of exploitation, abuse, and forced labor is a compelling (and horrifying) look at a story (and a setting) not often seen in YA. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544699472

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 01/10/2017

Book Review: Love and First Sight by Josh Sundquist

Publisher’s description

love-and-firstIn his debut novel, YouTube personality and author of We Should Hang Out Sometime Josh Sundquist explores the nature of love, trust, and romantic attraction.

On his first day at a new school, blind sixteen-year-old Will Porter accidentally groped a girl on the stairs, sat on another student in the cafeteria, and somehow drove a classmate to tears. High school can only go up from here, right?

As Will starts to find his footing, he develops a crush on a charming, quiet girl named Cecily. Then an unprecedented opportunity arises: an experimental surgery that could give Will eyesight for the first time in his life. But learning to see is more difficult than Will ever imagined, and he soon discovers that the sighted world has been keeping secrets. It turns out Cecily doesn’t meet traditional definitions of beauty–in fact, everything he’d heard about her appearance was a lie engineered by their so-called friends to get the two of them together. Does it matter what Cecily looks like? No, not really. But then why does Will feel so betrayed?

Told with humor and breathtaking poignancy, Love and First Sight is a story about how we related to each other and the world around us.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

First things first: I really would like to see some reviews of this book from people who are blind. Because I don’t know just how “right” Sundquist gets the many feelings about and experiences of being blind. That is not to say that that there is any one universal way to feel or one universal experience, obviously. Or that I think Sundquist is getting it “wrong.” After I read/review a book, I look for other reviews, especially when the subject matter is far out of my realm of experience and I’d really like to see reviews by people who share an identity with the main characters in the book. So, own voices reviews. After I wrote up my thoughts on this book, I poked around online and didn’t see any reviews yet that are from people who are fully or partially blind. Hoping once the book officially is out and the ebook and audiobook are out, that will change.

 

Will, 16, has started at a traditional school (or been “mainstreamed”) for the first time in his life, after spending all of his years in school being surrounded by other blind and visually-impaired people. He doesn’t want an aide (nor does he need one); he just wants to be as independent as possible. He doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him or feel that his life is any less full because he is blind. He encounters various attitudes, from his overly “helpful” principal who clearly has no clue how to interact with him and makes sure to point out that he’s “special” and “different,” to his great English and journalism teacher who makes it clear that she will hold him to all of the same expectations as the rest of the class. After a few initial embarrassing moments, Will gets into the swing of things and adjusts well to the change. He makes friends quickly—Nick, Ion, Whitford, and Cecily, all members of the quiz team. He grows particularly close with Cecily, whom he has journalism class with and ends up auditioning for the schools news with. They work on assignments together and hang out and Will is pretty sure he’s falling for Cecily. We get little hints that something may be up with her. We find out she’s been bullied most of her life. What we don’t find out, until later, is that Cecily has a rather large birthmark covering the top half of her face—a purple kind of “mask” that leads her classmates to have called her “Batgirl” for years. No one tells Will about this, though.

 

Will undergoes an experimental operation (retinal stem cell transplant) in the hopes of gaining full eyesight. The surgery is very risky, and not just for the reasons you might think. If successful, Will will have eyesight for the first time in his life. The visual cortex of his brain has developed differently than that of someone with eyesight and the learning curve (and adjustment to the flood of new information) will be steep. Fewer than 20 people have gone from total blindness to sight (an actual statistic, which we see in the author’s extensive note on his research). Will’s dad, a doctor, warns Will against the surgery, worried what it will do to him, mentally, if he can suddenly see. But he goes ahead with the surgery, which is successful. Before long, Will can see that Cecily has a birthmark, but he doesn’t think anything of it, really, other than noting her face looks different from other faces he’s seeing. For Will, who has never seen anything before, he just kind of catalogs her face as unlike others, but doesn’t judge her. He still feels she’s beautiful, which was his impression of her before he could see her. He certainly doesn’t see it as a “disfigurement,” which is his mother’s word. He calls it her beauty mark. But, even though he doesn’t suddenly want nothing to do with Cecily because of how she looks, he does feel completely lied to by Cecily and all of their friends. He feels he can’t trust them now. As he notes, everyone is always anxious to describe every single detail of everything to him. So why did they leave out Cecily’s birthmark?

 

Here’s the obvious discussion about this part of the book: Does the author make it feel like Will the only one who can find Cecily beautiful because he can’t see her (or doesn’t see her until quite late in their relationship)? Or that Will is the only one who can like her because he doesn’t know to think of her birthmark as offputting? Or that Will is the only one who can like her because he can “see beyond” her birthmark? Etc etc. I think Sundquist does a pretty good job of not making this storyline feel cliched, but there’s definitely room for discussion. I did spend a fair amount of time feeling sad that Cecily has such low self-esteem and obviously sees very little value in herself (she doesn’t think she’ll ever have a relationship, she doesn’t like pictures of herself, she worries she’ll hold Will back from winning as news anchor because no one will want her on the TV screen). I also spent a fair amount of time being SUPER irritated at Will’s cheerfully (and naively) optimistic mother, who seems to have ZERO clue about the process of going from being blind to having eyesight. You would think she would have educated herself more (especially given he’s been blind his whole life–she seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of how his brain works and what his frames of reference may or may not include) or listened for two seconds to her doctor-husband who understands, and explains, the very complicated process Will’s brain is now undergoing.

 

Though the writing can be a little heavy-handed at times, overall this is an engaging story that seemed to avoid the pitfalls I worried about just based on reading the flap copy. It’s not often a YA book features a blind main character, and Will’s unique story of going from being blind to having eyesight may make readers consider this idea from a new perspective (if they think, as many do, that a blind person would of course want to be able to see). A humorous and thought-provoking read. 

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780316305358

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Publication date: 01/03/2017

Book Review: The Truth of Right Now by Kara Lee Corthron

Publisher’s description

truthTwo isolated teens struggle against their complicated lives to find a true connection in this heartwrenching debut novel about first love and the wreckage of growing up.

Lily is returning to her privileged Manhattan high school after a harrowing end to her sophomore year and it’s not pretty. She hates chemistry and her spiteful lab partner, her friends are either not speaking to her or suffocating her with concerned glances, and nothing seems to give her joy anymore. Worst of all, she can’t escape her own thoughts about what drove her away from everyone in the first place.

Enter Dari (short for Dariomauritius), the artistic and mysterious transfer student, adept at cutting class. Not that he’d rather be at home with his domineering Trinidadian father. Dari is everything that Lily needs: bright, creative, honest, and unpredictable. And in a school where no one really stands out, Dari finds Lily’s sensitivity and openness magnetic. Their attraction ignites immediately, and for the first time in what feels like forever, Lily and Dari find happiness in each other.

In twenty-first-century New York City, the fact that Lily is white and Dari is black shouldn’t matter that much, but nothing’s as simple as it seems. When tragedy becomes reality, can friendship survive even if romance cannot?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This was my first 2017 read and it was a great one to kick off the new year. You know how last year I was in a horrible reading slump and kept saying that the only stories grabbing me were ones that felt fresh and new, stories that felt like ones we just weren’t seeing enough of? That’s still holding true. And this one roped me in right away because Dari and Lily’s stories are so important. Any story that addresses race as much as this one does is always going to be relevant, not to mention still relatively rare.

 

Lily is not excited for another school year to start. We know she tried to kill herself and we know stories are swirling about her that have made her an outcast/shamed, but the reader doesn’t know right away what happened. I’ll leave it up to you to read that part of her story, but suffice it to say it’s pretty horrific and infuriating. Other than being the object of her classmates’ derision, she’s basically invisible. Her few friends weren’t there for her when she needed them and now Lily can’t really see the point of pretending to get along with anyone–that is, until she meets Dari.

 

Dari generally has his head stuck in his sketchbook or is ditching what he feels are classes that don’t challenge him. Their friendship initially is very much that of two kids who don’t have anyone else but seem content to be kind of quiet and distantly friends in school. But that doesn’t last long, especially for Lily, who pretty quickly develops more intense feelings for Dari. Dari holds her at a bit of a distance. He’s recently broken up with his older girlfriend and spends most of his time at home trying not to piss off his abusive father. After his sister leaves home to move in with her girlfriend, Dari decides to start to push back against his father’s violence, and that’s when the story really takes off. Dari’s father changes the locks to their apartment and Dari temporarily moves in with Lily and her mother. Lily and Dari grow closer and slowly reveal more of their pasts to each other, though there is still much held back and that leads to confusion and hurt feelings.

 

Lily is still reeling over the incidents of the past year and not particularly addressing her mental health needs. She’s tried therapy before and has very negative feelings about therapy and being medicated for her depression. She agrees to see a new therapist for a month and, while still reluctant to talk or get help, has some success. It’s through therapy that we learn more of Lily’s past as her therapist has her keep a journal where she can tell her story. Lily’s mom desperately wants to be a “cool mom” and is part of the problem. She’s a self-help writer trying to work on her second book, after an extremely successful first book, but rather oblivious how to actually help her own kid (or herself, as we see later in the story when she makes a particularly bad choice). Things at school get worse for Lily when a lewd picture of her begins to circulate.

 

Dari is trying to figure out what he will do now that he left home. He figures he can’t crash at Lily’s forever. He’s into Lily, but things just feel too complicated to start dating her, especially now that he’s living with her and her mom. That doesn’t stop Dari and Lily from hooking up, but he’s upfront all the time about how he feels (much to Lily’s dismay). Both Lily and Dari reveal that they are quick to get upset over things and both have violent tendencies. Their lives get pretty tangled up, with Lily looking to Dari for some sense of belonging and happiness and Dari trying to be careful of her feelings as he tries to work out his own stuff. Despite often holding back (and in some cases lying) with each other, they have many honest conversations about their personal lives, particularly about race. Lily is white and Jewish and Dari is black. We see Dari get stopped and frisked at one point for no reason. There are just some things that Lily doesn’t understand about Dari’s life. This comes to a head when they have a public argument and police show up. A pissed off Lily walks away and makes a thoughtless remark to the cops—one that has enormous consequences for Dari.

 

This intense story does not shy away from looking hard at racism, mental illness, the thing from Lily’s past that I’m not spoiling, and people making really horrible choices. Alternating viewpoints give the reader more of a peek into Dari and Lily’s minds and help keep the emotional tension high. This was one of those books where I read it as a nearly 40-year-old adult and just keep thinking about how *young* these characters are. They go through so much–things no one should have to go through at any age.  I have already flipped back a couple of times to read the very end, where Corthron gives the reader one last harsh truth. This isn’t always an easy read, but it’s absolutely an important one. Read this one and be ready to talk about racism, violence, sexual choices, and the many ways adults in this story screw up and damage the children in this book. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss 

ISBN-13: 9781481459471

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication date: 01/03/2017

Book Review: Safe is Not Enough: Better Schools for LGBTQ Students by Michael Sadowski

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of School Library Journal.

 

safe-is-not-enoughSadowski, Michael. Safe Is Not Enough: Better Schools for LGBTQ Students 

ISBN-13: 9781612509426 Publisher: Harvard Education Press Publication date: 08/09/2016

★In his introduction, Sadowski writes, “Safety is an essential baseline…but it is not a sufficient goal in itself.” Aimed at educators, this book lays out many clear and detailed ways that schools can better meet the needs of LGBTQ students. The author advocates for moving beyond antibullying policies, safe spaces (often indicated by stickers), and gay-straight alliances (GSAs) to creating a more inclusive curriculum and environment. Chapters address integrating LGBTQ issues in the classroom, comprehensive inclusiveness throughout the school, the important work some GSAs are doing, the impact of race and socioeconomic status, transgender students’ unique needs, and avenues beyond GSAs for students to meet and talk. Sadowski profiles educators and programs, looks at policies, and offers arguments and counterarguments. He notes that progress is not uniform throughout the country and that students in some identity categories are more at risk than others. Additionally, there is a chapter dedicated to helping schools implement the ideas outlined here. It is clear that everyone benefits from more inclusive curriculum and policies and that moving beyond the idea of just being safe sends a stronger message of affirmation, value, respect, and acceptance. Though this is a brief volume, the detailed suggestions for advocacy and change are comprehensive and persuasive. Appended are a course syllabus, handouts, GSA materials, and a policy regarding transgender students that can be adapted for use. Online resources addressing curriculum, student support, and more are included. VERDICT As useful as it is essential.—Amanda MacGregor

Book Review: A Tragic Kind of Wonderful by Eric Lindstrom

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of School Library Journal.

 

tragic

Lindstrom, Eric. A Tragic Kind of Wonderful

ISBN-13: 9780316260060 Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Publication date: 02/07/2017

Gr 9 Up—Mel has bipolar disorder and professes to have a “superpower” that lets her avoid thinking about certain things, especially her dead brother or the real reasons why she lost her best friends around the time of her diagnosis. She has made new friends, but she has been able to hide her illness from them. Mel works at a nursing home where a retired psychiatrist keeps an eye on her, and she is in treatment with her own doctor, too. After she meets a resident’s grandson, David, she wants to get closer to him, but she is worried that as he really gets to know her, he won’t like her. Though she has her ups and downs, Mel can appear fairly even-keeled until an incident with her former friends begins a terrifying descent into a manic episode. Lindstrom offers an intense look at one person’s experience with bipolar disorder, but unfortunately, the story’s execution is unsatisfying. The characters are undeveloped, particularly Mel, who seems defined by her diagnosis. In addition, there is a troubling correlation between her mental illness and her sexual behavior, and there are cringeworthy scenes relating her constant desire to touch the hair of minority characters. The messages that Mel needs to keep fewer secrets in order to truly be close to others (and to more effectively treat her mental illness) and that real friends will stick around in spite of her diagnosis are nearly lost in the meandering narrative. VERDICT Weak character development and plotting make this an additional purchase.—Amanda MacGregor

Book Review: Gap Life by John Coy

Publisher’s description

gap lifeCray got into the same college his father attended and is expected to go. And to go pre-med. And to get started right away. His parents are paying the tuition. It should be an easy decision.

But it’s not.

All Cray knows is that what’s expected of him doesn’t feel right. The pressure to make a decision—from his family, his friends—is huge. Until he meets Rayne, a girl who is taking a gap year, and who helps him find his first real job, at a home of four adults with developmental disabilities. What he learns about himself and others will turn out to be more than any university could teach him—and twice as difficult.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Here’s a thing I liked about this book right off the bat: the premise. That’s specific, right? What I mean is, I liked the idea of  a story about a teen who is pretty sure that heading right to college isn’t the right track for him. We don’t see a whole lot of this in YA and I certainly know plenty of teenagers who took a gap year, or a few gap years, or have decided that maybe college isn’t for them at this point in their lives. It’s nice to see this feeling in YA. I hesitate to say something like “it’s nice to see this uncertainty” because Cray, the main character, isn’t necessarily uncertain. He certainly knows he doesn’t want to be forced to attend the college both his dad and grandpa did and become a doctor just like they did—just like nearly everyone in his family does. And really, if there’s a time to feel really uncertain, and to reclaim that word as, if not positive, then at least okay, it’s when high school is ending. Everything you’ve ever known is changing, it’s likely you’re about to be on your own (to varying degrees) for the first time ever, and, no pressure, you’re also supposed to be figuring out exactly what it is you want to do with the rest of your entire life. It’s okay to feel like maybe you need to step back and figure out what it is that you want, which is exactly what Cray does.

 

The plot is pretty well summed up in the publisher’s description above, so I’m just going to talk some more about other specifics that I liked. It takes a lot of guts for Cray to walk away from what his parents have planned for him–a fully paid for education and other benefits, like a new car. He’s led a very privileged life, and to be able to walk away from these things is also coming from a place of privilege, but he’s determined to make his own way. His controlling father demands Cray get a job and pay rent, which Cray promptly does. Cray’s choice to overrule his parents’ plans for his future leaves them feeling mad, disappointed, betrayed, and humiliated. Cray’s work at the group home turns out to be harder but more interesting than he originally thought (his initial summation of working overnights at this job as being “paid to sleep” turns out to not exactly be accurate). The members of the house he works at are great, well-developed secondary characters. The guiding principle of their house is helping people live as independently as possible, which of course also becomes the ideal that Cray begins to work toward in his own life. Part of me couldn’t quite buy that Cray, who’s inexperienced, would land a job like this, but then I started to think of all the young adults I know around Cray’s age who’ve held these exact jobs. I also really appreciated seeing so many teenagers in this book with jobs of all kinds.

 

We only really get to see Cray’s life for a short chunk of weeks, just over the summer. Because this is a short, fast read, some details are dealt with on a pretty surface level. A longer book would’ve allowed more exploration of his relationship (or potential relationship) with free-spirit Rayne, who’s also taking a gap year, or his falling out with a close friend (and more about why Jett and Nora dislike Rayne so much). That said, the quick pace works for this story, because it keeps the focus tightly on Cray and his struggle over what to do with the next year. During the summer, Cray makes some serious missteps, whether it’s being unprofessional at his new job or misjudging things with Rayne, all of which further reinforce how young Cray is and how little he really knows yet about anything.

 

Teen readers will find plenty to discuss and relate to in Gap Life as Cray tries to figure out the future and worries that maybe his gap year will become a gap life. An honest and unique look at forging your own way and embracing uncertainty. 

 

 

Full disclosure: John and I share an agent, the fantastic Andrea Cascardi at Transatlantic Literary Agency. 

Review copy courtesy of the author and the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781250088956

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends

Publication date: 11/22/2016

#SVYALit Book Review: Rani Patel in Full Effect by Sonia Patel

Publisher’s description

raniAlmost seventeen, Rani Patel appears to be a kick-ass Indian girl breaking cultural norms as a hip-hop performer in full effect. But in truth, she’s a nerdy flat-chested nobody who lives with her Gujarati immigrant parents on the remote Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, isolated from her high school peers by the unsettling norms of Indian culture where “husband is God.” Her parents’ traditionally arranged marriage is a sham. Her dad turns to her for all his needs—even the intimate ones. When Rani catches him two-timing with a woman barely older than herself, she feels like a widow and, like widows in India are often made to do, she shaves off her hair. Her sexy bald head and hard-driving rhyming skills attract the attention of Mark, the hot older customer who frequents her parents’ store and is closer in age to her dad than to her. Mark makes the moves on her and Rani goes with it. He leads Rani into 4eva Flowin’, an underground hip hop crew—and into other things she’s never done. Rani ignores the red flags. Her naive choices look like they will undo her but ultimately give her the chance to discover her strengths and restore the things she thought she’d lost, including her mother.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

After I finished this book, I was torn between racing upstairs to write about it and racing upstairs to listen to a whole bunch of pre-90s hip hop. Writing now, music later. Yes, yes, y’all.

This review will have spoilers, so if you want to go in not knowing anything beyond what the blurb up there tells you, beware. The bottom line of this review is GO BUY THIS BOOK. Remember how it seems like the only stories that I can actually stick with reading these days (during The Great Reading Slump of 2016) are ones that feel completely fresh and new? Here’s another that fits that bill. I just want to see stories told by people we haven’t seen before and we get that in RANI PATEL IN FULL EFFECT.

Set on Moloka’i, a Hawaiian island, in 1991, Gujarati Indian Rani Patel is about to turn 17. She works at the general store and the restaurant that her parents own and is fairly miserable. Her parents, who had an arranged marriage, have a volatile relationship—her mother is often on the verge of suicide and her father is increasingly distant, relying on Rani to smooth things over for him, which, in addition to being a totally inappropriate expectation of a child, has left Rani and her mom near strangers to each other. She’s senior class president, but, as she points out, only because no one else ran. She has a couple of close-ish guy friends, Pono and Omar, but she isn’t exactly confessing any of her thoughts and feelings to them. She’s crushing on older white dude Mark (like, older-older: he’s 31). She’s also a rapper, known as MC Sutra, who’s constantly writing new lyrics. When we meet Rani, she’s just shaved off all of her hair and just seen her father with his mistress. Her relationship with her father is complex. Like, WAY complex. He’s always treated her as his little princess and lavished her with affection and attention. HERE COME SOME OF THOSE SPOILERS I TOLD YOU ABOUT. He’s also been sexually abusing her. It would be an understatement to say that her eventual relationship with Mark (31-year-old Mark) can be seen as a result of what has happened to her as she seeks some attention and validation from an older man who, much like her father, is a pretty awful person. And (SPOILER), just like her father, Mark rapes her, too.

 

The thing that seems to be saving Rani is music. She gets an invitation to audition for an underground hip hop crew and is completely surprised when she sees who is already in the crew. Rani pours her heart into the rhymes that she spits, revealing more about herself and the other women in her family. She’s smart and political and a feminist. But she’s also just a kid who has had some really horrific stuff happen to her. It’s hard to watch her make cruddy choices over and over again. There are many lines in my notes that simply note the place I was at in the book followed by UGH. She is a kid who has had horrible stuff go on, had no real support system, had no therapy, and now is replicating many of the same troubling dynamics and not learning who to stay the hell away from. She also blames herself for everything that has happened to her, which resulted in lots of “Oh, Rani, no” in my notes. Through music, she works out some of what she’s feeling and what has happened to her, and to other women in her family. Through music, she finds a community and real friendship, honesty, and support. 

 

Overall, I found this to be a really interesting look at both a place and characters I haven’t seen in YA. Are we calling books set in the 90s historical fiction? The 1991 setting felt important because of the music that means so much to Rani. Will contemporary teen readers feel the impact of her references? Maybe not. A glossary in the back defines not just Gujarati words but also Hawaiian words, Hawaiian pidgin, and late 80s/early 90s slang. While it took me a little bit to get into the book, and the pacing toward the end felt rushed, once I got into the story, I couldn’t put it down. The author, a psychiatrist, includes a long note at the end saying that, like Rani, she is a Gujarati Indian who lived on Mokoka’i and loved hip hop. She also tells readers that she’s a psychiatrist and talks at length about sexual abuse and how it has affected Rani. She also offers resources. Rani’s story is one of growth and empowerment and is a book I’ll be thinking about for a long time. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781941026502

Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press

Publication date: 10/11/2016