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Kids Can Handle Big Decisions . . . If the Adults Get Out of the Way (But Also Don’t), a guest post by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

(CW: Assisted suicide.)

First, a million thanks to Teen Librarian Toolbox for hosting me. I appreciate your work so much!

(Important note: this blog post can’t tackle the social and legal issues around assisted suicide. Too much complexity for 900 words. We’re just gonna go with it.)

Lake Superior, Duluth, MN, where WRECK takes place. Photo credit: Kelly Tekler

Lake Superior, Duluth, MN, where WRECK takes place. Photo credit: Kelly Tekler

In Wreck, Tobin has a lot of choices to make—ones most high school juniors don’t generally make, thank goodness. She’s choosing what to do with her future, which is typical, but she also has to choose how to interact with her dad, Steve. Thanks to his ALS, which is complicated by frontotemporal dementia, he’s unpredictable on his best days and impossible on his worst. Is she going to be a crabby teenager, or will she show him compassion (or will she do both, which seems pretty traditional for a teenager, as well as what most humans would do)?

Eventually she also has to choose what to do (and how to feel) when Steve makes decisions about his own death. Steve’s choice is an awful thing for her to face—it’s an awful thing for a grown-up to face—but she legally becomes a criminal when she helps him carry out his wish to be free. That’s a heavy and unnecessary burden for a seventeen-year-old.

I can hear the outraged voices now: she’s too young for such a difficult choice! She can’t make such an adult decision! She has no idea what she’s doing!

Um. No, she’s not. Yes, she can. Yes, she does.

Yes, Tobin is young. No, human brains don’t mature until they’re in their mid-twenties. But Tobin understands a lot about two fundamental parts of being human: she knows about love, and she knows about loss.

Fundamentally, Tobin makes her decision to help her dad out of love, because they have loved each other fiercely for all of Tobin’s life, and she wants him to be out of both physical and mental pain. Her knowledge of loss is more of a mystery to the reader (and to her, really): she doesn’t acknowledge the large loss she’s already suffered, nor that it’s affected her in more ways than she’ll cop to. However, when it comes down to her decision to help Steve, she knows more than most of us because she’s lived with loss for much of her life. She knows she can cope.

Action figures are a part of WRECK, too!

Action figures are a part of WRECK, too!

What carries Tobin through all of her grief—including her decision—is the love of people older than her who help her make these big decisions. She has her great-uncle Paul, who clearly values her (and also understands loss), and she has Ike, a family friend who becomes a brother. Especially with Ike, Tobin can sort things out, feel her feelings, and figure out what’s next.

Tobin is also allowed to make decisions—which isn’t something all teens get to do. She isn’t forced into anything (with the exception of who will be her guardian, once Steve isn’t), and she isn’t sheltered from her dad’s choice. She has the knowledge she needs about the situation, and she responds to Steve out of love and understanding, rather than duty or a forced adherence to convention.

This is one of the ways kids become caring adults—first, they’re influenced by people who model both caring behavior and critical thinking, and second, they’re surrounded by safety. Tobin is safe to explore her thoughts and feelings with Steve, Paul, and Ike, and that safety allows her to come to her empathetic decision.

When I started writing for teens, I committed to giving my protagonists an older person they could rely on, because I had a couple in my high school years—a person who’s not a parent, usually. In Sky, Morgan has her grandma. In Beautiful Music, Gabe has his neighbor John. In Original Fake, Frankie has his boss and idol, Uncle Epic. Tobin has the same thing in Ike and Paul. Teenagers need to see evidence that not all grown-ups are assholes (if they are inclined to think they are), and that there are people interested in what they have to say. Some adults actually do recognize that yeah, teens are learning, but they’re pretty smart to start with.

If Tobin was a real person, she wouldn’t be able to recognize all the implications of her choice right away. A grown-up might not even be able to do that. But I don’t think she’d regret her choice, because she was helping someone she loves be free of pain. Hopefully Real Tobin would also have the support of those who love her, and they’d affirm her decision, even as they were sad about it. I know lots of teens and young adults who’ve been in really tough situations. Those who’ve come through it have been the ones with a circle of caring folks around them. Book Tobin does what she does, even though it will devastate her, because it’s the right thing to do, and because she’s got support.

There’s all the difference in the world between being forced into the fight and walking in with your head held high. Steve chooses. Tobin chooses. We all deserve that right.

Meet Kirstin Cronn-Mills

kirstinKirstin Cronn-Mills writes young adult novels and nonfiction for high school libraries. Her books have received both state and national recognition. She lives in southern Minnesota with her family, where she teaches and wishes she lived closer to Lake Superior.
Find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

About WRECK

wreckSometimes loss has its own timetable.

Set on the shores of Lake Superior, Wreck follows high school junior Tobin Oliver as she navigates her father’s diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

Steve’s life as a paramedic and a runner comes to an abrupt halt just as Tobin is preparing her application for a scholarship to art school. With the help of Steve’s personal care assistant (and family friend) Ike, Tobin attends to both her photography and to Steve as his brain unexpectedly fails right along with his body.

Tobin struggles to find a “normal” life, especially as Steve makes choices about how his own will end, and though she fights hard, Tobin comes to realize that respecting her father’s decision is the ultimate act of love.

Wreck wrecked me. Kirstin Cronn-Mills has a singular way of getting inside characters heads and making their stories come to life. This book will make you cry.” —Bill Konigsberg, award-winning author of The Music of What Happens?

“A provocative, unflinching, and emotionally-complex deep dive into mortality and loss while Tobin and her father grapple with almost unfathomable decisions. A wrenching and empathetic look at the tumultuous waters and seemingly bottomless grief that can interrupt an otherwise placid life.” —Amanda MacGregor, Teen Librarian Toolbox

“This book has heart and empathy as vast and deep as the Great Lake on which it’s set.” —Geoff Herbach, award-winning author of Stupid Fast and Hooper

“Every so often a book comes along that is so sharp, so moving, so real, and so good, you want to press it into everyone’s hands and say, Read this! READ THIS!” —Courtney Summers, author of Cracked Up to Be, on Beautiful Music for Ugly Children

“A kind and satisfyingly executed portrait.” —Kirkus Reviews

ISBN-13: 9781510739031
Publisher: Sky Pony
Publication date: 04/16/2019

See Amanda’s review here

Book Review: After the Shot Drops by Randy Ribay

Publisher’s description

after the shotA powerful novel about friendship, basketball, and one teen’s mission to create a better life for his family in the tradition of Jason Reynolds, Matt de la Pena, and Walter Dean Myers.     
Bunny and Nasir have been best friends forever, but when Bunny accepts an athletic scholarship across town, Nasir feels betrayed. While Bunny tries to fit in with his new, privileged peers, Nasir spends more time with his cousin, Wallace, who is being evicted. Nasir can’t help but wonder why the neighborhood is falling over itself to help Bunny when Wallace is in trouble.

When Wallace makes a bet against Bunny, Nasir is faced with an impossible decision—maybe a dangerous one.
Told from alternating perspectives, After the Shot Drops is a heart-pounding story about the responsibilities of great talent and the importance of compassion.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This fast-paced story of choices, compassion, and consequences is the kind of book you need to read in one sitting. Both the stakes and the tension are high, the characters are dynamic and complicated, and, because of the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s gun, you can be pretty sure you know what’s eventually coming, but it’s still shocking and somehow a surprise.

 

For Bunny Thompson (nicknamed Bunny “because I got the hops”), a talented basketball player who likely has a huge career ahead of him, transferring to a private school in the suburbs seemed like a good choice. He will get to play on a great team, get a better education, and hopefully get noticed even more, which will all lead to him hopefully being recruited heavily and eventually able to help out his family (which consists of his older sister, who is in college, his twin little sisters, his nurse mother, who works the graveyard shift at the hospital, and his dad, who owns a bookstore). But Bunny grows conflicted about his choice as his time at St. Sebastian’s goes on. He’s one of a handful of black kids, feels like he has nothing in common with his classmates, and often feels like some sort of mascot. To his best friend Nasir and many others in their neighborhood, Bunny’s move feels like a betrayal, a rejection, like he’s leaving everyone behind and thinks he’s better than they are. Nasir and Bunny go months without talking, though it’s clear that both boys miss each other and would like to be able to bridge the gulf between them. But for Nasir, that’s an especially complicated idea, thanks to his cousin Wallace.

 

Wallace is no fan of Bunny. His only real friend is Nasir, who would love to be able to help Wallace and his grandma, who are about to be evicted, but doesn’t really have any resources to do that. So he tries to help by encouraging Wallace to get a job to help with bills, by being in Wallace’s corner and advocating for him and defending him, even though Nasir’s parents think Wallace is a bad influence. Wallace tries to get some money by making shady deals and placing bets that he isn’t good for. Bunny and Nasir repeatedly approach each other to try to mend their friendship, but each time, Nasir feels like he’s betraying Wallace, that Bunny has plenty of people in his corner, and plenty of resources and opportunities, but Wallace has nothing and no one. Wallace eventually puts Nasir—and Bunny—in an impossible situation, one that will test everyone’s loyalty, and the already high stakes of this story really ramp up. Readers will race through the final chapters to see what happens to all three of these complicated and conflicted characters.

 

Told through an incredibly effective alternation narration, readers get to see deep inside the minds of both Bunny and Nasir. who show that the situation is much more complicated than just being about two best friends driven apart by Bunny’s choice to change schools. Gripping, suspenseful, and complex, this story of basketball, friendship, courage, desperation, and choices will appeal to a wide audience. A must-have for all collections. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781328702272
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 03/06/2018

Book Review: Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani

Publisher’s description

pashminaPriyanka Das has so many unanswered questions: Why did her mother abandon her home in India years ago? What was it like there? And most importantly, who is her father, and why did her mom leave him behind? But Pri’s mom avoids these questions—the topic of India is permanently closed.

For Pri, her mother’s homeland can only exist in her imagination. That is, until she find a mysterious pashmina tucked away in a forgotten suitcase. When she wraps herself in it, she is transported to a place more vivid and colorful than any guidebook or Bollywood film. But is this the real India? And what is that shadow lurking in the background? To learn the truth, Pri must travel farther than she’s ever dared and find the family she never knew.

In this heartwarming graphic novel debut, Nidhi Chanani weaves a tale about the hardship and self-discovery that is born from juggling two cultures and two worlds.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This had been on my TBR since I first saw it and then I bumped it up when I started looking for books to read with the fifth grade girls’ book club, as many of the girls are Indian-American. I absolutely loved this book. Priyanka, who prefers to go by Pri, is a teenager living with her single mother. She doesn’t know much about her mother’s past. She doesn’t know anything about her father, about why her mother left India and refuses to ever go back, or about why she no longer speaks to her sister. But when Pri discovers a magical pashmina, everything begins to change. Suddenly, Pri is transported to India, where two animals take her on very picture perfect tourist guide stops around India. A shadow seems to be following her, beckoning to her. When Pri takes the pashmina off, that world evaporates and she’s back at home in America. The distinction between these two worlds and experiences is very effectively portrayed through vibrant colors in India and dull purples for her life at home. An unexpected phone call from her aunt sends her on a real-life trip to India, where Priyanka begins to learn about her mother’s past and put together the pieces that have always felt missing.

 

This is a wonderful story of searching and longing—a story of discovery, secrets, living in two cultures, and women’s choices and pressures. Readers 10 and up will enjoy this adventurous and thoughtful look at truth and family. Beautifully done. 

 

ISBN-13: 9781626720879
Publisher: First Second
Publication date: 10/03/2017

Book Review: Just a Girl by Carrie Mesrobian

Publisher’s description

just a girlTaking a hard look at the societal constraints on teenage girls, Morris Award nominee Carrie Mesrobian tells one girl’s story with bracing honesty and refreshing authenticity.

By her senior year of high school, Rianne has exhausted all the fun there is to have in small-town Wereford, Minnesota. Volleyball season is winding down, the parties feel tired, and now that she’s in a serious relationship with reformed player Luke Pinsky, her wild streak has ended. Not that she ever did anything worse than most guys in her school…but she knows what everyone thinks of her.

Including her parents. Divorced but now inexplicably living together again, Rianne wonders why they’re so quick to point out every bad choice she’s making when they can’t even act like adults—or have the decency to tell Rianne whether or not they’re getting back together. With an uncomfortable home life and her once-solid group of friends now dissolving, the reasons for sticking around after high school are few. So why is Rianne locking step when it comes to figuring out her future?

That’s not the only question Rianne can’t answer. Lately she’s been wondering why, when she has a perfect-on-paper boyfriend, she wants anything but. Or how it is that Sergei, a broken-English-speaking Russian, understands her better than anyone who’s known her all her life? And—perhaps the most troubling question—why has Rianne gotten stuck with an “easy girl” reputation for doing the same exact things as guys without any judgment?

Carrie Mesrobian, acclaimed author of Sex & Violence and Cut Both Ways, sets fire to the unfair stereotypes and contradictions that persist even in the twenty-first century.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Here are things I consistently like about Carrie’s books: the plots are really just about the day-to-day lives of teenagers (we all know by now I’m a big fan of plots that don’t extend a ton between just talking/daily lives/figuring out what life as a teenager means—you know, that small plot); the endings never tie everything up neatly or definitively; the teenagers talk and act like actual teenagers; the books are set in Minnesota. Given that I grew up in the same area as Carrie at roughly the same time, I always so enjoy the way she captures the feeling of small-town Minnesota and like being able to recognize the details of places and references.

 

Rianne spends a lot of time thinking perhaps she should behave one way and then doing the opposite. She doesn’t think of herself as a “good girl,” whatever that means (we know what that means), and often tries to convince herself to behave better… maybe later. She’s bored and restless and aimless. Welcome to the end of senior year, right? Her friendships aren’t as strong as they once were, her long-divorced parents are apparently now dating each other, and somehow Luke, the boy she’s been hooking up with, thinks he wants to settle down with her. At a time in her life when the big question is “what’s next?” Rianne doesn’t seem to have any answers that actually seem appealing. Move to St. Paul just because some of her friends are going there? Find an apartment in boring Wereford? Move in with Luke? It all seems to sound awful to Rianne. Her mother has basically washed her hands of trying to guide Rianne, telling her once graduation happens, she’s out on her own. Though Rianne has always done her own thing with little regard for consequences, her impending total freedom doesn’t seem exciting or appealing—it just seems terrifyingly uncertain and sort of depressing. She doesn’t really talk to anyone about any of this. Her friends have their own drama going on, she’s never confided much in her parents, and Luke, though attentive and fun, isn’t someone she really feels any big connection to. She can’t even bring herself to call him her boyfriend and is pretty freaked out that he calls her his girlfriend. She’s constantly pretending with him, which she knows. She continues to date Luke, leaving him in the dark about her potential plans—or lack of plans—and also leaving him in the dark about Sergei, the older Russian college student she’s hooking up with. He seems like the only person she really feels any real connection with, though even that is marked by her passivity and inability to decide her life for herself. Rianne is a complex character. Though on the surface she seems bold and confident, she’s actually really insecure. Losing the stability she’s had (a solid friend group, an understanding of her family unit, a predictable but secure life in Wereford) is throwing her for a loop and it’s not clear if she will be able to recover and take some control over her life or just be led where others take her. Readers worrying about their own uncertain futures will particularly relate to Rianne. A realistic but uneasy look at choices, expectations, independence, and everything else that comes with the end of high school. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062349910

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 03/28/2017

Book Review: Proof of Forever by Lexa Hillyer

 

proofImagine you could go back in time and relive 5 days of your life. Would you make the same choices, knowing what you know now? Would you hope you were altering the future? Would you want to maybe stay in the past? These are the questions the characters in Proof of Forever by Lexa Hillyer struggle with when a photo booth turns into a time machine and sends them back two years to when they were all 15.

 

Zoe, Joy, Tali, and Luce used to be best friends. They stuck together each summer at Camp Okahatchee. But two years ago, everything changed. Joy dropped out of all of their lives, and they just sort of drifted apart. But now Joy has brought them together, just before they are to head off to college, for the camp reunion. They all have their own things going on. Zoe has just that day broken up with her boyfriend, Calvin, after deciding she just isn’t feeling the relationship (and, if she’s being honest, she’s never really felt into any of her relationships). Tali is a wealthy “ugly-duckling-turned-swan” (her wording) who is about to find out some upsetting news about her family. Luce is gearing up to head to Princeton, where she ostensibly will continue her record of being perfect and excelling in everything she does. She’s also about to have sex with Andrew, her longtime boyfriend, before the camp reunion, but Tali shows up and ruins that plan. And Joy… well, no one knows what’s going on with her. Even though she’s the one who’s brought them together, we don’t really learn what’s going on with her until the very end of the book.

 

When they attempt a group picture in a photo booth, they’re somehow taken back two years in time. They figure they have 5 days to try and recreate the past to obtain the objects they were holding in the picture from the time they were originally 15—that seems like their only hope for somehow getting back to the future. They try to follow the past exactly as it happened before, but that’s a lot more challenging than they’d expected. Frankly, making the same choices and hoping for the same outcomes starts to look incredibly unappealing to most of them pretty quickly. In this extremely unexpected second chance summer, they learn surprising things about themselves that will likely alter their futures. And spending 5 days rekindling what felt like long-dead friendships? It turns out to happen just in the nick of time.

 

The characters are distinctive and all travel their own paths during their repeat week, but come together for the things that matter. It’s a fun, thoughtful, and unpredictable look at who we let ourselves become and redefining ourselves.

 

(P.S–My only quibble is this line: “…some infinities are bigger than others.” It completely pulled me out of the book. Are you intentionally quoting John Green, I wondered? I didn’t like it.) EDITING THIS TO INCLUDE PART OF THE COMMENT LEXA LEFT ON THIS POST: “Did you read the galley version? I just wanted to let you know that I am almost positive I actually changed the “infinity” line you mentioned for the final book (beginning of ch.20, right?)–for that exact reason! I hadn’t read TFIOS when I wrote the first draft of this book but by the time I had, I realized John Green now practically owns the concept (even though it’s something basic everyone learns in high school math).”

 

Review copy courtesy of Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062330376

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 6/2/2015