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Book Review: I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain by Will Walton

Publisher’s description

funeralHow do you deal with a hole in your life?

Do you turn to poets and pop songs?

Do you dream?

Do you try on love just to see how it fits?

Do you grieve?

If you’re Avery, you do all of these things. And you write it all down in an attempt to understand what’s happened–and is happening–to you.

I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain is an astonishing novel about navigating death and navigating life, at a time when the only map you have is the one you can draw for yourself.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Things in Avery’s life are not going great. He’s laid up after being injured in a car accident. His mother has (finally) gone to rehab. He’s temporarily living across the street from his home with his grandpa, whom he calls Pal, and his grandpa’s girlfriend, Babs. Things are a little weird with Luca, his neighbor and best friend—they’d made a plan to be each other’s firsts, but this seemingly simple plan is complicated by life and complex feelings. Through all of this, Avery, who writes poetry, is discovering the work of many other poets (Plath, Berryman, Sexton, O’Hara, Ginsberg, Dickinson), thanks to his English teacher, and finding his own voice and ways of processing life.

 

Walton’s novel will challenge readers. It’s a mix of narrative, poems, imagined conversations/dreams, and bits of a eulogy. As we move back and forth in time, readers will see that Avery is speaking at Pal’s funeral, but it takes a while to find out how we got there. Avery’s grief, pain, loss, fears, love, hope, passions, and identity all get expressed and explored through poetry and music. This short book packs a powerful punch as it looks at grief, love, addiction, and hope. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780545709569
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 05/29/2018

YA A to Z: Guilt, Shame and Blame – Heroin Overdose Deaths in Teen Fiction, a guest post by Kerry Sutherland

As I contemplate where to put this in YA A to Z, I realize there are far too many options. D for drugs, or death. E for epidemic, as our country is facing a devastating opioid epidemic. G for guilt. H for Heroine.  S for shame. I wanted to put it up now as opposed to later, because it’s such an important topic facing our teens today. So D it is, for death by drug overdose. I am thankful to Kerry Sutherland for sharing this post, and sharing her own experiences within it.

yaatoz

As a young adult librarian, I meet many children and teens who have lost a loved one. Terminal illnesses, tragic accidents, suicide – I’ve heard about them all, and as an adult who still has the luxury of two living parents and a large group of friends I have known since kindergarten, I know how fortunate I am to have lost few of those close to me unexpectedly.

Unfortunately, some of those few have been young people in my family, and whether accepted or admitted as such or not, more than one of those deaths have been from a heroin overdose.

Wait – those don’t happen to middle class, white suburban families, do they?

real talk addiction brochure 1

real talk addiction brochure 2

Sunday Reflections: When the Opioid Crisis Hits the Library

My family would beg to differ, as shocked and pained as they were by each one. Did any of them struggle with addiction? Yes, but not all. Were there signs? Maybe, but maybe not. The big question is why. With family and friends who loved them, why? Was it accidental, or did they truly want to die? As those left behind, what have we as a family, and their friends, had to deal with, both within our own hearts and minds and those of others who are either quick to sympathize or to judge, or to act as if heroin played no role in the deaths at all because they are ashamed?

#MHYALit: Where Are the Books on Addiction for Your Mental Health Lists?

Plenty of teen fiction deals with death and loss, with grief and mourning, but when I looked into what novels I could offer teens in my area, which as a part of northeast Ohio has been hit hard by the opiate epidemic, I found very few that focus on heroin overdose deaths. What is different about those deaths, and why do teens need stories with that distinction, especially if they have either known someone who has overdosed or are vulnerable to becoming a user themselves?

A closer look at each of these titles makes the distinction and the need clear.

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In Sarah Porter’s When I Cast Your Shadow, two months have passed since Ruby’s “young and talented and amazing” older brother Dash died from a heroin overdose, but she is still devastated, in spite of her father’s attempt to force her, as well as Ruby’s twin brother Everett, to move on. Dash’s room has been emptied, new furniture replacing the old, and Ruby is trapped in memories of her attempts to follow Dash into rough neighborhoods, of Dash’s anger that she was exposing herself to his new life and that she had found him “crazed, filthy, with a feverish stench”: “You do not have my permission to see me like this . . . you will keep your image of me as bright and clean and blazing as a supernova.” Unfortunately, as much as she fights to maintain the dignity of Dash’s memory, she can’t forget that she knew about his addiction but was unable to prevent his death. Her father looks the facts straight on as if it would help Ruby get past her grief, telling her that Dash was manipulative, destructive, and selfish, but Ruby feels like “the only one who will fight for Dash, now that he can’t defend himself.” She was the only one who had any hope that he would get clean, and while she didn’t see his body after he died, she “heard they found him, naked in his girlfriend’s bed . . . with his head hanging over the edge and the needle still in his arm. Eyes wide and gray in the silvery morning light.” She thought that he had kicked heroin six months before his death, making it more of a shock. “I’ll never love anybody that much again,” she asserts, coming to realize that her father’s hatred of Dash is his way of coping with the loss, but knowing that no matter what anyone thinks or does, Dash is gone forever. There is a supernatural horror aspect to this story, but the details of Dash’s addiction and how that along with the manner of his death affects Ruby and Everett are the powerful drive behind this tragedy.

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When Andria’s twin sister Iris overdoses on heroin in Robin Bridges’ Dreaming of Antigone, Andria can’t help but feel guilty. Born with a disorder that causes seizures, Andria had been faking one to distract her parents from Iris’s partying the night Iris died, and if they had been home instead of at the hospital with Andria, Iris might have been saved. Iris’s boyfriend Alex, who is “about as broken as they come,” is back from rehab, but Andria can’t forgive his role in encouraging Iris’s drug use, which was brought on by their stepfather’s abuse. Iris’s friends try to include Andria in their social activities, but Andria’s heart isn’t in it, and she can’t “fill the Iris-shaped hole” in their lives. Her nightmares about Iris revolve around guilt and blame, as Iris is angry with her but she can’t “hear her in my dreams because I never heard her crying out for help in real life” and she feels “like I never really knew my sister at all. And now that she’s gone, I won’t ever get the chance.” Her mother doesn’t think Andria needs counseling, however, fearing that it would be an admission of emotional weakness, but Andria knows she “can’t fix myself, not yet.” As Andria spends more time with Alex, “the boy who killed my sister,” she is forced to face her sister’s responsibility for her own behavior. “Your life was perfect before I came and turned your sister into a drug addict, right?” Alex sneers as he confronts her, and even when they discover Iris’s terrible reason for her drug use, they both know that the only thing they can do is honor her memory by keeping the girls’ stepfather from hurting more girls. Nothing will bring Iris back, but the pain of her loss and the preventability of her death continue to haunt them half a year after she is gone, as Andria tries to determine who is at fault: “Maybe we all failed her, because we didn’t know she needed help.”

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The Unlikelies by Carrie Firestone has a cute cover and a jacket blurb that focuses on the standard ‘summer before their senior year of high school’ woes: boyfriend drama and popularity concerns. What it doesn’t detail is the heroin addiction that threatens to kill one of the secondary characers. Sadie reconnects with Alice after they’ve grown apart, but has fond memories of Girl Scouting adventures with Alice and another girl, Izzy. Alice reveals that after becoming addicted to Oxy following a riding accident, Izzy has “been doing heroin pretty much every day, and it’s getting worse.” Izzy disappears when Alice threatens to tell her parents, and Sadie is stunned: “I had a vivid memory of baby-faced Izzy playing tug-of-war in her riding boots and braids at one of our jamborees. I couldn’t believe she was doing heroin.” Alice’s texts to Sadie detail Alice’s fears as Izzy gets worse: “At the hospital. Izzy might be dead. Please come” and later, she asks, “Who overdoses on a Tuesday afternoon?” Alice feels guilty about “allowing” Izzy to disappear, about “letting go away with that hideous dealer,” and is understandably furious with Izzy’s parents, who are so disconnected from their daughter that they don’t realize that she is using until the overdose. “This is hell. Some guy she’s sleeping with called 911 when she turned gray and her lips went blue and she choked on her own vomit . . . I can’t even tell you what it has been like to deal with my best friend nodding off, trying to score smack all day, stealing money from my car, lying, smelling like shit because she never showers. It’s hell.” The group of friends make a dangerous visit to a trap house looking for Izzy, as Alice bluntly reveals that Izzy is probably having sex with whomever will give her heroin. The story concludes with Izzy in rehab in another state, with no clear hope that she will get better, especially since her parents are still in denial and are shamed by the gossip that Izzy’s sexual and addictive behaviors have garnered in the community. Sadie’s heart aches for Alice and Izzy, but how can Alice move on with her life knowing that Izzy is still at risk?

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Kayla is a popular and athletic honor student, so when her boyfriend and best friends find her dead of a heroin overdose days before their senior year begins in Cecily Wolfe’s That Night, they are stunned and heartbroken. Some of their classmates are kind, but others are judgmental, and as texts roll in on Cassidy and Sarah’s phones, they discover that not everyone is sympathetic to their loss. What about other teens who have died of drug overdoses, some texts ask. Why didn’t they get any attention? Cass and Sarah have never heard of anyone else dying in this way in their town, but soon they realize that Kayla’s status and background make her stand out as someone worthy of mourning, unlike teens in rougher neighborhoods where the community has come to accept the losses as part of life. Both girls feel guilty, believing that they could have prevented Kayla’s death, as Kayla’s failed attempts to get help from her parents and doctors after a sports injury left her in constant pain and open to self-medicating. A soccer teammate refers to Kayla as a “junkie” during calling hours at the funeral home, and a normally quiet Sarah attacks her, because “Kayla was gone and there was nothing else she could do for her but fight.” Adults tell them to “get on with your life” but their insensitivity reflects the way Kayla’s problems were treated as insignificant while she was alive. Cassidy and Sarah decide that in honor of Kayla, they can bring attention to the kids who are dying without being noticed, to “give them a voice” and start focusing on bringing a stop to heroin availability in their community: “Why the hell did she do it? What would make a girl like Kayla want to, even once? If someone like Kayla could do it, that meant a lot of kids could, kids no one would ever think would use.” Finding Kayla unresponsive at the party, holding her “limp hand between her two, as if she could warm Kayla’s heart through her fingers,” is a memory that Sarah, who had held Kayla while Paul tried to revive her and Cassidy called 911, and the others will carry with them the rest of their lives, but their guilt and questions can’t change the reality of her death.

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Lo’s brother Oren has been her saving grace her whole life in Kate Ellison’s The Butterfly Clues, as the childhood onset of obsessive compulsive behaviors and constant moves because of their father’s job make it difficult to find friends. His death from a heroin overdose a year earlier exacerbated her behaviors, and her parents have abandoned her, her mother confined to sleeping in her room and her father to his work. She wears her brother’s shirt and dreams of Oren sitting on his grave, begging her to help him, asking her why she left him. Lo wonders if Oren “thought he was missed, as he eased down the gradual slop of his slipping away from us, from everything, into nothing” or did he think she didn’t care? Once Oren had saved her from drowning in a creek, but she couldn’t save him, and her guilt is crushing: “I wonder if Oren thought we didn’t care. It’s probably why he didn’t come back, why he ended up rotted away in some abandoned building somewhere.” If he was there with her now, she would never let him go again. Her dreams are full of Oren calling to her, her bright beautiful brother who had been “so close. Just a couple of miles away. And we sat, waiting, doing nothing, while he fell apart, disintegrated.” He wasn’t found until he had been dead a week, and the details of what remained are horrifying: “The only thing left after his skin melted off in that apartment where he died, all alone” were his teeth. Her own memories of him the last time she saw him are haunted by how skinny he was, how “his eyes were ringed with purplish disks, his hands shaking” and she wonders if he knew that he was leaving her forever. Her father hates her compulsive behaviors and just wants her to be “normal” but he eventually comes to realize how his expectations and the way he and Lo’s mother have been dealing with their own grief is hurting Lo. Whatever changes are on the horizon for her family, Lo holds “every single moment I ever had with him” close: “I have them all – folded into a million messy drawers in my brain; they belong to me, my dowry, my heritage.”

What do these novels have in common that make the stories stand out from others about death and mourning, speaking to the difference of experience these teen characters have by losing someone to a heroin overdose?

The details of the manner of death. The horror. It’s real, it’s honest, it’s heartbreaking.

The shame. The guilt. The questions. The big WHY? Why did he or she use? Why didn’t I know? Why couldn’t I stop it from happening?

The blame game. Was it he dealer? The loved one? The drug? Yourself?

The judgment. The shame. The defensiveness. The contradictory feelings that fight a weary, unwinnable battle in your heart.

As heroin continues to add to its death toll in my state and many others, those of us who serve and support young people will need more of these stories to help them cope with the realities they face, as well as to show them the devastating effects this drug has on users and those who love them.

Meet Our Guest Blogger

Kerry Sutherland is the young adult librarian at the Ellet branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library in Akron, Ohio. She has a PhD in American literature from Kent State University, along with a MLIS from the same. She reviews middle grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction for School Library Journal, and is a published author of short fiction, novels, poetry, professional and academic work. She loves cats, Shadowhunters, Henry James, anime, and NASCAR.

Twitter: @catfriends

Instagram: @superpurry

Book Review: Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp

Publisher’s description

From the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller This Is Where It Ends comes another unforgettable story of loss, hope, betrayal, and the quest for truth

Best friends Corey and Kyra were inseparable in their snow-covered town of Lost Creek, Alaska. When Corey moves away, she makes Kyra promise to stay strong during the long, dark winter, and wait for her return.

Just days before Corey is to return home to visit, Kyra dies. Corey is devastated—and confused. The entire Lost community speaks in hushed tones about the town’s lost daughter, saying her death was meant to be. And they push Corey away like she’s a stranger.

Corey knows something is wrong. With every hour, her suspicion grows. Lost is keeping secrets—chilling secrets. But piecing together the truth about what happened to her best friend may prove as difficult as lighting the sky in an Alaskan winter…

 

Amanda’s thoughts

before iYour number one thought while reading this book will be WHAT ON EARTH IS WRONG WITH THE PEOPLE IN LOST CREEK, ALASKA? The one word that will crop up most in your thoughts as you read is OMINOUS. Trust me. 

 

The last Corey knew, her best friend Kyra had been receiving treatment for her bipolar disorder through both medication and therapy. There had been talk of her getting further help at a facility in Fairbanks. But now Kyra is dead, and the entire tiny town of Lost Creek, Alaska (a tight-knit community that doesn’t take kindly to outsiders) seems to view her death as an inevitable act that not only was foretold, but was good and necessary. It was her time. Her time! Yep. The girl was mentally ill and now the town is saying that it’s okay she died (she fell through the ice) because she had found her purpose and served it.

Again, may I point you back to WHAT ON EARTH IS WRONG WITH THE PEOPLE IN LOST CREEK, ALASKA?

Corey’s family moved from Lost Creek a while back, so the closed community now considers her an outsider. They are NOT HAPPY that she has returned to town and that she is horrified by what she begins to uncover about the way the town was treating Kyra and the things that led up to her death. Kyra’s mother claims that Kyra was happy near the end, that she’d changed, that she’d found her place (in a town that, last Corey has seen, shunned Kyra because of her bipolar disorder). Her mother tells Corey that Kyra was no longer receiving any treatment, but that love and belonging made her better. Thank goodness Corey knows that’s garbage. She digs around to find the truth of what was going on in Lost Creek and is shocked when she learns just how exactly the town was “embracing” Kyra.

Parts of the story are told through letters and flashbacks. Through these, we learn more about what Kyra was actually going through and feeling as well as more about the history of Kyra and Corey’s friendship (like the fact that pansexual Kyra and asexual Corey shared a kiss that briefly seemed to complicate things).

There is a LOT to discuss here regarding mental health. Lost Creek treats her first as an outcast, then as a prophet—both extremely troubling notions. If we didn’t have Corey in the mix, pointing out how ludicrous all of that is, reminding us that therapy and medication treat mental illness, not some completely messed up idea of “belonging” and “love” (that’s not love, Lost Creek), I probably would’ve literally thrown this book across the room. Kyra’s mental illness is romanticized by the people of Lost Creek, and while Nijkamp (and Corey) take her illness seriously and are concerned, no one else in town does. Kyra is exploited and never properly supported. She is abandoned. It is shocking that anyone, much less a whole town, would treat ANYONE, much less someone with mental illness, this way. They are cruel, ill-informed, and, frankly, awful people. Nearly all of them—nearly all of the town. We never really learn how or why an entire town became so terribly cruel. I hope readers will really pay attention to Corey’s point of view, and understand that what the town did was deeply wrong, yes, but what Kyra’s parents did, the people who should have been advocating for her and TREATING her, was much, much worse. Despite the entire town feeling like Kyra was magical and served some grand purpose (and then died), it’s clear that untreated mental illness is a terrible thing, and that Lost Creek is one messed up place. Hand this to readers who like spooky-feeling stories that will leave them rather enraged at the gross injustice of a life lost. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781492642282
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 01/02/2018

Book Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

Publisher’s description

i am not yourThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian meets Jane the Virgin in this poignant but often laugh-out-loud funny contemporary YA about losing a sister and finding yourself amid the pressures, expectations, and stereotypes of growing up in a Mexican-American home. 
 
Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family.

But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role.

Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed.

But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first kiss, first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out. Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Julia is blunt, funny, sneaky, and also fairly miserable. Her sister, Olga, was recently killed and Julia feels more off-kilter than ever. She’s grieving, of course, but also intensely feeling her parents’ disappointment in her and trying to find ways to get a little breathing room, especially in respect to her judgmental and strict mother. All Julia wants to do is graduate and move to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a writer, but it’s hard to feel like that dream could become a reality since her parents think a good daughter would be happy to continue living at home and attending community college. That’s what Olga did, and especially as far as her mother is concerned, Olga was perfect. Julia, who talks back, is unabashedly a feminist, and isn’t particularly concerned with consequences, knows she is far from her parents’ ideal. She carries that weight while trying to just live her life in spite of her grief and her increasing depression. And while Julia certainly doesn’t think she has her own life figured out, she did think she had Olga’s nailed: boring secretary who attends one class at a time and was her parents’ pride and joy. But while trying to get to know her now dead sister a little better, Julia must face the fact that she didn’t actually know her sister at all–that no one in their family did. Julia assembles clues based on her limited findings and follows them until she is able to put together a more realistic picture of who Olga was. 

 

Overall, I liked this book. Julia is a complex character. Her struggles as a first generation American teenager and as someone living in poverty are just as complex and well-drawn as she is. However, once I realized the part mental health would play in her story, I wanted more from it: I wanted it woven in throughout, instead of just kind of dropped in, and explored more fully. The plot suffers a bit from being overstuffed—not that she can’t have multiple things happening in her life at once (friends issues, grieving her sister, her first real boyfriend, mental health stuff, a trip to Mexico)—I kept wanting Julia to either really hone in on the mystery with her sister OR explore her grief and hopes for her own life more fully, something to make the plot feel tighter to me. Maybe it just needed to cover less time. At any rate, as a character-driven reader, Julia’s emotionally complicated journey held my attention even when the plot meandered. Her desire for something bigger in life as well as the reveal that people aren’t necessarily what they seem will resonate with teen readers. 

 

ISBN-13: 9781524700485
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 10/17/2017

Book Review: How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

Publisher’s description

how-to-makeGrace, tough and wise, has nearly given up on wishes, thanks to a childhood spent with her unpredictable, larger-than-life mother. But this summer, Grace meets Eva, a girl who believes in dreams, despite her own difficult circumstances.

 

One fateful evening, Eva climbs through a window in Grace’s room, setting off a chain of stolen nights on the beach. When Eva tells Grace that she likes girls, Grace’s world opens up and she begins to believe in happiness again.

 

How to Make a Wish is an emotionally charged portrait of a mother and daughter’s relationship and a heartfelt story about two girls who find each other at the exact right time.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I read this book in one sitting. I used to do that a lot—read books in one chunk of time—but don’t so much anymore. While I do typically read a book in one to two days, the time is broken up—I need to write something, I need to run errands, I need to parent, I need to do whatever. My busy brain isn’t the biggest fan of letting me settle into any one thing for too long. But with this book, I was hooked from page one and had no interest in moving until I was done reading. I am not a person who says “all the feels.” I do not tend to feel “swoony” over books. As a fairly cynical, scowly person, those kinds of expressions are just not me. BUT. I kept thinking of both expressions as I read. And when I was done, I shut the book and just held onto it, thinking, well, that was a completely satisfying read. And, really, how often do we read books that just feel completely, absolutely, perfectly satisfying?

 

Grace returns to Maine from a two-week piano workshop in Boston to find that her mother, Maggie, has, once again, moved them in with her newest boyfriend, Pete. Never mind that they’ve barely been dating for a minute. Never mind that Pete’s son, Jay, is Grace’s ex (and that he posted all of their sexts after they broke up). Maggie is always doing this—flitting from guy to guy, being impulsive, not thinking of how things might affect Grace, not doing her job as a parent. She’s basically an overgrown kid (with a drinking problem) and Grace is left to do the parenting. But there’s maybe only one more year of this life. At the end of the summer, Grace will be auditioning for the Manhattan School of Music. College will mean a fresh start for Grace—something that she needs—and not in the way her mother is always giving them new starts. But as much as Grace cannot wait to get away from her life, she’s worried about leaving her mother behind. Who will watch over Maggie?

 

Summer on the cape should mean more of the same—hanging with her best friend, Luca, and suffering through her mother’s unpredictable whims—but becomes much more interesting when Eva arrives. Eva is the daughter of one of Luca’s mother’s friends who recently passed away. Emmy, Luca’s mom, is now her guardian. Eva and Grace meet on the beach, where both have gone to process their emotions, and immediately click. Eventually, after Eva tells Grace that she is a lesbian and Grace tells Eva she’s bisexual, their friendship turns into something more. But it quickly becomes complicated by, what else, Grace’s mother. Maggie wants to nurture Eva and becomes buddies with her, something Grace would rather not see happening. Eva doesn’t understand the full story of just how Maggie can be and Maggie doesn’t know that Grace and Eva are dating (oblivious to anything that isn’t her own life, Grace did at one point try to tell Maggie she was bisexual, but Maggie chose to brush that admission off and not understand it). It’s clearly a recipe for disaster. When Maggie eventually makes a(nother) really bad choice—one that affects her, Grace, and Eva—Grace reaches her breaking point and has to decide who she really needs to be taking care of.

 

Blake’s characters are vibrant and multifaceted. Though so much of this book is about pain, loss, and grief, there is also just so much love in this story. Compassion comes from the places we would expect (Emmy, Luca) and from surprising places, too (Jay, Pete). Both Grace and Eva are fragile but resilient. They both find family in new ways—ways neither would have chosen (a dead mom, an irresponsible and alcoholic mom)—and find support and care and love there. And their relationship, though not always easy, is meaningful and achingly lovely. I do not generally want characters who date in YA books to stay together forever (see my earlier remark about being cynical and scowly). But I love Grace and Eva together. This is an easy recommendation for fans of contemporary stories. Again, it’s rare that I find something just completely satisfying, and this book felt perfect in every way. Go read it!

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544815193

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 05/02/2017

Book Review: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Publisher’s description

we-are-okayYou go through life thinking there’s so much you need. . . . Until you leave with only your phone, your wallet, and a picture of your mother.

Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

An intimate whisper that packs an indelible punch, We Are Okay is Nina LaCour at her finest. This gorgeously crafted and achingly honest portrayal of grief will leave you urgent to reach across any distance to reconnect with the people you love.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I love Nina LaCour. When this book showed up in my mailbox, I was delighted. Because here’s the thing: I’m going to guess I haven’t been alone in having a really hard time concentrating on a book lately. I started and abandoned a whole bunch of books in January. I read this until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. Then the next morning, I read it while waiting for my doctor. For once, I wanted her to be running behind, because I was down to about twenty pages. I finished it later that same day, sobbing over my gummy candy and desperately hoping my kid would stay playing outside for a few more minutes so I could just keep on crying. It was exactly the book I needed to read at that moment in time. It’s a relatively quick read, and since it’s Nina LaCour, you know it’s going to be a deep and beautifully-written story. This is one of those books where I just don’t even want to say much of anything beyond OH MY GOD, GO READ THIS, IT’S STUNNING. I want the story to unfold for you like it did for me. I hadn’t so much as read the flap copy. I didn’t need to. It takes a while to figure out where the story might be going, and even once the pieces start to fall into place, it never feels predictable. This is, hands down, one of saddest books I have read in a very long time. But here’s how I mean that: you won’t cry all the way through. It’s not all doom and gloom. There is a lot of love and friendship to be found here. But Marin’s grief and loneliness will just destroy you.

 

And really, that’s all I’m telling you. The small summary up there of the plot gives you just enough of an outline to rope you in, but doesn’t reveal any of the really significant parts of the story. All you need to know is that this book will break your heart. But it won’t do it in a way that will leave you hopeless—I promise. A beautiful story of love, grief, and learning to heal. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525425892

Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group

Publication date: 02/14/2017

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

#MHYALit: A Place Where I Know: Writing About Grief, a guest post by Hannah Barnaby

Today I’m honored to share with you a moving post by my former coworker and fellow Simmons College alum, Hannah Barnaby. I recently reviewed Hannah’s newest book, Some of the Parts, here on TLT. In my review, I wrote, “Barnaby’s novel is a devastating and powerful look at grief, guilt, and how to survive the aftermath of something that changes who you are. A must-read.” Hannah’s post today on grief is a fantastic contribution to our ongoing series on Mental Health in YA Lit. Visit the #MHYALit hub page to see all of the posts. 

 

I have experienced—fought, wrestled with, submitted to, overcome—both grief and clinical depression. But I have only written about one.

 

The protagonist of my young adult novel, Some of the Parts, is in the throes of grieving for her older brother. Tallie lost Nate a few months before the book opens, in a car accident for which she feels entirely responsible, and she wears her guilt like a lead necklace. She can’t let go. She doesn’t think she deserves to. And then she finds out that she might not have to—Nate was an organ donor, and one of his recipients reaches out to Tallie’s parents. Suddenly Tallie sees a way to alleviate her sadness: if she can track down the other organ recipients, she can prove to herself that Nate isn’t truly gone.

 

Is this rational? No. But neither is grief. And neither is depression.

 

My first bout with depression was during my senior year in high school. My parents were getting divorced and I was overwhelmed with plans for college and homework and extra-curricular stuff. About halfway through the year, I felt myself shutting down. I came home from school every day and got in bed. I slept until dinner, did my homework in a zombie state, and went back to sleep. This went on for weeks. Finally, my parents found me a therapist. Seeing her twice a week until the end of the school year was . . . well, frankly, it was a pain in the butt. I was tired of talking about myself and I was sure that my fatigue and sadness would pass on their own. I told myself—and my therapist—that I was just sad about my parents splitting up. “That’s not what this is,” she told me. And she was right.

 

Clinically speaking, depression and grief look a lot alike. Both involve many of the same symptoms: sadness, fatigue, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, poor concentration, guilt, hopelessness, unbidden memories. Martha Clark Scala, a psychotherapist in San Francisco, says, “Among the bereaved, these symptoms are usually mild or temporary. But these same symptoms may be more chronic or severe among those who are clinically depressed.” Scala also identifies some additional symptoms that may be signs of clinical depression rather than—or on top of—grief: worthlessness, exaggerated guilt, suicidal thoughts or plans, powerlessness, low self-esteem, agitation, and loss of interest in pleasurable activities.

 

I can attest to the fact that it can be difficult to tell grief and depression apart. I did eventually emerge from my high school depression, but it found me again in college. And again after graduation. It kept coming back, like a slow tide, and I learned to recognize it and how to ask for help when I needed it. But then something terrible happened.

 

In 1999, I was a graduate student at Simmons College in Boston. I had just started my second semester and I was given a part-time work study job to help with expenses. I was at that job—stuffing social work school applications into envelopes—when the phone rang at the desk where I was sitting. It wasn’t my desk. It wasn’t my phone. But the call was for me. It was my father, calling to tell me that my younger brother Jesse had died the night before, in a fire at his fraternity house.

 

What followed, as you can imagine, was a whirling blur of confusion and sadness and difficult things. And as my grief soaked into me, I thought, “Oh, I know what this is. I recognize this.” It felt just like my senior year in high school, my sophomore year in college, my post-college year. I was almost relieved, because I knew what to expect. There had always been an ebb and flow to my depression and so I waited for it to move. But it didn’t. Because this wasn’t depression at all, and it wasn’t until I named it something else that I understood: I would have to find a whole new way to cope with this. It was grief, and it had its own landscape altogether.

 

Eventually, I was able to go back to school and to work, and I felt the weight of my grief lessening as I moved forward. Depression had never been like that. Depression had followed its own calendar and it had never dissipated until it was good and ready, no matter what I was doing from day to day, and I think that was because it had no source the way grief did. My depression was like a cloud of gnats that appeared and disappeared with little warning; my grief, though, was born of one very specific loss. And in a strange way, I found that comforting.

 

In writing Tallie’s story, I came full circle in my own grief. I revisited every part of the emotional journey I took after my brother died and I dragged Tallie through it, too. Part of me felt terrible, doing that to someone else. (Even a fictional someone.) But the rest of me felt sure and strong, because I could tell her with certainty, “There is an end to this. There is a door ahead of us. We’ll walk through it together, and you’ll see—there is hope on the other side.”

 

Meet Hannah Barnaby

hannahHannah Barnaby is a former children’s book editor and bookseller, and was the inaugural children’s writer-in-residence at the Boston Public Library. Her debut novel, Wonder Show, was a Morris Award finalist in 2013. She lives in Charlottesville, VA with her family. You can find her online at www.hannahbarnaby.com and follow her on Twitter @hannahrbarnaby.

 

 

About Some of the Parts

some of the partsFor months, Tallie McGovern has been coping with the death of her older brother the only way she knows how: by smiling bravely and pretending that she’s okay. She’s managed to fool her friends, her parents, and her teachers, yet she can’t even say his name out loud: “N—” is as far as she can go. Then Tallie comes across a letter in the mail, and it only takes two words to crack the careful façade she’s built up:

ORGAN DONOR.
Two words that had apparently been checked off on her brother’s driver’s license; two words that her parents knew about—and never revealed to her. All at once, everything Tallie thought she understood about her brother’s death feels like a lie. And although a part of her knows he’s gone forever, another part of her wonders if finding the letter might be a sign. That if she can just track down the people on the other end of those two words, it might somehow bring him back.

Hannah Barnaby’s deeply moving novel asks questions there are no easy answers to as it follows a family struggling to pick up the pieces, and a girl determined to find the brother she wasn’t ready to let go of.

 

Book Review: Some of the Parts by Hannah Barnaby

Publisher’s description

some of the partsFor months, Tallie McGovern has been coping with the death of her older brother the only way she knows how: by smiling bravely and pretending that she’s okay. She’s managed to fool her friends, her parents, and her teachers, yet she can’t even say his name out loud: “N—” is as far as she can go. Then Tallie comes across a letter in the mail, and it only takes two words to crack the careful façade she’s built up:

ORGAN DONOR.
Two words that had apparently been checked off on her brother’s driver’s license; two words that her parents knew about—and never revealed to her. All at once, everything Tallie thought she understood about her brother’s death feels like a lie. And although a part of her knows he’s gone forever, another part of her wonders if finding the letter might be a sign. That if she can just track down the people on the other end of those two words, it might somehow bring him back.

Hannah Barnaby’s deeply moving novel asks questions there are no easy answers to as it follows a family struggling to pick up the pieces, and a girl determined to find the brother she wasn’t ready to let go of.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Let’s just jump straight to the last thing I wrote in my review notes: SO. GOOD.

 

Tallie’s not really sure how to get on with her life after her brother is killed in a car accident. She wants to try to return to normal, but it’s hard to say what that even means anymore. She thinks maybe relying on some self-selected rituals will help, but they’re not doing much. She knows everyone looks at her and sees death. She’s not the same person she was before her brother was killed—how could she be? Her best friends now completely avoid her, her parents are grieving in their own private ways, and Tallie’s holding on to so much grief, guilt, and anger that even pretending for a second that “normal” is possible is ridiculous. At least she has her friend Mel to distract her. Mel shows up when she needs a diversion and keeps her entertained with her brash ways and weird interest in taxidermy. Tallie’s not the greatest friend back to her, but she kind of gets a pass right now if she comes off a bit self-centered. Then there’s Chase, the new guy in town who has the odd hobby of maintaining a scrapbook full of tragedies as a way of memorializing people who will never have biographies written about them. He and Tallie become friends, though neither are completely honest with the other at first.

 

It would be enough to figure out how to navigate life after losing her brother, but when she learns that he was an organ donor, Tallie’s focus takes a new turn. Knowing there are pieces of Nate still out there in this world, Tallie becomes obsessed with contacting the recipients of his organs and stops at nothing to achieve this goal. Tallie lies and schemes, roping Chase into her plans, not really sure how things will pan out.

 

This gut-wrenching story is beautifully written. Barnaby writes so movingly about the very complicated experience of grief. Having lost my own dad in a car accident a few years back, I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to make it through the book and give it the full attention it deserves. But, like Tim Federle’s wonderful The Great American Whatever, the grief depicted here is so raw, nuanced, and compelling. Tallie’s a mess—we see that as the story reveals details we don’t immediately know and as her quest pushes her to the edges of what she can handle. Barnaby’s novel is a devastating and powerful look at grief, guilt, and how to survive the aftermath of something that changes who you are. A must-read. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the author and the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780553539639

Publisher: Random House Children’s Books

Publication date: 02/16/2016