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Book Review: Brave Face: A Memoir by Shaun David Hutchinson

Publisher’s description

Critically acclaimed author of We Are the Ants—described as having “hints of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (School Library Journal)—opens up about what led to an attempted suicide in his teens, and his path back from the experience.

“I wasn’t depressed because I was gay. I was depressed and gay.”

Shaun David Hutchinson was nineteen. Confused. Struggling to find the vocabulary to understand and accept who he was and how he fit into a community in which he couldn’t see himself. The voice of depression told him that he would never be loved or wanted, while powerful and hurtful messages from society told him that being gay meant love and happiness weren’t for him.

A million moments large and small over the years all came together to convince Shaun that he couldn’t keep going, that he had no future. And so he followed through on trying to make that a reality.

Thankfully Shaun survived, and over time, came to embrace how grateful he is and how to find self-acceptance. In this courageous and deeply honest memoir, Shaun takes readers through the journey of what brought him to the edge, and what has helped him truly believe that it does get better.

Amanda’s thoughts

I’m a big fan of memoirs. While most of my reading is of children’s and YA books, when I do grab an adult book from the library, it is frequently a memoir. I like the deep dive into someone’s life. I like seeing them raw and unpacking their challenges and successes. So when a memoir comes out by one of my favorite YA authors, you can bet I will devour it.

For me, this had an added element of interest. I’m the same age as Hutchinson—we both graduated high school in 1996. We were both depressed and anxious teens, kept journals (and hung onto them all this time—I have a whole bin of my journals from elementary school through college), listened to a lot of the same music, wrote for the school paper, and so on. For me, as an adult reader, I really felt myself right there with Hutchinson because I really *saw* him. I would’ve been friends with him. My computer-programming, D&D-playing, fantasy-novel-reading husband would’ve been friends with him.

I spent the whole memoir really wanted two things for Hutchinson: for him to find his people and for him to get the mental health help he needed. And that’s really want this whole memoir is about. We follow Hutchinson through high school and a few years of college. We watch him go from an excited ninth grader positive about his future to a severely depressed and self-loathing older teen who can’t see anything good in his present or his future, feels like a failure, and grows increasingly reckless. We watch him participate in drama and debate, work various jobs, hang out with his close girl friend, play D&D, and half-heartedly date and make out with some girls. Meanwhile he’s feeling increasingly irritated, having meltdowns, lashing out while alone, and writing in his journal about his misery and his suicidal ideation.

We also see Hutchinson really struggle with being gay. He writes a lot about how his negative and limited idea of what it would mean to be gay came from the culture and stories around him at this time in the 90s. He wasn’t able to see beyond horrible stereotypes and miserable endings. He simply didn’t have any other examples. And he certainly didn’t have any kind of community to help him work through these thoughts. Even as he came to understand that he was gay, he still lacked examples of love or romance or happiness. His view of his life, already complicated by his untreated depression, grew darker.

Eventually, Hutchinson attempts suicide and ends up in a psychiatric treatment facility. There is a content warning for this part of the book to allow readers to skip over the details included here. He then summarizes life after this time—the ups and downs of both relationships and various treatments. He leaves readers with the important message that it can indeed get better, though it can take a while to get there. And, most importantly, it’s okay to ask for help—that struggling alone and putting on a brave face isn’t required.

This is a powerful and painfully honest look at surviving while finding your place, your people, and self-acceptance.

Review copy (e-ARC) courtesy of Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781534431515
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 05/21/2019

Book Review: Spinning by Tillie Walden

Publisher’s description

ra6Ignatz Award winner Tillie Walden’s powerful graphic memoir captures what it’s like to come of age, come out, and come to terms with leaving behind everything you used to know.

It was the same every morning. Wake up, grab the ice skates, and head to the rink while the world was still dark.

Weekends were spent in glitter and tights at competitions. Perform. Smile. And do it again.

She was good. She won. And she hated it.

For ten years, figure skating was Tillie Walden’s life. She woke before dawn for morning lessons, went straight to group practice after school, and spent weekends competing at ice rinks across the state. Skating was a central piece of her identity, her safe haven from the stress of school, bullies, and family. But as she switched schools, got into art, and fell in love with her first girlfriend, she began to question how the close-minded world of figure skating fit in with the rest of her life, and whether all the work was worth it given the reality: that she, and her friends on the team, were nowhere close to Olympic hopefuls. The more Tillie thought about it, the more Tillie realized she’d outgrown her passion—and she finally needed to find her own voice.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

spinningThere are never enough stories about girls in sports, are there? Also, I don’t know that I’ve read any story where competitive ice skating is not just part of the story but almost all of the story. There are plenty of teens who are involved in very intense, competitive, high level sports, so this book is a nice addition to YA because it represents a life many teens lead (not necessarily ice skating, of course) but we don’t often see much of.

 

This graphic memoir follows Tillie from New Jersey to Texas, where she moves after fifth grade. She hopes to be able to escape the bullying and bad grades that plagued her in New Jersey, but Texas just provides more of the same. She feels like an outsider at the skating rink, too. She doesn’t bond with the other girls and she stands out because her parents never come to any of the competitions. Tillie is driven and wants to be the best, but she also doesn’t seem to actually really enjoy skating and mostly does it because it’s routine. She gets her first girlfriend, which briefly makes her feel like at least something in her life is satisfying, but that doesn’t last, and coming out to some of the people around her doesn’t go well, either. She looks to her coaches and teachers for the affection and attention she isn’t receiving, but eventually realizes that even that is not worth sticking with skating, and she quits the summer before her senior year in high school.

 

While the subject matter is appealing and unique and the illustrations really capture Tillie’s feelings, especially her loneliness and exhaustion, the overlong story suffers from uneven pacing. Some things that could use more exploring are just sort of skipped over, missing a real opportunity for adding depth to the story. This quiet look at the pressures of competitive sports and at feeling like an outsider will appeal to teens who connect with either of those storylines. The graphic format will catch the attention of readers who may not otherwise gravitate toward this story. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781626729407

Publisher: First Second

Publication date: 09/12/2017

Book Review: Prison Island, a Graphic Memoir by Colleen Frakes

prisonislandThe other day a fellow librarian contacted me and said she needed some good YA nonfiction recommendations, to which I replied PRISON ISLAND!

Prison Island is a memoir told in graphic novel format about McNeil Island in the state of Washington. It was one of the last remaining prison islands. Colleen Frake’s family was one of the families that lived and worked on the island. It’s an interesting life and the book brings it vividly to life in both words and pictures. As I read I couldn’t help but think about what a great companion piece this would be to Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko.

Prison Island is published by Zest Books, one of my favorite publisher’s for quirky YA nonfiction, and you can find sample pages, like this one, on their website:

prisonisland2Full of heart, humor and an interesting look at a typical teen living a not so typical life, Prison Island is a fun entry point into the memoir category. It’s also a great book to put into the hands of reluctant readers. I enjoyed this and definitely recommend it.

Publisher’s Book Summary:

McNeil Island in Washington state was the home of the last prison island in the United States, accessible only by air or sea. It was also home to about fifty families, including Colleen Frake’s. Her parents—like nearly everyone else on the island—both worked in the prison, where her father was the prison’s captain and her mother worked in security. In this engaging graphic memoir, a Xeric and Ignatz Award-winning comics artist, Colleen Frakes, tells the story of a typical girl growing up in atypical circumstances.

Published by Zest Books in 2015. Book provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

For more nonfiction graphic novels for teens check out:

Persopolis by Marjane Satrapi

Smile and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

March, Book 1 and March, Book 2 by John Lewis

Yummy : the Last Days of a Southside Shorty by Greg Neri

Book review: Tomboy by Liz Prince

It’s not often that I find a book completely fantastic. It’s also not often that I find a character in YA and think, yes–finally! I was like that as a teen. I could have been that character. Or that character is someone I would actually have been friends with. Enter Liz Prince’s Tomboy, an utterly fantastic graphic novel memoir about a girl who struggles with what it means to be a “girl.”

 

Tomboy follows Liz from age four through her teenage years. Liz isn’t thrilled to be a girl. She identifies as a tomboy. She writes, “I felt it really defined me. It was a lifestyle that I took very seriously.” She was into traditionally “boy” toys and activities. (I should note here that she also writes, “Obviously, this subject makes a lot of assumptions about gender, both male and female, and trying to define what makes a girl or what makes a boy is what got me so confused in the first place!”) She preferred to wear clothes meant for boys. When she played pretend, she was always a boy character (Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, Dennis the Menace). She was often mistaken for a boy. She also hoped she would become a boy–she felt she was supposed to be a boy. She’s bullied and mocked. Unsurprisingly, kids question her appearance, ask her if she’s a boy or girl, make fun of her, call her a lesbian…. It’s all pretty typical fare aimed at someone who doesn’t conform to expectations or social constructs. It hurts Liz, but she steadfastly remains herself. She makes friends over the years–generally other misfit-types (I use that term in the most loving way possible, as “misfit-types” are my people), but continues to have a hard time finding where she fits, especially once puberty hits and not only is she contending with this new undeniably female body, but with the many dramas that come with dating. It isn’t until she starts hanging out with a group of boys who completely accept her and, later, gets into the world of zines and punk shows that she starts to feel like she’d found a community.

 

Prince captures the uncertainty and unpredictability of adolescence perfectly. Liz’s main preoccupation is gender nonconformity, but equally important in the memoir are the stories of making and losing friends, of dating successes and failures, and of just figuring out where you fit, period. As a former teenage misfit who spent inordinate amounts of time thinking about gender and gender presentation (thank you, punk, feminism, and riot grrrl), writing zines, and going to punk shows, this book delighted me. Great for fans of graphic novels, memoirs, characters on the fringes, and anyone who has ever thought “what the hell does it even mean to be a girl, anyway?”

 

ISBN-13: 9781936976553

Publisher: Zest

Publication date: 9/2/2014