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Book Review: Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Publisher’s description

dariusDarius doesn’t think he’ll ever be enough, in America or in Iran. Hilarious and heartbreaking, this unforgettable debut introduces a brilliant new voice in contemporary YA.Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He’s a Fractional Persian—half, his mom’s side—and his first-ever trip to Iran is about to change his life.Darius has never really fit in at home, and he’s sure things are going to be the same in Iran. His clinical depression doesn’t exactly help matters, and trying to explain his medication to his grandparents only makes things harder. Then Darius meets Sohrab, the boy next door, and everything changes. Soon, they’re spending their days together, playing soccer, eating faludeh, and talking for hours on a secret rooftop overlooking the city’s skyline. Sohrab calls him Darioush—the original Persian version of his name—and Darius has never felt more like himself than he does now that he’s Darioush to Sohrab.Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut is for anyone who’s ever felt not good enough—then met a friend who makes them feel so much better than okay.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

IMG_4112I’ve been in a reading slump for what feels like forever, abandoning at least half a dozen books before I can settle in and actually read one. But this book? This book, I burned through in two sittings—and would’ve read it in one, had I not been expected to do things like parent my child. In fact, when I was reading this on the second day, I got so engrossed that I didn’t even look up for the duration of reading, not noticing how my dachshunds arranged themselves in this adorable heap and passed out next to me. Given that I usually look at them about every 30 seconds and exclaim how cute they are, this is an impressive level of reading engagement.

 

 

Darius is a Persian American sophomore living in Portland, Oregon. He works in a tea shop, is bullied at school, has depression, and often feels like an outsider even in his own family. Those are all the traits/facts that seem to define him while at home. His younger sister is fluent in Farsi, but Darius only knows food words and a few other common words and phrases. His blond-haired, blue-eyed father always seems disappointed in him, and they have trouble connecting, relying on nightly episodes of Star Trek to be the quality time they spend together. Like Darius, his father has depression, but Darius feels his dad is ashamed of this fact. He thinks Darius wouldn’t be bullied so much if he would just act more normal. When Darius’s mother tells him their family will be going to Iran to visit the dying grandfather he’s never met, Darius figures it will just be another place that he doesn’t fit in or feel comfortable. While he’s Skyped with his grandparents and other relatives plenty, he’s never met them. As noted before, he doesn’t speak much Farsi, which he knows will isolate him further. To his surprise, it is in Yazd, his mother’s hometown, where he begins to feel comfortable and to open himself up for the first time in his life.

 

 

Though Darius is often awkward and monosyllabic, we get to know him much better when he is in Iran. Darius gets to know himself much better during this time. He becomes friends with Sohrab, a charismatic neighbor boy who draws Darius out of his shell, inviting him to play soccer and helping guide him through life in Yazd. Fairly quickly, Darius feels such closeness with Sohrab, feeling like they really understand each other. Sohrab is easy and comfortable with Darius, so open and affectionate. Though it is never discussed, it is easy to read their relationship as something more than friends, or something that could potentially be more than friends. Though their time together is short, Sohrab and his friendship appear to be life changing for Darius, showing him that he can connect with other people and that there is more to him than just a bullied kid who is always the object of jokes and cruelty.

 

 

The book has a lot of other things going for it. Darius’s depression is handled well. It’s noted over and over that he has been encouraged to not feel embarrassed or ashamed for having depression, that it’s just the way his brain chemicals work. He talks about being medicated for years, about having tried various medications, about side effects, like weight gain, and we routinely see him take his medication. His mother talks to him about the fact that her parents will have a different, less understanding attitude toward depression, which does come up once they are in Iran. It is refreshing to see mental illness depicted in such a matter of fact manner—it’s just one part of Darius. Darius also helps guide readers through Persian culture by explaining cultural ideas, tradition, and Farsi words as the story unfolds. Khorram manages to make this feel like part of the natural flow of the narrative. This quiet story will resonate with readers who feel they don’t fit in, for whatever reason, and can appreciate the profoundness of finally feeling like you can connect with someone. A heartfelt, complicated, and thoughtful look at identity, family, and unexpected connections set in a place, and within a culture, we rarely see in YA. A great addition for all collections. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher
ISBN-13: 9780525552963
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 08/28/2018
 

Book Review: Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke

Publisher’s description

It’s Kind of a Funny Story meets Daria in the darkly hilarious tale of a teen’s attempt to remake her public image and restore inner peace through reality TV. The only thing 17-year-old Jane Sinner hates more than failure is pity. After a personal crisis and her subsequent expulsion from high school, she’s going nowhere fast. Jane’s well-meaning parents push her to attend a high school completion program at the nearby Elbow River Community College, and she agrees, on one condition: she gets to move out.

Jane tackles her housing problem by signing up for House of Orange, a student-run reality show that is basically Big Brother, but for Elbow River Students. Living away from home, the chance to win a car (used, but whatever), and a campus full of people who don’t know what she did in high school… what more could she want? Okay, maybe a family that understands why she’d rather turn to Freud than Jesus to make sense of her life, but she’ll settle for fifteen minutes in the proverbial spotlight.

As House of Orange grows from a low-budget web series to a local TV show with fans and shoddy T-shirts, Jane finally has the chance to let her cynical, competitive nature thrive. She’ll use her growing fan base, and whatever Intro to Psychology can teach her, to prove to the world—or at least viewers of substandard TV—that she has what it takes to win.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

nice try jane“Sometimes I’m afraid that if I don’t feel amused, I won’t feel anything at all.”–Jane Sinner

This was completely enjoyable. It was my first read for winter break and I easily read it in one day because I couldn’t put it down. The narrative voice is EXCELLENT. As a totally character-driven reader, I was instantly hooked.

Jane, who recently attempted suicide while dealing with her depression and a loss of faith, is looking for a new start. Newly expelled from high school, she agrees to finishing up her credits at the local community college—if she can move out. She needs a break from her religious parents (who think returning to youth group and church will solve all her problems) and is hopeful that community college, where no one knows her or her past, will be different. But, it’s kind of hard to fly under the radar when you immediately begin appearing on a small-time reality show, which is exactly what Jane does with House of Orange. The student-run reality show airs on YouTube and will provide Jane with a cheap place to live. Jane, who thinks of herself as a “washed-up nihilist,” is snarky, savvy, and brimming with personality. She’s perfect for this show. She looks to establish authority early, determined to win through alliances, manipulation, surveillance, and a little psychology. She begins to grow close to Robbie Patel, her fellow contestant, hoping they can be the last two left standing, but things don’t always go as planned, especially for Jane. She came to college looking for a second chance, but can get a third? Maybe finishing high school online would’ve just been easier than all this.

 

In the midst of all this reality show filming and going to classes, Jane is still dealing with her mental illness. Or, really, she’s not dealing with it. She hasn’t been taking her meds and the only psychiatrist she’s been talking to is the one she invented in her head. She is sort of passionately indifferent to everything. She’s not necessarily suicidal anymore, but wouldn’t mind ceasing to exist. These thoughts—of indifference and of not minding to not exist—are so well captured throughout her story and feel SO familiar to those of us who have depression. There is a particular hypothetical exchange with her supervisor at work that was just fantastic. Jane imagines calling out not necessarily sick, but telling her supervisor she can’t come in because she can’t get out of bed, because there’s no reason to, because she can’t feel anything, because she’s dead inside, and she imagines this supervisor telling her to make a list of things she’s grateful for, drink some tea, listen to a favorite song, or look at cats on the internet—that should help her feel better. Sounds familiar, right?

 

This funny and smart book is not to be missed. Jane’s deadpan voice will draw readers in, and once all the reality show shenanigans start, they will be desperate to know what happens, especially once all the duplicity going on begins to be revealed. An excellent look at second (and third and fourth) chances. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544867857
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 01/09/2018

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: Night Shift by Debi Gliori

Publisher’s description

ra6From beloved author and illustrator Debi Gliori (No Matter What) comes Night Shift, a groundbreaking lushly illustrated picture book based on Gliori’s own personal history with depression.Fighting dragons is one way of fighting depression. This book is another.

Through stunning black and white illustration and deceptively simple text, author and illustrator Debi Gliori provides a fascinating and absorbing portrait of depression and hope in Night Shift, a moving picture book about a young girl haunted by dragons. The young girl battles the dragons using ‘night skills': skills that give her both the ability to survive inside her own darkness and the knowledge that nothing—not even long, dark nights filled with monsters—will last forever.

Drawn from Gliori’s own experiences and struggles with depression, the book concludes with a moving author’s note explaining how depression has affected her and how she continues to cope. Gliori hopes that by sharing her own experience she can help others who suffer from depression, and to find that subtle shift that will show the way out.

A brave and powerful book, give Night Shift to dragon fighters young and old, and any reader who needs to know they’re not alone.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

night shiftIf, at one point, I knew this book was coming out, I must’ve totally forgotten. I opened up the package and pulled out this book, wondering why I was getting a picture book to review. Then I started reading. And I fell in love.

 

It’s no secret that I have depression. I also know a heck of a lot of people with depression. Here at TLT, we spend a lot of time and energy talking about mental health through our Mental Health in YA Literature project. And while there are, thankfully, many YA novels that now successfully and compassionately address mental health concerns, this little book stands out as being astoundingly poignant and sincere. It is a picture book, though its audience is certainly middle grade and up. Gliori draws on her own experiences with depression to tap into the nearly unutterable despair that comes from being sucked under by an illness that takes and takes and takes. She has her protagonist chased by a dragon, the embodiment of depression. She uses the dragon to describe the fog, dread, and exhaustion of depression. The protagonist hears all the cliches people say to those of us who fight mental illness—chin up, get a grip, etc. She knows she is ill. She goes for help, but words fail her. Nothing adequately describes how she feels. Throughout the story, the dragon grows and grows, breathing fire on her, holding her tight in its clutches. She struggles to hang on, to survive herself, and eventually finds something that offers hope.

 

This small (nearly pocket-sized) book is gorgeous—from the cover to the silver feathered endpapers to every dark-hued illustration and perfectly chosen word. Just gorgeous. This gentle, hopeful, deeply affecting book shows how all-encompassing, devastating, and difficult to articulate depression can be. For those of us who battle our own dragons, this book is a delicate and empathetic reminder that we’re not alone and that, somewhere in all this darkness and fear, there is a strand of hope and a way forward. Profound in its simplicity and its honesty. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780451481733
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 09/05/2017