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Book Review: 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario

Publisher’s description

500 words or lessA high school senior attempts to salvage her reputation among her Ivy League–obsessed classmates by writing their college admissions essays and in the process learns big truths about herself in this mesmerizing debut novel-in-verse, perfect for fans of Gayle Forman and Sonya Sones.

Nic Chen refuses to spend her senior year branded as the girl who cheated on her charismatic and lovable boyfriend. To redefine her reputation among her Ivy League–obsessed classmates, Nic begins writing their college admissions essays.

But the more essays Nic writes for other people, the less sure she becomes of herself, the kind of person she is, and whether her moral compass even points north anymore.

Provocative, brilliant, and achingly honest, 500 Words or Less explores the heartbreak and hope that marks the search for your truest self.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

There is something so satisfying about a novel in verse that is done well. To be honest, they don’t often work for me. I find that my eyes want to skim the lines and I finish in record time, which I like, but feel like I don’t retain a whole lot of what I read. Or, I feel like the story isn’t served well by the structure—like I want more, but can’t get it in this format. Thankfully, neither was necessarily (more on that later) true with this title.

 

The summary up there does a fairly tidy job of giving you the plot. The plot is a lot more of an internal journey than anything, which is fine by me (for the millionth time I’ll say it—go ahead and close people into a room to talk or put me inside someone’s head while they just think and I’m perfectly happy to keep reading). Biracial Nic Chen is at the top of her class. She’s smart, involved, and has applied early decision to Princeton, but she feels like she’s still not perfect enough for her dad and stepmom. She’s also constantly whispered about at school, her locker defaced with the word “whore” on it, feeling totally lost without her lifelong friendships with Jordan and Ben—friendships that fell apart when Jordan and Nic, who was dating Ben, slept together. But Jordan doesn’t seem to be suffering the same fallout as Nic—he’s still adored, no one is writing slurs on his locker, and he is still best friends with Ben, who no longer has anything to do with Nic. It’s all fairly lonely for Nic, who doesn’t appear to have many friends. It’s only because she starts writing college application essays for her classmates that she starts to interact more and realize some things not just about her peers but about herself. By writing about their lives, trying to see the world through their eyes and experiences, she also reveals parts of herself. She begins to realize that there are so many versions of herself that she shows and hides. Though she always felt held at an emotional distance by Ben, even when they were dating, she starts to see that she, too, held not just Ben but everyone at a distance. There are some pretty compelling reasons for this, including her mom’s disappearance from her life, but prior to this, Nic hasn’t thought too hard about them. Though Nic started writing the essays as a way to keep her from ruminating on her own life too much, she finds that this is a time in her life to be particularly reflective, especially once Ben reappears and things grow even more complicated with her feelings for him and for Jordan. 

 

The one part that I felt didn’t work for me was a thing that happens about 4/5 of the way through the book, a tragedy that I will avoid talking about here because of spoilers. I will say that it felt like a bit of a tidy/easy way to help both Nic and Jordan come to some realizations about their lives and their futures. It didn’t make me dislike the book, but it felt contrived and kind of like a cop-out. I also wish that we actually got to know the larger cast of characters better—the peers whose letters Nic writes, her friends Kitty and Ashok, and maybe even Nic herself, who holds the reader at a bit of the same emotional distance she grapples with in her life. The interesting plot of writing letters for others, of seeing through their eyes, thus highlighting and revealing Nic’s own loneliness, is an appealing one. A strong if imperfect look at guilt, regret, and forgiveness. 

 

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781534410442
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 09/25/2018

Book Review: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

Publisher’s description

blood water paintHer mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father’s paint.

She chose paint.

By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.

He will not consume
my every thought.
I am a painter.
I will paint.

Joy McCullough’s bold novel in verse is a portrait of an artist as a young woman, filled with the soaring highs of creative inspiration and the devastating setbacks of a system built to break her. McCullough weaves Artemisia’s heartbreaking story with the stories of the ancient heroines, Susanna and Judith, who become not only the subjects of two of Artemisia’s most famous paintings but sources of strength as she battles to paint a woman’s timeless truth in the face of unspeakable and all-too-familiar violence.

I will show you
what a woman can do.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

17-year-old Artemisia understands the way the world works: women are a beauty for consumption by men. There are many expectations for women and few freedoms. She understands that girls are prey, that they are seen as things and possessions. Artemisia, ostensibly an apprentice to her painter father, though clearly far more skilled than he, begins to paint biblical women she knows intimately from her mother’s stories, knowing a man could never capture the truth of the story the way a woman could. Her mother’s stories made clear the heavy burden of the inescapable male gaze, but they also made clear Artemisia’s (and all women’s) right to be outraged, to act, to push back, to speak up. These woman from her mother’s stories, Judith and Susanna, come to be her strength and solace when Artemisia is raped by Agostina Tassi, her painting tutor. Artemisia tells her father of the rape and they take Tino to trial. But, of course, it is not Tino on trial, but Artemisia’s virtue. 

Both the stories from Artemisia’s mother and Artemisia’s own story ask the readers to bear witness, to see the truth, to hear the voices, to understand the strength in the stories. The stories are the weapons, the armor, the refuge, and the map. This intensely passionate and powerful exploration of women’s lives, stories, truths, and power is a masterpiece. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780735232112
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 03/06/2018