Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Book Review: The Life and Medieval Times of Kit Sweetly by Jamie Pacton

Publisher’s description

Moxie meets A Knight’s Tale as Kit Sweetly slays sexism, bad bosses, and bad luck to become a knight at a medieval-themed restaurant.

Working as a Wench—i.e. waitress—at a cheesy medieval-themed restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, Kit Sweetly dreams of being a Knight like her brother. She has the moves, is capable on a horse, and desperately needs the raise that comes with knighthood, so she can help her mom pay the mortgage and hold a spot at her dream college.

Company policy allows only guys to be Knights. So when Kit takes her brother’s place, clobbers the Green Knight, and reveals her identity at the end of the show, she rockets into internet fame and a whole lot of trouble with the management. But this Girl Knight won’t go down without a fight. As other Wenches and cast members join her quest, a protest forms. In a joust before Castle executives, they’ll prove that gender restrictions should stay medieval—if they don’t get fired first.

Amanda’s thoughts

My reading taste really comes down to two things: show me people just talk, talk, talking OR show me something unique. A contemporary story about a girl who wants to become a knight? Now that’s unique!

There is so much to really love about this book. Kit (real name—brace yourselves—Courtney Love Sweetly) works at a medieval-themed restaurant that’s run by her uncle, but that doesn’t get her any preferential treatment. The place is not great, but Kit absolutely loves her workplace family and desperately needs the job there. She and her older brother (a knight at the restaurant) live with their mom—their dad took off a couple of years ago with all their college money to feed his heroin habit. Their family is constantly worried about money. Electricity gets shut off, there’s very little food, and everything is run-down. They all three work hard, but it’s just barely enough to keep them afloat.

Kit has very real worries about college. She has had a plan for years for herself, but now that the time for college acceptances is here, it looks like that plan isn’t doable. It’s hard to readjust your thoughts and grapple with a new reality. The money just isn’t there for her to follow the path she had long ago set for herself. I appreciate this depiction of teen life so much—a teenager with a job because it’s absolutely essential to the family’s budge, a teen making the very reasonable choice to follow a different college path due to financial reasons.

It’s not all just worries and disappointments for Kit, though. She has great support in Layla, her best friend, and Jett, her other best friend. Kit and Jett decided long ago to never date, for the sake of the friendship, but that doesn’t stop Kit from having a raging crush on him and wishing they could break that pact.

Then, of course, there’s the storyline of her wanting to become a knight. She knows she’s the right girl for the job, her corporate has made it very clear that only cis men can be knights at this restaurant. Outspoken feminist Kit is done tolerating that decree. When she fills in for her brother, Jett films it and the video begins to go viral online, giving Kit a platform to push her cause. She begins to train other friends from work (including trans and nonbinary characters), but with no corporate support and an uncle vehemently against helping her agenda, it’s uncertain whether they will even get a chance to showcase their talents even one time, much less overthrow the whole system.

I was into this story just from the very basic plot: teen girl wants to be a knight at the medieval-themed restaurant she works at. But the many layers of her life made this book so engrossing. And the wonderful (and very diverse) cast of supporting characters made this such a great workplace story, too. Kit is a badass, not just because she wants to smash the patriarchy, but because she’s juggling so much in just her day-to-day life. A great read that deserves lots of attention.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781624149528
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 05/05/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

A Moment of Radical Honesty and Talking Frankly about Modern Poverty in THE LIFE AND (MEDIEVAL) TIMES OF KIT SWEETLY, a guest post by Jamie Pacton

I think every writer puts a bit of themselves into the stories we tell and the characters we create. When writing my debut YA novel, THE LIFE AND (MEDIEVAL) TIMES OF KIT SWEETLY, I put a whole lot of myself into Kit. Her humor, her outlook on life, her flaws— all of these are mine. I based her love interest on my husband, and I even included embarrassing moments from my own life in the book (like that time I ended up inside a dumpster I very nearly couldn’t get out of; or, that time I yelled “I know CPR” when a stranger collapsed in a locker room and my friends went running for help). But, even with the amount of Jamie inside Kit’s story, there’s one element of my own life in the book that I struggle to be honest about: Kit’s poverty.

Like Kit, I’ve lived through some very lean times. Growing up, I was the oldest of ten kids, and although my parents both worked white-collar jobs (at least until I was a teenager and my dad lost his job), I’m sure feeding all of us, clothing us, and keeping the lights on was a stretch. I remember visits to food banks and a pantry full of cans long past their expiration dates. (Expiration dates were more of whimsical suggestions in my parents’ house, rather than guidelines for food safety). I also remember visiting friends’ houses and marveling at the toys, clothes, and bedroom space they had. It was all so nice and not second-hand, and I desperately wanted the same things. Even as early as elementary school, I used to beg my parents for a pair of Keds or a Guess t-shirt or every other silly material thing that seemed like it was the thing that would make me feel like I was as good as my friends.

Poverty followed me to college. Yes, I had a full scholarship, but I promptly lost it after my freshman year because I was working two jobs in order to have enough money to stay alive. After college, when I had a BA in English but no real professional skills, I worked sixteen-hour days across four jobs to pay the bills and make ends meet. I’d waitress the lunch shift at one restaurant; then, go nanny for a few hours after school; then, work a dinner shift at a different restaurant; and, finish my day by working overnight at K-Mart. I was perpetually exhausted, smoking too many cigarettes to stay awake, and somehow still poor. Even when I finally decided to go back to grad school, I couldn’t escape the shadow of poverty. I’m always embarrassed to admit this, but my husband and I were on food stamps in grad school because—thanks to the ridiculous notion that grad students can’t work outside jobs— we were both only working as TAs while supporting small children.

These days, although I’ve had many economic ups and downs in the years since my children were born, things are mostly much better. But, I wrote everything I know about being poor into THE LIFE AND (MEDIEVAL) TIMES OF KIT SWEETLY.

Credit: Vicky Chen (@VickyCBooks on Twitter)

My intimate knowledge of food scarcity comes out in the “Cooler of Doom” Kit’s family keeps for storing food when their power is cut off; and, it’s there in the way Kit relies on the food she can get at work to keep herself fed. My awareness of my own economic disparity in relation to my friends is apparent as Kit tries to hide her poverty from her best friends. My struggle with balancing too many jobs and still just barely scraping by lurks in the way Kit and her entire family pool their tips to pay bills. My very real knowledge of the emotional toll that working too much and always being on edge about money takes is present in Kit’s brother Chris, who is just barely an adult, but already weary of working all the time. Even the way I used stimulants like cigarettes to stay awake or to trick my body into feeling full is present in the way Kit’s mom smokes. (I read about this same impulse in Stephanie Land’s MAID and viscerally understood so much she talked about in relation to being part of the working poor).

Some of the praise I’ve gotten for THE LIFE AND (MEDIEVAL) TIMES OF KIT SWEETLY calls it a “frank look at modern poverty,” and that’s thrills me because that’s exactly what I wanted to do in the book. I wanted to be honest about poverty and show a character who might look like she’s economically okay—after all, Kit has a house, a job, her brother has a car, and she’s planning on going to college— but just beneath the surface lies a slippery economic slope that threatens to send Kit and her family toppling.

Even with that intention in mind, however, this is the first time I’ve written about how Kit’s poverty mirrors my own experience. In interviews, I’ve happily talked about the feminism, the romance, the friendships, and even the absurd moments from my life that I wrote into the story. But, as I mentioned above, I’m embarrassed to tell people that I’ve been as poor as Kit (or poorer, in fact). For the longest time, I didn’t want people to know that I’ve lived on the edge and that I’ve fallen off it before. I never tell people that I’ve had government assistance or that I’m always comparing what I have materially (and finding myself lacking) based on my own childhood insecurities.

But why is poverty so hard to talk about? Why is there shame associated with it? Why would I feel embarrassed to say that there have been times in my life when I needed help? Why does saying I couldn’t make ends meet feel like a dirty secret?

I think the answers to these questions lie in the way poverty is talked about in modern America and the discourse of shame surrounding the notion of being poor. Too often, poor people are seen as lazy or they’re treated like their poverty is their fault. Or, even worse, they’re viewed as worth less than others because they don’t have money/stuff/privilege. (This is something I tackle head on in my next book, LUCKY GIRL, where the main character wins the lotto jackpot and grapples with the questions of can money really bring happiness or does too much of it just make people terrible?)

While these myths about poverty abound, most of the poor people I know are working too many jobs, trying to keep their kids alive, and striving to make their lives better. But, they’re laboring within an unfair system that keeps them impoverished (and, it must be noted, this unfair system is consistently kinder to white and/or able bodied people like Kit and myself than others, and that privilege is not negligible). Healthcare is expensive; food is expensive; if you don’t have a car, you can’t get to work reliably; and, the list of ways to stay poor when you’re already there goes on and on. Many excellent non-fiction books have been written about the nearly impossible-to-break generational cycle of poverty in America, and I think it’s important to talk about this in YA fiction as well.

The notion of radical honesty contains many elements, but a core one is that you can bring about change by being honest. I try to be honest in my life and in my fiction, so, I’ll just come out and say it: I have been very, very poor at certain times in my life. I’ve taken back $10 worth of groceries so I could put gas in my car. I’ve not known where my children’s next meal was coming from or how I was going to keep the lights on. It’s okay to admit those things, and stories of modern poverty need to be told so we can battle the stigma surrounding it. I hope THE LIFE AND (MEDIEVAL) TIMES OF KIT SWEETLY contributes in some small way to removing this stigma, and I hope it finds a kid who is as poor as Kit is (or I was) and helps them feel better about their own life, their circumstances, and their prospects for the future.

Meet Jamie Pacton

Photo credit: Greg Pacton

Jamie Pacton is a Young Adult and Middle Grade author who grew up minutes away from the National Storytelling Center in the mountains of East Tennessee. She has a BA and MA in English Literature, and currently teaches English at the college level. While pursuing her dream of being an author, she worked as a waitress, pen salesperson, lab assistant, art museum guard, bookseller, pool attendant, nanny, and lots of other weird jobs in between. Her writing has appeared in national and local magazines, and she spent many years blogging for Parents.com. Currently, Jamie lives in Wisconsin with her family and a dog named Lego. The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit Sweetly is her debut novel. Find Jamie online at www.jamiepacton.com and on Instagram and Twitter @JamiePacton.

About The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit Sweetly

Moxie meets A Knight’s Tale as Kit Sweetly slays sexism, bad bosses, and bad luck to become a knight at a medieval-themed restaurant.

Working as a Wench—i.e. waitress—at a cheesy medieval-themed restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, Kit Sweetly dreams of being a Knight like her brother. She has the moves, is capable on a horse, and desperately needs the raise that comes with knighthood, so she can help her mom pay the mortgage and hold a spot at her dream college.

Company policy allows only guys to be Knights. So when Kit takes her brother’s place, clobbers the Green Knight, and reveals her identity at the end of the show, she rockets into internet fame and a whole lot of trouble with the management. But this Girl Knight won’t go down without a fight. As other Wenches and cast members join her quest, a protest forms. In a joust before Castle executives, they’ll prove that gender restrictions should stay medieval—if they don’t get fired first.

ISBN-13: 9781624149528
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 05/05/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss

Publisher’s description

fly awayLuke and Toby have always had each other’s backs. But then one choice—or maybe it is a series of choices—sets them down an irrevocable path. We’ll Fly Away weaves together Luke and Toby’s senior year of high school with letters Luke writes to Toby later—from death row.

This thought-provoking novel is an exploration of friendship, regret, and redemption, for fans of Jason Reynolds and Marieke Nijkamp.

Best friends since childhood, Luke and Toby have dreamed of one thing: getting out of their dead-end town. Soon they finally will, riding the tails of Luke’s wrestling scholarship, never looking back. If they don’t drift apart first. If Toby’s abusive dad, or Luke’s unreliable mom, or anything else their complicated lives throw at them doesn’t get in the way.

In a format that alternates between Luke’s letters to Toby from death row and the events of their senior year, Bryan Bliss expertly unfolds the circumstances that led to Luke’s incarceration. Tense and emotional, this hard-hitting novel explores family abuse, sex, love, and friendship, and how far people will go to protect those they love. For fans of Jason Reynolds, Chris Crutcher, and NPR’s Serial podcast.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I loved NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES and MEET ME HERE, the two previous novels from Bryan Bliss, so I figured I’d enjoy this. Though, really, enjoy is the wrong word to use for reading about impoverished, neglected, abused teens, one of whom is on death row. My point is, I knew I’d like the book. But I wasn’t prepared to be totally blown away and just gutted by this story. I’m a reading machine—as soon as I finish something, I pick up something new right away, hardly pausing for a breath in between. After finishing WE’LL FLY AWAY, I didn’t read anything else for a few days, just wanting the story and the characters to stick with me a while longer. This powerful look at loyalty, protection, friendship, and choices will shatter you. Be ready.

 

The story toggles between the letters that Luke is writing to Toby from death row and the time prior to his incarceration. We don’t know why Luke is on death row, other than he did something that he admitted to and doesn’t regret. We only learn at the very end how he landed there. Though I suspected what was going to happen, what would land him there, it was still absolutely devastating when the reveal of what happened came. But that all happens near the end. For the bulk of the book, we see Luke and Toby struggling through their day-to-day lives. Luke lives with his mom and twin younger brothers in a one-bedroom apartment. There’s never enough to eat and Luke does most of the caring for his brothers. When his mom eventually disappears for a few days, it hardly matters, because she wasn’t doing a whole lot to help out while there. Toby lives with his violent, drunk, abusive father. Toby is used to seeking safety and space to recover with Luke. What little Luke has, he’s happy to share with Toby.  He has always been Toby’s defender and protector. The two have hopes of leaving their small North Carolina town after graduation. Luke has a wrestling scholarship waiting for him in Iowa and Toby figures he’ll tag along. They haven’t exactly worked out details, but having some idea of life after this place helps them both cope with their realities. Things begin to unravel when Toby gets involved with Lily, a young woman he meets at the bar his dad frequents. Their meeting sets in motion terrible events that almost feel inevitable. As I read, as I watched events unfold, I kept thinking, “NO, NO, NO, NO,” even though I knew something terrible had to happen to get Luke on death row. It all feels so hopeless.

 

In Luke’s letters from death row, we see weird glimpses of hope that we could never see in the main narrative. I say “weird” because the kid is on death row. His letters are full of pain and anger, but also resiliency, and he works through so much in his letters to Toby. His letters give us a real insight into his mind during this time. It is, I would guess, virtually impossible for almost all of us to really imagine what it would be like to be on death row. To be waiting. To watch people you have come to know put to death. I think it can be easy for people to look at people in prison, on death row, and forget their humanity. It can be easy to write people off, to expect a punishment, to not see them as humans, to not understand what led them there, to not think about redemption or the worth of a life or what the death penalty really means. Bliss makes you think about all those things. He makes the reader understand that people are not just defined by one thing, but have entire lives and stories that led them to the act or acts that landed them in prison. He asks readers to see their complex lives and care about them. The standout characters, including the nun who routinely visits Luke in prison, are deeply affecting and beg readers to really pay attention to their lives and their choices. Though devastatingly sad, this is also a beautiful look at friendship between two boys—something we don’t always see much of in YA. This emotional, powerful, and unflinching look at friendship, loyalty, and the justice system is an absolute must for all collections. Not an easy read, but an important one. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the author

ISBN-13: 9780062494276
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/08/2018

Book Review: Being Fishkill by Ruth Lehrer

beingfishkillThis book will rip your heart right out of your chest. Several times. Literally.

Publisher’s Book Description:

Fishkill Carmel fends for herself, with her fists if need be — until a thwarted lunch theft introduces her to strange, sunny Duck-Duck and a chance for a new start.

Born in the backseat of a moving car, Carmel Fishkill was unceremoniously pushed into a world that refuses to offer her security, stability, love. At age thirteen, she begins to fight back. Carmel Fishkill becomes Fishkill Carmel, who deflects her tormentors with a strong left hook and conceals her secrets from teachers and social workers. But Fishkill’s fierce defenses falter when she meets eccentric optimist Duck-Duck Farina, and soon they, along with Duck-Duck’s mother, Molly, form a tentative family, even as Fishkill struggles to understand her place in it. This fragile new beginning is threatened by the reappearance of Fishkill’s unstable mother — and by unfathomable tragedy. Poet Ruth Lehrer’s young adult debut is a stunning, revalatory look at what defines and sustains “family.” And, just as it does for Fishkill, meeting Duck-Duck Farina and her mother will leave readers forever changed.

Karen’s Thoughts:

This book was sent to me by Amber Keyser who contacted me and said, “I read the most spot on book about poverty and I think you need to read it.” And she is not wrong, the depiction of poverty in this book is so accurate and is just one of the ways in which this book will rip your heart right out of your chest. Fishkill Carmel lives in abject poverty: she steals food to survive, hordes food for the lean times that will be coming – and they are always coming back, and fights over SNAP cards. This isn’t the we only have $150 in the bank until payday poverty that many people live with (which is real and also horrific), this is the scraping change out of the couch cushions to try and keep the lights on during the cold winter nights poverty. This is hunger pains and naive social workers and empty fridges and clothes and shoes that don’t fit because you HAVE to make do with what you can find at the thrift store poverty that society likes to turn its back to. It’s real and raw and difficult to read, especially if you have been there, but it’s oh so important.

So after barely surviving for most of her life, Fishkill meets Duck-Duck Farina, who has a mom and a pretty pink bedroom and three square meals a day who decides to be Fishkill’s friend. Well, technically she decides to admit Fishill into her “gang”. Duck-Duck is an intelligent young girl who watches way too much procedural TV and wants to be a lawyer when she grows up. Her constant lawyer talk is amusing. Duck-Duck and her mother take Fishill in, both figuratively and later literally when things get complicated.

At the end of the day, this is a book about friendship, and it’s quite a moving one. I loved these girls and their journey, though at times it is truly difficult to read because life is life and no one is spared hardship, least of all Fishkill. Seriously, heart ripped right out. Multiple times. Because that is what life is like for people like Fishkill, glimmers of hope amidst an agonizing parade of hardship, but only if you haven’t built your walls up so thick that you can’t even see the possibility of hope in the future.

This book will move readers. You will sit with it, in both tears of agony and joy. Your heart will swell, get ripped out, swell, repeat. I highly recommend it. Publishes November 14th 2017 by Candlewick Press

TLT: Teens and Poverty in YA Lit

Book Review: The Closest I’ve Come by Fred Aceves

Publisher’s description

ra6The Closest I’ve Come is a must-read from talented first-time author Fred Aceves, in the tradition of Walter Dean Myers.

Marcos Rivas yearns for love, a working cell phone, and maybe a pair of sneakers that aren’t falling apart. But more than anything, Marcos wants to get out of Maesta, his hood, away from his indifferent mom and her abusive boyfriend—which seems impossible.

When Marcos is placed in a new after-school program, he meets Zach and Amy, whose friendship inspires Marcos to open up to his Maesta crew, too, and starts to think more about his future and what he has to fight for. Marcos ultimately learns that bravery isn’t about acting tough and being macho; it’s about being true to yourself.

The Closest I’ve Come is a story about traversing real and imagined boundaries, about discovering new things in the world, and about discovering yourself, too.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

closestThis was phenomenal. Why was I not seeing any buzz about this book before reading it? Well, let’s work to fix that. This book is great. It’s unusual. It’s immensely readable. Your library needs it. Buzz, buzz–go order it!

 

It’s sophomore year and Marcos Rivas is sad, lonely, and frustrated. Sure, he has his group of guys to hang out with, but while they’re tight, Marcos feels like he can’t really share his feelings or complicated thoughts with them. Boys aren’t supposed to talk to each other like that, right? But he wants to. He’s poor, doesn’t have enough t-shirts for each day of the week, longs for money for new shoes, and is pretty sure the reason he’s never had a girlfriend is at least partially because he’s broke. He’d like to have a girlfriend—he’d like the companionship, to be able to really talk to someone. To his surprise, he falls for blue-haired Misfits-shirt-wearing punk girl Amy. Musically, they might not have much in common (she listens to some hip-hop and rap, Marcos listens to the Smiths, so there is some overlap), but their home lives and backgrounds give them more in common than they could have guessed. Amy’s outspoken and confrontational. Marcos would just rather walk away than fight. Together, they begin to share more about their lives after they wind up in the same Future Success class. For the first time, Marcos begins to understand that adults can have his back and believe in him. His cold mother and her abusive boyfriend mean Marcos’s home life is hellish. The thought that someone could see the potential in him, could call him intelligent and encourage him to think about life beyond daily survival in his neighborhood of “luxury projects” is revolutionary. But just being pegged as someone not living up to his potential isn’t enough to fix his life. He’s still lonely. He’s still called slurs by Brian, his mom’s scumbag boyfriend, and regularly beaten up by him. He’s still worried about how poor he is, the bad choice his best friend is making, and where he’ll get enough money for a haircut. It’s all well and good to be in a class focused on the future, but for Marcos and his friends, what about right now? Their worries are much more immediate and concrete, and no amount of learning how to study better or any of the other things the class is teaching will help them out in the present. Not in the ways they need help. But through his new friendships with Amy and Zach (also from the Future Success class), a brave move at home, the encouragement of his teachers, and his own fortitude, Marcos begins to see that the future may be brighter than he’d thought, and that maybe the present will be okay, too—not ideal, but okay.

 

Marcos is so achingly honest and vulnerable. He longs for connections—real, meaningful connections, where he can truly talk about his life. His loneliness is palpable. He makes mistakes but owns up to them and learns from them. Despite having every reason in the world not to, he allows himself to be real and open, tentatively at first, seeking so hard to find understanding and compassion, and to offer it to others. He’s loyal, smart, and brave enough to move beyond the expectations for him. It takes guts to make new friends, to be authentic (all while still trying to figure out just who you are), to try new things. It takes guts to go home day after day only to be greeted by abuse and neglect and indifference. It takes guts to tell your friend he’s making the wrong choice, to tell a girl you might be in love with her, to tell the police what’s been happening at home. Though the story is filled with violence and sadness, it is ultimately a hopeful story. Aceves shows how terribly painful life can be, but also how beautiful it can become through friendships, support, growth, and hope. A powerful look into the life of one kid trying to answer the question of “who am I?” in the midst of both bleak circumstances and increasingly deep friendships. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062488534
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/07/2017

Sunday Reflections: “These Kids Lead Dark Lives”, the Summer The Teen Learned about Privilege

tltbutton5

This summer The Teen has been spending a lot of time with me in the Teen MakerSpace, and it has been an enlightening experience for her.

Let me tell you some of what these teens have talked to her about:

One of our regular teens has an incarcerated father.

Two of our teens have fathers who have recently tried to kill their mothers, one of them in front of the teen.

One of our teens called 911 as her mother ODed on the front lawn.

Another teen has recently moved as she has been placed in a new foster home.

Many of our teens talk openly about the challenges of being poor and their struggles with their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Many of our teens have moved and moved again as they are in financially unstable homes so they move in and out of homes with relatives or have to find new apartments because the rent goes up.

rileyintms

The truth is, the community that I work in is much different then the community that we live in. And although our family definitely has our challenges, we also have a lot of privilege and The Teen is coming to understand this. At the base line she has married parents who love each other and her. Right out of the gate she has a stability that many of the teens that I serve don’t have.

And as a feminist raising a feminist teenage daughter, she is aware of the challenges of growing up female in this world. But she is growing up white, middle class female which still has its own privilege. To make matters easier for her, she meets conventional beauty standards. Make no mistake, she personally and our family has our own personal challenges, including financial difficulties, a lack of healthy extended family, chronic illness, and more. But she is really gaining an understanding of what privilege is this summer.

So one night a few weeks ago I was tucking her into bed – yes she is a teenager and I tuck her in to bed every night and I will continue to do so until she asks me to stop or moves out of my home – and as I was turning off the light and shutting the door she asked me to come back and talk to her. This, by the way, is the very reason I still tuck her in, this is when our best conversations happen. She looked at me and said, “Mom, some of the kids you work with have really dark lives.” “I know,” I said, “That’s why I do what I do. I learned many years ago that the best service I could give to teenagers is to be a librarian, a mentor, and give them a safe place to come and read stories and get an education and find the tools they needed to make their lives better.”

The Teen making a T-shirt bag in the Teen MakerSpace

The Teen making a T-shirt bag in the Teen MakerSpace

I work in a state different then the state that I live in. I leave my children every few weeks to come and spend time with these other children. It’s a delicate balance of schedules and needs and emotions. I have a great staff that helps me serve these teens and we work hard to create the space and services that we provide. But I think this summer has better helped The Teen understand why I do what I do. These teens have dark lives and I have the honor and privilege of trying to be a light in it. It’s a responsibility that I do not take lightly.

Sunday Reflections: Empty Bellies, Starving Hearts – What happens when teens see compassion die

sundayreflections1A teen looks up from a project she is working on and realizes that she has been working too long, she has missed it. She comes to our Teen MakerSpace every day after school and stays until closing. But she leaves every night around 6:00 PM to go to the local dinner. You see poverty is so high in our town that a different church hosts a community dinner every week night – and she realizes that she has just missed it.

I have some candy in my office so I give it to her. I’ve also given teens the remains of my pizza, cookies, and whatever else I can scrounge up in from my office. Today I’m coming up empty. Later today I will, in fact, go use my bank card to try and buy something and it will be declined. It turns out I only have $5.00 in my bank account until payday. Thankfully, payday is tomorrow.

This teen, however, has no payday. She is a teenager, but just barely.

Another barely a teen teen delivers newspapers to help make sure her family eats. The library staff bought her a hat and gloves as we watched her deliver newspapers in the falling snow and in subzero temperatures. We remind her to wear her coat. If she gets done with her route early enough, she’ll stop into the Teen MakerSpace to make something, stashing her newspaper pouch under a table while she pretends for a moment that the weight of the world doesn’t rest on her shoulder and she’s just hanging out and making stuff.

Recently a young teen boy expressed his rage about poverty. Not that he lives in poverty, that is common place around here. But he knows what people think of him for being poor, he reads the news. And as I asked him to be compassionate about a girl at school who was a cutter, he startled me as he began to rage against the idea of compassion. “Why,” he asked as he stood and began pointing, “should he show compassion to others when the world showed him no compassion.”

This moment was startling to me. Not because I thought the world showed him compassion, I know that we don’t, but because this teen not only knew it and it was effecting the way he thought about having compassion for others. It was here that the ripple effect was clearly made known to me. His rage was palpable and clear, because no one was showing him compassion he did not feel the need to show compassion to others.

It is Easter morning and I have just brought my children home from church. We made dinner and sat around the table. We searched for eggs full of chocolate. We played games. Thankfully, my check when in on Friday. I was able to go out on Saturday and get a little bit of candy and a decent dinner for my kids. We live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to make ends meet, but I know that the lives of my biological kids – the ones I gave birth to – are different then the lives of my library teens.

During this past election there was a lot of talk about rural poverty and how it influenced the election. I drove every day past Trump signs in yards of falling down houses where I knew teens that would later go to the community dinner lived. Free lunch, financial aid, healthcare, these are just a few of the things that effect their daily lives that many people just voted against.

Tomorrow the library will open and we will once again see our teens. Teens coming in for books and movies. Teens coming in to user the Wifi or Internet because they don’t have access at home. Teens who come daily into our Teen MakerSpace for a safe space where they can learn, grown, and be social with their peers. Teens who parents come to the library to apply for jobs or file their taxes or to check their kid’s school grades. If the president defunds the IMLS as he has proposed in his upcoming budget, these families struggling to survive will be hurt once again.

As I write this post my youngest is pouring a box of Nerds into her mouth and watching Project Mc2 on a Netflix account that someone else generously pays for. Her belly is full, her mind is engaged, her heart is full of love.

But I know that for many kids across our country, their Easter looks nothing like this. Nothing. Those are my teens. Their bellies are growling, their hearts are screaming out for love, and we are failing them. Every time we speak in anger or judgment against those living in poverty, we are twisting the knife in their heart deeper and deeper. If we plunge it too far, they may never recover.

Because I am a Christian, I pray. And I pray this Easter is that we will prove that young man wrong and rediscover our compassion for the poor. And maybe, just maybe, we will start a chain reaction of compassion that will change his heart, and all of our futures.

Rural Poverty and THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES by Mindy McGinnis

Sometimes, it is indeed a small world after all. Shortly after moving to Texas, I learned that author Mindy McGinnis lived just 10 minutes from the very library I had spent the last 10 years working at in the state of Ohio. This town was my home, the place where my children were born. It was also, at the time, the county with the highest poverty rate in all of Ohio. So while there were many aspects about Mindy McGinnis’ THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES that stood out to me, one that stood out most vividly is the depiction of rural poverty. THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES is set in a small, Midwestern town that is ravished by poverty and in my mind’s eye I could picture the very places around this small town that I thought Mindy might be talking about. And while all poverty is bad, each type of poverty has its unique challenges. For example, one of the greatest challenges in rural poverty is transportation. Rural communities are often spread out and don’t have public transportation systems, which makes things like going to a grocery story or doctor’s appointment quite challenging. There are usually fewer options in rural communities, and less options means less competition and less price choices.

Although I currently live in Texas, I work in a public library in another rural Ohio community that is also fighting high poverty. Many of my patrons don’t have the money to buy current technology, and even if they did have the money the truth is, there are still parts of my community that have no providers offering wireless or DSL Internet. Like many other places experiences high rural poverty rates, drug use and drug related deaths are reaching epidemic proportions. So as I mentioned, THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES resonated with me in ways that I can not even begin to describe.

Today, I am honored to host author Mindy McGinni who talks about rural poverty and the part it plays in her newest release, THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES.

thefemaleofthespecies

The Female of the Species addresses many issues within its pages; rape culture and vigilante justice being the most prevalent. A quieter issue raises it’s head though, one that is easy to overlook, shadowed as it is by the more controversial topics.

Rural poverty.poverty2Much of the time poverty is associated with urban life and that is certainly a truth that cannot go ignored. However, there is another face to poverty, one that looks picturesque. Farms with collapsed barns. Homes where no one lives anymore.

I was born and raised in a rurally impoverished area and now I live and work in one. For fourteen years I have been employed as a library aide at a local school where nearly forty percent of our student body receive free and reduced lunch.

During deer hunting season our attendance list shows double digits of our students are excused for the day to participate… and in most cases it’s not a leisure activity for them. They’re putting much-needed food on the family table.

Food pantry lines are long, faces are pinched, and during the summer months many of our students go without lunch because they depended on the school to provide it. Because it is a sprawling, rural community, people who have to weigh the cost of gas for the drive to the pantry against the food they will get there.

None of the characters in my book suffer the indignity of hunger, because I feel it’s an issue that deserves more space than there was room for within this particular story. But hunger breeds a specific type of desperation that calls for an escape, and this can open the door to darker things.

poverty1

Upper and middle classes know the need for a vacation. We all feel the cycle of our daily lives triggering stress, causing irritation and anger, and even pushing us towards exhaustion. So we take a “mental health day,” call off work for little or no reason, or we cash in those vacation days and just “get away from it all.”

We have that luxury.

Many of the jobs available to the working poor pay by the hour, and to take a day off means to take a pay cut – one that the budget doesn’t allow for. Vacation time may be possible, but the idea of affording to actually leave is laughable. Escapes from reality are sometimes sought not in a getaway, but in drug use.

There is a major heroin epidemic in my area. We have lost students in my small school district to it. One Twitter user already thanked me for mentioning the epidemic in The Female of the Species, saying that she hopes it may draw more attention to the issue. If it doesn’t, this should; last weekend alone multiple people OD’d, two of them in a mini-van with a four year old.

It’s easy to point fingers, lay blame, criticize and judge. What kind of people do this?

The desperate. The addicted. The hopeless.

Such descriptions aren’t solely the realm of the poor, but there are correlations that can’t be denied.

On my worst days – and we all have bad ones, no matter who we are – I can get upset, feel like giving up or just ducking out of reality for awhile. Stress is present in all our lives, no matter our socioeconomic standing.

But on these days I remind myself that I have food. I have clothes. I have a working car that I can drive to my next school visit, library appearance, or book club talk. I can fill the gas tank and go to work without having to worry about paying for that stop.

The small luxuries of our lives are something that most of us take for granted until they are taken away from us – a cracked phone that doesn’t work, the car being in this shop for a few days, the heat and electric always being on.

When you do have one of those days, think about those who can’t afford a phone at all, and are literally holding their cars together with duct tape. In the past I’ve had students that heat their home with the kitchen stove, and the children sleep with the pets to share body heat.

Spare a thought for them on your bad days, and if you can spare more than that, please do.

Publisher’s Book Description

Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. When her older sister, Anna, was murdered three years ago and the killer walked free, Alex uncaged the language she knows best. The language of violence.

While her crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can’t be trusted among other people, even in her small hometown. She relegates herself to the shadows, a girl who goes unseen in plain sight, unremarkable in the high school hallways.

But Jack Fisher sees her. He’s the guy all other guys want to be: the star athlete gunning for valedictorian with the prom queen on his arm. Guilt over the role he played the night Anna’s body was discovered hasn’t let him forget Alex over the years, and now her green eyes amid a constellation of freckles have his attention. He doesn’t want to only see Alex Craft; he wants to know her.

So does Peekay, the preacher’s kid, a girl whose identity is entangled with her dad’s job, though that does not stop her from knowing the taste of beer or missing the touch of her ex-boyfriend. When Peekay and Alex start working together at the animal shelter, a friendship forms and Alex’s protective nature extends to more than just the dogs and cats they care for.

Circumstances bring Alex, Jack, and Peekay together as their senior year unfolds. While partying one night, Alex’s darker nature breaks out, setting the teens on a collision course that will change their lives forever. (Katherine Tegen Books, September 2016)

More on Rural Poverty and America’s Rural Drug Crisis

Understanding the Epidemic | Drug Overdose | CDC Injury Center

Opioid Addiction 2016 Facts & Figures

About the Epidemic | HHS.gov

5 Charts That Show How Bad America’s Drug Problem Is | TIME

Rural Poverty Portal: Home

Why the Left Isn’t Talking About Rural American Poverty – Rural America

Child Poverty Higher and More Persistent in Rural America

Who’s Afraid of Rural Poverty? The Story Behind America’s Invisible

Hunger and Poverty

Additional Sources:

Social Mobility:

Cycles of Poverty:

How Poverty Affects Schools:

Karen’s Thoughts on THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES: Highly Recommended

femaleofthespecies femaleofthespecies2 femaleofthespecies3 femaleofthespecies4More From Mindy McGinnis

THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES 9.20.16 HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books
GIVEN TO THE SEA 4.11.17 Putnam Children’s Books
Available Now:

Book Review: Run by Kody Keplinger

Publisher’s description

RUNBo Dickinson is a girl with a wild reputation, a deadbeat dad, and a mama who’s not exactly sober most of the time. Everyone in town knows the Dickinsons are a bad lot, but Bo doesn’t care what anyone thinks.

Agnes Atwood has never gone on a date, never even stayed out past ten, and never broken any of her parents’ overbearing rules. Rules that are meant to protect their legally blind daughter — protect her from what, Agnes isn’t quite sure.

Despite everything, Bo and Agnes become best friends. And it’s the sort of friendship that runs truer and deeper than anything else.

So when Bo shows up in the middle of the night, with police sirens wailing in the distance, desperate to get out of town, Agnes doesn’t hesitate to take off with her. But running away and not getting caught will require stealing a car, tracking down Bo’s dad, staying ahead of the authorities, and-worst of all-confronting some ugly secrets.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Well, this was fantastic. The narrative voices, the vivid setting, the story, the writing… all fantastic. The girls take turns narrating the two timelines of the story, with Bo narrating the present and Agnes narrating the backstory. This is a great friendship story about opposites attracting. Bisexual Bo has a bad reputation—she comes from a “bad” family and her peers label her a slut and spread infinite rumors about her. Legally blind Agnes is a good girl, a “poor sweet blind girl” who’s never been given the chance to be “bad.” Or the chance to do anything. Both girls are in desperate need of a real friend. Despite their differences, they grow close, forming a tight bond based on respect, support, kindness, and true friendship. We see their friendship grow through Agnes’s narration. Meanwhile, in Bo’s timeline, we know the girls are on the run, but we don’t know why. It appears that they are headed to make a new start somewhere… that is, if the police don’t catch them first.

 

Also, and probably obviously, this book is noteworthy because it features a blind main character. Agnes uses a cane, talks repeatedly about using enlarged print or braille and other school accommodations, and has lived her whole life with people treating her like she’s some kind of special angel because she’s blind. Agnes longs to be given more freedom. Bo knows Agnes doesn’t need her help to do lots of basic stuff, but is always there for her if she does need assistance. Agnes’s relationship with her parents and her expectations for her future are both heavily shaped by her disability. We learn a lot about what being blind means for Agnes on a day-to-day basis but also what it means for her in a larger sense.

 

One of the main problems with alternate narration is that it’s often so hard to tell the characters apart. Keplinger does a great job of making Bo and Agnes sound very different both in the things they say and how they say them. We can tell early on that Bo isn’t as tough as she seems and Agnes isn’t as meek as people believe her to be.  This is an easy recommendation for anyone who likes a road trip book, an adventure, a Thelma and Louise-type story, a friendship story, or an opposites attract story. Highly recommended. 

 

 ISBN-13: 9780545831130

Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.

Publication date: 06/28/2016

Book Review: Anything You Want by Geoff Herbach

Publisher’s description

anything herbachTaco’s mom always said, “Today is the best day of your life, and tomorrow will be even better.” That was hard to believe the day she died of cancer and when Taco’s dad had to move up north for work, but he sure did believe it when Maggie Corrigan agreed to go with him to junior prom. Taco loves Maggie-even more than the tacos that earned him his nickname. And she loves him right back.

Except, all that love? It gets Maggie pregnant. Everyone else may be freaking out, but Taco can’t wait to have a real family again. He just has to figure out what it means to be dad and how to pass calculus. And then there’s getting Maggie’s parents to like him. Because it’s would be so much easier for them to be together if he didn’t have to climb the side of the Corrigan’s house to see her…

 

Amanda’s thoughts

In my notes, I wrote “Taco = a talking dog.” He’s not, of course; he’s a human boy. But his voice is like the voice I would expect to come out of my dog. Everything is exciting! I’m so enthusiastic! It will be fine! I really like you! I’m not very bright, but people like me! I’m the type of human who likes my characters (and my IRL people) clever, sarcastic, and kinda cranky. Taco is not My People. That said, once I started to get used to his overwhelmingly optimistic personality, he grew on me. Apparently that’s what he does, as he seems rather universally adored in his small town by basically everyone except his girlfriend’s parents.

 

The little blurb up there simplifies what’s going on in Taco’s life. I mean, it mentions the pregnancy, which is anything but simple, but that’s just one of many things going on with Taco. Maggie gets pregnant because they have sex—a lot—and apparently it literally never even occurs to either of them to use any kind of protection. Even though they are 16. And allegedly smart. It’s not just that they don’t use a condom or anything—that’s not exactly unrealistic or super surprising—it’s that they aren’t “serious” about the sex, they don’t “mean it”—that is to say, it’s not like they’re having sex trying to have a baby. Hence they can’t get pregnant? Um, okay. Well, Maggie does get pregnant. They want to keep the baby. They want to move in together and get married and raise this little baby and everything will be fine. Except they’re 16. And Taco lives with his drunk of a brother because his grieving loser of a father took off and his mother is dead. And Taco and Darius, his brother, have no money. And, oops, Taco gets into some legal trouble. He’s working for a lawyer to pay back his debt, going to school, trying to stay in the school musical, working twenty hours a week, and drowning. DROWNING. There’s no food at home, his brother gets carted off to jail, and Maggie’s parents are determined to either split them up, make her get an abortion, or get Taco to waive any parental rights and put the baby up for adoption. That all sucks, and Taco understands it sucks. He clings hard to his mother’s claim that today is the best day of his life and that tomorrow will be even better. It’s hard to subscribe to that attitude when everything is absolutely falling apart around him. He gets support from unexpected places and has plenty of understanding people in his corner, but things have to get really dire before that “tomorrow will be even better” garbage starts to seem like it just might hold true. 

 

I’ve read all of Geoff Herbach’s books and find them hilarious. As a reader, I’m an easy cry. I am not an easy laugh. Herbach’s books consistently make me laugh out loud. I may have wanted to scream at Taco (something along the lines of, “WAKE UP, KID! THINGS ARE TERRIBLE! PLEASE BECOME AT LEAST A LITTLE BITTER OR NEGATIVE! I CAN’T HANDLE YOUR OPTIMISM!”), but I was completely on board with his think-before-doing antics and all of the disasters they resulted in. He has a big personality and a big heart, and even though some of his choices make me think he has a small brain, he’s just a kid doing the best he can, wanting to believe that this day—this frequently disastrous and upsetting day—is the best. When it comes down to it, Taco is just a neglected kid with very few resources trying to figure out how to make hard decisions about his life and the people he loves. Herbach manages to write humorously about a lot of really crappy and serious stuff, meaning this book has the potential to find a wide audience. 

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781402291449

Publisher: Sourcebooks

Publication date: 05/03/2016