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Book Review: Thoughts & Prayers by Bryan Bliss

Thoughts & Prayers: A Novel in Three Parts

Publisher’s description

Fight. Flight. Freeze. What do you do when you can’t move on, even though the rest of the world seems to have? 

For readers of Jason Reynolds, Marieke Nijkamp, and Laurie Halse Anderson. Powerful and tense, Thoughts & Prayers is an extraordinary novel that explores what it means to heal and to feel safe in a world that constantly chooses violence.

Claire, Eleanor, and Brezzen have little in common. 

Claire fled to Minnesota with her older brother, Eleanor is the face of a social movement, and Brezzen retreated into the fantasy world of Wizards & Warriors.

But a year ago, they were linked. They all hid under the same staircase and heard the shots that took the lives of some of their classmates and a teacher. Now, each one copes with the trauma as best as they can, even as the world around them keeps moving.

Told in three loosely connected but inextricably intertwined stories, National Book Award–longlisted author Bryan Bliss’s Thoughts & Prayers follows three high school students in the aftermath of a school shooting. Thoughts & Prayers is a story about gun violence, but more importantly it is the story of what happens after the reporters leave and the news cycle moves on to the next tragedy. It is the story of three unforgettable teens who feel forgotten.

Amanda’s thoughts

I finished this book feeling both so, so angry and so, so hopeful. Angry because of the state of things and hopeful because of the awe-inspiring resiliency of humans. Angry that school shootings happen and hopeful that expanded conversations and movements regarding gun violence may one day lead us to a better, safer place. Angry as I think back to every library I’ve worked at, whether school or public, and had moments of fear, had lockdown drills, had spots picked out where I would hide, where I would shove kids. I finished the book angry at some characters, hopeful because of others, and really just profoundly sad that this fictional story is the true story of so many schools, so many communities, so many children.

Told in three parts, we meet Claire, Eleanor, and Brezzen. All three survived the school shooting together and now are in very different places in their lives. Claire moved from NC to MN, where she lives with her brother and seems to hope to skateboard her troubles away. It’s at the skate park that she meets God, Leg, and Dark, three boys who quickly adopt her as their friend. But Claire is wary of everything these days. She worries about monsters lurking around every corner, worries who she can trust, and worries that pretending to be fine is maybe not working out so great. Her new friendships are tested when she discovers deeply disturbing notebooks full of horrific art and now has to worry that she could be missing the signs or the chance to speak up and prevent something like a shooting from happening again.

Eleanor is still in NC and has become “the face of a new generation of teenagers who would save the world” after she began wearing a shirt that says fuck guns. This third of the story was probably the hardest for me—to see her peers and her community ridicule and harass her even though they too lived through this awful event. My politics are hardly a secret and while I can certainly understand that plenty of people can have something involving gun violence hit so close to home and yet not see guns as a problem (I mean—I can’t understand that, but I do understand this is how some people feel), it is gutting to see the fallout for Eleanor, who has very reasonably taken the stand that our country’s relationship with guns is a problem. Her story is very much about people trying to make her face the consequences of her “choice.” You know, her choice to be outraged, horrified, broken, loud, and hurt.

Meanwhile, Brezzen, the third student we meet, has been out of school for the past year. Going back has been just too scary. He has undergone extensive therapy, and when he does return to school, he can only face it if he approaches the whole ordeal like something from Wizards and Warriors, his favorite role-playing game. He makes maps, rolls his d20, and is always on the lookout for traps and monsters. He doesn’t know if he can actually handle being back at school.

These are teenagers in pain. We watch them remember to breathe, pretend to be fine, try to feel “normal,” and fall apart. Their stories are filled with pain, fear, rage, and grief. But no one is any one thing, no matter what our trauma or seemingly defining moment may be. The characters change, grow, and heal. They need help and they get help. They are not okay, and readers see that that’s okay. They have supportive teachers, parents, and friends. There is talk of therapy and trauma-informed practices. The characters show what is possibly the only true and universal part of grief and trauma: that healing and progress are not linear. In Bliss’s capable hands, we see their stories as intensely personal and individual while also being part of a larger narrative, a shared experience. We see them as broken and scarred but also as brave, fighters, warriors. They are survivors. They are coping. They are made-up characters, but their stories are those of thousands upon thousands of teenagers who live through these school shootings. A deeply empathetic, emotional, and infuriating story full of unforgettable characters (Dr. Palmer, I love you!). This affecting story is not to be missed.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the author

ISBN-13: 9780062962249
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/29/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: Underwater by Marisa Reichardt

Publisher’s description:

underwaterMorgan didn’t mean to do anything wrong that day. Actually, she meant to do something right. But her kind act inadvertently played a role in a deadly tragedy. In order to move on, Morgan must learn to forgive-first someone who did something that might be unforgivable, and then, herself. But Morgan can’t move on. She can’t even move beyond the front door of the apartment she shares with her mother and little brother. Morgan feels like she’s underwater, unable to surface. Unable to see her friends. Unable to go to school. When it seems Morgan can’t hold her breath any longer, a new boy moves in next door. Evan reminds her of the salty ocean air and the rush she used to get from swimming. He might be just what she needs to help her reconnect with the world outside. Underwater is a powerful, hopeful debut novel about redemption, recovery, and finding the strength it takes to face your past and move on.

 

Amanda’s thoughts:

Oof. What an intense read. Morgan has been home, isolated, for months, ever since the shooting at her high school. Her debilitating panic attacks mean she can’t even conceive of being able to cross the threshold of her front door and go out into the world ever again. She does online school, takes comfort in routine and predictability, and is visited twice a week by a psychologist. When Evan Kokua moves in next door, he seems determined to be friends with her. Not only that, he doesn’t really seem fazed by the fact that she’s essentially a shut-in. At first she’s defensive and skittish around him, but their connection is immediate, and cleverness and honesty starts to give peeks of both who she is now and who she was Before.

 

The blurb above, from the publisher, could make it sound like Evan is some sort of savior. But that’s not the case at all. This doesn’t become a story about some boy swooping in and “fixing” a girl. They’re both broken. Maybe everyone is broken. Evan reminds her that she’s not the only one suffering, that everyone is just trying to survive–especially everyone who lived through the school shooting. Morgan’s road to recovery is long. She has intensive therapy. She has emergency pills. She has reminders to breathe, reminders that she’s not dying. She has the support of her mother. She has her own willpower. Her story is a testament to effectiveness of therapy. As the story goes on, we see her slowly (very slowly) change from the scared, isolated girl who can’t leave her house to something sort of like who she used to be. Flashbacks to her past show us how different she is now.

 

It’s through these looks back at her past that we learn more about her father, a now-homeless vet with an alcohol problem. After 5 tours in Afghanistan, he’s not the person he used to be. Morgan, her mom, and little brother rarely hear from him. He’s not getting the help he needs for his PTSD and Morgan is terrified that she might become like him. She doesn’t want to always be looking over her shoulder. She doesn’t want to retreat from her family and from life. And she doesn’t want to feel like a burden.

 

The issues addressed here are LARGE ones. Morgan struggles HARD. But there is a gentle undertone of hope and resilience throughout the story. Morgan’s panic attacks are terrible. What she went through is terrible. What she’s seen her father go through is terrible. The secret she’s hanging onto is making her feel even more terrible. But she has help. She has support. I really loved what Reichardt does with Morgan and Evan’s relationship. He is there to be a friend when she needs one and to get her to start to open up, but he isn’t there to save her. He is kind and understanding, but he’s also frustrated and calls her out on her inability to see that others are hurting too. He never tries to diminish Morgan’s own pain, but he reminds her that she’s not alone. And she’s not.

 

This novel is a powerful look at grief, mental illness, trust, forgiveness, letting go, and moving on. This should make your TBR list because of its strong writing, its examination of PTSD and panic disorders, and its hopeful approach toward therapy and recovery. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780374368869

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Publication date: 01/12/2016

Book Review: Violent Ends

Publisher’s description:

violent ends frontIn a one-of-a-kind collaboration, seventeen of the most recognizable YA writers—including Shaun David Hutchinson, Neal and Brendan Shusterman, and Beth Revis—come together to share the viewpoints of a group of students affected by a school shooting.

It took only twenty-two minutes for Kirby Matheson to exit his car, march onto the school grounds, enter the gymnasium, and open fire, killing six and injuring five others.

But this isn’t a story about the shooting itself. This isn’t about recounting that one unforgettable day.

This is about Kirby and how one boy—who had friends, enjoyed reading, playing saxophone in the band, and had never been in trouble before—became a monster capable of entering his school with a loaded gun and firing on his classmates.

Each chapter is told from a different victim’s viewpoint, giving insight into who Kirby was and who he’d become. Some are sweet, some are dark; some are seemingly unrelated, about fights or first kisses or late-night parties. This is a book of perspectives—with one character and one event drawing them all together—from the minds of some of YA’s most recognizable names.

 

Amanda’s thoughts:

violent ends backFirst of all, let’s get the names of all 17 authors out there so you can start to understand exactly how phenomenal this book is: Steve Brezenoff, Beth Revis, Tom Leveen, Delilah S. Dawson, Margie Gelbwasser, Shaun David Hutchinson, Trish Doller, Christine Johnson, Neal and Brendan Shusterman, Blythe Woolston, E.M. Kokie, Elisa Nader, Mindi Scott, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Kendare Blake, Hannah Moskowitz, and Courtney Summers.

 

You’re sold already, right?

 

We meet Kirby in chapter 1. He’s 12 and witnessing some bullying from other kids in his neighborhood. When we see him again, in chapter 2, he’s now a junior in high school. Before we get too many pages into this story, the big event happens: Kirby Matheson walks into his school and opens fire, kills 5 classmates, kills a teacher, wounds many others, and then turns the gun on himself.

 

The question of “what would push a kid to do something like this?” is asked and answered over and over in the chapters that follow the massacre. The perspectives switch with each chapter and sometimes it takes a little bit to see how this character’s story ties into the larger narrative. We hear from Kirby’s camp friend, Teddy; his friend Zach, who he plays Dungeons and Dragons with; Lauren, the head cheerleader with an eating disorder; Jenny, his onetime girlfriend; Billie, a photographer girl with some secrets; Morgan, who rejected Kirby’s offer to take her to the school dance; Mark, who played a cruel prank on Kirby; the gun Kirby uses; Reba, a girl who ditched the assembly that turned into the massacre; Ray, who used to live in the house Kirby’s family bought; Abby, who appears to have a crush on Kirby; Carah, Kirby’s sister; Ruben, a classmate who falls under suspicion as a possible accomplice; Alice, a stoner who had a crush on one of the kids who gets killed; Laura, Kirby’s old neighbor; and Nate, a classmate with a complicated history with Kirby. It’s an awful lot of perspectives, yes, but it works. It really works. Taken all together, we see not just more pieces of Kirby’s life, but the often dark and always complex lives of everyone involved in the story. In some way or another, they all are involved in Kirby’s story, but they all have rich stories of their own. Their stories include horrible home lives, regret, pressures, confusion, and guilt.

 

In a lot of ways, it seems like any one of them could be pushed to a breaking point—though maybe not one that would play out like Kirby’s. When we ask ourselves how a kid could do something like shoot up his school, it often feels like the real question is how is it that tragedies like this don’t happen even more often. Together, the 17 authors present a riveting and terrifying look at a tragedy, how we get there, how it affects a community, and how we go on after. They take us beyond the facts of the massacre and past the speculation about what could make a teenager turn into a murderer. Haunting and heartbreaking, this powerful book will remind readers—especially teen readers who have huddled in classrooms during lockdown drills or during the real thing—that we rarely know what’s really going on in someone’s life or how close to the breaking point someone might be.

 

Review copy courtesy of Edelweiss and the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781481437455

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication date: 09/01/2015