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Book Review: Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

Publisher’s description

underNorah has agoraphobia and OCD. When groceries are left on the porch, she can’t step out to get them. Struggling to snag the bags with a stick, she meets Luke. He’s sweet and funny, and he just caught her fishing for groceries. Because of course he did.
Norah can’t leave the house, but can she let someone in? As their friendship grows deeper, Norah realizes Luke deserves a normal girl. One who can lie on the front lawn and look up at the stars. One who isn’t so screwed up.
Readers themselves will fall in love with Norah in this poignant, humorous, and deeply engaging portrait of a teen struggling to find the strength to face her demons.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This book was really a mixed bag for me.

 

We really get to see Norah’s various mental illnesses and how they affect her and her life. We get great, intense descriptions of panic attacks and the urge to harm herself and what it can feel like to have agoraphobia. We see how small her world has become—she has hardly left the house in four years. We see her have multiple therapy sessions in various places. We are right there with Norah in her panic and fear and distress. Gornall’s writing, for the most part, is great. The writing is also funny. Though Norah’s a wreck who is often really caught up in fighting against her own brain, she’s also really self-aware and clever. She’s funny and gives good banter.

 

Norah’s mental illnesses are BAD. They are in no way under control. Yes, she’s in therapy, but often it has to be at her house or in her mom’s car because she can’t get as far as the clinic. Just stepping one toe past her front door is terrifying. She’s unmedicated. She’s hoping to keep depression at bay and often gives in to the urge to harm herself. All of this, and her mother leaves her alone while she travels for work. Really? Yes, she’s 17, but she’s NOT OKAY. She should not be alone. And her mom’s two day trip turns into a week or more when she gets in some mysterious car accident that requires multiple days in the hospital and feels completely unrealistic/never satisfactorily explained. All of this is to say, as a person who both battles mental illness and parents another human with mental illness, I wanted her to be taken better care of. Yelling at her mom for leaving her alone took me out of the book. But, seeing her alone is what makes us really understand how bad her panic attacks and agoraphobia are.

 

Then there’s Luke, the new neighbor boy. At first all Norah can really do is spy on him from the windows. Then they start talking through the door (closed and open). It’s pretty much insta-like. Norah is consumed with thinking about him, considering her appearance (after lots of time not really worrying about it). She forgets therapy appointments because her head is so in the clouds. She feels something small and awake inside of her thanks to him. He adorably slips notes through her front door when she can’t handle talking. She describes him as “10 percent human, 90 percent charisma” and she’s right. He feels too good to be true. It’s not that I don’t think there isn’t a chance that a charming and super understanding boy could fall for a girl who can hardly interact with other humans, but Luke just doesn’t feel real. He’s too good. And, while he doesn’t magically or instantly cure her, it very much does feel like Luke, and love, do save her and speed up her progress in ways that other things can’t. The hopeful ending is necessary, but also feels rather unbelievable.

 

So. Like I said, mixed bag. Here’s the thing: minus the “love will fix you” story line and the worrisome fact that I think Norah needs way more care than she’s getting, this is a good book. It’s well-written. It’s amusing. The clever banter between Norah and Luke and Norah and her mother is good. But I am a hard one to please when it comes to mental health plots. I want to see good work being done in multiple ways. And it IS being done here, but I really felt the story needed more. Norah is VERY UNWELL. You can tell, even without reading Gornall’s author’s note about her own mental health experiences, that she knows what she’s writing about. I really wanted to feel like there was more to Norah than just her mental illness. And, most importantly, I want her to get better because of what she’s doing and for her own sake, not because of a boy. I don’t know that any of these issues were a flaw in the story or writing, necessarily, so much as my own desire for more out of Norah, for more concern over her mental health.

 

All of that said, I hope this book finds an audience because of its vivid and powerful descriptions of what living with mental illness can be like. And while I wanted more out of this book than I got, I really did enjoy the writing and look forward to future books from Gornall. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544736511

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 01/03/2017

Book Review: The March Against Fear: The Last Great Walk of the Civil Rights Movement and the Emergence of Black Power by Ann Bausum

Publisher’s description

march-againstJames Meredith’s 1966 march in Mississippi began as one man’s peaceful protest for voter registration and became one of the South’s most important demonstrations of the civil rights movement. It brought together leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael, who formed an unlikely alliance that resulted in the Black Power movement, which ushered in a new era in the fight for equality.

The retelling of Meredith’s story opens on the day of his assassination attempt and goes back in time to recount the moments leading up to that event and its aftermath. Readers learn about the powerful figures and emerging leaders who joined the over 200-mile walk that became known as the “March Against Fear.”

Thoughtfully presented by award-winning author Ann Bausum, this book helps readers understand the complex issues of fear, injustice, and the challenges of change. It is a history lesson that’s as important and relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This powerful book examines one of the greatest civil rights protests and the last great march of that era—a march that is often forgotten, was fraught with complexity, and led to divisions in the civil rights groups and leaders of the time.

 

Bausum begins with the shooting of James Meredith, who was the first African American to earn a degree at Ole Miss, among the first to integrate the Air Force, and felt he had a “divine responsibility” to be a leader for his race. Meredith’s walk across Mississippi was for a simple reason: he was tired of being afraid of white people and he wanted black people to stop being afraid. He felt that if he could walk through his state like this, he might inspire people to be less afraid and get them out to vote. His plan was cut short when he was shot. However, his walk was then taken up by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists and groups. Their focus was on voter registration and civil rights bills. They created a document calling on President Johnson to enforce legal rights of African Americans, provide increased economic opportunities, improve voting access, and have great representation by black people on juries and police forces. Meredith’s Walk Against Fear morphs into the March Against Fear, an undertaking that lasts most of June 1966 and eventually involves thousands of people bringing attention to segregation and the legacy of slavery. It is at this march that Willie Ricks and Stokely Carmichael first use and encourage the phrase “black power,” changing the call and response from “What do you want?” “Freedom!” to “What do you want?” “Black power!” for many in the march. Bausum’s book looks at the role of the news media and of the governments and police forces of the areas during the march as well as the unity and divisions of the civil rights groups during the march and effects after.

 

With plenty of source material, including many pictures from the march, this book is both well-written and well-researched. A large appendix details Bausum’s source material, including personal conversations with Meredith. Civil rights and social justice will always be relevant topics, and contemporary readers will be struck by just how little has been done to really move our country forward and how the topics important to the leaders during the march remain just as significant today. An important look at racism, protest, and the slow move toward progress. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781426326653

Publisher: National Geographic Society

Publication date: 01/03/2017

Book Review: Factory Girl by Josanne La Valley

Publisher’s description

factoryIn order to save her family’s farm, Roshen, sixteen, must leave her rural home to work in a factory in the south of China. There she finds arduous and degrading conditions and contempt for her minority (Uyghur) background. Sustained by her bond with other Uyghur girls, Roshen is resolved to endure all to help her family and ultimately her people. A workplace survival story, this gritty, poignant account focuses on a courageous teen and illuminates the value—and cost—of freedom.

 

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Sixteen-year-old Roshen intends to continue her schooling to become a teacher. Her plans are changed for her when she is sent away to work in a factory in southern China. Roshen is devastated to have to leave her Muslim Uyghur family, who live near the Taklamakan Desert in northwest China. In addition to leaving behind her plans for school and her family, she leaves Ahmat, the boy she shares a special connection with and who it seems likely she will soon be engaged to. Roshen’s family isn’t told exactly where she will be taken, only that she will be gone for a year and is not allowed any devices or contact with her family. She and Ahmat set up a secret email address for her and devise a code, hoping she will be able to find internet stations and at least get a little information back to him. They expect that Roshen will be mistreated at the factory and discuss how she shouldn’t fight back. There may be spies and traitors among the girls, too.

 

Roshen and eleven other Uyghur girls are taken on the long journey to their factory. They’re led by Ushi, who is not only mean, but unfortunately also one of their bosses. They arrive to learn they will cut, sew, and finish work wear. It’s grueling work that’s hard on their bodies. The girls work very long hours, are hit with a rod if appearing unsatisfactory, are forced to speak Mandarin only (and penalized  if they speak Uyghur), aren’t allowed to wear their headscarves, and are often served meals with pork in them. They’re served tea with a drug in it to keep them awake so they can work longer hours. Many of the Chinese girls use clothespins to keep their eyes open. Additionally, the girls don’t even make money for many months as they are forced to pay for their trip from home to the factory, their meals, their uniforms, and the many unfair penalties they are assessed.

 

The twelve Uyghur girls are isolated from the rest of the workers and though they don’t all get along, and Roshen can’t stop wondering is someone is a spy, they bond together to help and protect one another. Roshen becomes a leader and learns how to work the system and avoid punishment as best she can. Roshen’s closest friend, Mikray, is defiant and determined to escape. Young Zuwida is in very poor health and only getting worse. Proud and haughty Hawa is selected to help the bosses by looking beautiful and being available to help placate clients. Eventually, Roshen, who speaks English in addition to Mandarin and Uyghur, is forced to go out with the boss and some clients. She is horrified by what is expected of her and receives some very unexpected (and heartbreaking) help. After returning to the factory, she is determined to allow herself to become gaunt, unwashed, and unappealing to avoid further assignments like this. Her decision has unintended consequences that leave her feeling incredibly guilty but also move her to further action.

 

Throughout all of her time at the factory, Roshen tries to remember the power of words. She clings to the songs and poems she has been taught and formulates her own. Her experience as a factory girl changes her forever. Roshen knows now that she will write, that she will tell the story of the factory girls. Generally well-written, the story’s one real downfall is the lack of development of many of the Uyghur girls, who don’t feel necessary beyond showing they are part of the block of girls isolated and most abused. At the same time, it’s the development of the girls who do carry pieces of the story, and their friendships and support, that make this story especially interesting and powerful. My ARC didn’t include the afterword, which apparently provides more context for the story and how La Valley came to tell it.  This harrowing story of exploitation, abuse, and forced labor is a compelling (and horrifying) look at a story (and a setting) not often seen in YA. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544699472

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 01/10/2017

Book Review: Love and First Sight by Josh Sundquist

Publisher’s description

love-and-firstIn his debut novel, YouTube personality and author of We Should Hang Out Sometime Josh Sundquist explores the nature of love, trust, and romantic attraction.

On his first day at a new school, blind sixteen-year-old Will Porter accidentally groped a girl on the stairs, sat on another student in the cafeteria, and somehow drove a classmate to tears. High school can only go up from here, right?

As Will starts to find his footing, he develops a crush on a charming, quiet girl named Cecily. Then an unprecedented opportunity arises: an experimental surgery that could give Will eyesight for the first time in his life. But learning to see is more difficult than Will ever imagined, and he soon discovers that the sighted world has been keeping secrets. It turns out Cecily doesn’t meet traditional definitions of beauty–in fact, everything he’d heard about her appearance was a lie engineered by their so-called friends to get the two of them together. Does it matter what Cecily looks like? No, not really. But then why does Will feel so betrayed?

Told with humor and breathtaking poignancy, Love and First Sight is a story about how we related to each other and the world around us.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

First things first: I really would like to see some reviews of this book from people who are blind. Because I don’t know just how “right” Sundquist gets the many feelings about and experiences of being blind. That is not to say that that there is any one universal way to feel or one universal experience, obviously. Or that I think Sundquist is getting it “wrong.” After I read/review a book, I look for other reviews, especially when the subject matter is far out of my realm of experience and I’d really like to see reviews by people who share an identity with the main characters in the book. So, own voices reviews. After I wrote up my thoughts on this book, I poked around online and didn’t see any reviews yet that are from people who are fully or partially blind. Hoping once the book officially is out and the ebook and audiobook are out, that will change.

 

Will, 16, has started at a traditional school (or been “mainstreamed”) for the first time in his life, after spending all of his years in school being surrounded by other blind and visually-impaired people. He doesn’t want an aide (nor does he need one); he just wants to be as independent as possible. He doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him or feel that his life is any less full because he is blind. He encounters various attitudes, from his overly “helpful” principal who clearly has no clue how to interact with him and makes sure to point out that he’s “special” and “different,” to his great English and journalism teacher who makes it clear that she will hold him to all of the same expectations as the rest of the class. After a few initial embarrassing moments, Will gets into the swing of things and adjusts well to the change. He makes friends quickly—Nick, Ion, Whitford, and Cecily, all members of the quiz team. He grows particularly close with Cecily, whom he has journalism class with and ends up auditioning for the schools news with. They work on assignments together and hang out and Will is pretty sure he’s falling for Cecily. We get little hints that something may be up with her. We find out she’s been bullied most of her life. What we don’t find out, until later, is that Cecily has a rather large birthmark covering the top half of her face—a purple kind of “mask” that leads her classmates to have called her “Batgirl” for years. No one tells Will about this, though.

 

Will undergoes an experimental operation (retinal stem cell transplant) in the hopes of gaining full eyesight. The surgery is very risky, and not just for the reasons you might think. If successful, Will will have eyesight for the first time in his life. The visual cortex of his brain has developed differently than that of someone with eyesight and the learning curve (and adjustment to the flood of new information) will be steep. Fewer than 20 people have gone from total blindness to sight (an actual statistic, which we see in the author’s extensive note on his research). Will’s dad, a doctor, warns Will against the surgery, worried what it will do to him, mentally, if he can suddenly see. But he goes ahead with the surgery, which is successful. Before long, Will can see that Cecily has a birthmark, but he doesn’t think anything of it, really, other than noting her face looks different from other faces he’s seeing. For Will, who has never seen anything before, he just kind of catalogs her face as unlike others, but doesn’t judge her. He still feels she’s beautiful, which was his impression of her before he could see her. He certainly doesn’t see it as a “disfigurement,” which is his mother’s word. He calls it her beauty mark. But, even though he doesn’t suddenly want nothing to do with Cecily because of how she looks, he does feel completely lied to by Cecily and all of their friends. He feels he can’t trust them now. As he notes, everyone is always anxious to describe every single detail of everything to him. So why did they leave out Cecily’s birthmark?

 

Here’s the obvious discussion about this part of the book: Does the author make it feel like Will the only one who can find Cecily beautiful because he can’t see her (or doesn’t see her until quite late in their relationship)? Or that Will is the only one who can like her because he doesn’t know to think of her birthmark as offputting? Or that Will is the only one who can like her because he can “see beyond” her birthmark? Etc etc. I think Sundquist does a pretty good job of not making this storyline feel cliched, but there’s definitely room for discussion. I did spend a fair amount of time feeling sad that Cecily has such low self-esteem and obviously sees very little value in herself (she doesn’t think she’ll ever have a relationship, she doesn’t like pictures of herself, she worries she’ll hold Will back from winning as news anchor because no one will want her on the TV screen). I also spent a fair amount of time being SUPER irritated at Will’s cheerfully (and naively) optimistic mother, who seems to have ZERO clue about the process of going from being blind to having eyesight. You would think she would have educated herself more (especially given he’s been blind his whole life–she seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of how his brain works and what his frames of reference may or may not include) or listened for two seconds to her doctor-husband who understands, and explains, the very complicated process Will’s brain is now undergoing.

 

Though the writing can be a little heavy-handed at times, overall this is an engaging story that seemed to avoid the pitfalls I worried about just based on reading the flap copy. It’s not often a YA book features a blind main character, and Will’s unique story of going from being blind to having eyesight may make readers consider this idea from a new perspective (if they think, as many do, that a blind person would of course want to be able to see). A humorous and thought-provoking read. 

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780316305358

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Publication date: 01/03/2017

Book Review: The Truth of Right Now by Kara Lee Corthron

Publisher’s description

truthTwo isolated teens struggle against their complicated lives to find a true connection in this heartwrenching debut novel about first love and the wreckage of growing up.

Lily is returning to her privileged Manhattan high school after a harrowing end to her sophomore year and it’s not pretty. She hates chemistry and her spiteful lab partner, her friends are either not speaking to her or suffocating her with concerned glances, and nothing seems to give her joy anymore. Worst of all, she can’t escape her own thoughts about what drove her away from everyone in the first place.

Enter Dari (short for Dariomauritius), the artistic and mysterious transfer student, adept at cutting class. Not that he’d rather be at home with his domineering Trinidadian father. Dari is everything that Lily needs: bright, creative, honest, and unpredictable. And in a school where no one really stands out, Dari finds Lily’s sensitivity and openness magnetic. Their attraction ignites immediately, and for the first time in what feels like forever, Lily and Dari find happiness in each other.

In twenty-first-century New York City, the fact that Lily is white and Dari is black shouldn’t matter that much, but nothing’s as simple as it seems. When tragedy becomes reality, can friendship survive even if romance cannot?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This was my first 2017 read and it was a great one to kick off the new year. You know how last year I was in a horrible reading slump and kept saying that the only stories grabbing me were ones that felt fresh and new, stories that felt like ones we just weren’t seeing enough of? That’s still holding true. And this one roped me in right away because Dari and Lily’s stories are so important. Any story that addresses race as much as this one does is always going to be relevant, not to mention still relatively rare.

 

Lily is not excited for another school year to start. We know she tried to kill herself and we know stories are swirling about her that have made her an outcast/shamed, but the reader doesn’t know right away what happened. I’ll leave it up to you to read that part of her story, but suffice it to say it’s pretty horrific and infuriating. Other than being the object of her classmates’ derision, she’s basically invisible. Her few friends weren’t there for her when she needed them and now Lily can’t really see the point of pretending to get along with anyone–that is, until she meets Dari.

 

Dari generally has his head stuck in his sketchbook or is ditching what he feels are classes that don’t challenge him. Their friendship initially is very much that of two kids who don’t have anyone else but seem content to be kind of quiet and distantly friends in school. But that doesn’t last long, especially for Lily, who pretty quickly develops more intense feelings for Dari. Dari holds her at a bit of a distance. He’s recently broken up with his older girlfriend and spends most of his time at home trying not to piss off his abusive father. After his sister leaves home to move in with her girlfriend, Dari decides to start to push back against his father’s violence, and that’s when the story really takes off. Dari’s father changes the locks to their apartment and Dari temporarily moves in with Lily and her mother. Lily and Dari grow closer and slowly reveal more of their pasts to each other, though there is still much held back and that leads to confusion and hurt feelings.

 

Lily is still reeling over the incidents of the past year and not particularly addressing her mental health needs. She’s tried therapy before and has very negative feelings about therapy and being medicated for her depression. She agrees to see a new therapist for a month and, while still reluctant to talk or get help, has some success. It’s through therapy that we learn more of Lily’s past as her therapist has her keep a journal where she can tell her story. Lily’s mom desperately wants to be a “cool mom” and is part of the problem. She’s a self-help writer trying to work on her second book, after an extremely successful first book, but rather oblivious how to actually help her own kid (or herself, as we see later in the story when she makes a particularly bad choice). Things at school get worse for Lily when a lewd picture of her begins to circulate.

 

Dari is trying to figure out what he will do now that he left home. He figures he can’t crash at Lily’s forever. He’s into Lily, but things just feel too complicated to start dating her, especially now that he’s living with her and her mom. That doesn’t stop Dari and Lily from hooking up, but he’s upfront all the time about how he feels (much to Lily’s dismay). Both Lily and Dari reveal that they are quick to get upset over things and both have violent tendencies. Their lives get pretty tangled up, with Lily looking to Dari for some sense of belonging and happiness and Dari trying to be careful of her feelings as he tries to work out his own stuff. Despite often holding back (and in some cases lying) with each other, they have many honest conversations about their personal lives, particularly about race. Lily is white and Jewish and Dari is black. We see Dari get stopped and frisked at one point for no reason. There are just some things that Lily doesn’t understand about Dari’s life. This comes to a head when they have a public argument and police show up. A pissed off Lily walks away and makes a thoughtless remark to the cops—one that has enormous consequences for Dari.

 

This intense story does not shy away from looking hard at racism, mental illness, the thing from Lily’s past that I’m not spoiling, and people making really horrible choices. Alternating viewpoints give the reader more of a peek into Dari and Lily’s minds and help keep the emotional tension high. This was one of those books where I read it as a nearly 40-year-old adult and just keep thinking about how *young* these characters are. They go through so much–things no one should have to go through at any age.  I have already flipped back a couple of times to read the very end, where Corthron gives the reader one last harsh truth. This isn’t always an easy read, but it’s absolutely an important one. Read this one and be ready to talk about racism, violence, sexual choices, and the many ways adults in this story screw up and damage the children in this book. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss 

ISBN-13: 9781481459471

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication date: 01/03/2017