Teen Librarian Toolbox
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Why so many cancer stories? #every3minutes

14,583 kids will be diagnosed with cancer this monthThough the term “tween” didn’t exist at the time, that’s what I was when I first knew a young person who died from cancer. In fact, this was the first person I knew who had died at all. His name was Michael. He was younger than me, and was buried in the Ghostbusters costume he had recently worn on Halloween. “Ha ha,” everyone somberly chuckled. “I get it. Did he think of that himself?” He did. He had.

In the years since, I’ve known other young people who have fought, triumphed over, or succumbed to cancer. I’m sure you do too. It’s because, as St. Baldrick’s Foundation says, “More children are lost to cancer in the U.S. than any other disease—in fact, more than many other childhood diseases combined.” When people balk at what they perceive to be a fad in YA literature, the prevalence of books dealing with kids with cancer, I think about what I have learned from my friend Kitty and her crusade in honor of the memory of her son Aiden. Every three minutes a child is diagnosed with cancer. That’s a lot of kids. A lot of teens. A lot of friends of those teens impacted by the news and everything that follows. Books about cancer aren’t faddish. They are reflective of the world we live in, and they are an important way for teens to process and understand a grim reality that surrounds them. One in 285 young people will receive a cancer diagnosis before their 20th birthday. 

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month. And though we all know how they fight the term, teens are children in this sense. Here are some stories in honor of the month. Spoilers included, because nothing spoils a story like cancer.

Maybe One Day by Melissa KantorWhen her best friend and dance buddy Olivia is diagnosed with cancer, Zoe struggles to wrap her mind around this sudden change in the direction they both expected their year would take. This book, told from Zoe’s perspective, does an especially good job of looking at the impact of a cancer diagnosis on the other people in a teen’s community. Some react with fundraisers, some scoff at the effort as too little too late. And Zoe, she has to decide how much to honor their shared dreams, and how far she can strike out on her own in a future that will likely not include her best friend.





Drums, Girls, & Dangerous Pie by Jordan SonneblickThirteen-year-old Steve’s five-year-old brother is diagnosed with cancer here. This is a great title for your younger teens, and it addresses the reality that a family’s cancer diagnosis is but one significant thing happening in the lives of teens. Life around you doesn’t go on hold when your sibling gets sick, and Sonneblick brings that reality to roost with humor and heart.






Zac & Mia by A.J. Betts Zac and Mia meet during treatment and have different approaches to life and their cancers, but nonetheless they strike up a friendship. The two share the narration in alternating chapters here. Unlike some romanticized cancer driven novels of the 80s and early 90s, Zac & Mia illustrates that cancer isn’t just a sad plot line for homecoming queens and beloved the valedictorian “too perfect to live.” It can strike anyone, even unlikable characters.






Side Effects May Vary by Julie MurphyThough the mortality rate for kids with cancer is still unacceptably high, progress is being made. Alice in Side Effects May Vary believes that she won’t make it, so enlists her friend Harvey in knocking items off  her bucket list. When she goes into remission, she faces the possibility of a much longer life ahead of her… along with the consequences of her bucket list decisions.






Before I Die by Jenny DownhamAnother “bucket list” book, but with a grim outcome. Tessa is sixteen, and nearing the end of the four years her doctors expected her to live after her leukemia diagnosis. She is feisty, and not ready to give up. As she races against time and her own progressing illness to knock items off her list, her anger at this fate, and the emotional toll a sick child takes on everyone are poignantly clear.






Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse AndrewsGreg’s mom nudges him to reconnect with acerbic Rachel, a friend of the family, after she is diagnosed with leukemia during their senior year of high school. The book, as the title would lead you to believe, bluntly looks at the fact that cancer just sucks, and knowing someone who is dying young doesn’t mean you’re granted transcendent life lessons, but it does mean you’re thrust into a crappy situation and no one wants to be there.






Love and Other Unknown Variables by Shannon Lee AlexanderCharlie and his friends are dead set on driving away the new English teacher, an activity heartily encouraged by new student Charlotte, who also happens to be the younger sister of the new teacher. Charlotte’s motive is more personal than fun though. She is done pursuing cancer treatment, and she hopes that convincing a class of math and science geeks that literature is important will be enough of a distraction to her caregiver sister that she’ll ease up and let Charlotte live out her life her own way. Told from Charlie’s perspective, this is a story about friends and siblings pulling together to support each other through a friend’s illness and death.



Kitty, who I mentioned earlier, recommends CureSearch as a notable organization to support if you are interested in research and funding for childhood cancers, and for supporting the families impacted by them. It would be great if there were fewer cancer books, but only if it means that there are fewer cancer stories to be told.

Book Review: Regine’s Book, a teen girl’s last words by Regine Stokke

“Waiting for death is dehumanizing.  To feel your body just getting worse and worse. To have to wait for answers. For the only answer that matters: Will you live or will you die? Most teenagers spend their time worrying about how they’ve done on a test, but others – like me – wait to find out if they’ll survive long enough to have another birthday. The world is unfair. For those of you who go on to live a long and happy life, I want you to try and give something back to the world. Think of all those other people whose lives are spent in suffering. Give. It is unbelievably important.” (p. 111)

In Autumn of 2008 Regine Stokke became incredibly ill and was eventually diagnosed with cancer, more specifically a form of Leukemia.  She started a blog to share her story and it garnered a huge following with its heartbreaking and sincere look at life with cancer.  Her goal was to share what it is like to live with an illness, but as too often happens with cancer, it became a record of her last days.

“The fear of not existing never goes away.” (p. 205)

Although at times Regine sat in a hospital vomiting from the cancer treatments, trembling in fear of yet another biopsy, and losing far too many of her new friends that shared this bizarre new life with her, she also developed a great appreciation of art, music and life.  Scenes from the hospital are followed by triumphant moments like seeing Slash and Friends at the Quart Musical festival in June of 2009:
“Arrived home from Quart on Friday.  As I said, it was totally incredible! so great that I got to go! I was also in pretty good shape too. I managed to do most of the things I wanted. Went to concerts, went shopping, ate outdoors, etc. I don’t think I’ve been this active since last summer.” (p. 202-203)
And in the midst of the good moments, there are absolute moments of gut wrenching despair: But waiting is a horrible experience with something like this: It’s a time filled with uncertainty and terror. No one knows what will happen. I have one foot in the grave, and while I’m hoping to get out, doubt holds me back. (p. 205).

But like most blogs, Regine’s was interactive and she had some amazing guest posts and comments, which are also sometimes included.  In addition to the various blog entries, there are some diary entries from Regine’s mom and a basic overview of Leukemia.  Throughout the text there are a variety of photos, poems, pictures of art work that inspired Regine and some responses from online readers of her blog. Regine’s Book is a haunting and inspiring and moving look at Regine’s life, at the life of a young girl trying to be a teen when faced with the every day possibility that this day may be your last good day.  And it is an intimate look at some of her very worst days. You will cry.  Highly recommended for all collections.
As a side note, at a staff training event I did a little over a year ago, a staff member commented that teens no longer read.  That is patently false and as I explained, many teens are just reading differently – and blogs are one of the ways in which teens are using tech to read.  Blogs are immensely personal and immediate and real, which has tremendous appeal for teens trying to avoid the fakeness they perceive in the world around them.  Reading Regine’s Book is like reading a blog, but you get it all at once and don’t have to wait each day for new updates.  And even though you know the end, it is a beautiful journey and such a privilege to be invited to take it with Regine.  Regine is the real deal and teens will relate to what she thinks and feels.  Every reader who comes in asking for a book to make them cry or looking for real stories (why does A Child Called It continue to be so popular?) will treasure this book.

“The best flowers get plucked first.”
Regine’s Book: a teen girl’s last words by Regine Stokke
Published by Zest Books 2012. ISBN: 978-1-936976-20-1

Shelf Talkers: The “C” Word in Teen Fiction

My Judy Blume fan.  Because Judy Blume “gets it”.

Several years ago my grandmother went to the ER and they opened her up and said they were sorry, but there was nothing they could do for her.  She had cancer and, because she didn’t know it was there, it was so advanced that in just a couple of months it took her from us.  It was quick and unexpected, but often cancer is not.  Sometimes it hangs over you for years

I met and began dating The Mr. when I was 18 years old.  On my 20th birthday we got engaged.  I met the man who would be my father-in-law exactly once.  He was at home in the midst of what would turn out to be an all to brief period of remission from lymphoma.  By the time we got engaged he had already passed away.

Many years later, my friend  (my mentor, my adopted mom) would call and tell me that she too had cancer.  Unlike the others in my life, she would survive (thank God and modern medicine).  She was fighting cancer at the same time that I laid on bed rest fighting HG and trying to make sure my baby made it into this world.  We would call each other and talk about what it was like to have fallen down the rabbit hole that our lives had become.  I am the librarian I am today, and the persona I am today, in large part because of what she taught me.  I am thankful every day that we both made it out of that rabbit hole.

These past few weeks I have spent wondering if cancer was once again going to touch my life.  The truth is, it touches all of our lives at one point or another.  Current statistics indicate that 1 out of 2 men and 1 out of 3 women will have cancer of some form.  Cancer touches us all.  I remember years ago watching the movie St. Elmo’s Fire and there was a scene around the dinner table where the mom whispered that another person had “cancer” (said in a tiny, tiny whisper).  And here we are just 20 years later and the word is so common, we no longer whisper it.  It is no longer the “C” word.  So today I thought I would share with you some of the best books out there about teens dealing with cancer in their lives.

As I was writing this post, my childhood favorite, Judy Blume, announced that she, too, was fighting cancer.  Thankfully, she is recovering well. All my good wishes go out to her.  Her books have touched millions of lives, including mine.  The other day I had a teen come in and ask where the Judy Blume books were.  She reads them, she says, because “Judy Blume gets it.”

Before I share some of the amazing works of teen fiction out there dealing with cancer, I want to encourage you to read this amazing piece of work by Katie1234 in Teen Ink called The Cancer Monolgue.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Hazel and Augustus are two teens struggling with cancer in a brilliant, touching story written in the master class by John Green.  Hazel and Augusts try to resist falling in love because they know what fate awaits them both, but sometimes the heart has its own ideas.  With snark, wit, wisdom and humor, Green tells their story and pulls at your heart strings in all the right ways.  This book has now spent months on the bestseller list so if you are one of the two people who hasn’t yet read it, you really should.

A Time for Dancing by Davida Wills Hurwin
Samantha and Julia have been best friends forever, bound together by their love of dance.  In the summer before their senior year they are poised for great things and ready to face the world head on.  But what they aren’t ready for is cancer.  Julia is diagnosed with incurable cancer.  A Time for Dancing is an older title, published in 1997, but it is a raw presentation of the anger and fear that comes from a cancer diagnosis.

Me, and Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

Me, and Earl, and the Dying Girl is a book that has done a very rare thing: made me laugh out loud. Literally.  And yes, it is indeed a book about cancer via “the dying girl”.  Greg and Earl end up spending time with Rachel, who has leukemia.  They are not really friends. but Greg’s mom wants him to help Rachel.  Greg is used to flying below the social radar at school, but suddenly finds himself the center of more attention then he ever wanted.  The guffaws come courtesy of some baked goods laced with marijuana and their unexpected eaters.

Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson
Second Chance Summer is one of my favorite summer books of all time.  Matson perfectly captures the essence of summer in this story of Taylor Edwards whose father has been diagnosed with cancer.  In addition to all the touchstones, including summer love and rekindled friendships, SCS is a beautiful story of a relationship between daughter and father.  As you know, these types of relationships are rare in teen fiction, but Matson presents a rich and deep look at what it is like to spend what may be your last moments with someone you love and adore.  You will sob.

Deadline by Chris Crutcher
What would you do if you knew you only have a year to live?  How would you spend that last year?  That is the question that Ben Wolf faces.  Told in a way that only Chris Crutcher can tell it, Ben spends his final year trying to find a way to make his mark on the world.

If you have titles to share, please add them in the comments.