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Book Review: Strange Creatures by Phoebe North

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, a STARRED review, which originally appeared in an issue of School Library Journal.

HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Jun. 2021. 544p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062841155.

 Gr 9 Up–Fantasy, trauma, abuse, and grief are explored through the lives of white Jewish siblings who feel they are a soul shared between two bodies, their lives and minds braided together in ways that seem otherworldly. Annie and Jamie live the truest versions of their lives in Gumlea, a safe, sacred fantasy world in the woods behind their house, where they encounter harpies, mermaids, and feral children. In the real world, they don’t fit right. Jamie learns to turn off his feelings and go along to get along. Annie doesn’t mind being abrasive and strange, but worries she’s losing Jamie. When Jamie disappears as a young teen, Annie’s world is shattered. She becomes consumed with the idea that Jamie must somehow be trapped in Gumlea—she can see him there, with ships and pirates and ropes, their sanctuary now a prison. After Annie begins to date Indian American Vidya, Jamie’s ex-girlfriend, she descends into what looks like madness, gathering supplies for a ritual to open the Veil and bring Jamie back so she can be whole again. The story follows them from birth through Annie’s college years. Chapters begin with bits of their Gumlea stories, which serve as allegory and revelation. Narration is shared by Jamie, Annie, and Vidya to powerful effect. Readers will puzzle over just where the reality is in all the fantasy as they delve deeper into the siblings’ richly imagined paracosm.

VERDICT A devastatingly tragic and deeply immersive masterpiece.

Book Review: Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore

Publisher’s description

The highly anticipated next book in the New York Times bestselling, award-winning Graceling Realm series, which has sold 1.3 million copies.

For the past five years, Bitterblue has reigned as Queen of Monsea, heroically rebuilding her nation after her father’s horrific rule. After learning about the land of Torla in the east, she sends envoys to the closest nation there: Winterkeep—a place where telepathic foxes bond with humans, and people fly across the sky in wondrous airships. But when the envoys never return, having drowned under suspicious circumstances, Bitterblue sets off for Winterkeep herself, along with her spy Hava and her trusted colleague Giddon. On the way, tragedy strikes again—a tragedy with devastating political and personal ramifications.

Meanwhile, in Winterkeep, Lovisa Cavenda waits and watches, a fire inside her that is always hungry. The teenage daughter of two powerful politicians, she is the key to unlocking everything—but only if she’s willing to transcend the person she’s been all her life.

Amanda’s thoughts

What a delight to get to return to this world after all these years.

We begin with meeting a treasure-collecting sea creature, perhaps the creature the humans have mythical stories about, the Keeper, and some telepathic purple silbercows, who also reside in the ocean. They set up the initial parts of the story and draw the reader in with the mystery of what is happening and what part they will play. The reader will come back to their perspective and roles throughout the story, and for me, their small sections were among my favorite parts of the book.

When two of Queen Bitterblue’s men go missing, she decides to pursue what happened herself. Along with Giddon and Hava, she travels to Winterkeep, a democratic republic home to the Keepish people, a respected academy, advanced medicines, and powerful fuels. Their initial question, what is the Keepish interest in Monsea, grows to become many questions as they meet more people and uncover more details. Every character is complicated and richly drawn, a potential enemy or ally to Bitterblue’s crew (it’s often hard to be sure which they will be). Much of the story revolves around Lovisa, a 16-year-old Keepish girl skilled in spying, eavesdropping, observing, and skulking around. When her story intersects with Bitterblue’s, things really take off, leading the reader on an adventure full of mystery and uncertainty. I don’t want to spoil any of what happens, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the existence of telepathic foxes (who can bond with humans) in this book. They play a vital role in the story and how it unfolds and one small fox must grapple with how to control the course of events and carries the heavy burden of wondering how to keep the secrets of foxkind.

Winterkeep deals with heavy themes, many of which are common to all of the Graceling stories—love, loss, grief, trauma, manipulation, and toxic families. The biggest themes, however, are environmentalism and warfare, themes that all the humans must grapple with as they trek through Winterkeep and themes that are at the heart of what the silbercows and their giant sea creature friend must do.

While this story can be read alone, reading it in context of the rest of the Graceling Realm books would be more meaningful. This particular book also has wide crossover audience appeal. Bitterblue is 23, Giddon is 31, and Hava is 20. Lovisa and friends are the teens in the story. Parents and other adult family members of various characters also play large roles in what unfolds.

This is a story of choices and survival. It is one of bullying, gaslighting, abuse, and fear. It is about government, politics, and war. But more than anything, it is about truth, strength, warmth, love, support, and healing. This is a strong addition to the series—perhaps my favorite—and I hope we see more of this expanding world.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780803741508
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 01/19/2021
Series: Graceling Realm
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: You Know I’m No Good by Jessie Ann Foley

You Know I'm No Good

Publisher’s description

This razor-sharp novel from Printz Honor winner and Morris Award finalist Jessie Ann Foley will appeal to fans of Rory Power and Mindy McGinnis.

Mia is officially a Troubled Teen™— she gets bad grades, drinks too much, and has probably gone too far with too many guys.

But she doesn’t realize how out of control she seems until she is taken from her home in the middle of the night and sent away to Red Oak Academy, a therapeutic girls’ boarding school in the middle of nowhere.

While there, Mia is forced to confront her painful past at the same time she questions why she’s at Red Oak. If she were a boy, would her behavior be considered wild enough to get sent away? But what happens when circumstances outside of her control compel Mia to make herself vulnerable enough to be truly seen?

Challenging and thought-provoking, this stunning contemporary YA novel examines the ways society is stacked against teen girls and what one young woman will do to even the odds.

Amanda’s thoughts

The thing about 2020 is that it’s hard to find joy in anything or to be able to concentrate on anything. One afternoon, I picked up this book, read two pages, and put it down. It was immediately clear to me that this book was not for this day. I needed something lighter. Something different. So I set this book aside for a week, then came back to it. I knew I would. I’ve loved Foley’s other books and think this one may be her best yet.

Mia, who’s “gifted” and really smart, likes writing “almost as much as [she] likes cutting class to smoke weed in the parking lot behind the bankrupt Sears at Six Corners” (pg 4). She calms down her overactive brain with books, drugs, and boys. Books rarely do harm, unless you throw them hard enough, but drugs and boys prove to be toxic choices. Mia’s big thing is acting like she doesn’t care. Hardly a revolutionary attitude to cop as a teenager, but while it may be derivative, it gets her through. Mia’s run out of second chances, and her dad and stepmom ship her off to the wilds of Minnesota to get some help. It’s a traumatic departure—she’s essentially kidnapped—and suddenly all of her vices are gone and she’s left with just her own self and a bunch of other “troubled” girls.

It’s here that Mia beings to really think about herself, her choices, what’s happened to her, and what she wants out of life. Many of these ruminations are spawned from therapy sessions, but Mia has long been in therapy. It’s only here, now, that she seems able to actually hear what she’s being told and truly understand her life. She grapples with wondering if she’s “bad” or just “not good.” How does her mother’s murder, when Mia was only 3, fit into her life, really? Is suffering and trauma hereditary? How should we deal with difficult women?

At home, Mia didn’t have real friends, just people who could hook her up with stuff or get into trouble with her. But at Red Oak, she actually connects with some of the other girls, sharing their pain and secrets. Mia beings to see how she’s been used by boys and hurt by girls and women. Finally facing some painful realities (including the understanding that her first sexual encounter was rape), Mia starts to see that she deserves better, that she needs to fight, to stand up for herself. And, most importantly, she needs to be the one who defines who she is, not rumors or bad choices or the names she gets called. She is more than just what has been done to her, or what’s been said about her, or what she’s done. Unfortunately, healing is rarely linear, and Mia takes a big swerve off her path of progress when she and another girl run away from the facility and have to figure out what they truly want in life.

This is one of those great books that manages to be both devastatingly sad and hopeful. Mia is a fierce character who works hard to keep her walls built up around her, but experiences real, believable growth over the course of the story. She is flawed, vulnerable, and resilient. A really moving look at trauma, choices, recovery, and healing.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of

ISBN-13: 9780062957085
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/13/2020
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: The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis

Publisher’s description

A raw, powerful, but ultimately uplifting debut novel perfect for fans of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe from debut author Angelo Surmelis.

Seventeen-year-old Evan Panos doesn’t know where he fits in. His strict immigrant Greek mother refuses to see him as anything but a disappointment. His quiet, workaholic father is a staunch believer in avoiding any kind of conflict. And his best friend, Henry, has somehow become distractingly attractive over the summer.

Tired, isolated, scared—Evan finds that his only escape is to draw in an abandoned monastery that feels as lonely as he is. And yes, he kissed one guy over the summer. But it’s Henry who’s now proving to be irresistible. Henry, who suddenly seems interested in being more than friends. And it’s Henry who makes him believe that he deserves more than his mother’s harsh words and terrifying abuse.

But as things with Henry heat up, and his mother’s abuse escalates, Evan has to decide how to find his voice in a world where he has survived so long by being silent.

This is a powerful and revelatory coming-of-age novel based on the author’s own childhood, about a boy who learns to step into his light.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

dangerous artThis was a rough read. The abuse and homophobia are nonstop. Though this is absolutely a worthwhile read and is very well written, readers need to know going in that Evan suffers a lot at the hands of his peers and his own mother.

Illinois 17-year-old Evan Panos spends most of his life hiding and hoping to fly under the radar. His extremely abusive Greek mother has spent his whole life hurting him, telling him he’s ugly and a sinner, that she wishes he were gone, as she beats him. Though not out, his religious mother has lived in fear that Evan is gay (“deviant”), bringing in other devout members from their church to pray that he’s released from this “demon.” His father doesn’t agree with his wife’s tactics, but also doesn’t (generally) intervene. Evan’s cuts and bruises don’t go unnoticed, but he explains them away by telling people he’s just incredibly clumsy and falls a lot. But everything starts to change when Evan and his lifelong best friend, Henry, realize they’re falling for each other. Evan is so afraid to trust anyone, and even though Henry is his best friend, he has his reasons for being hesitant (reasons that go beyond what his mother will do to him if she finds out about any of this). Can Evan begin to reveal the many secret sides to his life, or will revealing those secrets be the thing that ends him?

 

Like I said, this is a hard read. Evan has virtually no support. Even as adults begin to figure out, or suspect, what has been happening to him, no one intervenes. His mother is unrelentingly abusive and all of the scenes of violence are right there on the page. To watch that, and to watch Evan try to explain it all away, is heartbreaking. His classmates constantly accuse him of being gay, hurling disgusting slurs around. What he has with Henry is lovely, if at times complicated, but the romance takes a backseat to the story of the abuse. Make sure readers who pick this up also realize there are plenty of books about happy, accepted, safe gay kids, too. The author includes a note at the end, talking about how the his own personal story mirrored Evan’s, and resources for help. A powerful and devastating read with some of the worst physical and emotional abuse I’ve ever seen in a YA book. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062659002
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/30/2018

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

Book Review: Wired Man and Other Freaks of Nature by Sashi Kaufman

Publisher’s description

wiredmanBen Wireman is partially deaf and completely insecure. The only two things that make him feel normal are being a soccer goalie and hanging out with his best friend, Tyler Nuson. Tyler is the golden boy, worshiped by girls and guys alike, and he no longer seems interested in Ben. Without Tyler, Ben isn’t sure who he is anymore, or if Tyler is really as “normal” as Ben thought he was. Maybe hanging out with freaks like Ilona Pierce, who has tattoos, blue hair, and almost no friends, is what he needs.

This captivating novel explores the shifting dynamics of friendships and complex art of growing up.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Ben and Tyler have been best friends since elementary school. Filipino Tyler is a super popular soccer play who’s increasingly acting like a jerky bro—hooking up with girls, drinking at parties, being obnoxious—and seems to be distancing himself from Ben. Or maybe from everyone. Partially deaf Ben is the goalie on the soccer team and pretty insecure about his hearing aids. He wears his hair long to try to hide them and is skilled in the “perfect art of projected normalcy.” Never mind that there’s obviously no such thing as “normal.” He doesn’t have a lot of friends. He’s close with his family and comfortable at home, and he’s not exactly excited to get cracking on those college applications. College means leaving home behind—and would it be super pathetic if he just followed Tyler to BU? Throughout the school year, Tyler’s behavior continues to change and worry Ben. He’s moody, seems secretive, is failing classes, and just isn’t himself. At one point, Ben witnesses Tyler having a total crying meltdown… but Tyler didn’t see him and Ben doesn’t want to push him to talk about something he obviously is keeping secret.

 

Besides, Ben has some other things going on. He hooks up a few times with a sophomore, Darcy. Then he gets paired  for a project with Ilona, a part-Japanese blue-haired weirdo who happily lets her freak flag fly and believes everyone else should do the same. Initially Ben is rather offended by her references to him as a “freak” until he starts to understand that being a freak, and being honest about what makes you a freak, is something Ilona values. They start to spend more time together and Ben grows to appreciate her “honest and peculiar take on things.” During this time, Tyler continues to fall apart, eventually broaching a conversation with Ben about sexuality and incidents from their past. He doesn’t tell Ben what really has him so bent out of shape, but eventually Ben puts the pieces together and encourages him to get some help.

 

There was so much that I enjoyed about this book that I can overlook the few things I felt were flaws (like Darcy just ghosting out of the story, or Ilona treading a little too close to being a total MPDG, or many small pieces of the plot feeling abandoned or unresolved). The writing is fantastic, the characters, for the most part, are really engaging and dynamic, and the dialogue is exactly how I best like it—abundant and with a biting edge. I like that not only is this a book that revolves around a close male friendship, but the characters really examine what that means—on its own, in comparison to their other relationships, and in light of what appears to be going on with Tyler. I wanted them to explore some of these issues deeper—maybe be more honest with each other, or something. While I enjoyed following the ways Ben changed and the uncertainties that come with senior year for him, I do also wish the story had been as equally weighted toward Tyler. Seeing only bits of his story through Ben’s eyes was, at times, frustrating, because we know there was so much more going on. Minor quibbles aside, I really dug this book and flew through it, partially because I truly had no idea where parts of the story would go. I’ve seen a few professional reviews compare this to books by Ron Koertge and Carrie Mesrobian—two of my favorites. Those are apt comparisons and should prepare readers for what they will get in this story: a complex look at teen characters who behave and sound like many actual teens. A smart and thoughtful look at friendship, insecurity, and uncertainty. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781467785631

Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group

Publication date: 09/01/2016

 

#MHYALit Book Review: Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow

girlinpiecesPublisher’s description

Charlotte Davis is in pieces. At seventeen she’s already lost more than most people do in a lifetime. But she’s learned how to forget. The broken glass washes away the sorrow until there is nothing but calm. You don’t have to think about your father and the river. Your best friend, who is gone forever. Or your mother, who has nothing left to give you.

Every new scar hardens Charlie’s heart just a little more, yet it still hurts so much. It hurts enough to not care anymore, which is sometimes what has to happen before you can find your way back from the edge.
A deeply moving portrait of a girl in a world that owes her nothing, and has taken so much, and the journey she undergoes to put herself back together. Kathleen Glasgow’s debut is heartbreakingly real and unflinchingly honest. It’s a story you won’t be able to look away from.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Do you like nearly unremittingly bleak stories? Then do I have a book for you! Now don’t jump ahead and assume that I mean that in any kind of damning way. I like bleak. I like real bleak. I like books where I think, good lord, more bad stuff? So keep reading, okay?

 

We meet Charlie as she is just getting settled in a treatment facility. She’s a cutter who has done too thorough of a job and just spent a week in the hospital. At the facility, she’s silent—selective mutism. She’s been through a lot. Prior to landing in the facility, she was homeless for nearly a year. Now in treatment, she’s getting the help she so desperately needs, grateful to be indoors, warm, and fed. But money and/or insurance doesn’t last forever, and way too soon she’s being cut loose, released to her abusive mother. Instead of going home with her mother, she’s handed some money, her birth certificate, and a bus ticket to Arizona. Great parenting. Charlie heads out there alone. Her friend Mikey is there, but Mikey’s tied to a lot of her past. He’s also not around much, so when he leaves on tour with a band, Charlie is truly alone. She gets a job washing dishes at a cafe, where she meets Riley, a sometimes charming junkie ten years her senior who quickly gets into her head, heart, and pants. Riley is horrible for Charlie. She’s trying so hard to move on from her past, but that’s not easy. Every day is a struggle for her to not cut herself. She makes a lot of crappy choices around and because of Riley. There are small good things mixed in among all this bleakness. Charlie finds solace in drawing and is going to have some of her art in a show. She’s making… I wouldn’t say “friends” at work, but she’s interacting with her coworkers and coming out of her shell a little. And when things fall apart in a pretty epic way, Charlie learns she has more support, resources, and hope than she had imagined.

 

Glasgow’s writing is stunning, moving from lush and poetic to choppy and spare. We’re in Charlie’s head a lot and slowly learn about her background—her father’s suicide, her best friend’s near-suicide, her abusive mother, her life on the streets. She isn’t much for talking, even with Riley, who’s far too self-absorbed to really think to ever ask her anything  about herself. Glasgow’s story is gritty and grim and at times almost too much to bear. I admit to taking lots of breaks while reading this one. People bend, break, leave, disappoint, hurt, die, suffer, and harm. In most cases, they also heal, change, recover, and hope in this astoundingly sad, astonishingly poignant debut.

 

For more on Girl in Pieces, see Glasgow’s previous piece for our blog, “This Book Will Save Your Life.”

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781101934715

Publisher: Random House Children’s Books

Publication date: 08/30/2016

Book Review: The Girl Who Fell by S.M. Parker

Come back later today for a guest post from S.M. Parker, author of The Girl Who Fell

 

Publisher’s description

girl whoIn this gripping debut novel, high school senior Zephyr Doyle is swept off her feet—and into an intense and volatile relationship—by the new boy in school.

His obsession.
Her fall.

Zephyr Doyle is focused. Focused on leading her team to the field hockey state championship and leaving her small town for her dream school, Boston College.

But love has a way of changing things.

Enter the new boy in school: the hockey team’s starting goaltender, Alec. He’s cute, charming, and most important, Alec doesn’t judge Zephyr. He understands her fears and insecurities—he even shares them. Soon, their relationship becomes something bigger than Zephyr, something she can’t control, something she doesn’t want to control.

Zephyr swears it must be love. Because love is powerful, and overwhelming, and…terrifying?

But love shouldn’t make you abandon your dreams, or push your friends away. And love shouldn’t make you feel guilty—or worse, ashamed.

So when Zephyr finally begins to see Alec for who he really is, she knows it’s time to take back control of her life.

If she waits any longer, it may be too late.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Two things I would wish for readers of this book: don’t read the blurb and skip the initial chapter, which shows us a scene from near the end of the story. I know—neither wish is realistically going to come true, but skipping those two items allows for a much slower reveal and unraveling of who Alec really is. I was on high “I HATE YOU” alert from the second he appeared in Zephyr’s classroom, thanks to knowing ahead of time what a monster he turns out to be. That quibble aside, this book was a phenomenally powerful read. 

 

Zephyr’s life is in transition. It’s senior year and while she’s excited to leave Sudbury, New Hampshire for college—hopefully Boston College—she’s also a little nervous and adrift. Her dad bailed on her 18th birthday, moving out and leaving behind an extremely hurt and rejected kid. It seems like everyone is figuring out their futures, but Zephyr’s plagued by doubts and insecurities. When her best friend, Gregg, kisses her, their friendship becomes yet another thing that feels uncertain. They’ve been close friends forever and are planning to go to college together. Zephyr’s upset that he put them in that situation (with the kiss) and her rejection and reaction sting Gregg. Enter Alec, the new guy, transplanted to the public school from a private boarding school. He instantly makes it clear that he’s into Zephyr. She can’t believe that this cute, considerate, doting guy is into her. Their relationship becomes intense really quickly.

 

Because the blurb and first chapter set us up to have our radars on alert for troublesome behavior from Alec, it’s easy to see all of the worrying signs of what becomes an abusive relationship. Before long, Alec doesn’t want her to hang out with Gregg (he’s threatened), wants her to ditch important events, is calling her obsessively, gets bent out of shape about EVERYTHING, and wants her to completely change her future plans for him. Zephyr goes along with all of this because she thinks it’s love. She’s lost and hurting and craves Alec’s attention and, at times, affection. She often understands that things he’s asking her or ways he’s behaving aren’t right, but she erases those thoughts every time by remembering they’re in love and how planning a future.

 

The story plays out how you think it will: Alec’s increasingly controlling and abusive. Parker doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing what a terrifying and violent creep Alec is. This book wasn’t easy to read. As an adult, as a woman, as a parent, I kept wanting to jump into the book and help Zephyr. Her other best friend, Lizzie, repeatedly tells her that this isn’t what love looks like, that she’s letting herself get too involved in Alec’s wishes, that there are too many red flags. Zephyr does tell her mom some of the scary things about Alec, eventually, but she also keeps many important details back. We are right there, as readers, for every second of violence, control, and isolation that Alec orchestrates. It’s a well-written and truly terrifying story. Parker builds the tension throughout the whole book, making Alec more of a monster in every chapter. It’s hard to watch Zephyr not see him for who he truly is and really hard to watch her stay him with him, give him second chances, and keep his abuse a secret. This suspenseful and upsetting look at an abusive relationship will appeal to readers who like dark stories of relationships gone bad. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481437257

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication date: 03/01/2016

The Sexual Violence in LGBTQIA+ YA Literature Project Index

SUPERNEWEST PURPLE

For the past two weeks, Teen Librarian Toolbox focused on sexual violence in LGBTQIA+ young adult literature. This is part of our blog’s larger ongoing sexual violence in young adult literature (or SVYALit) project.

 

We’re grateful to Vee Signorelli, admin and co-founder of GayYA, and Nita Tyndall, a moderator at GayYA. who have helped us brainstorm, organize, and facilitate this project. This series launched on August 3, 2015 with this introductory post. 

 

Below is a listing of every contributor and a summary, link, and excerpt of each of their posts. We greatly appreciate all of the support we’ve had during this project—every retweet, favorite, or comment we’ve gotten has meant so much. Check out the index and see what posts you might have missed. Please share this index and these posts widely. Not much has been written on the subject of sexual violence in LGBTQIA+ YA literature. This project goes a long way toward helping change that.

 

Meet the contributors to our series and get an overview of the posts:

 

Rob Bittner (@r_bittneris a PhD candidate in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University. He has a history of working with children’s and YA literature in various contexts, including his MA degree and various award committees through the American Library Association. In his post, Violence in LGBTIQ Fiction for Young Adults,” he writes about the obligatory sexual violence scene in YA books.

 

While I understand that authors often include these instances of violence in order to lend a sense of realism to the story, I feel that having an overabundance of such situations in YA gives the impression that to come out as L, G, B, T, I, Q, etc., inevitably leads to violence or unavoidable negative consequences. The same goes for uses of homophobic/transphobic language in novels as a way of realistically portraying the cruelty of homophobic/transphobic individuals. The use of such language, however, also troubles many readers who hear these words being hurled at them in real life. Sometimes I think it’s okay to have a book that contains challenges for characters, and references life’s complexities, without necessarily including scenes of violence and/or homophobic language.

 

 

Eden Grey (@edenjeangrey) is the Young Adult Programming Librarian at the busiest branch library in Kentucky. Eden is a reviewer for Young Adult Books Central and School Library Journal. In her post, “Sex and Consent in LGBT Manga,” she explores the differences between portrayals of sex in lesbian and gay manga and heterosexual romance stories in manga.

 

Should we be sharing these stories with our teens? Is it our place to decide what kind of sex they should and should not have access to? Is the answer as simple as ordering popular and requested manga and placing the explicit ones in the Adult section? These are questions rarely asked or discussed in Libraryland, and that’s really unfortunate. If we’re ordering these manga for our teens we should be discussing the sexual violence in them with readers. We should use this as an opportunity to talk about the issue of consent.

 

 

Dahlia Adler (@MissDahlELamais an Associate Editor of Mathematics by day, a blogger for B&N Teens by night, and writes Contemporary YA and NA at every spare moment in between. She’s the author of the Daylight Falls duology, the upcoming Just Visiting, and Last Will and Testament. In “Why Heteronormativity in YA Hurts More Than You Think,” she examines consent and power dynamics in LGBTQ YA.

 

Whether the participants are straight, queer boys, queer girls, queer non-binary people, or any combination of the above, when writing people having sex (especially teens), I think we do a great disservice by glossing over the existence of a power dynamic. Especially the first time, the existence of one is nearly always present; sometimes we just have to dig a little deeper to find it. Writing YA lit is an incredible opportunity to show what consent can and should look like, how much closer it can make you, how sexy it can be. If YA sex scenes often seem like wish fulfillment, well, that’s an aspect I’m okay with teens reading and thinking, “That’s what I want and I’ll settle for nothing less.”

 

 

Marieke Nijkamp (@mariekeynis a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, geek. She holds degrees in philosophy, history, and medieval studies, and wants to grow up to be a time traveler. In the midnight hours of the day she writes young adult stories as well as the occasional middle grade adventure. Her debut young adult novel THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS will be out from Sourcebooks Fire on January 5, 2016. In her post, “Microaggressions and Sexual Violence,” she looks at how microaggressions and sexual violence are closely related as symptoms of a culture that both sexualizes teens’ experiences and others or even fetishizes experiences that deviate from a supposed norm.

 

That doesn’t place microaggressions side to side with sexual violence, but they are closely related. They are a both symptoms of a culture that both sexualizes teens’ experiences and others or even fetishizes experiences that deviate from a supposed norm. A culture where the mere presence of queer characters means a YA book isn’t “clean” and where queer characters making out is still too often perceived as “having an agenda” while a cishet couple is simply romantic.

 

Vee Signorelli (@rausicabklvrspends their time writing, reading, hunting through queer book tags on tumblr, and keeping up with school. They’re a passionate feminist, a huge fan of actual representation in media, and a lover of theatre, mythology, and biology. Vee is the admin and co-founder of GayYA.org. In their post, “Sex and Romance in Trans YA,” they look at the books in which trans characters have sex, get swept off their feet by a dashing love interest, and explain to their date that they’re trans and have them respond affirmatively.

 

Trans YA can have a strong impact on what trans youth understand about themselves. I’ve learned about identity politics through tumblr and non-fiction works, but reading trans YA helped me figure out how I could exist happily in the world. Seeing someone like you go through the things you’re going through, and things you never thought you’d experience can change a lot. Reading about trans characters in romantic relationships helped me see a future for myself and expel most of the seemingly infinite amount of shame I had around being trans.

 

Rachel Gold (@RachelGoldis the author of Just Girls (Bella Books 2014) and the award-winning Being Emily (Bella Books 2012), the first young adult novel to tell the story of a trans girl from her perspective. She has an MFA in Writing from Hamline University and has spent the last 14 years working in Marketing and Publicity. In her post, “Tough Girls Talk About Rape,” she talks about female-female partner/date rape in her book Just Girls and shares her own personal story.

 

I wrote about it because I wish something like this never happens again to another girl in the history of the world. And I wrote about it because that the same kind of partner rape that happened to Tucker happened to me when I was 17 — so I know how confusing and devastating it feels.

 

I know how alone you feel when you’re still trying to understand what the hell happened and wondering if it’s ever happened to anyone else. I know what it’s like to try to tell people and have them look at you like they want to help but they can’t begin to understand what you said. I know what it’s like to be afraid that you’re the only person bad enough for this to happen to.

 

Sarah Benwell (@SWritesBooks) is a queer, genderqueer author. She lives in the picturesque city of Bath. Which is nice, but she’d much rather be off exploring deserts and jungles elsewhere. Having seen a good chunk of the world, Sarah is a keen advocate for diversity in life and on bookshelves, and she loves nothing more than acquainting herself with both. Her debut novel THE LAST LEAVES FALLING is published by Penguin Random House (UK)/ Simon & Schuster (US). In her post, “Why We Need Abuse and Sexual Violence/Abuse in LGBTQIA YA,” she argues for the importance of these narratives as they show us that we’re not alone and that others have walked this same path.

 

And when you’re growing up and you already feel different and misunderstood and scared, books can help. Yes, they might show us some of the worst possibilities – but they allow us to read through to the end and survive. To learn how, to learn that it’s possible.

They show us that we’re not alone. That others have walked the same paths. And if – gods forbid – you do find yourself in similar awful situations, the last thing you want is to feel that you’re the only one, that it’s you.

 

Megan Honig (@vonmeggz) is a writer and editor and the former Young Adult Collections Specialist for the New York Public Library. She is the author of Urban Grit: A Guide to Street Lit, published by Libraries Unlimited, as well as the popular 30 Days of Street Lit blog series. In her post “Misrepresentations of Violence in Julie Anne Peters’ Rage: A Love Story,” Megan looks at one of the few YA titles depicting an abusive relationship between two girls–a book that, unfortunately, conceals more than illuminates abusive behaviors.

 

There are a few things Rage does well. One is to illustrate the challenge of being a young lesbian in a town where possible partners seem scarce, a situation that surely has an impact on Johanna’s persistent attitude toward Reeve. Another is to depict a teen character for whom finances are a consistent stressor and concern—another situation that is chronically underrepresented in teen fiction. But overall, Rage fails more than supports its teen audience. Many people enter into their first romantic or sexual relationships in adolescence, and teens—especially LGBTQ teens—need tools to help them navigate these often complicated and emotionally intense waters. Rage does not provide such tools; in fact, it makes some kinds of relationship violence harder to perceive.

 

Nita Tyndall (@NitaTyndall is a tiny Southern queer with a deep love of sweet tea and very strong opinions about the best kind of barbecue (hint: it’s vinegar-based.) She attends college in North Carolina and is pursuing a degree in English. In addition to being a YA writer, she is a moderator for The Gay YA and a social media coordinator for WeNeedDiverseBooks. You can find her on tumblr at nitatyndall where she writes about YA and queer things, or on Twitter at @NitaTyndall. InCoercion and Sexual Violence in LGBTQIA Lit,” Nita focuses on what coercion is and why “positive” or commonplace depictions of it are harmful, particularly in LGBTQ lit, through examining ASK THE PASSENGERS and SHE LOVES YOU, SHE LOVES YOU NOT.

 

Coercion or pressuring someone into coming out, or assuming their sexuality, is a problem that extends beyond YA literature. The narrative of forcing someone out of the closet or insisting they’ll be happier if they are, particularly if the person doing the pressuring is already out, is extremely problematic. Choosing whether or not to come out is a heavy decision, and insisting that you know better than the person who’s coming out, or making them feel like they have no choice but to, is not only incredibly disrespectful but speaks volumes about our treatment of other queer people: That you can only be happy if you’re out, or that staying in the closet is something to be ashamed of. That other people can make that decision for you, or pressure you into making it. Upholding such narratives as okay or romantic, especially to teenagers, is awful.

 

Cheryl Rainfield (@CherylRainfield) is the author of the award-winning SCARS, a novel about a queer teen sexual abuse survivor who uses self-harm to cope; the award-winning HUNTED, a novel about a teen telepath in a world where any paranormal power is illegal; STAINED, about a teen who is abducted and must rescue herself; and PARALLEL VISIONS, about a teen who sees visions and must save a friend. Cheryl is a lesbian feminist and incest and ritual abuse torture survivor. In her article “The Need For Realistic, Compassionate Portrayals of Sexual Violence In LGBTQIA+ (and all YA) Lit ,” she talks about the importance of realistic portrayals of sexual violence and abuse in queer YA lit and how they can help.

 

I felt so alone and in so much pain as a child and teen; I wanted to die most of the time and did actually try a few times to kill myself. I desperately wanted to know that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t the only one going through these horrific experiences or the only one was queer, and I tried to find that in books. I found small bits of validation, such as a character who was bullied or survived incest or a lesbian character, but I didn’t find enough—which is part of why I write the books I do. I write the books I needed to read as a teen and couldn’t find. I want others to know they’re not alone.

When we feel alone in traumatic or painful experiences—including abuse and homophobia—it makes the pain so much worse. I think when we see reflections of ourselves and our experiences, it helps lessen our pain, reassure us that we are not alone, help us feel healthier and happier, learn new ways of coping and surviving, and feel that we, too, can survive since characters with similar issues did.

 

Amanda MacGregor (@CiteSomething) is a librarian with a MA degree in children’s literature, a longtime book reviewer for School Library Journal, The Horn Book Guide, and Voice of Youth Advocates, and also a contributor at Teen Librarian Toolbox. In her post, “‘Our Kisses Were Seismic’: Positive Sexual Experiences in LGBTQIA+ YA Books,” she shares some of her favorite positive sex/consent books, scenes, and relationships, as well as those offered up by friends on Twitter.

 

While it’s important to look at and discuss rape, consent, abuse, and violence, it’s equally as important to present plenty of healthy, positive, and enjoyable experiences for teen readers to show them what desire looks like and how it can play out. The field of books about LGBTQIA+ teens is growing in leaps and bounds. We are lucky that we can hand so many books to teenagers where the characters have happy and fulfilling relationships, where things are not all doom and gloom, and where sexual behaviors actually take place on the page, rather than some fade to black scenes. There is power in representation, in being seen, in seeing hope and happiness.