Dear Martin by Nic Stone
It’s been months since I’ve done a YA literature book review, not because I’ve given up on the genre now that I’ve been out of a middle school classroom for a few years, but more because it has been awhile since I’ve found one that really stood out to me. While I love the dystopian genre as much as anyone (although, I have to say I don’t think I am going to be able to bring myself to go see The Giver when it comes out in theaters soon; how could they possibly have done that better than the book?), I am getting a little worn out on it. Authors are churning these books out in the way of vampire books a few years ago; it’s becoming mundane and derivative and I’d love to see a new spin on it. Until then, I may have to walk away from YA dystopian for the foreseeable future.
Luckily, there is still great YA rolling off the presses and E. Lockhart is leading the way with the recently published We Were Liars. This book hooked me from the very start, drawing me into a world of a publicly distinguished, but privately broken family who spends every summer together on their own private island. While the adults (three sisters) are enmeshed in a King Lear-esque drama over who will inherit the kingdom, the oldest of the cousins come together each summer to fritter away the warm months, each year growing more aware that their family is break apart even as they grow closer, with nothing short of tragedy to turn their tale around.
Cadence, one of the “Liars” (the nickname given to this coterie of kids who live separate lives for nine months out of the year, but then gel together as one for the warm, long days of summer) and our narrator throughout, feels like a reliable narrator, until the reader realizes that the story she tells may have other versions that she is unwilling or unable to share. While the twists of her account are not necessarily obvious until later in the novel, E. Lockhart’s use of fairy tales to weave together the adult and teen components of Cadence’s recollection give the reader a feeling of not all being quite as it seems. What may seem like a perfect American family soon has cracks that are irreparable, making the reader realize that maybe the idea of a “perfect” family fits with Hans Christian Anderson’s compilations more than it does any reality of this world.
The instant I finished this book, I sent a message to my oldest niece (an 8th graders and avid reader), telling her to drop everything and go find this book. If I still had a classroom, I’d go out and buy several copies to start handing out to students on the first day of school. It really is that good! E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars is going to draw in a variety of readers, both male and female, from the middle grades up. Any book that keeps me up until 2AM, swiping page after page easily earns:
Among the Joyful by Erin Eastham
Erin Eastham’s recently released young adult novel, Among the Joyful, was a quick read. I was drawn into the narrative from the very first line and then stayed up way too late on a work night to get through the final line.
Alaire, the main character, is a young lady who lacks the angst normal to the formative teen years, mostly because she doesn’t know what it is. She lives in Golden State, where happiness (or at least the appearance of it) is of foremost importance. In this “idyllic” planned society, it is each person’s responsibility to never infringe on the happiness of others, which not only means avoiding harsh or argumentative comments/conversations, but also never going out without a smile, as one person’s lack of smile could impact and ruin the day of another. Yes, everyone smiles, all of the time. (As I read, I actually tried to smile for an extended period of time. It is no easy task when it isn’t based on an actual emotion. It doesn’t take long for cheek muscles to tire and lips to dry out. No fun when it isn’t for real.) As a member of the coveted Joyful Court at her high school, Alaire is a role model to the other students. Until, her world comes crashing down and she discovers empathy- that the world is not all smiles and Joyful Court meetings- there is sadness, heartbreak, disappointment and a whole range of emotions that she has never been allowed to experience.
There are many things to like about this novel, but probably my favorite is all of the references to other young adult books. I love that Alaire’s emotional awakening comes from within the pages of books. I always contend that reading fiction is a great way to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and experience parts of the world that the reader has never encountered. It builds empathy and understanding. This is exactly where Alaire starts to fall apart- the empathy and understanding piece.
Within the first few pages, I was thinking to myself how much this novel reminded me of Lois Lowry’s writing in The Giver, so I was thrilled when just a chapter or two later, Alaire stumbles upon this staple of young adult literature. It only gets better and she then comes across another classic, The Bridge to Terabithia and what is bound to be a new bedrock of the genre, The Fault in our Stars. And of course, the title of the novel, Among the Joyful, is a nod to Margaret Peterson-Haddix’s fantastic YA series, Among the Hidden. All of these references, both outright and subtle, made me love this book from the very beginning.
My only confusion comes with the ending. As I read the book, I liked that it was a single, stand-alone novel. So many YA books these days are written as a part of a series (which are supremely beneficial for reluctant readers), but I do enjoy a good novel that can tell its story in a single sitting. I was very onboard with that idea throughout the book, but then when I hit the end, I wondered if it was meant to be a set-up for a sequel. Without providing any spoilers, but in all honestly, I liked the rather abrupt ending, as it left the reader to imagine where the tale’s characters would end up, but I worry that instead there will be a “book 2” and I am not sure the material is there to stretch for another couple hundred pages. This isn’t a criticism of the book, as I have no knowledge of an impending sequel, but I would like to imagine Eastham is done and will write another engaging novel with a different set of characters, so I can spend another sleepless night following their tales.
There were a few random spelling/grammar errors in the book, but nothing that detracted from the story or meaning, and overall, I really did enjoy Erin Eastham’s Among the Joyful happily giving it the full score:
4 to 16 Characters by Kelly Hourihan
When 4 to 16 Characters popped up on my reading list, I was really excited to see a book written outside the normal prose form. I think something that breaks the status quo is a huge bonus for young adult books, as students are drawn to the unique and unusual. Lately, I’ve seen several narratives written through a long series of poems, but I like that Hourihan went a different direction- writing the whole book through online interactions and posting. The tale is told through Jane’s private digital journal entries, her posting on fan-fiction web pages, her IMs with friends (and eventually her therapist) and her email exchanges at her high school.
Jane’s real life is more than a bit of a mess. Her mother died a year before the book begins and her father has since spiraled into depression and alcoholism, leaving her to fend for herself, a job she isn’t emotionally equipped to undertake. She already attends a special high school, Spectrum, for students with social and learning disabilities, but things quickly degenerate as she feels trapped at school and at home. To relieve the pain of both places, she enters a new world- the digital one. After creating a series of online personalities, Jane retreats to internet forums and fan fiction sites, where she can choose her persona each day. Soon, Jane’s days revolve around these online interactions, her real-world ones breaking down even further.
What initially intrigued me about the book, the narrative form, is what eventually lead me to like the book less and less and I continued to read. The online chats and fanfic postings were initially entertaining and a fun change of pace, but they quickly became frustrating to read and a bit tedious. At times, reading 4 to 16 Characters was like trying to read a screenplay. (At times, I literally *was* reading a screenplay!) I didn’t enjoy following character conversations that interrupted each other, jumped from user to user and were filled with occasionally hard to decipher abbreviations. There is where my age might hamper my love of Hourihan’s tale. The things that bothered me throughout the book may very well not dissuade today’s teenager from reading it. Today’s high school students spend a huge amount of time communicating in these very formats, so what I found a bit bulky and cumbersome may just be second nature to a younger reader.
I read this book. I’ve thought about this book. And yet, I still feel like I’m on a seesaw when it comes to how I’m going to rate this book. There are certain aspects of 4 to 16 Characters that I think are really great for young adult readers, which would promptly be followed up a different piece that I find a bit ridiculous. In the end, I have to rate it with what *I* thought of the book, even though I think high school students would like it more than I did, so to that end, Kelly Hourihan’s 4 to 16 Characters earn just:
(With that said, I would definitely buy this book for my classroom!)
Skin and Bones by Sherry Shahan
Between work and travel, I’ve been terrible about posting book reviews lately, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been enduling at my normal rate; I’ve just been too busy (lazy) to do write up my thoughts on them. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of YA literature again, missing my middle school roots. Skin and Bones by Sherry Shahan is one of those recent reads and is definitely different from its counterparts.
Shahan’s book focuses on teenage eating disorders, but earns it’s distinction in that the main character struggling with anorexia, is male- Jack (aka: Bones). His “sidekick” throughout the book is a boy on the opposite end of the eating spectrum, who has nicknamed himself Lard, as he says it is better to give yourself the nickname then let others dictate it. So often, young adult fiction that zeros in on the world of eating disorders focuses only on the anorexia/bulimia side of that world and within those boundaries, looks primarily at female sufferers. The fact that the two main characters are male is this book’s saving grace.
That is where my love of this book ends. There are just too many gaps in the storyline and too often I felt like I was missing a page of the book. For example, early in the book, just after Jack checks in to the eating disorder unit (EDU) at his local hospital, he attends a group therapy session, where everyone is given a writing assignment. After the session, he is invited to spend time with some of the other patients, but says he wants to go to his room to write. The next thing we know, he falls asleep and it is suddenly morning. The flow of the timeline is just off. As I read this section, I felt like I had skipped a page somehow. I even checked and rechecked the page numbers on my e-reader to make sure I hadn’t flipped too many at once. But no. There was no in between action.
There was one plot point that really caught my attention, and then only earned about four sentences of exploration. When Jack’s parents come to the family day held by the EDU, his mom makes a comment about having starved herself for a week to try to understand what Jack was dealing with. She then mentions how at first she was hungry, but as the week went on, she felt voices encouraging her to be strong and felt a bit of power at denying herself the food. This seems like it could be a fascinating look into the psychology of eating disorders, but it is quickly swept under the rug. Disappointing.
Skin and Bones takes place over the period of just a few weeks, which also makes the transformation of the main characters a little too convenient. People who really struggle with eating disorders don’t suddenly change all of their habits and thought process in such a short period of time. At times, the narrative seemed a little too convenient.
While I love that Sherry Shahan broke new ground with her male-centered story of eating disorders, in the end, it wasn’t enough to make up for the glaring gaps in plot and overall flow of the story. I am hoping that Shahan continues to write young adult novels, creating stories based outside the traditional writing on some important teen topics, and hopefully the flow will come as she grows in the genre. I will definitely pick up the next thing she writes, but as for Sherry Shahan’s Skin and Bones, it only earns:
Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington
Words are a whole lot more than just a series of letters thrown together. Words can cause joy or pain. Words can bolster courage or crush dreams. To have a young protagonist who loves words and sees their potential for both good and bad is the perfect set-up for a novel of middle school self-exploration.
There are many things for the teacher in to me to love about this book:
1) The use of great vocabulary, followed by a direct and easy to understand definition. (Think: A Series of Unfortunate Events) I adore the way Harrington fills the book with amazing words, but then doesn’t leave the middle school reader wondering what they mean. Having a protagonist that loves the dictionary and the words in it allows the author to give simple definitions right in the text of the story. I also love that each word is Sarah’s new “favorite” word, as I too am easily swayed by fun, new words!
2) To Kill a Mockingbird. What more can I say? The entire book is based around Sarah’s letters to Atticus Finch, one of the strongest characters in American literature. I can only cross my fingers and hope that after reading Sure Signs of Crazy, a student would be curious enough to go search out a copy of Lee’s amazing book. (I’d have these two books displayed side-by-side in my classroom!!)
3) Important issues are dealt with, but not in world-crushing kind of way. A novel whose protagonist is the survivor of attempted infanticide by her mother and now lives with her alcoholic father could very easily flow into darkness, but Harrington does a super job of seeing the world through the eyes of a twelve year old- jumping between the seriousness of her history, but also the daily concerns of a growing young lady, like her first kiss and the overwhelming options on the feminine hygiene aisle.
While the basis of the story is a disturbing one, the reader is able to walk away from the book with hope for the future. We are not a simple math problem of parent + parent = child, but rather have the choice to follow our own dreams and discover what we want out of life. Sarah is not destined to be either crazy or an alcoholic, just because that is what she comes from, but rather has an entire world of words and books ahead of her to help determine her pathway.
Karen Harrington’s latest novel is a must-have for middle school libraries and classrooms and easily earns a solid:
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick
Amazing and heartbreaking. Those are the two best words I can come up with to describe Matthew Quick’s newest novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. I downloaded this book just two days ago, flying through it as I couldn’t bear to walk away from Leonard, the protagonist, as he stumbled his way towards a heart wrenching decision.
The story opens as Leonard gently wraps his World War II Nazi-owned handgun into a pink birthday box, figuring even if he were stopped going into school, no one would suspect anything evil beneath the cheery paper. He’s had years to think about the choice he is making and has decided that this world holds no promise for him, but before he ends his own life, he has a few errands to take care of, namely giving a few gifts to those he felt closest too and then killing Asher, the person who he feels most drove him to the final decision of his life.
As Leonard goes through his final day on Earth, he says his goodbyes in the only way he knows how, worried more about how his Holocaust teacher will feel about his death than his own mother, who is distant and fully wrapped up in her life as a designer, rarely even coming home to see him. (His father fled the country due to tax fraud charges, so in all practical ways, Leonard has no parents. He’s a modern-day orphan.) When a few adults at school notice and call him on his odd behavior, he puts on the happy face, the one he thinks adults expect from teens and weasels his way out of tough conversations.
Each turned page in the book takes the reader one step closer to Leonard’s inevitable end.
Matthew Quick has written an extraordinarily powerful novel about teenage depression and pain, one that will resonate with many high school students. As he wades through topics such as incest, rape and suicide, Quick humanizes these horrors, reminding the reader that we are all so much more than we appear on the outside. We’ve all got back stories that are unknowable to the casual acquaintances in our lives, but by looking closer at those around us and really trying to understand the demons they may be fighting, we can give strength to others, helping them feel powerful enough to fight another day.
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is definitely not an easy read, but it is an important one. Since it deals with difficult topics, it is not one that I would just put on my middle school bookshelf (although I would keep a copy to give to more mature readers) but I would definitely have copies in a high school English classroom. Quick’s talk is a powerful one, reminding us that we are more than our suffering, but also that we owe it to those around us to remember that there is more to each of us than meets the eye. Without a doubt, Matthew Quick’s recently released novel Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock earns: