Tag Archives: coming of age

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

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On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
Balzer + Bray, 2019

This stunning second novel from Angie Thomas is set in Garden Heights, the same fictional neighborhood as The Hate U Give (2017). 16yo Bri raps to express her feelings, but when an opportunity arises to be able to make money from her rapping, she has to decide whether the price she’ll pay is worth it.

Bri lives with her mother and brother, somehow just about scraping by. The author paints a warm portrait of a loving home: Bri’s mother is an ex-drug addict who is barely coping but is committed to raising her children to a better way of life; when she loses her job the fragile hold they have on managing is broken. Her brother has graduated from university but can’t get any better job than working at a pizza place. Meanwhile the gang members, including her Aunt Pooh have plenty of money.

Bri goes to an arts school in a more affluent part of town and is part of a small group of brown and blacks students, which enables the school to maintain its funding. But the security guards seem to single out these students for searches, and when one of them tries to search Bri’s backpack, her frustration at the situation explodes. Then the video of a part of this exchange gets onto social media and assumptions are made about what the search was for.

All this make Bri feel powerless: She wants to take control of her destiny and take the power away from other people over her. For Bri getting the “come-up” and making it means money initially, but it becomes more complex and nuanced.

As the daughter of now deceased local rap legend Lawless, Bri already has a certain kudos in the neighborhood, and her brilliant performance at a rap battle helps to solidify that. So when she records an anger-fueled rap that plays with black stereotypes that’s taken at face value, she has a tough decision to take: does she want to persist with this potentially lucrative “hoodlum” image or does she stay true to herself.

Thomas brilliantly plays with the theme of perceptions: the perception others have of Bri because she is black, because she is angry, because she is a girl, because she is a teen and all the combinations of those. Bri’s perception of herself and the persona that she wants to present move and coalesce over the course of the novel.

I was a little fearful about a novel with rap in it: I’m a middle-aged white woman and it’s not really my thing. I have frequently found rap or spoken word poetry in YA novels to be excruciating and have hastily skipped over them. But Bri’s raps jump off the page with rhythm and edge and while they read well on the page, I suspect the audiobook rendition would be on a whole other level.

This is another fantastic, intelligent, and powerful novel from Ms Thomas and will cement her position at the front of the YA pack.

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Lost Soul, Be at Peace written and illustrated by Maggie Thrash

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Lost Soul, Be at Peace written and illustrated by Maggie Thrash
Candlewick, 2018

In this idiosyncratic graphic sequel to Honor Girl (2015), Thrash (also author of the deeply fabulous We Know It Was You) mixes memoir with fiction to convey vividly the intensity of growing up.

A year and a half on from Honor Girl, Maggie is now a junior at an elite Atlanta school and feeling isolated and depressed: her grades are plummeting and her classmates are completely indifferent when she outs herself. Things are no better at home where her mother seems to want a different daughter (“You’d be very pretty if you weren’t so determined to be weird”) and her father is wrapped up in his work as a federal judge.

Maggie’s closest connection is with her beloved cat Thomasina who disappears inside their house, and when Maggie goes looking for her she finds instead a ghost called Tommy. As she and Tommy explore his background and connection to her family, Maggie becomes more aware of her privilege as well as understanding the threshold she is reluctantly crossing into adulthood. It becomes clear that she is the lost soul and that “there’s a part of you that dies when you grow up.”

Through her recognizable slightly childlike pen and water color pencil illustrations Thrash explores the overpowering feelings of being a teenager: the absolute ennui of an afternoon at home, the thrill of flirting, the horror she feels when she sits in on one of her father’s court cases. The characters’ faces and bodies, often just a few lines, wonderfully convey this wealth and depth of emotions.

Ideal for readers going through, or reflecting back on, the turmoil of adolescence.

Someone Else’s Shoes by Ellen Wittlinger

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Someone Else’s Shoes by Ellen Wittlinger
Charlesbridge, 2018

Everything is out of joint for 12 year old Izzy Shepherd: her father, who now lives with his new wife in Boston, doesn’t seem to pay any attention to her anymore, and her uncle and his 10-year-old son Oliver are staying with her and her mother after Aunt Felicia killed herself. Now the reputedly mean 16-year-old Ben Gustino is staying in their basement while his father, her mother’s new boyfriend, is out of town and his mother has left them in live in California.

Initially Izzy is a bit of a pill about this, as you might expect any tween to be – all the changes imposed on her and out of her control are upsetting. It’s only when Uncle Henderson disappears, and she, Ben, and Oliver run away to search for him, that she starts to develop empathy for the situations of the other two and realizes that though her life is tough, Ben and Oliver have it much worse. As she and Ben bristle at each other, they bond over their shared desire to lessen the load for Oliver and realize that they have much more in common than was apparent.

At the start, Izzy (who is white as are all the other main characters) is trying out new identities as she feels herself becoming invisible to her friends who are suddenly much more interested in boys and clothes. She buys some silver shoes that are too small for her. Without overflogging the metaphor, Wittlinger uses shoes to show that you have to be both comfortable with yourself and that walking in someone’s else’s shoes is a gift. By the end of their roadtrip, Izzy has new sneakers and realizes “What a great thing it was to have shoes, finally, that fit”

Izzy is an aspiring comedian and as she relaxes more with her new family, her gift shows and she finds the power to make people laugh can be cathartic, though her touchpoints of Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen Degeneres feel a little dated (And as a Brit I have to tell you that Jerry Seinfeld is also just not very funny).

The adults are realistically shown as broken by the loss or separation from their spouses and can be selfish, make mistakes, and fail to understand what is going on with their children, though ultimately (and don’t forget that this is a middle grade book) their hearts are in the right place. Izzy’s mother, in particular, seems a bit clueless, not realizing the burden her daughter is under or the troubles that Oliver is having at school. Her expectations seem unreasonable to Izzy and maybe even to us – why is she so much more sympathetic to Oliver and Ben? It’s only the kids who appear to understand the weight they are all carrying and that the face people present to the world may not be who they really are.

This is a decent book about loss and empathy that will appeal to middle grade readers who enjoy sad realistic stories with (not necessarily entirely credible) happy endings.

Broken Things by Lauren Oliver

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Broken Things by Lauren Oliver
HarperCollins, October 2018.

Lauren Oliver has switched between realistic fiction and sci fi, but the common thread is always young women pushed to their limits. I’ve been a fan since Delirium way back and I think this new one is a perfect encapsulation of Oliver’s talents as a creator of credible and nuanced characters, sharp plotting, and an atmospheric setting.

Five years ago in Twin Lakes, Vermont, 13 year-old Summer was murdered in an apparently ritualistic way. Her two best friends, Brynn and Mia were suspected but never charged, as was her boyfriend Owen. Since then, as they’re still seen as the “Monsters of Brickhouse Lane”, Brynn has hidden away in unnecessary rehab facilities, Mia has withdrawn, and Owen’s family moved abroad.  But now on the five year anniversary of her death, the teens are all back in town and starting to work out who the real murderer was.

So far, so Kara Thomas which in itself is an excellent recommendation. Layering on top of this, the murder seems to be linked to an old children’s fantasy book called The Way into Lovelorn which the girls were obsessed with and wrote a sequel to, and which seemed to have come to life for them.

The narrative is split between Mia and Brynn and Then and Now, and a picture is built up of lonely “broken” girls on the fringes of their communities: Summer was with a foster family, Mia got so anxious she couldn’t speak, and Brynn expressed her rage through fighting. But together they made sense and Lovelorn helped them to do that. But when adolescence hit Summer and Brynn, Mia felt excluded and Summer’s attraction to older boys left the other two behind and Lovelorn is abandoned.

As with her previous realistic novels, the author does an excellent job of vividly drawing an insular small-minded community, and the pressure that brings on teen girls who don’t conform and the murder mystery on top of this works well.

The plot is neatly worked out as the teens (all significant characters in this book are white) unearth clues, both in real life and in the fanfic they wrote. A satisfying resolution is reached without stretching credibility, and both Mia and Brynn are on the road to dealing with their lives now that the weight of suspicion is off them and they can reach closure about Summer’s death.

Perfect for teen readers who enjoy mystery and/or realistic novels with a side of creepiness.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert

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Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Hyperion, 2018.

Kelly Loy Gilbert (Conviction, 2015) has written a perceptive and subtle realistic novel, set in the Asian American community of Cupertino in Silicon Valley, a setting which allows her to explore not just what it means to be second generation Asian American but also other identities within that of economic status, immigration status, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.

Two deaths cast a shadow over senior Danny Cheng: those of his sister who died before he was born and Sandra, a friend who committed suicide last year. But his life now seems to be on an upswing: he has been accepted with a full scholarship at his dream school, RISD, and has some sketches on display in a gallery. But when he finds a box of papers hidden away in his father’s office, he opens the proverbial Pandora’s box.

Narrator Danny is a very much a teen – he can be selfish, impulsive, and makes some poor choices. He sees the world through art and often comments on how he would approach a drawing of a moment and what he would want to capture, and his touchstone, and the leitmotif of the novel, is the centrality of human connection and entanglement. There is a minor dual narrative that’s written in the second person, addressed to his sister which fills out the family history.

The author draws a nuanced portrait of the largely Asian student body at Monta Vista public high school (a school which she actually attended): “We were all tired and stressed out all the time, all of us worried we’d never be good enough, many of us explicitly told we weren’t good enough….We all felt it, the relentless crush of expectation, the fear of not measuring up….”

Danny’s relationship with his parents is authentically complicated and beautifully drawn. They are immigrants, much lower on the socio-economic scale than most of the other families at the school, and still bring their customs and attitudes from China. Though they are fiercely proud of their son and his achievements, they are torn between two cultures and have guilt and secrecy etched into them. The other significant figures in Danny’s life are his friends, Harry and Regina, and his friendships with them are also fractured and challenging with clandestine depths.

As Danny pursues the truth, doubting his quest even as he won’t drop it, the past of his family falls into place and, against the odds but entirely organically, there is a feeling of hope and resolution.

Though set in a very specific community, the author has created characters and themes that will resonate with all American teens.

The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood

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The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood
Candlewick, 2018.

This is the second collection of feminist stories edited by Jessica Spotswood, following on from A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers & Other Badass Girls. I don’t usually read short stories (and I haven’t read Tyranny) as I find the form a little unsatisfying but the title appealed and I picked the book up for review.

This collection of 12 stories focuses on young women on the cusp of making a significant change in their life and stepping away from what is expected, even demanded, from them; girls who are “radical in their communities.”

The stories all feature fictional girls but are set in historically accurate places across the US and in eras ranging from 1823 to 1984, and though a couple do have an element of fantasy they are rooted in the real world. There is a range of protagonists with diverse ethnicities, religions, abilities, and sexual preferences, but who all have in common the desire to follow their hearts and their intellects and break out of society or, as Spotswood puts it in her introduction, there is a “quiet badassery in girls taking charge of their own destinies.”

The majority of stories are about the catalyzing events that crystallize these desires and usually end with the young women preparing to make it happen. In endnotes, each author shows how she has brought her own background and philosophy to her story, making for a deeply personal and heartfelt collection. Because the stories are similar thematically, there is a synergy in reading them together as a collection.

Though all stories are readable, highlights are Better for All the World by Marieke Nijkamp about Carrie, an autistic girl who wants to study the law in 1927 Washington DC and The Belle of the Ball, set in 1952 Brooklyn, by Sarvenaz Tash, in which Rosemary finds a route to pursue her dream of writing comedy.

Perfect for readers who enjoy the quick hit of short stories and are interested in seeing history from a different perspective through exploring a wide range of intersectional feminist outlooks.

My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver

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My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver
Candlewick, July 2018.

Drawing from her own experience as an Argentinian in Alabama during the watershed years when schools were integrated, the author  has created a wonderful, lively, and warm-hearted story about 6th grader Lu Olivera, set in fictitious Red Grove, Alabama in 1970. In the first year that her school has included black students, Lu sits in the middle row of her classroom between the black kids and the white kids. Middle rowers don’t exactly belong to either group: “our moms and dads believe in equal rights and all that good stuff” which makes them “ weirdos” to some people.

Lu is torn between her previous unknowing comfortable old life when she was friends with white Abigail and Phyllis, and the scary new ground of being friends with black Belinda. She’s becoming politically aware as the election for the governor plays out between moderate Albert Brewer and racist George Wallace. Lu’s older sister, Marina, works for the Brewer campaign as well as being involved with the anti-Vietnam war campaign. On the personal front, Lu finds out that she is a really good runner which upsets the status quo at school and causes some conflict with her conservative parents. She is also attracted to white Sam, whose parents have been big supporters of integration and civil rights.

As more of the white kids move over to private white-only East Lake Academy, Lu finds she is no longer content with sitting in the middle – she has to take a stand. And she has to persuade her parents to let her go to track camp in the summer so she can join the track team with Belinda in 7th grade.

The author does a terrific job of showing Lu’s personal and political growth over the course of a few months, while keeping her voice entirely appropriate for a smart, curious, and slightly naive 12-year-old.

There is a lot going on in the novel, but the author skillfully weaves all the storylines together to give a whole picture of a young girl growing up at a challenging time in a challenging place and finding her own conscience. A great read for middle graders interested in social justice.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.