Tag Archives: coming of age

Music from Another World by Robin Talley

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Music from Another World by Robin Talley
Inkyard, March 2020

Robin Talley is one of the premier YA authors of LGBTQ+ novels and has made something of a niche for herself by placing these stories in well-researched historical settings. Her latest is set in late 70’s California, mainly San Francisco, and niftily uses the story of two young women to show this pivotal time in queer history from a female perspective. It particularly resonated with me as I was a similar age as the main characters at that time and also found my identity (albeit a different one) through the punk music they both love.

During the summer of 1977 white high schoolers Tammy and Sharon are assigned to become pen pals by their Christian schools. Tammy is a deeply closeted lesbian living in conservative Orange County with her hardcore and homophobic religious family. Sharon lives in a Catholic area of San Francisco with her rather checked out mother and her gay (but known only to her) brother.

The novel opens with the Anita Bryant-led repeal of the anti-discrimination ordinance in Florida and closes with the massive 1978 defeat in California of the Briggs initiative (seeking to ban gays and lesbians from working in California’s public schools). During this year, the coming out (pun intended) of the gay rights movement and the shifting of public attitudes is shown through Tammy and Sharon and those around them. Maybe because it’s mostly set in San Francisco, the novel does take a somewhat rosy-eyed view of what being gay or lesbian in the 1970’s meant.

At first the young women stick to the anodyne questions of their pen-pal program, but later, as they come to feel close, they share more intimate confidences. Sharon starts going to punk concerts and meets cool feminists as well as going to the Castro with her brother to support gay rights. Tammy starts a relationship with another girl at school and inspired by Patti Smith, starts recognizing her anger at the conformity the world imposes.

As well as their letters to each other, both young women write diaries. Tammy writes hers as a letter to Harvey Milk, Sharon’s is a more traditional one. These narrative devices feel a little contrived, particularly when they are writing to each other despite living in the same house, and I didn’t find the voices particularly well-differentiated.

These minor quibbles aside, I found myself thoroughly engrossed by Tammy and Sharon’s different journeys to self-discovery about their identities and their sexuality through music, through their writing, and through their relationship. 

Thanks to Inkyard Press and Netgalley for the digital review copy.

This Boy by Lauren Myracle

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This Boy by Lauren Myracle
Walker, April 2020

Just before the start of freshman year, Paul and Roby meet up and then become friends once they start school: bonding over a mutual disdain for the girl-hazing bros in their year. Though they fall out over a girl, Latina Natalia, the ties of best friendship hold over the years of high school. Much of the book is a realistic and assured portrait of 21st century high school life for a boy: negotiating friends, girls, hurt feelings, alcohol and drugs, different family structures, different social and economic circumstances, and contemporary gender and sexuality mores. All this is done really well and effortlessly.

But then, because this is a YA book, Something Happens during senior year and the narrative takes a sharp turn from the quotidian to something much higher pitched though well within the bounds of everyday high school life. It is still skillfully written and resolved but I could have done without the extra drama as I was just enjoying living the life.

Paul and Roby are great, well-drawn characters – not in the popular gang but also not in the lower strata. In some ways, they are a step to the side, marching to the beat of their own drums, and I really enjoyed spending time with them. This is a lovely portrait of regular lives which can so easily slip awry, but with heart and support can get back on track.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

Smooth by Matt Burns

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Smooth by Matt Burns
Candlewick, June 2020

Intensely self-conscious about his severe acne, 10th grader Kevin is pleased to be prescribed Accutane, despite its many side-effects, and things definitely look up when he connects with Alex, a girl he meets at his regular blood tests for the drug. While he invests this relationship with a weight that it can’t really bear, he retreats from his former best friends and family and his life starts to spiral downwards. He invests his energy in a slew of creative projects, but they are more about impressing other people than expressing himself, and they all fizzle out.

Debut author Burns imbues his first person narrative with the authentic solipsism of a teenager: Kevin observes and judges his friends, family and classmates with little empathy and without really listening to them, particularly Alex. And so much of what Kevin is thinking and feeling about himself, doesn’t get shared outside his own head and his isolation increases. Like many teens he snarkily views other people only through his own lens, claiming he doesn’t care about friendships, though to be fair to him, the other teens (all white from the suburbs) do seem to him (and me) to be remarkably well-adjusted.

The author does a fine job of chronicling Kevin’s descent into a vicious circle of hopelessness, and it is never clear (to the reader or Kevin) if his depression is caused by the Accutane or is genetic or if it’s just what a sensitive 10th grade boy experiences. Ultimately, though the Accutance does help, it is Kevin himself who has a Judy Blume-inspired epiphany (nicely done!) about his own role in his social isolation. For me, this came a bit too abruptly and a bit too late in the novel and felt rather unbalanced against the amount of time Kevin has spent in despair.

Though only a few teens suffer from such serious skin conditions, many will be able to relate to Kevin’s isolation, withdrawal, and desperate thoughts. A good choice for readers who like dark and some light, but not till the end.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

The Color of the Sun by David Almond

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The Color of the Sun by David Almond
Candlewick, 2019.

In Little Felling in the North-East of England, the body of a teen boy, Jimmy Killen, is found. Davie sees the body and then sets out towards the top of the hill outside the village looking for the suspected murderer, a teen boy from the Craigs, a rival family to the Killens.

As he wanders on this hot summer’s day, he encounters and converses with several people, including an old priest, two young girls, the Craigs, a dog, an old man who lost his leg in a mining accident and a gardener as well as his recently deceased father.

Set in an unspecified post-war era, the spare lyrical prose and dream-like mood hint at a larger journey towards manhood as artistic, imaginative Davie absorbs and reflects on the tales, both real and apocryphal, that he is told along the way.

I really loved the author’s 2015 The Tightrope Walkers and this has some of the same virtues, but feels much slighter and less grounded. Here, Almond creates a wonderfully atmospheric picture of that stage in life when childhood is left behind but adulthood has not yet been reached and of an England that no longer exists if it ever did. But I feel the setting and meandering pace will likely limit its appeal to American teen readers, as well as the Geordie dialect and customs.

Thanks to Candlewick for the review copy.

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée

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A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée
Balzer + Bray, 2019.

This has been seen as a middle grade novel for those too young to read Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which is sort of fair though rather sweeping but also downplays the merits it has in its own right.

7th grade Shayla forms the “United Nations” with her two best friends: Isabella is Puerto Rican, Julia is Japanese-American, and Shayla is black. Shayla has never had a black friend – not because she doesn’t want to but because they weren’t many other black kids in her elementary school and now she has her friend group, but some of the black kids think she’s deliberately avoiding them.

And she has never been particularly conscious of being black, but as this is set against the backdrop of trial of police officer who shot a black man walking to his car, things have started to change. Shayla develops a growing consciousness of the Black Lives Matter movement which her older sister Hana is a part of and her parents discuss it with her in a matter of fact, balanced, and informative way, gently sharing the injustice of all the trials apparently ending in the same way.

Shayla finds herself becoming more engaged and involved, particularly after her parents take her on a peaceful candlelit protest and decides to stop avoiding standing out and being risk averse. She starts wearing a black armband to show her support for BLM and though there is some antipathy towards this from white students, mostly there is support and it becomes a movement at school. This is a low key introduction to middle grade readers about social injustice and civil rights. The violence and civic unrest takes place offstage, but Shayla’s championing of the BLM movement through her black armband is a terrific way in and metaphor for the wider world.

But as well as being a portrait of the awakening consciousness to social and racial injustice of a young black girl there are also all the usual things that happen in junior high like boys, friends, and branching out to new things, which the author seamlessly integrates. Shayla’s friend group seems to be falling apart: Julia wants to spend time with the Asian American basketball team she plays in, and suddenly Isabella has blossomed into a beauty who is catching the eye of the boy Shayla has a crush on whereas another boy seems to be crushing on Shayla despite her often outright rudeness to him. Shayla gets to know other black kids through joining the track team and being one of only two girls doing shop.

I found the author’s sharp portrayal of one of the teachers to be particularly on point. Though some of the teachers are cool, Ms Jacobs the white English teacher addresses Shayla as though she is the spokesperson for all black people in the school: “I hate when a teacher assumes that just because I’m black , I’ll know all about slavery and civil rights and stuff like that.”

There is a lot going on in this novel and it can be read at different levels. I think many middle grade readers will be engaged by Shay’s voice and her thoughtful progress through 7th grade and at the same time will be excited to accompany her on her journey of self-discovery.

Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner

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Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner
Crown, 2019.

Rayne Ravenscroft and Delilah Darkwood are the onscreen names of high school seniors Josie and Delia for their public access TV show where they present schlocky horror movies from the 1970s.

They make a good team. Delia knows and loves these horror movies because they are all that’s she has of her dad who left her and her mum when she was eight, and hasn’t been heard from since. Josie, however, has always wanted to work in TV, so when she is offered an internship at the Food Network, she is torn between trying to make Midnite Matinee a success or moving on. When Delia discovers that legendary horror show producer Jack Devine is at Shivercon it seems like a great opportunity to move their show to the next level.

The young women alternate narration. Delia is the emotional heart of the novel, desperately trying to find stability in her life, and Josie, witty and erudite, is ambitious and wants to bust open her life. Their friendship is intense but it seems to me that Delia does a lot more giving and forgiving than Josie.

Delia has depression, which is helped by medication – hooray for making this a depiction of the positive benefits of antidepressants. Additionally, Midnite Matinee with her best friend Josie gives her something to hold on to. Delia has also just discovered that her father lives close to where Shivercon is, so she could take the opportunity to see him and ask the question that has nagged her for so long – why did he leave?

Delia and Josie are spunky, foolhardy, brave (or oblivious as only a teenager could be) and get themselves into some wacky situations which are funny in the book but would be scary in real life and made me (as an adult and a parent) quite uncomfortable. However, the scenes of the setting up and taping of the show are hilarious and absolutely worth the price of admission..

This is a sweet and melancholy story about endings and beginnings, about a pivotal time of life (or at least, what feels like a pivotal time of life at the time) and two close friends going in different directions.

Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña

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Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña
Random House, 2019

This latest and very solid entry in the DC Icons series is a contemporary YA origin story for Clark Kent. 17-year-old Clark feels isolated by the astonishing powers he has but can’t quite control, and when he finds out that he is actually from another planet he feels even more of a freak.

The author makes the deft and timely connection between Clark being an “alien” and the change of Smallville from accepting community to one that is suspicious of those who are different, especially the Mexican migrant workers. Sadly, the author rather bludgeons the reader over the head with this connection and a few less mentions would make the novel feel less didactic.

Canon character Lex Luthor plus new characters, the Mankins family, are recent arrivals in town who appear to be philanthropic and upright citizens but may be connected to the mysterious disappearances of immigrants from the town. As Clark and his high school journalist best friend Lana Lang investigate, they uncover some nefarious goings on around the mysterious craters that are sprinkled around Smallville.

Clark is such a straight arrow he has the potential to be a dull protagonist but his earnest search for an identity and a role make him relatable, and his warm relationship with his parents and tentative romance with Gloria Alvarez show him as very human.

After many thrills and spills, the bad guys are unmasked and their dastardly plot is foiled. Clark realizes his job is to “protect not punish” and as he decides he will do everything in his power to make his adopted planet “a better, safer place,” his journey to becoming Superman is set.

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.

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.