Tag Archives: coming of age

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.

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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.

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

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Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder
Walden Pond, 2017

This middle grade story of nine self-sufficient orphans on a mysterious island can be read as a low key fantasy and/or an allegory of the unfettered joys of childhood and the looming responsibilities of maturity. It reminded me, in some respects of Jerry Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey but I found it way more appealing than Spinelli’s nonsense and think it could get some MG readers.

Every year, a boat arrives on orphan Island carrying a very young child. The young child is taken into the care of the second oldest of the 9 residents and the oldest one gets onto the boat to embark for who knows where physically, but adulthood metaphorically.

Life on the island is blissfully easy. Food is abundant, the wildlife is unharmful, it only rains at night, and even the wind throws the kids back onto land if they jump off a cliff. However, there is a strict unwritten structure and set of rules passed down from all the previous residents, which the children follow religiously (deliberate choice of word there).

Jinny was heartbroken when Deen left the island, leaving her as the Elder taking care of the new girl Ess. She isn’t very good at teaching Ess what she needs to know – reading and swimming – nor is she very good at training Ben, the next in line, on how to be an Elder. Jinny doesn’t want to follow the rules and when she breaks one of the most important ones, life on the island becomes out of joint.

Jinny rings true as a conflicted pre-adolescent and her relationship with her young charge, Ess, is delightfully imperfect; however, the other characters, who have a variety of different skin, hair and eye colors, are just sketched in.

I found some of the metaphors a trifle heavy handed – the entrance of snakes to this garden of Eden and Jinny’s long swim away from the island – but maybe this wouldn’t be the case for the intended audience.

Many questions are unanswered  who sends them to the island? What do they go back to? who set up this home? are they really orphans? – but the ending, bringing the story full circle, feels complete.

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Grit by Gillian French

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Grit by Gillian French
HarperTeen, 2017.

This evocative realistic YA story of secrets and small mindedness in a small white working class Maine town, Sasanoa, centers around rising high school senior Darcy Prentiss, a young woman with a reputation.

Rumors are rife and knowing about what Darcy was doing last year when her ex-best friend Rhiannon disappeared. Darcy’s loyalty to her family and her streak of independence means she won’t tell the truth because she’s keeping the secret of her cognitively disadvantaged cousin Nell.

The author wonderfully imbues the claustrophobia of the dead end town and its old fashioned, but not in a good way, views of how girls should behave. This setting reminded me of Kara Thomas’s Little Monsters, though the plot is more romance and less mystery.

Self-aware narrator Darcy and her family crackle off the page with life and seething resentments. I particularly appreciated Aunt Libby whose bitterness embodies all of the town’s phoniness, and Darcy’s sister Mags who knows who she is and expects Darcy to live up to those standards. There are other characters who are rooting for Darcy, even if she initially doesn’t recognize it.

Several storylines weave through the novel and each of them connects to Sasanoa’s attitudes towards those who are different: Rhiannon’s disappearance, tension between local teens and migrant workers as they harvest blueberries, Darcy’s fledgling romance with a boy who isn’t just interested in hooking up, and the competition for pageant queen which both Darcy and her mentally challenged cousin Nell are entered in. The strands all gradually converge and the hypocrisies of the town are laid bare as Darcy, with the support of others, disentangles herself from what other people’s opinions have made her.

Ideal for teens who enjoy novels driven by gutsy young women and laced with cultural consciousness.

Every Single Second by Tricia Springstubb

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every single secondEvery Single Second by Tricia Springstubb
Balzer + Bray, 2016

I reviewed this from an eARC, and while I don’t normally highlight that at the top of a review, in this case I think it’s quite important, as this book still seems rather unfinished. I really loved Ms Springstubb’s Moonpenny Island, and I’m just not seeing quite the same tightness in this writing as I did there, so I’m assuming (hoping!) that further editing will polish this up to the level of the author’s previous gem. But I got what I got, and here is a review of that, please just bear in mind that caveat.

The passage of time threads through this realistic middle grade story of ‘what might have been’, and how a mere second can devastatingly divert a life. Italian-American Nella’s life is changing: her school is about to close and she’s uncertain how she’ll fit in with the mostly black kids in the neighborhood middle school she’ll probably go to. And her friendships are shifting: she has always been close to Angela – secret sisters close – but a new girl, Clem, exposes their differences and they drift apart.

The book moves between Now (the end of 7th grade) and Then (from kindergarten onwards), and is driven by a tragic shooting that exposes the neighborhood racial tensions. Family secrets that have been buried, and whose corrosive effects have spread wide, are finally brought to light. The author also alludes to the passing of time in brief interspersed chapters with the thoughts of a neighborhood statue, though personally I didn’t think this added much.

The strength of the novel is its central trio. The three girls are all delicately drawn, thoroughly authentic and believable, teetering on the border between childhood and young adulthood. Their relationships with each other, and with their family members, grow and change as they navigate that tricky crossing.

In the writing itself, I felt there was rather too much telling, not showing. Nella suddenly realizes many things and then expounds on what she’s realized, without letting the reader work that out for themselves. I also found the resolution a bit too neat for a novel that was realistically sprawling.

So what can I say? The book has now been published, so I’ll look at it before I pass a definitive opinion. I feel it’s likely to have been sharpened up considerably, and will have all that I’ve come to expect from this author of excellent realistic novels.

Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

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highly illogical behaviorHighly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley
Dial, 2016.

In Highly Illogical Behavior, Whaley (Where Things Come Back, 2012, and Noggin, 2014) has done an exceptional job of creating an authentic character who has a mental illness that is integral to the plot, but makes this an appealing and witty YA coming of age novel, rather than an ‘issue’ book.

16 year-old Solomon Reed has not left his house for over three years – he’s agoraphobic and prone to panic attacks. But fellow teen, and amateur psychologist, Lisa Praytor remembers his last day at school when he submerged himself in a fountain, and is determined to meet him so she can ”fix” him and write a scholarship winning essay about her experience with mental illness. Unaware of Lisa’s ulterior motive, Sol quickly finds the pleasure of having a friend, and this is increased when Lisa’s handsome and easygoing boyfriend, Clark, starts coming along too.

Told alternately from Sol and Lisa’s third person points of view, this novel quickly builds up a portrait of thoroughly and realistically complicated teens on the verge of adulthood. The characters of the white central trio are beautifully illuminated as they play board games, watch movies, and discuss Star Trek: The Next Generation. As their friendship deepens, their trust in each other grows, but the shaky foundations on which it is built looms just offstage.

The plot flows in both predictable and unexpected directions, as Sol starts to break out of his “quiet and mundane” life, and though the question of the trio’s future, together and singly, is never far from their thoughts, it is rarely tackled upfront. There is a climactic scene, but the book closes with many strands not tied up, or ever explained, and feels a little messy, just like life.

The novel’s tone, flawed but lovable characters, and plot arc are reminiscent of John Green, and should have wide appeal to teen readers.

Reviewed from an ARC