Tag Archives: illness

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

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The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
Putnam, 2019

In 1890 Atlanta, Jo Kuan, a 17 year-old Chinese American girl, has just lost her job with a milliner for being a “saucebox”, so she has little choice but to return to work at the Payne family estate as a lady’s maid for the disagreeable daughter of the house. 

Jo and her guardian Old Gin have lived for many years in a secret abolitionist basement under the print shop of the Bell family’s newspaper, the Focus, and she eavesdrops on them through a disguised vent. Even though the Bells are not aware of their clandestine lodgers, Jo feels they have helped raise her and helped her education. When she learns that the paper is failing and needs to increase circulation to keep going, she has an idea that will allow her to let off steam publicly and boost the circulation of the Focus: she will write a satirical column on contemporary topics affecting women and people of color. Immediately the identity of the anonymous “Miss Sweetie” as well as her radical views become the talk of the town. 

Through Jo’s biting wit and sharp intelligence in both her narration and her newspaper articles, the author effortlessly braids in historical information about the contradictions of late 19th century Atlanta society, the position of Chinese and black people in the South, and the emerging white suffragist movement. As post-Reconstruction Atlanta drifts into the Jim Crow era, the events all come to a head, after a flurry of revelations (one of which is exceptionally convenient), propelling Jo’s understanding of the importance of marginalized people having and owning a voice, celebrating a message that is as relevant today as it was then. 

Historical fiction can be a hard sell, but Jo’s humor, sass, and resilience will make this an appealing read for teens who enjoy exploring different facets of America.

Reviewed from an ARC.

How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox

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How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox
Dial, 2019.

Drawing on her personal experience of mental illness, the author creates an absorbing and authentic portrait of a teen girl under extreme stress.

At the beginning of the book, set in Australian oceanside town of Wollongong, 17 year-old Elizabeth “Biz” Grey feels disengaged and removed, and her brain gets stuck in loops.  Unsure of her sexuality, she tried to kiss her best friend Grace but is also attracted to new boy Jasper (all main characters appear to be white with the possible exception of Grace whose last name is Yu-Harrison).

Following an incident at the beach after which she is ostracized by her friend posse, she begins to lose her already tenuous grip on reality. She still sees and converses with her father, but he died when she was seven, and when she takes up photography, the images she creates literally speak to her. Her desperate and loving mother and endearing young siblings provide a solid home life but though Biz appears to be coping, inside she feels she is a “non-functioning sad person.”

The intense first person narrative puts the reader right in Biz’s head as her thoughts shake and circle around, showing her fuzzy line between reality and hallucination and her perception of the fragile line between life and death. It is a particularly tough read when she contemplates suicide but she ultimately decides that she needs to follow her father’s life in order to “get better.”

The author delicately and evocatively shows the complexities of mental illness as well as the challenges and grief it puts on friends and family. Will appeal to readers who appreciated Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep.

Resources are provided in the acknowledgements.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds

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Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds
Katherine Tegen, 2019.

An intriguing YA fantasy romance, which goes on for just a bit too long.

On a college visit, African American Jack King meets “beautiful brown super-tight-curls” Kate at a party and falls for her. Over the next four months they meet up, flirt, and get close. Kate fails to turn up to Jack’s prom because she’s “genetically unwell” and has been hospitalized and within a few short pages, Kate dies and then Jack falls downstairs and also dies. But then everything resets and he’s back at the college party and has the chance to save her again (and again).

The author skillfully plays out this looping, if a little too lengthily, as Jack tries different paths to perfect his plan to save Kate, though these come with the usual unintended consequences of time travel, both trivial and catastrophic. Part of Jack’s challenge is to also keep the delicate balance with his two best friends, biracial Jillian and Latinx Francisco “Franny” Hogan, complicated by them being a couple without ever realizing Jillian had been Jack’s crush.

The central trio of Jack, Jillian and Franny is richly and convincingly drawn, though Jack feels a little like a male version of a typical YA young woman: insecure, self-deprecating, but beloved by his friends. Kate, conversely takes the usual male role of being somewhat unbelievably both one-dimesionally perfect and also interested in Jack. Though it’s nice to see this gender role reversal, it doesn’t make it any more credible.

The author tries to keep the various iterations different enough to stay interesting for the reader, but I felt that there was maybe one too many, or maybe the later ones could have been trimmed. I appreciate that this is a fantasy and isn’t going to pass a logic test, but it’s never explained why Jack doesn’t confide in anyone, even Kate, nor is any reason given for his resets, and some of his choices defy credibility.

I did love both the wide diversity of the characters and that them being of color is never the point of the story though is integral to it.

Perfect for readers who enjoyed David Levithan’s Every Day (Knopf, 2012).

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.

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

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Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen, 2018.

Here’s my last review of the books I read for the 2nd round of the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction award. Harbor Me probably generated more discussion than any of the other books and was more divisive. But here’s the great thing about the Cybils: the shortlist can include the cozy wish fulfillment of, say, The Doughnut Fix and as well as the gritty reality of Harbor Me. It’s a hard job comparing the two, but was most gratifying, and if you haven’t had the opportunity to read about the winner, The Parker Inheritance, now’s your chance!

A class of 6 special education 5th/6th grade kids are given a weekly opportunity by their teacher, “tall and soft-spoken and patient Ms. Laverne” to just talk to each other about anything without any adult supervision. Over the course of the novel, we get to know these kids and what they’re going through.

Biracial narrator Haley is dealing with an upheaval in her life as her uncle, who has been her only parent while her dad was in jail, is moving out when her father is released. Latinx Esteban’s father has been detained by ICE and the rest of his family are fearful about what has happened to him and what might happen to them. Ashton, the only white kid in the grade, is being physically bullied by other kids. African American Holly, Haley’s best friend, has ADHD and can’t sit still. Native American Taino and African American Amari have both faced racism and prejudice.

This sounds like a list of “issues” but Ms Woodson is such a skilled writer that the kids’ problems are integrated very naturally into the novel and are only part of their story and who they are. As they go to the art room, which they re-name the ARTT (a room to talk), each week they gradually form a deep bond as they tell their truths and start looking out for each other, fulfilling Ms Laverne’s request that they be a harbor for people who need it.

Overlaying all of their individual family and social situations is that they are a special education class and, though they pretend not to, they do care about what other kids say. Even though the teacher tells them “how special we were, how smart, how kind, how beautiful – how tons of successful people had different ways of learning…some days it got inside us.”

I found it particularly interesting how the author takes on race through Ashton who has the “white pass” but is now in a school with mostly brown and black kids. He’d never thought about being white before but now he is as aware of the color of his skin as his classmates have already had to be and the other kids in the ARTT help him to thresh through those feelings.

These are real kids who are not defined by their problems but who have to deal with them as part of their daily lives. And let us not forgot, as the cover reminds us, these are all American kids, no matter their ethnicity or family origins. The reader will care about all of them and it’s a wonder that Ms Woodson manages to cram so much into such a short novel (less than 200 pages!) without it feeling in any way forced.

Skylark and Wallcreeper by Anne O’Brien Carelli

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Skylark and Wallcreeper by Anne O’Brien Carelli
Yellow Jacket, 2018.

There were two historical novels on the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction shortlist and they ended up at the bottom of our list – not because they weren’t good, but because we felt that the genre just lacks appeal to many middle grade readers. Skylark and Wallcreeper mixes past and present to interesting effect, whereas Anne Nesbet’s The Orphan Band of Springdale is set wholly in the past. I have enjoyed Ms Nesbet’s books in the past, particularly Cloud and Wallfish but also her earlier fantasies, and I read this one a while ago but did not take sufficient notes for me to write a review. Sorry. Anyway onto a book that I did take notes on.

In 2012, 12yo Lily helps to move her granny, Collette, and the other residents when they are evacuated to the Brooklyn Armory as Superstorm Sandy wreaks havoc on their nursing home in Queens. In the confusion of the move and settling in, Lily loses a fountain pen that is mysteriously precious to her granny and goes in search of it. In a second storyline, Collette is a 12yo in Brume, Southern France, in the final years of World War II and is an active member of the French Resistance.

Parallels can easily be drawn between the two protagonists. They are both persistent, resourceful, independent, and spunky, doing whatever it takes to achieve their goals, though clearly there is a lot more actual danger to Colette. They even look alike, with short hair, as they bicycle around their neighborhoods. Both stories are set in emergency situations in which these young girls are at liberty to make decisions and take actions that they would not normally be able to. Neither girl is given much background or context, though we learn more about Lily’s regular life than Colette’s.

Colette’s chapters are a series of vignettes of her Resistance missions, from the time she is first recruited into “Noah’s Ark” as Wallcreeper. She meets Marguerite, aka Skylark, and together they undertake deliveries, sending messages, and spying, right up to their derailing of a German train. While exciting, this lack of background makes Collette less of a fully-developed character.

Particularly notable is Lily’s empathy and kindness to the dementia-inflicted Colette and the other elderly nursing home residents. But she (and the author) are clear-eyed about these seniors – they are not the cute and funny characters of many books and movies – but are nonetheless regular people with a million stories to tell. However, Lily’s pursuit of the fountain pen is rather forced and there’s an overabundance of coincidences leading to the satisfying conclusion.

Though historical novels can be a tough sell to kids, particularly ones that are not rooted in their own history, they might find the idea of the Resistance has contemporary parallels. The author carefully explains the repugnance felt towards collaborators, and the particular contempt felt towards the Milice, the French military police that supported the Germans. There’s not much light and shade here: the Resistance is good and the collaborators were bad.

I’m not sure how much kid appeal Wallcreeper actually has, and this is not helped by being printed in a large font, making the size of the book potentially quite daunting. However, those who like historical fiction, strong girl characters, and/or exciting adventures will find something to enjoy here.

Born Scared by Kevin Brooks

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Born Scared by Kevin Brooks
Candlewick, 2018.

13 year-old Elliot is scared of “everything” and hardly ever leaves the sanctuary of his room, or his home in rural England. The only people who don’t fill him with horror are his Mum, Aunt Shirley, and Dr Gibson, and he has internal conversations with his twin sister who died an hour after she was born. In the middle of a blizzard, Elliot realizes there’s been a mixup with his anti-anxiety meds, so his mother goes out, just for 10 minutes, to get them, but then she doesn’t come back. After several hours, Elliott screws up his courage and goes to look for her.

As Elliott narrates his slow, laborious, and terror-stricken way along a road, through a field, and into a wood, there is a second storyline about a pair of bank robbers disguised in Santa outfits. This has an odd mix of tones: blackly comic as one of them is the archetypal dumb criminal who has to be told everything numerous times but there is also deeply unpleasant violence, made all the more shocking by its matter of factness.

Elliott is an engaging narrator, unflinchingly straightforward about his debilitating anxiety and the beast within him that’s only kept at bay by his pills, and has created Ella as an alter ego and friend who can coax him out of retreating into himself. His fear never leaves him as he struggles through the snow, but he and Ella find ways to cope and keep him going forward. Though it never feels like Elliot will have a fairytale ending in which his fear disappears, there is hope that he is at least a small step forward.

This is not an easy read, as it swings between Elliot’s terror-stricken narrative and the black comedy of the robbers, but most middle graders will recognize his anxiety, albeit likely much more extreme than they have felt, and empathize with his heroic quest.