Tag Archives: nontraditional protagonist

What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum

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What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum
Delacorte, July, 2017.

We are in very familiar territory here. Again. It’s a two-hander – a girl and a boy, each with an ‘issue’ (Kit’s father recently died in a car crash, David is on the high functioning end of the Autism spectrum), meet up, become friends, and then maybe more. Not much new to see here.

The main characters are appealing and well written, and the author digs into their emotional depths with skill. The support characters are almost entirely peopled from TV and movie high schools – and the author mentions this often enough for it to, almost, be a sly wink. David’s family is feels straight out of some soapy TV dramedy – say This is Us. Kit’s homelife, on the other hand, feels more off the beaten track, as her Indian mother sinks into depression and despair.

The plot follows its expected route, as Kit and David get to know each other and both credibly find themselves changing as a result of this relationship. There’s a couple of unexpected swerves, the mean kids mostly get their comeuppances, and there’s even a makeover scene, though maybe not quite what you’re expecting.

The author’s note mentions “lots of research” though nothing specific is detailed. I assume this is on the autism spectrum but, as David notes, quoting a well-known aphorism, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. I have to say, he feels a bit like a caricature of a kid with autism, though with much of the inconvenient stuff rubbed off.

So this has been something of a negative review, which actually doesn’t seem entirely fair, because I did enjoy the novel. It’s easy to read, the characters are engaging and I was rooting for them, the tensions in the plot are nicely balanced, and the pace is brisk but not rushed. It’s not going to change the world but it will give you a pleasant afternoon.

Thanks to Delacorte for the review copy.

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Drag Teen by Jeffery Self

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drag teenDrag Teen by Jeffery Self
Push/Scholastic, May 2016

Lately I’ve noticed a trend in YA novels of gay teens who are not only completely happy with being gay, but whose friends and families are similarly accepting. I think this is a really positive step forward – that being gay is not the ‘issue’ of the book – and I hope that this attitude is as prevalent in the rest of the country as it seems to be at the private high school I work at in San Francisco.

In Drag Teen, 17 year old JT Barnett feels like he’s going to be stuck in Clearwater, Florida, pumping gas at his parent’s service station for the rest of his life. His boyfriend, Seth, is going off to college but JT’s parents seem unable, or unwilling, to fund further education. When Seth finds out about a New York drag teen pageant, whose first prize is a full four-year college scholarship, he pushes JT to enter, and the two of them, along with best friend Heather, set out to achieve this.

JT has always felt drawn to drag, though his only attempt so far, at a school talent show, ended in humiliation and tears. His description of what drag means to him rings honest and true: JT is an anxious, over-dramatizing bundle of insecurities, but in drag he can be in the moment, feel comfortable in his own skin and feel the joy of being his real self.

Unfortunately, for me, this was the only part of the book that felt authentic. The premise of a pageant offering  a full scholarship and only having 20 entries (with a simple online entry form and no parental consent needed) seemed wildly lacking in credibility – honestly, for that prize, I’d have my son in heels and a wig in a flash – and the plot is like a fairytale as JT has one fortuitous encounter after another: the drag queen who shows him how to do perfect make-up in 20 minutes, the woman who picks the trio up after a flat tire and turns out to be a country music star with a closet full of wigs and sparkly outfits.

Along with JT, Heather is a well-drawn character: she doesn’t want to be just the “fat sidekick” and kicks out on her own adventures, though I found it a little sad how she keeps being knocked down. Seth, on the other hand, never really comes off the page as more than a textbook dreamy boyfriend, even though he too has secrets.

The climactic pageant is the most satisfying part of the book (putting aside my qualms about its existence) as JT gets to know and appreciate the other drag teens and the world of this racially diverse “tribe”. The token villain, however, a mean teen who for no apparent reason singles JT out for bitchy treatment, is so easily turned to the good that my eyes nearly fell out rolling.

Still, when you pick up a book with a cover picture of a pink wig augmented with a tiara, on an acid yellow background, it is clearly not going to be all grimy reality and wasted opportunities, so I don’t think any reader is going to be disappointed by the spun sugar world, and fans of Tim Federle’s Nate books will feel entirely comfortable here (there’s no mention of sex or genitalia). It’s good to have another affirming book about teens of all types being accepted and celebrated, even if I would like it to have a little, or even some, edge.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Fifteen Lanes by S. J. Laidlaw

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Fifteen LanesFifteen Lanes by S. J. Laidlaw
Tundra, 2016.

Named after the fifteen lanes of Kamathipura, one of Mumbai’s red light districts, this heartrending story, narrated by two struggling teen girls from vastly different social circumstances, was inspired by the author’s social work in India. Noor is the daughter of a sex worker, and despite her mother’s efforts to keep her at school, the brothel owner wants to sell her. Grace is ostracized at her school and then cyberbullied. As a result, she volunteers at an NGO which helps the daughters of sex workers to stay out of prostitution, where she meets Noor.

Noor is the heart of the novel. Her compassion, resilience, love for her younger siblings, and clear-eyed acceptance of her life sing out, and the many secondary characters in the brothel, the streets and the school of the Kamathipura chapters are all vividly created.

Grace, on the other hand, is a well-written, but much more traditional YA character – the introverted girl whose best, and only, friend leaves, and who becomes the target of the mean girls. I found the characters in this section of the book to be much more caricatured. The only exception is VJ Patel, the son of a Bollywood star and a rising name in the film world himself, who befriends Grace and acts as something of a deus ex machina, using his charm, wealth, and influence to solve everyone’s problems.

The balance of the novel feels somewhat offkilter as, though Grace is clearly having a very hard time, even she appreciates it pales in comparison to the institutionalized terror of Noor’s existence. As the girls’ stories do not converge until nearly half way through the book, their time together, when their lives are reaching a crisis point, feels rushed and not as well thought through or credible as the buildup.

The content of the novel is clearly intended for older teens as it doesn’t pussyfoot around the horrific realities of a sex worker’s life, though the brutalities are reported rather than experienced, and Grace cuts herself and contemplates suicide. However the rather glib and convenient resolution feel mismatchedly middle grade.

Like The Bitter Side of Sweet, Fifteen Lanes does an excellent job of bringing the attention of Western teens to the horror of life for some kids in other countries. But I found it problematic that Grace and VJ are used to ‘save’ Noor, taking the agency from Noor, who has coped for so long, and the Indian NGO.

Though I have a few significant concerns with Fifteen Lanes, I think it is a worthwhile novel for readers interested in different facets of global social issues.

The Adventures of Nanny Piggins by R. A. Spratt

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nanny pigginsThe Adventures of Nanny Piggins by R. A. Spratt
Little, Brown, 2010.

It’s R. A. Spratt week here at bibliobrit! First up is The Adventures of Nanny Piggins, one of my all-time favorite funny book for kids. And adults. Later this week, I’ll be reviewing the first in a new series, Friday Barnes, Girl Detective.

When cheapskate Mr Green hires Nanny Piggins to look after his three children, he makes an unusual choice, because Nanny Piggins is a pig. But she’s cheap and she’s available. And though she’s never been a nanny before, she was a flying pig in a circus and it’s got to be easier than that.

Unlike such prigs as Mary Poppins and Mrs Piggle Wiggle, Nanny Piggins has no expectations of the children and her priorities are sugar, chocolate and fun. The Green children are entirely happy to go along with this, and are complicit in the many adventures Nanny Piggins arranges such as sailing to China, spending their school uniform money on tickets to an amusement park, and trapping a doorknob thief.nanny-piggins_dan-santat-3

Australian author Spratt has created a delicious and anarchic world where a pig can be a nanny who loves the children so much “she often forgot they were humans altogether and thought of them as pigs”. The slightly arch tone of voice pairs well with Dan Santat’s charming drawings which perfectly capture Nanny Piggins’ chic sense of style – even butchers sigh when she walks past.

Each chapter is a self-contained chortle-filled escapade and the book would make a great readaloud for 2nd or 3rd graders.

Nanny Piggins is not a moral character and some readers, mostly adult ones I suspect, may object to her ideas on nutrition and entertainment. I say “bleeh” to them and, as it happens, Madeleine Albright agrees with me.

There are now 4 more fun-filled Nanny Piggins books available in the U. S., and several more in Australia.

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

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9780373211753_BBWhat We Left Behind by Robin Talley
Harlequin Teen, due out November 2015.

It turns out to be transgender week at bibliobrit! It’s terrific that there are starting to be books for kids of different ages on this important topic.

This is Ms. Talley’s second novel: I very much enjoyed the brutally powerful Lies We Tell Ourselves, and now the absolutely cracking What We Left Behind has even more maturity and sophistication.

Toni and Gretchen meet cute and fall in love at the junior homecoming dance. Fast forward to the first year of college – Toni is at Harvard and Gretchen at NYU. Can they make a long distance relationship work?

This is a really talky novel, entirely driven by the two main characters in their alternating narration and I became thoroughly invested in these two and their relationship. Toni, probably the flashier of the two, spends her first year at Harvard exploring her gender identity. It is a wonderful portrait of a questioning teen – serious, looking for a definitive answer, trying out new labels and new pronouns, and, yes, also slightly irritating. Toni’s group of friends at Harvard are a racially diverse group of, mainly, transgender men. They are juniors and have the certainty and assurance that Toni longs for.

Gretchen initially seems less interesting – she is something of a doormat to Toni, a follower and a listener. At NYU, she becomes close friends with Carroll, a gay young man from rural New Jersey who is out for the first time, and this friendship is something of a celibate mirror of Gretchen’s relationship with Toni. However, as we’re shown in a couple of cleverly placed flashbacks to their high school years, Gretchen’s decision to go to New York instead of Boston, is a crucial part of her development as an individual.

This is also, if only incidentally, a wonderfully drawn portrait of two people’s first experiences of being at college with all the fire hose gush of experiences – academic, personal and social – that brings.

By focusing on these two characters and their growth and development, as well as a fine and diverse range of support characters, Ms Talley has written a magnificent and timely novel that should be in all high school libraries and teen collections.

Reviewed from an ARC.

George by Alex Gino

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georgeGeorge by Alex Gino
Scholastic, 2015.

10 year-old George is a girl in the body of a boy. As her class puts on a performance of Charlotte’s Web, George finds a connection with Charlotte that gives her the courage to tell her family and close friend that she’s transgender.

George faces a plethora of different reactions. Her best friend, Kelly, is initially unsure but then embraces her revelation with enthusiasm. Her mother, again ambivalent if not hostile to start with, explains that if she was the ‘ordinary’ sort of gay, she’d feel OK about it, but she is concerned about her well-being: “The world isn’t always good to people who are different. I just don’t want you to make your road any harder than it has to be.”

At school, the responses from the adults varies – her teacher doesn’t show any understanding, though the principal does: “You can’t control who your children are, but you can certainly support them.” The other students have mixed, often negative, reactions, from uncomprehending to contempt.

George/Melissa is a great role model for transgender tweens, or indeed any tween that feels different. Her courage and determination are nicely drawn, and her certainty about her gender in the face of others’ questioning will encourage others.

This is obviously a very au courant topic, and it’s an engaging tale intended and appropriate for upper elementary/lower middle school kids. But here’s my problem – this is an important and significant book, but I just didn’t find it that well-written – it’s occasionally clunky and, other than George, the characters feel like they only exist to express an opinion of George’s gender (though, don’t forget, I was reading an ARC, it may have been tightened up for publication). If this were a realistic tween cisgender novel, I’d give it three stars and move along. But because of its subject matter, I feel it deserves more attention than that, and would recommend it for all library collections for elementary and middle school kids.

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern

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step toward fallingA Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern
HarperCollins, due out October, 2015.

Following the splendid Say What You Will, Ms McGovern’s new novel again succeeds in showing, not telling, that getting to know individual young adults with mental and physical challenges can change perceptions of them along with other people with disabilities.

High school seniors Emily and Lucas both fail to help mentally disabled Belinda when she is being sexually assaulted at a high school football game. As punishment, they must help out at a “Boundaries and Relationships” class for mentally disabled young adults. However, they both come to believe they need to do more for Belinda herself, so, as she loves acting, they decide to put on a play of her favorite movie, Pride and Prejudice.

Told from Emily and Belinda’s points of view, their perspectives are enlightening in both style and content. Emily is a pretty standard, though thoughtfully written, YA lit geeky teenager with geeky friends and geeky fixed ideas about other people. Belinda’s narration is much more original. We learn about her worldview, her disability and her family’s methods of dealing with it, in a straightforward and at times gauche tone. Is there a whiff of authorial patronizing? I don’t think so – Ms. McGovern works with special needs kids, and gives the reader the opportunity to see that there are many different types and gradations of mental disability; even Belinda (and her family) have their own prejudices about the other students in her classroom.

Of course, it’s not entirely original to reference Jane Austen to suggest that the social stratification at a contemporary high school is as rigid as that of early 19th century England. But McGovern uses this as a jump off point to look at more than the prejudice a geek has for a football player; she also tackles both the personal and collective preconceptions about mental disability that the characters (and maybe the readers) have.

Unlike P&P, A Step Toward Falling does not tie all the ends up with everyone’s future secured. In fact, they are notably, and realistically, not tied up. In Belinda’s case, the author weaves in facts about how challenging it can be for those with disabilities to find any sort of work, let alone something that they might find satisfying.

This novel succeeds both as entertainment and as a campaign for tolerance and action – readers who dropped by for the fun may well find themselves walking out with a fistful of pamphlets and a resolution to make life better for others.

Thanks to Harper and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.