Tag Archives: nontraditional protagonist

Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos

Standard

Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos
Wendy Lamb Books, 2019.

It’s 1986 and 12 year-old autistic and nonverbal Nova Vezina and her older sister, Bridget, have been in 11 foster homes in 7 years. But now Bridget has disappeared and Nova has been placed with kind and thoughtful Francine and Billy. Nova has to start at yet another school and undergo yet another round of testing which will inevitably conclude “Cannot read. Does not speak. Severely mentally retarded.” Bridget has always protected Nova from this hateful label, saying she’s smarter than people think and that she’s a “thinker not a talker” and the author does a wonderful job of showing the truth of this. Alternating chapters from a third person POV and letters that Nova writes to Bridget (just “scribbles” to everyone else) take the reader inside Nova’s head, giving an empathetic account of her rich thought processes as well as their external manifestations as she settles into her new home and classroom.

Bridget, and hence Nova, is deeply interested in space exploration, and Nova, clutching her NASA Bear and listening to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, counts down the days to the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger with the First Teacher in Space. But she’s also waiting for Bridget to keep her promise to be there for the launch though the reader may begin to suspect that there’s more to her absence than Nova understands. It’s only when Challenger explodes that the pieces fall into place for Nova.

A couple of concerns. As middle grade readers may not be aware of the Challenger disaster, it may come as a significant shock to them and tip what is already a very sad story into one that carries too much weight. Setting it in 1986 means that there was less understanding of Nova’s condition and less options to help her communicate; Things have changed (as the author explains in a note) but readers may not be aware of this and though both Bridget and her new foster family resist the term “retard” it is still used by responsible adults, even if they are signaled as lacking understanding.

I feel that there’s really could be two novels here: one about Nova and Bridget and one about the doomed Space Shuttle, and though the author does a decent job of making it one novel it does feel a little overstuffed. Nonetheless, the author’s personal experience and her professional experience working with autistic kids brings authenticity to this poignant slim volume. 

Review based on an ARC.

Advertisements

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Standard

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.

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

Standard

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty
Random House, 2018

Week two of the Middle Grade Fiction shortlist reviews is a novel which was the runner-up in our judging panel (just behind the stupendous The Parker Inheritance). Though it was not my personal runner-up, I enjoyed it very much and I believe it has a great deal to offer to middle graders who feel that their differences isolate them.

12yo Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning four years ago and since then has been a math genius as she has acquired savant syndrome (apparently a real, though very rare, thing). She also has OCD and her brain is often taken over by numbers. She has been homeschooled by her Nana (her mother and father are both dead) and has graduated from high school online and is ready for college classes, but now Nana thinks she should develop some other skills and has decided she should go to a real middle school in a grade appropriate to her age.

Reluctantly Lucy goes along with this and decides she wants to be “normal” and ordinary so she hides her math skills, but she can’t hide her compulsive behaviors and quickly becomes the target for the mean kids’ laughter. But Lucy does make friends, with Windy and Levi, and they form a group for their class community project, which benefits from Lucy’s gift.

Perceiving yourself to be “different” is a common enough theme is middle grade and YA fiction, and, indeed, is common in real life, which Ms McAnulty acknowledges when Windy pushes back at Lucy – asking her if she thinks she’s the only person who’s ever felt different at their school. Of course, in one respect, Lucy is very different, but in many others she’s just a regular kid and the author does a great job of showing these different facets through Lucy’s narration. She wants to have friends and she wants to be treated the same as the other kids, with respect and dignity. She does not try to make anyone feel bad about their math skills, in fact she offers to help Levi as well as suggesting some forums he could try if he would find it weird to be tutored by her. Her friend Windy acknowledges that Lucy is an accepting person, she doesn’t try to change anyone but tries to understand them.

The secondary characters are well developed. Windy, in particular, is a lively girl, enthused about doing good in the macro sense, but a little bit oblivious when it comes to actually making a real difference. Levi is a bit more of a sketch: he’s a brown skinned boy with two moms who likes photography, but he’s more grounded than Windy. The community project ingeniously meshes together the skills of all three kids and could inspire readers to see a way to making a difference themselves.

I did, however, find the lead mean girl, Maddie, a bit of an obvious caricature. She had been friends with Windy up to 5th grade but had then moved on to become more of an alpha. She makes fun of Lucy but I felt the author was a little too obvious in showing that this was only because she feels bad about herself as her mother is overly critical (but, hey, it’s always the mother’s fault, right?)

As Lucy’s year at middle school passes, she understands and appreciates why her Nana sent her there, so when she has an opportunity to move to a high performing school which would allow her to develop her math skills more, she is torn and the reader will be too.

I, Claudia by Mary McCoy

Standard

I, Claudia by Mary McCoy
CarolRhoda Lab, 2018.

So I’m of an age that I watched the BBC series of I, Claudius when it was first on TV and thrilled the nation. And Ms McCoy has taken that story and set it in an elite private high school and it works really well. As an examination of the use and abuse of power, the shenanigans of the over-privileged and entitled students of the Imperial Day School fits perfectly.

Claudia McCarthy (oh what fun Ms McCoy has with her characters names) is a freshman with a limp and a stutter, and just wants to fade into the background. But her popular and well-liked sister Maisie brings her into the inner circle of the Honor Council with its current President Augustus Dean and his girlfriend Livia Drusus. Students are expelled or graduate, rather than the more gruesome ends they suffered in Robert Graves’s classic, as, over the years, the Honor Council presidency moves from Augustus to Ty and finally to Cal Hurt’s reign of terror (see what I mean about names – Caligula was played by John Hurt in the TV series).

Claudia herself is a fantastic creation. Not particularly likable and thoroughly unreliable about her own motives as she rises through the ranks of the school’s Senate with her crush the virtuous Hector, Claudia is unrepentant and pugnacious. She is telling her story, apparently to a therapist, as we accompany her through the school’s descent into wild decadence.

Really, this was just an absolutely terrific read and I was inspired to read I, Claudius to see if I could spot more connections. What I found was that Ms. McCoy and the BBC scriptwriters had sensibly focused on the spine of the story, whereas Grave’s Claudius chronicles every name and relationship to the point of my utmost confusion and, sadly, indifference. So hooray for Mary McCoy taking inspiration and then setting off with it on a wildly entertaining novel.

What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum

Standard

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.

Save

Drag Teen by Jeffery Self

Standard

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

Standard

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.