Tag Archives: school

A Short History of the Girl Next Door by Jared Reck

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A Short History of the Girl Next Door by Jared Reck
Knopf, Sept 2017

Matt and Tabby have been friends forever, but as they start high school Matt is hiding that he is in love with her, though she does not reciprocate. In fact, she starts dating handsome senior Luke, star athlete and all round nice guy so Matt puts himself in a self-imposed competition with Luke both for Tabby and on the basketball court. When a tragedy strikes, Matt goes off the emotional rails.

Debut author Reck is following a well-trodden path for his first novel (in fact, Kirkus notes many similarities with John Green’s Waiting for Alaska), and up until the tragedy occurs, while I was happy to read the engagingly written book, I was not finding anything out of the ordinary. It is only when Matt is plunged into grief that the book moves tentatively out of the ‘so what?’ zone. Reck has written with authority and insight into the anger that can be part of grieving; Matt is a mess but is powerless to change, though ultimately, with the intervention of his eccentric grandfather and his inspirational English teacher, Matt moves towards a gradual resolution.

Matt’s narration gives the novel some character and the stylistic devices add a nice layer of trimming – Matt views things as though he’s directing a movie of his life and he makes some smart comments on modern romantic movie tropes. However, the other, all white, characters are largely undeveloped stereotypes.

So not a lot to see here, but YA fans of sad stories might enjoy it.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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Worthy by Donna Cooner

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Worthy by Donna Cooner
Point/Scholastic, 2017

White high school junior Linden’s social status is on the rise – she’s dating hot Mexican American baseball player Alex and she’s become part of the “Lovelies” crowd that’s organizing prom. The only cloud on the horizon is a new school wide app called Worthy which gets users to anonymously rate and comment on whether a girl is worthy of the guy she’s dating (everyone is apparently heterosexual in this Texas school). Even as she questions why it’s only the girl being rated, Linden thinks this app seems like fun but later realizes that it can hurt people.

Linden is a somewhat contradictory character – she’s a quiet introvert who makes a few credibility straining extrovert choices which drive the plot along. The big star of the book, for me, is Nikki Aquino, her best friend, “a gorgeous plus-sized Filipino girl,” who seems to have oodles of self-confidence to go her own way. Her reaction to being on Worthy is priceless, but at the same time we see her vulnerability and self-doubt. Other teens and family members are all pretty two dimensional.

The attention-grabbing cover will ensure this book gets picked up, and readers will get what they came for. The plotting and pacing are sound, and the novel is very readable, though the resolution is YA glib – everything gets sorted out rather more easily than it would do after such emotional damage in real life.

The book raises some interesting questions about judgment, both by your peers and by yourself, and like 2015’s NEED raises the question about what people will do when they are allowed to be anonymous. The author also considers the idea of inward and outward beauty, as Alex’s sister helpfully has a Beauty and the Beast-themed quinceanera.

This is not a book that’s going to change the world but it is thoughtful and slightly provocative.

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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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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Balzer + Bray, 2017.

Angie Thomas’s much buzzed about debut novel is an absolute tour de force.

16 year-old African American Starr Carter lives in a black neighborhood and codeswitches when she goes to her mostly white high school. But when she witnesses her best friend Khalil being killed by the police, she realizes she needs to be the real Starr.

The author has given Starr a voice that shows her intelligence, her humanity, and her awareness of her position in two camps, not wholly accepted in either. As the only witness to the shooting, Starr has to go through a lot in terms of legal proceedings and she also grows personally when she realizes what her actions mean to the neighborhood and to her friends, both at home and school, as she searches for justice for Khalil and all the other “hashtags” like him.

The author skillfully and meticulously paints a portrait of a neighborhood that is economically run down, riddled with gangs and drugs, but still is a loving and supportive community. Even better than that, she draws characters that are wholly human – complex, conflicted, and ambiguous.

Despite the obvious temptations to make this a black and white (no pun intended) ‘issue’ novel, the author lets none of the characters, black or white, off the hook for their actions or attitudes. Khalil is a drug dealer, but the author also looks at the economic and social disadvantages that lead to drugs and gangs. Similarly, she exposes some of Starr’s white schoolfriends for their deep-rooted racism, but her white boyfriend is an ally. She explores the intensely paradoxical feelings that Starr’s parents have – they want to be part of their community, but also want their children to be safe and have the educational advantage that their school gives them.

The book title comes from Tupac, and refers to the harvest that racism reaps, both for black and white communities. My only minor grumble is the novel slips a little into didacticism for a couple of pages when Starr’s dad lectures her on her inheritance as a black person, but it just about stays in character.

Sometimes I feel a little cynical about hot books on hot topics but I believe The Hate U Give genuinely transcends any category and is an extraordinarily good novel. I think teens (and adults) will find it thought-provoking, insightful, and stunningly of the moment.

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Prom: The Big Night Out by Jill S. Zimmerman Rutledge

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promProm: The Big Night Out by Jill S. Zimmerman Rutledge
Twenty-First Century, 2017.

Psychotherapist Zimmerman Rutledge looks at one of the American teen’s rites of passage: the prom. Starting with traditional proms from their beginning as middle-class versions of the debutante ball, the book then briefly examines changing cultural attitudes since then, and how this has affected prom.

However, the author’s intent is also to show that prom is not stuck in the unenlightened 1950’s, and there are chapters about how proms are now integrated and (mostly) welcoming to LGBTQ couples, and photographs to reflect this.

Prom fashion is a central theme, though there is a scarcity of photographs of many of the dresses described, including in a section on how fabulous dresses need not cost a fortune.

The author tries hard to moderate the perception of prom’s weighty significance with a rather-longwinded chapter of tips and not always rosy reflections from twenty-somethings; and there is advice on dealing with the pressures that can lead to a challenging experience, along with helpful resources.

Though there are few nonfiction books on this topic, a mismatch between the style of the book (chatty tone, large font) and the age of the intended audience make this a discretionary purchase for libraries but it may be of interest to some teens.

It Looks LIke This by Raffi Mittlefehldt

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it-looks-like-thisIt Looks LIke This by Raffi Mittlefehldt
Candlewick, 2016.

This is a moving, if somewhat melodramatic, coming out story that has power in its quiet understatement. 14-year old Mike’s family moves to a small town in Virginia and Mike settles in at school: he makes a few friends but also attracts the attention of bully Vincent. Then, thrillingly, he meets Sean and as they work on a French project together, their friendship moves into something else.

Both Mike and Sean come from socially conservative and deeply religious families, and neither Mike nor Sean know what to do with their attraction except keep it secret. Mike’s Dad is always on at him about playing sports (a bit of a cliche), whereas Mike is interested in art, and uses his acute observational skills to write some lovely descriptions (ok, time to confess – this is where I should put in a quote, but I had to give the book back and didn’t take any notes, so this is all done on memory. I also forgot to note down if there were any descriptions that would indicate racial diversity. Sorry).

Mike appears to brush off the abuse from his father, Victor, and even his teachers, but it gradually emerges that he has absorbed it. Though the word “gay” is never used, it is clear that his parents, church, and much of the school is homophobic, and take offence at Mike’s demeanor. But his two friends, and his younger sister, Toby (sigh – why do strong girls always have to have boys’ names?) are supportive and protective, vehemently so in Toby’s case.

The book has a melancholy, foreboding air, right from the start and, inevitably, tragedy ensues, though here the novel crosses the line into melodrama, But on the horizon, there is hope, more tolerance, and, at least, an effort to be more accepting.

I found this book most absorbing, and I think it will appeal to teens who enjoy well-written, character-driven realistic novels.

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Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz

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projekt-1065Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2016.

Set in World War II Berlin, this exciting, fast-paced adventure story mixes spy story thrills into a well-researched historical setting.

Michael O’Shaunessey is the 13 year-old son of the Irish ambassador to Germany, and the family uses Ireland’s neutral status as a front for spying for the Allies. Michael is at a Hitler Youth school, and under this cover rescues a British airman. Once he has graduated to the SRD (the Hitler Youth equivalent of the Gestapo), he becomes involved in a plot with global stakes.

The reader will be as appalled as Michael by what the Hitler Youth are allowed to get away with and, indeed, what they were used for in the latter days of the war. In the useful Author’s Note, Gratz rightly recommends Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth (Scholastic, 2005) for further reading.

Michael himself is not a particularly original character – he is smart, capable with his fists, and an upright and moral boy. He has a handily photographic memory, but has a flaw too – he is deathly afraid of heights (and you’ll never guess what he has to do to overcome the villain!). Much more interesting is his friend Fritz, something of a metaphor for Hitler and other such bullies, who starts as the weakling butt of the Hitler Youth jokes, but rises quickly to become a feared and fanatical leader.

The writing is straightforward and unadorned, and the action races along to a rousingly cinematic, if not entirely credible, climax, but along the way there is some interesting ambiguity. The book is well pitched for middle grade readers who enjoyed the WWII action of Margi Preus’s fictional Shadow on the Mountain (Abrams, 2012)  and Philip Hoose’s nonfiction The Boys Who Challenged Hitler (FSG, 2015)..

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