Tag Archives: school

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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Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

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Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green
Roar, 2018

Using deceptively simple drawings and a shades of gray palette, British illustrator Green relives her battle with eating disorders from a young age through to her young womanhood.

Even as a young girl, Katie had a difficult relationship with food. As she enters secondary school, and social pressures increase it develops into full blown anorexia. Green pulls no punches about how it affected her and her family. After ineffective treatment after ineffective treatment, her father takes her to see an alternative therapist and while initially his support and confidence building seems to really help her, it later becomes something much darker.

Green shows how her eating disorder is a manifestation of her need for control and perfection, and how long term therapy ultimately helps her, though not in a dramatic “breakthrough” way, rather in a series of small realizations.

With just a few lines, Green is able to convey the depth of her problems. There are many spreads showing her looking in a mirror, and reflecting what she is seeing. The device of using a noisy black cloud over her head to show her disorder which grows and recedes, overwhelms and surrounds, and never quite goes away is illuminating of the omnipresence of her troubles.

I think this graphic novel does a superb job of showing how eating disorders are related to other psychological problems; how girls with these troubles are able to skate by without people really noticing, or noticing and not realizing the depth of the problem, and how therapy can be such a powerful tool to combat it.

As a high school librarian I feel this is such an important book to get into the hands of young women who are under such pressure to perform academically, and to conform socially and physically. Maybe for one or two of them it will show them that they’re not alone.

Magnificent.

The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas

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The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas
Delacorte, July 2018.

Kara Thomas has created another atmospheric and tense thriller about teen girls, that sadly promises a little more than it ultimately delivers.

Five years ago, two of the cheerleading team of Sunnybrook High died in a car accident, a few days later two were murdered and then shortly after that one killed herself. Now junior Monica Rayburn, sister of the girl who committed suicide, discovers that there may be a connection between the girls’ deaths. The novel moves between Monica’s present day narration with occasional breaks into a third person perspective of the events from five years ago leading up to the deaths.

Monica is unraveling as she investigates the deaths and uncovers some inconsistencies: Her emotions are fraught as she deals with being dumped by her boyfriend and then having a summer fling with an older man which ended poorly. She makes a connection with Ginny, a girl who has always been there but has been invisible to Monica and her friends, but now Ginny provides support and encouragement to Monica as she digs deeper.

Monica’s parents have tried to protect her from getting caught up in the events of five years ago, but now this protection feels more suspicious: her stepfather, a police officer, was the one who fatally shot the neighbor who he believed was the murderer.

Using technology, connections, inspiration, and old-fashioned sleuthing, the two girls close in on the truth. But will it bring closure or will it rip the community apart?

As with her previous novels, The Darkest Corners (2016) and Little Monsters (2017), Kara Thomas does a terrific job of creating a slippery atmospheric mystery combined with the seesaw emotions of a teen girl being pushed to her limits. While not quite as satisfying as the masterful Little Monsters, the plot resolves in an unexpected twist and Monica is able to move forward.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

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Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Crown, 2017.

(I listened to this book – great reading by Dion Graham! – so I may get some details and spellings wrong as I don’t have any notes to refer to).

High school senior, Justyce McAllister is one of the few African American kids at Atlanta’s fancy Brazelton Prep. He’s on course to go to Yale and from there to make a difference in public policy. But when he’s treated abusively by police officers, he decides to write to Martin Luther King to thresh through his feelings and to experiment in “being like Martin.”

There are a lot of similarities with Angie Thomas’s magnificent The Hate U Give (2017), though this is a much more condensed and less richly textured book. However, it takes the viewpoint of a young black man which gives it a different, perhaps more immediate, perspective.

Jus is a wonderfully complex and knotty character.  He realizes that he can’t get away from his skin color and he finds himself torn between what he sees as the two options: either following his dreams but having to swallow his gall at being patronized and belittled in the white world or becoming like his old friends from the neighborhood enmeshed in gang life. Can he, like Martin, find a middle path?

Other characters are somewhat underdeveloped but are thumbnails of different outlooks: Jus’s black friend Manny comes from an affluent family though they still feel the sting of racism; the group of white “bro’s” ostensibly believe they’re in a color blind world but their dog whistle comments show otherwise; Jus’s love interest, Jewish Sarah Jane, is just a little bit too perfect as a white ally.

The narrative is split between Jus’s letters, script-like conversations and discussions, and a third person pov. It moves along speedily through Jus’s senior year and into the next chapter of his life, but I didn’t feel short-changed by the sprightly 41/2 hours.

This is a well-written and thought-provoking book and should find its way into all teen collections.

Posted by John David Anderson

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Posted by John David Anderson
Walden Pond, 2017

Bench, Wolf and Deedee are Frost’s people, they make up his middle school tribe – he eats lunch with them, plays Dungeon and Dragons with them at weekends, and supports them in their passions. They have been together for years and are planning to cruise through middle and high school together.

But then two things happen: the school principal bans cellphones and Rose Holland starts at their school. These catalysts test the boys’ friendship and reveals the level of cruelty that anonymity can bring out in 8th graders. The cellphone ban generates a new method of communication – unsigned post-it notes. Many are just harmless notes to friends but a few are hate-filled.

The novel starts like an Andrew Clements novel with a funny situation at a school, but quickly gets much darker and more nuanced as it tackles middle school social dynamics rather than elementary school ones.

Frost, the narrator and the poet of the group, can only watch as his tribe fractures. Bench (so-called because of where he tends to spend most sports games) is not keen on letting Rose join them and when he makes a stunning catch in a football game and becomes part of the jock crowd he drifts away from them. Sensitive Wolf, a gifted pianist, bonds with Rose as they are both outsiders who become the target of post-it bullying. Only Dungeon master Indian American Deedee seems comfortable, or perhaps oblivious, with the status quo. Rose, “tall and wide,” has moved around from school to school and knows all about name-calling and bullying.

Set in a small town in Michigan, the novel zooms out from the school and portrays a variety of family structures and dynamics, and the effect that can have on a child. Frost’s parents are bitterly divorced, whereas Wolf’s are bitterly still together.

Mr Anderson seems comfortable to move between fantasy and novels, and writes equally adeptly in both genres. Kids who enjoyed Ms Bixby’s Last Day, should be happy to move up to the middle school machinations of Posted.

Honor Code by Kiersi Burkhart

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Honor Code by Kiersi Burkhart
Carolrhoda Lab, 2018

This flawed YA realistic novel, reminiscent of recent events at real life St Paul’s, is a timely look at sexual assault and the silence that surrounds it.

When white 15 year-old narrator Sam Barker gets a scholarship to elite Edwards Academy, she records her perspectives in an anonymous blog.  She is stunned on her first evening when the girls in her dorm are subjected to a body check and she is told she “needs to improve.” As well as this hazing, she finds that, despite the school’s honor code, drinking, and smoking are also tacitly accepted.

She develops a crush on rich, popular senior, Scully Chapman, also white, so when the Head Girl matches her with Scully for the Mixer dance she is thrilled. The reader might find her strangely unquestioning of why this would happen, particularly given her low self-esteem. After a couple more dates, inevitably she goes to Scully’s room and he rapes her.

Scared to go to a teacher or the police, she takes her story to Harper, a black investigative journalist. As Sam pursues justice, she is vilified online and ostracized by Edwards students, but the new Sam, forged in steel by her quest, persists in wanting to attend the school to achieve her dream of going to Harvard Law School.

I found Sam a slightly unconvincing character. We are told that her self esteem is crushed by the body check, but the author doesn’t show credibly her evolution from this naive “Firstie” to crusader for vengeance. Similarly, her friendship with “topaz”-skinned Gracie, her roommate, is crucial to the plot but I never felt the tight bond that Sam tells us they have.

There is a final plot twist which is both unnecessary and actually undermines the main argument of the novel. Though justice is served, at least to an extent, the novel unwittingly gives weight to a counter argument that it never addresses. While I wouldn’t say this makes the novel unacceptable, I feel that, along with the weak characterization and tendency to tell not show, there are bound to be better novels to meet the #MeToo moment. Nonetheless, readers might appreciate a young woman taking on the system when history suggests the odds are against her.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

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The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Clarion, 2017.

Salvador Silva is just starting senior year at high school and finds that his comfortable life is about to be disrupted both externally and internally. His grandmother, Mima, is dying of cancer, his best friend Sam is having difficulties with her mother, and his other good friend, Fito, is having even worse family troubles. And then Sal himself is feeling different – he punches a kid and then another, which is so not how he has been brought up.

There are some traditional and non-traditional families in this book and a lot of dead mothers. A lot. Sal himself is a white boy who was adopted by Vicente, a gay Mexican American, after his mother died when he was three. He doesn’t know who his birth father is and begins to suspect that these aggressive feelings must come from him. Vicente gives him a letter from his mother but Sal doesn’t feel quite ready to open it yet.

Vicente is the sort of saint-like parent that you only get in novels (or at least I don’t know any of them, myself included). He has sacrificed his life for Sal and always has the right thing to say or do, no matter how difficult the problem. When a boyfriend from the past returns, the family is expanded as Marcos turns out to be similarly saintly.

There’s also the sibling bonds that Sal has created with Sam and, tentatively, with Fito, both Latinx.  Sam is smart and confident but is fractured by her relationship with her mother, and unusually for a YA novel, her feelings for Sal stay at a sisterly level. Fito is also smart but because of his family dynamics, he feels worthless and that he deserves nothing.

The writing is easy but precise, short chapters often punctuated with text conversations. The author creates a warm, loving family even if it is not traditional. Sal has his moments, but the reader knows that with the loving support he gets from his father, relatives, and friends – all of whom make up his family – he’s going to be ok.