Tag Archives: school

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
Scholastic, 2020.

Suzanne Collins revisits Panem in this very successful prequel set 64 years before The Hunger Games. Coriolanus Snow is a senior at the prestigious Academy, but is only there because of his family’s name – they are dirt poor in reality though do their very best to keep up appearances. The Hunger Games were set up 10 years ago at the conclusion of the Capitol’s victory over the rebellious Districts and they are very different in style, if not in purpose, to the ones that Katniss Everdeen participates in: the Tributes (a boy and girl from each District) are just slung into an arena with some weapons. But for the 10th anniversary, it has been decided to give each Tribute a mentor from the students at the Academy and Coriolanus feels the slight of being awarded the girl from District 12, particularly as the mentors are to be rewarded for the performance of their Tributes. But it turns out that Lucy Gray Baird is special and may well be able to beat the odds.

As well as the basic Hunger Games plot, there is also some clues about how the Games developed into the spectacle that we know from the original trilogy. And, of course, we see the beginning of the evolution of Coriolanus Snow from proud and conflicted teen into what he later becomes.

I enjoyed this book as much as The Hunger Games as it goes back to the personal and individual (while there is a plethora of characters with 24 Tributes and 24 mentors, most are little more than a name), though it does lack the visceral shock I felt when I first read a book in which children kill other children. Of course, Coriolanus is a much more ambivalent character than Katniss, but the author captures his charisma and opportunistic intelligence while keeping him mostly sympathetic.

SLAY by Brittney Morris

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SLAY by Brittney Morris
Simon Pulse, 2019.

So I’m a middle-aged white lady librarian but I was really gripped and enlightened by this book about Black videogaming and would thoroughly recommend it to teens interested in a different slant on gaming.

17 year-old Keira Johnson is one of only eight Black students at Jefferson Academy, along with her sister Steph and her boyfriend Malcolm. She is an Honors student and is excitedly awaiting the admissions decision from Spelman so she and Malcolm can be together in Atlanta while he’s at Morehouse.

But, by night, Keira takes on the role of Queen Emerald in SLAY, a virtual reality MMMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), intended only for Black people. But, more than that, she is the developer of this highly successful game along with Cicada, a young biracial woman who lives in Paris. 

However, when a teen is killed over a dispute in SLAY, the game makes headline news and not in a good way. The author cleverly contrasts the security of the game, where the players can recognize themselves and be authentic, with the way the white media misrepresents them as thugs and gangsters. Then a troll enters SLAY, threatening its very existence as a safe haven for black gamers.

Most of the story is told from Keira’s first person point of view but there are some chapters from the perspective of others who are involved or become involved with the game. The author also uses her characters to show different perspectives of Black people from the pragmatism of Steph to the Black (Male) Power ethos of Malcolm. The two main white characters, ostensibly well-meaning siblings Harper and Wyatt, show the micro (and not so micro) aggressions that the Black students at Jefferson are subject to. 

Ms Morris has created a gorgeous immersive vision with SLAY and the nuts and bolts of the game as players duel each other are enthralling and I learned much from her perspective on race and gender in gaming. And while some of the plotting and characterization is a bit wobbly, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book one bit.

Admission by Julie Buxbaum

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Admission by Julie Buxbaum
Delacorte, May 2020

This lightly fictionalized, timely and very enjoyable version of 2019’s Varsity Blues college admissions scandal takes the point of view of one of the students involved and examines the ideas of privilege and entitlement along with culpability.

So I have skin in this game in several ways. Firstly, I work at a fancy independent high school whose students frequently go to some of the most elite colleges – none were involved with the Varsity Blues scandal though many have the legacy and extremely wealthy cards to play. Also, one of our neighbors was involved and it is to my eternal prurient regret that when I heard a kerfuffle at 6am on March 12, 2019 I didn’t look out the window to see the FBI. And as I write this, my son and I are in Southern California looking at colleges for him. We are a very privileged family and he is a smart kid who goes to a school that gives him lots of advantages though we probably couldn’t donate much more than a picnic table. We even toured USC (which he LOVED of course) and had a bit of a snigger about the water polo trophies.

Anyway back to the book!

Chloe Berringer is the daughter of sitcom star Joy Fields and is thrilled when she gets into prestigious Southern California College against all the odds. But when the FBI arrest her mother for fraud it emerges that Chloe’s acceptance was based on a false claim that she’s a top pole vaulter and an SAT score that she didn’t achieve on her own.

The narrative is split into what happened leading up to the arrest and the aftermath. Chloe is at top notch Woods Valley private school where her grades are not stellar and she feels dumb compared to her best friend Nigerian American Shola (the author really loads Shola up as the face of the victims of the college scam – she is super smart and comes from a low income family who are depending on financial aid for her to get into college and she is waitlisted by SCC) and her crush Levi. It’s not clear to us (or her) if she’s not smart or maybe just doesn’t work that hard, but, either way, getting into SCC feels amazing until it becomes humiliating.

This novel attempts to answer the two questions which were on everyone’s lips at the time. Firstly, why did the parents do it? Though the answer seems to be simply because they can, for Chloe there’s a bit more to it. Did they think she was stupid? Her parents just say that they wanted the best for her but did they really? The idea of prestige is certainly briefly touched on and I’ve got to tell you how much that looms in many parents’ lives despite assurances of “whatever is the best fit”.

The second question we were all asking at the time, is how did the students not know what was going on. Chloe spends a lot of time examining the idea of her culpability – she didn’t know what her parents were doing, but she did have her suspicions and does nothing. She knows she doesn’t have ADHD but allows her new “college counselor” to get this certified to give her extra time on the SAT. And why are her parents making such an enormous charitable donation to this counselor’s pet charity? Chloe concludes in retrospect that she was “aggressively oblivious” as the clues (not to say actual evidence) were there but she chose to willfully ignore them.

There is also some discussion, as there was at the time, of the legal “backdoor” ways that very rich (white) people use their money and privilege to secure college places for their children through large donations, and the unfairness of legacy is also lightly touched on (hey we feel that too! Both my husband and I are British and legacy isn’t a thing there).

There is a lot about Chloe’s privilege using Shola as both a mirror and mouthpiece. Once again Chloe is blithely oblivious of the depths of her privilege and accepts what is handed to her on a plate without much thought. Her microaggressions against Shola are numerous and Shola pushes back more times than you’d hope she’d have to do in real life before realization would set in, though in Chloe’s case, it never really does.

Buxbaum manages to keep Chloe mostly sympathetic and her family is charming but also outrageously privileged. As a contrast to this, offstage, we have Cesar, Chloe’s 1st grade reading buddy whose mother is undocumented. This is something that gives Chloe genuine fulfillment and a place where her parents money has made a difference – it is perhaps a light at the end of a very dark (but comfortably padded) tunnel.

There is of course some delightful and vicarious schadenfreude to be had from this book, but it also gives teen readers some support that if the worst happens, you will survive it and maybe even thrive on your new path. Particularly if your family is well off.

Thanks to Delacorte and Netgalley for the digital ARC.

This Boy by Lauren Myracle

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This Boy by Lauren Myracle
Walker, April 2020

Just before the start of freshman year, Paul and Roby meet up and then become friends once they start school: bonding over a mutual disdain for the girl-hazing bros in their year. Though they fall out over a girl, Latina Natalia, the ties of best friendship hold over the years of high school. Much of the book is a realistic and assured portrait of 21st century high school life for a boy: negotiating friends, girls, hurt feelings, alcohol and drugs, different family structures, different social and economic circumstances, and contemporary gender and sexuality mores. All this is done really well and effortlessly.

But then, because this is a YA book, Something Happens during senior year and the narrative takes a sharp turn from the quotidian to something much higher pitched though well within the bounds of everyday high school life. It is still skillfully written and resolved but I could have done without the extra drama as I was just enjoying living the life.

Paul and Roby are great, well-drawn characters – not in the popular gang but also not in the lower strata. In some ways, they are a step to the side, marching to the beat of their own drums, and I really enjoyed spending time with them. This is a lovely portrait of regular lives which can so easily slip awry, but with heart and support can get back on track.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

Smooth by Matt Burns

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Smooth by Matt Burns
Candlewick, June 2020

Intensely self-conscious about his severe acne, 10th grader Kevin is pleased to be prescribed Accutane, despite its many side-effects, and things definitely look up when he connects with Alex, a girl he meets at his regular blood tests for the drug. While he invests this relationship with a weight that it can’t really bear, he retreats from his former best friends and family and his life starts to spiral downwards. He invests his energy in a slew of creative projects, but they are more about impressing other people than expressing himself, and they all fizzle out.

Debut author Burns imbues his first person narrative with the authentic solipsism of a teenager: Kevin observes and judges his friends, family and classmates with little empathy and without really listening to them, particularly Alex. And so much of what Kevin is thinking and feeling about himself, doesn’t get shared outside his own head and his isolation increases. Like many teens he snarkily views other people only through his own lens, claiming he doesn’t care about friendships, though to be fair to him, the other teens (all white from the suburbs) do seem to him (and me) to be remarkably well-adjusted.

The author does a fine job of chronicling Kevin’s descent into a vicious circle of hopelessness, and it is never clear (to the reader or Kevin) if his depression is caused by the Accutane or is genetic or if it’s just what a sensitive 10th grade boy experiences. Ultimately, though the Accutance does help, it is Kevin himself who has a Judy Blume-inspired epiphany (nicely done!) about his own role in his social isolation. For me, this came a bit too abruptly and a bit too late in the novel and felt rather unbalanced against the amount of time Kevin has spent in despair.

Though only a few teens suffer from such serious skin conditions, many will be able to relate to Kevin’s isolation, withdrawal, and desperate thoughts. A good choice for readers who like dark and some light, but not till the end.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos

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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.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

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Wilder Girls by Rory Power
Delacorte, 2019

An eye-catching cover and intriguing premise is sure to bring readers to this YA speculative thriller, reminiscent of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.

18 months ago, the Tox hit Raxter School for Girls on a remote Maine island. Most of the teachers went mad and killed themselves, some girls lost or gained body parts, others mutated in different ways, and the flora and fauna on the island has grown larger and wilder. Narrator Hetty has lost an eye, her friend Byatt has grown a second spine and the hand of her other friend Reese has turned to silver scales.

With the CDC and Navy promising a cure, the school is quarantined behind a secure fence and cut off from all communications, but this precarious balance is blown when narrator Hetty joins the “Boat Shift” – the group that leaves the school to collect supplies – and when Byatt disappears. 

In the first part of the book Power leisurely builds the world with a few brief glimpses of life before the Tox. Character development does not seem to be a priority (main characters all default white) and even Hetty is not much more than a stereotypical YA dystopian protagonist. Her unresolved sexuality and out of the blue attraction to Reese provide some relief from the disease-driven plot, but the novel remains one-note overwrought, with life-threatening crises from page to page.

The arc of the story follows a familiar pattern as Hetty and friends start to search for explanations and unravel a potential conspiracy (Maze Runner fans might have some ideas) and the plot picks up momentum, with fast-paced, occasionally gruesome, action and horror. 

An environmental theme is introduced late in the novel and with many questions unanswered a sequel is sure to follow. 

Thanks to Delacorte and Netgalley for the digital review copy.

 

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée

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A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée
Balzer + Bray, 2019.

This has been seen as a middle grade novel for those too young to read Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which is sort of fair though rather sweeping but also downplays the merits it has in its own right.

7th grade Shayla forms the “United Nations” with her two best friends: Isabella is Puerto Rican, Julia is Japanese-American, and Shayla is black. Shayla has never had a black friend – not because she doesn’t want to but because they weren’t many other black kids in her elementary school and now she has her friend group, but some of the black kids think she’s deliberately avoiding them.

And she has never been particularly conscious of being black, but as this is set against the backdrop of trial of police officer who shot a black man walking to his car, things have started to change. Shayla develops a growing consciousness of the Black Lives Matter movement which her older sister Hana is a part of and her parents discuss it with her in a matter of fact, balanced, and informative way, gently sharing the injustice of all the trials apparently ending in the same way.

Shayla finds herself becoming more engaged and involved, particularly after her parents take her on a peaceful candlelit protest and decides to stop avoiding standing out and being risk averse. She starts wearing a black armband to show her support for BLM and though there is some antipathy towards this from white students, mostly there is support and it becomes a movement at school. This is a low key introduction to middle grade readers about social injustice and civil rights. The violence and civic unrest takes place offstage, but Shayla’s championing of the BLM movement through her black armband is a terrific way in and metaphor for the wider world.

But as well as being a portrait of the awakening consciousness to social and racial injustice of a young black girl there are also all the usual things that happen in junior high like boys, friends, and branching out to new things, which the author seamlessly integrates. Shayla’s friend group seems to be falling apart: Julia wants to spend time with the Asian American basketball team she plays in, and suddenly Isabella has blossomed into a beauty who is catching the eye of the boy Shayla has a crush on whereas another boy seems to be crushing on Shayla despite her often outright rudeness to him. Shayla gets to know other black kids through joining the track team and being one of only two girls doing shop.

I found the author’s sharp portrayal of one of the teachers to be particularly on point. Though some of the teachers are cool, Ms Jacobs the white English teacher addresses Shayla as though she is the spokesperson for all black people in the school: “I hate when a teacher assumes that just because I’m black , I’ll know all about slavery and civil rights and stuff like that.”

There is a lot going on in this novel and it can be read at different levels. I think many middle grade readers will be engaged by Shay’s voice and her thoughtful progress through 7th grade and at the same time will be excited to accompany her on her journey of self-discovery.

How to Make Friends with the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow

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How to Make Friends with the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow
Delacorte, 2019.

When Grace “Tiger” Tolliver’s mother dies, she is catapulted into a grief-filled and uncharted future in this devastating YA novel.

16 year-old white Tiger and her mother are a tight-knit and insular unit, but when Tiger tentatively tries some baby steps at independence, it turns sour and she ends up lashing out at her mother’s claustrophobic protectiveness: “Why can’t you ever just fucking leave me alone.” That turns out to be the last thing she says to her mother who dies of a brain aneurysm later that day.

As there are no other relatives, Tiger is dropped into the state system while still in a tumult of grief. Refusing to eat or take off the hideous dress her mother bought her for a school dance, Tiger retreats into herself. However, her mother has left behind information about her father, and social services manages to dig up a 20-year-old half sister who agrees to be Tiger’s guardian, who has her own problems. Quite how this is considered acceptable when the parents of her best friend are turned down despite being comfortably off and having known Tiger for many years (there is no specific author’s note on the authenticity of this, but the author is familiar with the system so I take it that she knows what she’s writing about).

As she counts the minutes since her mother’s death, Tiger feels like an object being shuttled around the system. In her brief time in the emergency foster care system and later in a group home, Tiger meets caring adults who are genuinely trying to help her and others, as well as coming across stories of sickening abuse by both biological and foster parents.

Her narrative is interspersed with notes from a primer Tiger writes in her grief counseling group about dealing with the death of her mother and the ensuing emotional fallout, because there wasn’t one for her to follow and she wants other people to know what it feels like.

Though she still feels like she’s “walking around with a Grand Canyon of grief in [her] heart,” Tiger and  and the other “lost kids” she meets are slowly making families “out of scraps.” Kids she would have ignored or been intimidated by when she coasting through life not knowing what was about to hit her become close allies because of what they share.

This is a tough book to read. Early on, I was seriously considering abandoning the novel because it was so hard to read the raw feelings and comprehend the seriously messed up situation. But the author has a steady hand with light and shade, making it just about bearable, and readers who look for sad stories will find a gem here.

Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus

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Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus
Delacorte, 2019.

After the wonderful One of Us is Lying (2017) I had high expectations for Ms McManus’s new murder mystery. And while it is very good it’s much less nuanced than her previous novel – still highly recommended but not go-out-of-your way to read.

Twins Ellery and Ezra Corcoran have to spend the first four months of their senior year living in Echo Ridge, Vermont with their Nana, while their mother, Sadie, is in rehab. Twenty years ago, Sadie’s twin sister disappeared and has never been found, five years ago, homecoming queen Lacey was found murdered. This crime was never solved but the town has decided that Lacey’s ex-boyfriend, Declan Kelly was responsible. As Ellery and Ezra settle into school, there is a new wave of threats against the three candidates for homecoming queen and then one of them disappears. Is this all connected?

The story is told from the perspective of Ellery, a true-crime aficionado, and Declan’s brother, Malcolm – two fully fleshed out and interestingly quirky characters. However, it would have been nice if Ellery had had a bit more agency, and that’s a bit of an issue with all the female characters. The twins, Malcolm, and new friend Korean American Mia do some investigating of their own which may or may not help the police and now Malcolm is getting the same kind of suspicious looks as his brother did five years ago.

The author does a great job with a pretty straightforward murder mystery plot and adds in a couple of interesting layers. Echo Ridge is wealthy and almost wholly white, and Mia and her sister Daisy have felt the pressure of being outside that. There is a Latinx police officer too and the twins, who don’t know who their father is, are biracial – is it just coincidence that all these non-majority culture people are tangled up in this mystery? The novel also takes a sharp look at the role of the media is generating suspicions and fanning the flames of the threat story.

There are plenty of suspects, red herrings, and twists before an unexpected resolution is reached. This is a fast-paced and tightly plotted novel that will grip YA mystery fans.