Tag Archives: tragedy

Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert


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.


Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green


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.


Losers Bracket by Chris Crutcher


Losers Bracket by Chris Crutcher
Greenwillow, April 2018.

High school senior Annie Boots knows that her biological family is not good for her and that she should follow her long-term foster father’s instructions to stay away from them. But the heart wants what the heart wants, so Annie comes up with elaborate ruses to enable her to meet up with her mother, Nancy, and her half-sister, Sheila, both of whom have substance abuse problems.

But then Sheila’s son Frankie, a somewhat disturbed 5 year-old boy, goes missing and the remainder of the book deals with the fallout from that. It’s here that the tone of the book goes awry for me. Initially we seem to be in a farce with the broader than life Boots’ family caterwauling and cursing at each other (though that sits a little oddly with their drug and alcohol issues), but with the disappearance of the child, there is an abrupt shift into something much more serious and the two tones don’t gel together well.

Annie, a poster child for nurture over nature, is surrounded by a terrific support system: her foster mother and brother are caring and engaged, her good friend Leah, the only significant black character in the book, is endlessly patient with her and her former social worker, something of a cliche as the overworked caring person in a broken-down system, comes through for her (rather unethically) when it counts.

Too much happens rather too swiftly in this short novel, and there is a little too much reliance on familiar tropes (the Boots family feels like every dysfunctional family you’ve ever seen in a reality TV show). Nonetheless, the author, with his background in therapy presents a messily realistic portrayal of how social services and the legal system fail children in need of intervention and he creates a persuasive argument for the power of family, however imperfect.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone


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.

The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen


The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, 2018.

This middle grade historical fantasy adventure, the start of a trilogy, has many of Ms Nielsen’s signature charms but is derailed by an over-complicated plot.

16 year-old aristocratic Kestra Dallisor is blackmailed into helping the rebel Coracks find the Olden Blade – the only weapon that can kill the evil, and immortal, ruler Lord Endrick. She is assisted by her former servant turned rebel Simon, with whom she has a love-hate relationship and Trina, who is decidedly not amused to take the role of Kestra’s handmaid.

All three of these central characters have their secrets, and much like other JAN novels, these are gradually revealed. But none of the twists have quite the shock value that they should have because they’re bogged down in a thick stew of explanations.

Dual narrators, Kestra and Simon, are angst-ridden teens fighting their attraction to each other and it isn’t really a spoiler to tell you that it’s a battle they don’t win. Kestra is a modern spec fic young woman – she is feisty and snarky, stubborn, emotional, apt to blame herself for everything, and a whizz with the weapons du jour. She becomes conflicted as her awareness of the real state of Antora outside of the sheltered confines of the capital grows. Simon is standard issue dishy with hair that flops adorably out of place, thoughtful, and righteous.

In this sort of adventure, world building and plotting is crucial and I’m afraid this isn’t up to JAN’s usual standard: the world building, while reminiscent of The False Prince’s Carthya, is overly complicated (there just seems no point in inventing and having to describe new creatures) and characters spend a lot of time explaining things to each other. There are some rather clunky shifts as minds are rapidly changed and secrets are conveniently revealed, and some sloppiness leads to a couple of gaping plot holes. The end is pretty predictable as we get set up for the sequel.

Overall this was a little disappointing for me, lacking the charm and freshness of the The False Prince (2012) and The Scourge (2016), though fans of this genre will doubtless romp through it.

Fatal Throne: The Wives of Henry VIII Tell All


Fatal Throne: The Wives of Henry VIII Tell All
Schwartz & Wade, May 2018.

Typically the women who married Henry VIII are seen, as the subtitle of this book suggests, purely as adjuncts to the King and are remembered best for the way he disposed of them: Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived as the rhyme goes. This book aims to flesh out these women with each telling her own story, and written by a different female YA author, with some short interjections from Henry, written by M. T. Anderson.

What becomes apparent from each story is the powerlessness of royal and aristocratic women in the 16th century. Each were offered up to the king to secure advantages for their families, whether British or European. Once married, their sole purpose was to provide a son and heir. Those that failed to do that were either divorced or executed for treason. The only two queens who seemed to get anything out of their marriages were Anna of Cleves, who seemed to be quite happy to be divorced and left to her own devices, and Kateryn Parr, who had a taste of power while Henry was off fighting wars in France and then nearly overstepped herself but, in the end, outlived her husband.

In this novel, Henry is written as a bragging oblivious Trumpian figure, manipulated by the powerful men he raises up to run the country according to his whims. He believes he is irresistible to women, even when his suppurating ulcers make him stink and he is so vast he has to be lowered onto his bed by a team of servants. So it follows naturally that when his two youngest and prettiest wives – shrewd Anne Boleyn and party girl Catherine Howard – are suspected of adultery he has them executed.

While most of this will be familiar, to an extent at least, to British teens, it is almost unknown to American ones (I say this having done a completely unscientific survey by asking six students at my school what they knew about Henry VIII). This means it really has to entice and entertain on its own merits and I’m afraid it doesn’t quite pull that off. The first story, which needs to be juicily intriguing, just isn’t. Unfortunately, Henry’s first wife, the dutiful and deeply religious Katherine of Aragon (written by Candace Fleming) is not particularly interesting. The poor women gave birth to seven children of which only one daughter, later Queen Mary, survived. Once she is no longer able to bear children, Henry is desperate to move on, and desperate to bed the seductive Anne Boleyn. The machinations of the divorce, which entails Henry breaking from Rome and the Catholic Church, just don’t make for very good reading and Katherine comes across as rather dull and dry.

The remaining stories are a mixed bag but steadily improve. Anne (by Stephanie Hemphill), writing from her prison in the Tower of London, gets things going a bit more but we are with her in her last days, which tinge the vibrancy of her life with melancholy. The meek and mousy Jane Seymour (by Lisa Ann Sandell) is given just a hint of malice, but her story is short and ends with her dying after giving birth to the much-desired son, the sickly Edward. The novel really picks up with Anna of Cleves (by Jennifer Donnelly), as her pragmatic outlook on her lot gives her a much more sympathetic contemporary feel. Poor Catherine Howard (by Linda Sue Park) is bracingly sexual and, unsatisfied by her old and virtually impotent husband, tragically looks elsewhere for satisfaction. Finally the survivor, Kateryn Parr (by Deborah Hopkinson) relishes her own intellect and is able to outsmart the Bishops who feel she is too much a Reformist and a bad influence on the KIng.

The impact of the political and religious changes of the era are much more far-reaching, though less sizzling, than the fact that Henry married 6 times, though Henry’s desire for a male heir was what catalyzed it. Henry’s split from Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries, and the battle between the different wings of the Church all had more serious consequences for the country and for Europe.

To be honest, I can’t see this book getting much traction with American teens as it’s an obscure bit of history that just isn’t that rivetingly written.

Honor Code by Kiersi Burkhart


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.