Tag Archives: tragedy

Little Do We Know by Tamara Ireland Stone

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Little Do We Know by Tamara Ireland Stone
Hyperion, 2018

Stone explores complex aspects of faith and trust in this respectful, character-driven novel. White seniors Hannah and Emory had been best friends for 17 years but, after a shattering argument 3 months ago, have not spoken to each other since. They go their separate ways – Hannah to her father’s church school and Emory hanging out with her boyfriend Luke – until one night Luke has an accident and everything changes for all three of them.

Hannah’s family is deeply Christian and so was she, but now she is questioning this blind faith and she looks for alternatives. Religion has not been a factor in Luke and Emory’s lives, but after his near-death experience Luke starts finding comfort in it.

Hannah and Emory are distinct and fleshed-out narrators in alternating short chapters as they gradually unpeel what happened three months ago to drive them apart and what is happening now that might bring them back together. As they deal with the secrets that can undermine even the closest relationships, they also find the glue that keeps friends and families together.

Ideal for teens interested in unusual and unexpected ideas.

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The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

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The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor
Katherine Tegen, 2018

7th grader Mason Buttle is tall, sweaty, and something of an innocent. He is dyslexic and has synesthesia – he sees his mood as colors. All of this makes him a a bit of a loner and target for bullies. Two years ago, his best friend Benny Kilmartin died in an accident, and though Mason doesn’t realize it, many people in the town including one of the police officers, think he is responsible.

Two things happen to change Mason’s life: His empathetic and kind counselor gets Dragon,  some voice recognition software, so Mason is able to write his story and, secondly, he becomes friends with Calvin Chumley, a particularly small and smart neighborhood boy.

Mason’s family has checked out since the death of his mother (his father is out of the picture) and grandfather several years ago, and Benny’s death was a further blow: “Bing, bang, boom.” They have sold off family land, stopped working the orchard, and let their house turn into a “crumbledown”, but a crisis involving Mason galvanizes them all back to life.

Connor captures Mason’s voice through both his narration of the book and his Dragon-dictated account of his life. Short sentences, straightforward vocabulary, and thoughtful musings show Mason to be a boy with a lot of challenges, but who ploughs on regardless. His naïveté, good heart, and openness to friendship shine through.

I enjoyed Connor’s Crunch (2010) and this is a similarly quirky perspective on that hazy age between being a child and a teen. Though Mason and Calvin are outliers, their friendship and experiences will resonate with many middle graders.

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.

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.

Losers Bracket by Chris Crutcher

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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

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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.

The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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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.