My friend is dead. I have no tapes.

13 reasons why

Exactly a year ago one of my best college friends, Andrew, killed himself. I was devastated by the news. It was another suicide in a long line of suicides of people close to me and my family. That’s what you get when your parent is a psychiatrist in a state with a high rate of mental illness and low access to care and all manner of mental illness runs in your family. While all of them have been painful, I think this one was the hardest. Whenever these tragedies strike, I’m reminded of the book 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher and why I dislike that book’s portrayal of suicide so very very much.

13 Reasons Why is about a high-school girl named Hannah who dies of suicide but leaves a box of 13 cassette tapes, one for each of the people who she blames for driving her to suicide – classmates and former friends who bullied her, a student who raped a friend and assaulted Hannah, and the school counselor who ignored her cries for help – explaining to them why they are responsible for her death. The tapes are delivered to Clay who had a crush on Hannah and shared what seemed to be an innocent make-out session with her, and he is entrusted to make sure the tapes make it to their intended recipients.

Over the years that I have read and reread the book, it was hard to put my finger on the reason why I hated it. It seemed to change with every reading. First I hated that it romanticized suicide. Then I found it distasteful and disappointing that it turns suicide into the tool of a revenge fantasy. It bothered me that it gives Hannah a voice but hands all the glory to Clay on her behalf. I found it hard to believe that Hannah would premeditate her suicide to such a degree as to have time and drive to record all these tapes with such eloquence and clarity, plan how they would be delivered, and then actually go through with it. Sometimes I just wasn’t a big fan of the writing. But Andrew’s death revealed a whole new reason to me – I’m jealous of the closure.

Even a year later, I find myself wondering about the time between him leaving the last person he saw that night, the thoughts that went through his mind, and the decision he ultimately made. Was he lonely? Was he afraid? Did he consider calling someone? Did he call someone? If he thought back on the last 10 years, did he think of our years of college partying that undoubtedly contributed to his addiction with joy or remorse? Could I have done something different? Could we all have done something to help? What had happened to my friend?

I’ll never know. My friend is dead. I have no tapes. All I have is a group of grieving friends and unanswered questions. I have a screenshot saved on my computer of our last Facebook conversation. I have questions that are still nagging me a year later. Every once in a while I have dreams about him. What I wouldn’t do for a recording of his voice offering some kind of explanation, even if it would be hard to listen to. I don’t need 13 reasons. One would be plenty.

The Dollhouse Murders


The Dollhouse Murders
Betty Ren Wright
Re-published by Holiday House, 2012 (the edition I read)
Originally published by Scholastic, 1985

There’s always a certain amount of danger when reading a book that you are nostalgic about. Is it worth that risk that it might not live up your memories? And if it doesn’t, can you in good conscience continue to promote it as a personal favorite, one that others should read? The Dollhouse Murders is one of those books that I have very distinct memories of reading and being terrified and thrilled by it. It and Babysitters Club book #2 Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls pretty much made me the horror/suspense fan I am today. So when I was asked to give the name of my favorite children’s or YA horror book and this choice would be made very public, I decided to reread The Dollhouse Murders to see if it held up to my memories and if I were willing to declare it my favorite, as I definitely would have at age 8 or so.

In The Dollhouse Murders, after her developmentally delayed sister ruins an afternoon at the mall, Amy runs away to her aunt’s house and ends up striking a deal to stay with Aunt Clare in the house where Amy’s great grandparents lived and raised Aunt Clare and Amy’s father. Amy discovers a dollhouse in the attic that is an exact replica of the house, complete with two adult dolls and a boy and a girl doll to represent the family. Amy is delighted at first but when she notices that the dolls are moving by themselves, the lights in the dollhouse are turning themselves on and off, she becomes scared, naturally. It becomes even more terrifying when she learns that her great grandparents were murdered in the house and the dolls seem to be recreating the crime scene. The murderer was never caught. Could the dollhouse be trying to tell Amy something? Sharing some information to solve the mystery of the murder? Yep, pretty much.

This book is a perfect example of how middle-grade horror should be. It has a few suspenseful scenes, a high creep factor with the old house, the attic, and the dolls, but the characters are never in any real danger. While it talks about murder, there is no gore or violence; that all happens in the past and is only hinted at. And while the murders seem like the main story, The Dollhouse Murders is much more about family relationships, the secrets we keep, and the uncertainties of making and keeping friends as a tween. I was surprised by how much I still liked it, despite a pretty safe, anti-climactic ending.

One last thing about Amy’s sister LouAnn. She is developmentally delayed, and aside from the use of the word “retarded” one time in the book (it was written in the ’80s after all, though they should have fixed it in the 2012 edition), LouAnn is written with great respect by the author, I felt. She is key in solving the mystery and her relationship with Amy, while strained, grows throughout the story. A fully abled little sister would have sufficed but Wright chose to write her as disabled but not helpless. While diverse writing has come a long way since 1985, I really appreciated the inclusiveness of LouAnn’s character.

I didn’t end up naming The Dollhouse Murders as my favorite children’s horror book. Instead I opted for The Witches by Roald Dahl, which is pretty much my all-time favorite children’s book that also just happens to be horror.

Fun fact: there was a made-for-TV movie based on The Dollhouse Murders in 1992.

Read alikes/some other middle grade horror-mystery-suspense I read as a ’90s kid

The Face on the Milk Carton by Lois Duncan
Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn
All the old Nancy Drew books with the yellow covers by Carolyn Keene
The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Welcome to Dead House by R.L. Stine

Humans of New York: Stories

Humans of NY

Humans of New York: Stories
Brandon Stanton
St. Martin’s Press
October 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

What started out as a jobless guy wandering the streets of New York City with a camera became an Internet sensation – Humans of New York. You’ve read the blog, followed the Facebook posts, and now you can own the book. The stories and photos in the book are taken directly from the blog, so there’s no special content that you couldn’t find online. It is curated and loosely organized by theme. There are no headings or chapter distinctions, but if you read it from cover to cover, you’ll notice that similar stories are grouped together. The layout is clean with only one or two stories per page. Bottom line, it’s a great coffee table book, but if you follow HONY closely online, you’ll probably have read most of these stories.

What I find more interesting about HONY is the similar online communities, websites, and Facebook accounts it has spawned in other cities around the world. I occasionally check out Humans of Jerusalem and have actually recognized people on the street who were profiled on it. There’s also some good parody accounts, my favorite being Pigeons of Boston, which sadly appears to have stopped being updated last fall.

Brandon Stanton has had a huge impact on online story-sharing landscape by compassionately promoting others’ humanity, celebrating diversity, and interacting face-to-face on behalf of an Internet community, all of which I think is awesome and is the recipe of his success. Here’s a short NPR interview where he explains the beginnings of HONY and what it takes to walk up to strangers in New York City.

Between the World and Me


Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Spiegel & Grau
July 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

In Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a letter to his young son about growing up black in America, the fears he harbors about his son’s safety, and the experiences that formed and nurtured these fears. Between philosophical tracts about racism, inequality, division, and otherness, Coates shares his most formative experiences – going to Howard University (“the Mecca” as he calls it), meeting his son’s mother, making friends and later losing a good friend to violence, and traveling abroad for the first time. He also writes about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and other black men killed by police and gun toting civilians and the effect of the deaths and of the exoneration of the killers on his son. There are photographs throughout of Coates with his son, friends, and other family members. It’s not a very long book, 176 pages broken up into three chapters, but it gives you a lot to think about.

Between the World and Me won the National Book Award for non-fiction. Ta-Nehisi Coates is also a writer for The Atlantic where you can read more of his writing on race and society.

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg


Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik
Dey Street Books
October 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
On the Amelia Bloomer Top Ten list

You probably recognize Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman in history to sit on the Supreme Court, by her small stature, her signature collars, her pursed mouth, or even from the online memes created to celebrate her in recent years. But if you are like me, you had no idea of the whole story. Luckily MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon and founder of the Notorious RBG tumblr, Shana Knizhnik, were here to educate me on all the ways that RBG and her work, even before joining the Supreme Court, has opened doors, knocked down walls, and sought to give women and men equal opportunities and rights (though admittedly we have a long way yet to go). The book is a mix of biography and legal history, covering RBG’s personal life and early career as well as her most famous and influential court cases.

Even more amazing to me than the accomplishments of RBG is the world in which she started her career. As a millennial woman, I knew in a vague way that women didn’t always have the opportunities that I have today, but I had no idea how bad it was. Notorious RBG lays it all out: losing your job for getting pregnant; forced abortions for women in the military even while abortion is illegal in the rest of the country; women unable to get a job to support themselves and their children after a husband dies; working women dying and their husbands not getting to collect benefits because the law assumes no women work; and the list goes on and on. RBG made it her life’s work – starting with her positions at the ACLU and teaching at high-profile law schools and still today with her seat on the Supreme Court – to make the U.S. a better place for women than it was when she was growing up but doing so while also fighting for the equal rights of all people. She is also such a character. From her relationship with her husband to the way she treats her clerks to her personal style, she is a class act and a shero of the highest order.

This book is well researched and readable. The chapter titles come from Notorious B.I.G. lyrics and there is tribute art sprinkled throughout the book. In addition to notes and citations, it has some fun back matter like “How to Be Like RBG” and “R.B.Juicy,” parody lyrics to Notorious B.I.G.’s song “Juicy.”

I don’t have any read alikes for this book, so here are some favorite quotes:

“The pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, upon closer inspection, been revealed as a cage.” (Chapter 4, location 1054 in Kindle edition)

“If women are to be leaders in life and in the military, then men have got to become accustomed to taking commands from women, and men won’t become accustomed to that if women aren’t let in.” (Chapter 5, loc. 1550 in Kindle edition)

“Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.” (Chapter 10, loc. 2633 in Kindle edition)

Girl at War


Girl at War
Sara Novic
Random House
May 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

As a young girl, Ana suffers some very traumatic experiences during the War for Independence in her home country of Croatia, which was still part of Yugoslavia at the time. She comes to live and study in New York City where she has a boyfriend, an adopted family that loves her, and a role presenting to the UN about her experiences as a child of war. Her past is told through flashbacks and the story comes full circle when she returns to Croatia as a young woman to face a past that others tell her she ought to move on from but can’t let go of (she still wakes up screaming from nightmares). In Croatia, she seeks out friends she thought might be dead and revisits places that bring her joy and heartbreak, both through her memories and through the new experiences that bring at least a possibility of closure. Girl at War has an abrupt ending that has the potential to piss off a lot of readers with its open-endedness.

How much do you know about the Croatian War of Independence? Before this book I knew almost nothing. Now, after some Wikipedia and Brittanica browsing, I know slightly more but still probably less than such an event deserves. A few scenes from Girl at War have been haunting me for the last week or so because facing what humans do to each other in war is something I never get used to and hopefully never will. You might want to keep some tissues near by as you read this one.

Counting by 7s


Counting by 7s
Holly Goldberg Sloan
Dial Books
August 2013

Unexpected tragedy hits Willow Chance, a 12-year-old genius with a passion for gardening and medical diagnoses, when her adoptive parents are killed in a car crash. She is nearly put into foster care, but through some quick talking, she is allowed to live temporarily with her only friend, Mai, and Mai’s mother, Patty, and brother, Quang-Ha. The only other caring adults in Willow’s life are sad sack school counselor Dell Duke and a cab driver named Jairo who thinks Willow is a miracle sent to save him from cancer. They go to great lengths to help Willow and she, unintentionally, helps each of them to have a new outlook on life, a new home, or a new relationship. A court appearance that will determine Willow’s fate hangs over everyone’s head throughout the book and comes to a touching climax in the end.

The characters in Counting by 7s are really what make the book, and Dell Duke was my favorite. From Miss Honey in Matilda to Mr. Terupt in the series by Rob Buyea, teachers in children’s books are almost always too good to be true; they are savior, angel, substitute parent, or sage. Dell Duke is the opposite of all of these things by nature, making him the most subversively written teacher (ok, technically he is a school counselor) I’ve ever read in a children’s book. He’s a slovenly slacker who faked his resume to get his job. His filing system categorizes the kids he “helps” into judgmental categories. He’s antisocial and terrified of responsibility. Willow naively sees the best in him and after a while he begins to see potential in himself through her care for him. However, he is still himself in the end, just a slightly improved adult for having met Willow Chance.

In 2014 Counting by 7s was optioned for a movie staring Quvenzhane Wallace as Willow, but no more news has come out since then.

Read Alikes

Hold Fast by Blue Balliet
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
Wonder by R.J. Pallacio