Jaime, aka Punkzilla, is a 14-year-old runaway on a road trip from Portland, Oregon, to Memphis, racing against time to see his older brother Peter, aka P, who is dying from cancer. Told in a series of letters addressed to P but kept, most likely permanently, in his notebook, Jaime rehashes the last few months of his life – escaping the military academy his parents sent him to, living as a homeless teen, doing meth and other drugs, stealing electronics and committing other petty crimes to survive – and his current road trip across the country. On his way he meets all manner of people in encounters that range from scary – getting mugged in a men’s restroom and later preyed upon by an adult sexual predator – to formative – falling in love and losing his virginity to a girl with Lupus and striking up a friendship with a transgendered man named Lewis. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style that is full of run-on sentences, swearing, anecdotes, soul searching, and identity questioning, Punkzilla presents in a raw and unflinching way the kind of teen that society pushes to the margins and largely pretends doesn’t exist, and it will have you rooting for him to make it to his brother and through life all the way.
As someone who grew up relatively sheltered and privileged, Punkzilla had passages that I found hard to read and others that made me plush but in a way that makes you feel more alive when you come out at the other end of it. Since I first read this book, I have come to work with teens who have similar issues to Jamie – homelessness, criminal history, abuse, and drug addiction, among other things. I so appreciate books like Punkzilla both for providing me a small window into harsh realities and for giving me something that I can hand these kids that’s not another sugarcoated teen problem novel full of “first-world problems.” They may not be the most uplifting or best selling (through Punkzilla did get a Printz honor), but books like this are so important when we talk about teens seeing themselves in the books they read and feeling that their stories are represented.
Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Keesha’s House by Helen Frost
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
Gabi: A Girl in Pieces
Cinco Puntos Press
“…alas, Journal, I cannot lie to you. This is the only place I can be the most myself and I have to be honest.”
Life is messy for Gabi, as she shares with readers in her journal. She’s an emotional binge eater with two best friends – one pregnant and one gay, a mother who is convinced Gabi is a “bad girl,” a dad who is addicted to meth, an aunt who alternates between zealous Christianity and cultish superstition, and all she she wants to do is survive her senior year and get into college. While this might make the book seem heavy or all doom-and-gloom, it’s really not. Gabi’s sassy attitude, nearly unshakable confidence, brutal honesty, and mature insights (actually, a little too mature at times) make you want to be her best friend rather than feeling bad for all the adversity she faces. It helps that she is also hilarious. Gabi is a girl with opinions about all sorts of things – body image, race (particularly the quirks of Latino culture), sex, and the double standard of how boys and girls are treated, especially as teenagers. As in so many YA books, a teacher, her writing teacher Ms. Abernard, is a big influence on Gabi when she starts writing poetry for Ms. A’s class and performing spoken word with the college kids at a local coffee shop. There is even a zine in the middle of the book – one of Gabi’s zine illustrations is where the book’s awesomely weird cover comes from – that is a product of her writing class. We should all have had such amazing teachers in high school. Gabi dabbles with romance, kissing a few boys but ultimately ending up with arguably one of the best boyfriends in a YA book in recent memory. And she even slaps a couple people. Basically she is awesome and so is this book.
Everyone should stop what they are doing right now and read this book. I’m going to go out on a limb and call it as a sure thing for at least an honor if not the winner of the Printz or the Morris.
Rosalind went from having two moms to none at all due to a car accident involving a truck full of “foodstuffs” – turduckens, specifically. Now she has Sean, college friend of her moms and the sperm donor that made Rosalind possible. They have never met, and Sean, single and working as a lawyer who sues schools for a living, has no idea how to take care of a teenager, especially when Rosalind, in her grief, becomes a vegetarian and starts drinking, sneaking out in the middle of the night, starting fights as school, and other things one might expect of a grieving teen. Told entirely through computer journal entries, emails, recording transcripts, instant messenger conversations, and other documents (summed up in one of my favorite words – epistolary fiction), Rosalind and Sean’s relationship warms and grows at a believable pace and not without setbacks, and Rosalind’s movement through grief is heartbreaking at times but not overly heavy or angsty. The peripheral characters – Sean’s weed-smoking father, Rosalind’s “Aunt” Karen, Rosalind’s changing friends at school – add depth to Rosalind and Sean’s personal stories and provide welcome side plots and episodes that keep the entire book from being only about the loss of two parents.
I have to admit this isn’t a book I would have normally picked up. I didn’t like the cover much when I got it and I like it even less after having read the book. However, I met Brendan Halpin while I was staffing a library table at a farmer’s market here in Boston and later, after he volunteered to do some free programming at one of our branches, learned that he is a published YA author. So of course I had to check his stuff out, and I’m glad I did! He actually has quite a few books; How Ya Like Me Now? and Forever Changes are next on my list (and currently sitting on my desk at work). He has a blog, and as someone who is thinking of including his books in book talks on my outreach visits to underserved and typically diverse populations, I especially appreciate his post examining his own books for their diversity, or lack thereof. All authors would be well served to be so self-critical.