Daniel José Older
Arthur A. Levine Books
In the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn, Sierra Santiago passes the time painting murals, hanging out with her tight-knit Puerto Rican family, and partying with her friends. One day her mural starts to shed tears and her abuelo, a recently bed-ridden stroke victim, comes out of his half coma and starts mumbling “lo ciento” – “I’m sorry.” Soon after, Sierra finds herself the target of attacks by some zombie-like creatures. An enchanted photograph, some research, and a couple of dates with sexy loner and artist Robbie lead her to the conclusion that she and many of her family members are shadowshapers, people who are able to control spirits by giving them form through art, basically causing their art to literally come alive. Robbie, also a shadowshaper, shows her how to use her power and it soon becomes clear that she has a natural talent for shaping. However, Dr. Wick, an academic who studies the supernatural, including shadowshaping, seeks to destroy the shadowshapers and take all their power for himself. Sierra must find a way to stop Wick and save her powers, her friends and family, and herself in order to take her destined place among the shadowshapers.
Shadowshaper is the urban fantasy I didn’t know I wanted until I read it. Beyond the story, which is fresh and suspenseful, this book has some serious meat on its bones. Themes covered include art as power, gentrification, gender equality, body image, cultural diversity, colonialism, and on and on. Sierra, the narrator, is strong yet insecure, street smart but not jaded, artistic and modern and impeccably written. I had to remind myself that a man was writing this character! I think he was a teenage girl in a past life. Read chapter 12 and you’ll know what I mean.
Daniel Jose Older has set the bar for contemporary urban fiction. I’ll be book talking the shit out of this book at my juvenile detention visits from now on.
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Simon & Schuster
At Pine Mountain boarding school in Oregon, all the trouble teens – pretty much exclusively ready-for-a-fight boys on the rugby and football teams – live in Opportunity Hall, including 14-year-old junior Ryan Dean West, also known as Winger for his position on the rugby team. Winger deals with pretty typical teenage boy stuff – peer pressure, to which he always gives in; ladies and the horndog thoughts they evoke for him; getting friend-zoned by his BFF Annie; and fighting with his friends and teammates. When he alienates his two best friends, his new best friend is Joey, a gay senior and captain of the rugby team. Winger questions the way people treat Joey because he is gay. He even has some thoughts that he realizes border on homophobic and he quickly corrects his “messed up” way of thinking. The school year goes along with Winger experiencing romance, misadventures, the occasional hangover, and sometimes even school work. Everything for him comes to a screeching halt after the Halloween dance when life and its inevitable tragedies brings Winger’s antics to a pause. Winger likes to draw so the book is sprinkled through with his comics, most of them quite funny. He also has the habit of rating women’s attractiveness on these ridiculous made-up scales, like “five out of five steaming bowls of chowder on the Ryan Dean West In-Flight-Entertainment-Things-You-Don’t-Mind-Burning-Your-Tongue-On Heat Index” (pg 124 in the Kindle version). This may come across as misogynistic, but it is fitting with Winger’s teenage preoccupation with sex.
Warning: this book has almost no plot. There are several storylines goes on – will Winger get the girl(s)? Will he get out of O Hall? Can he repair his relationship with his friends? – but no real overarching problem or conflict that binds it all together. What saved me from writing this book off as a slice-of-life boarding school story was the ending, which got very serious very quickly. Winger, who narrates in the first person, alludes to something bad happening later on in the year, but the light tone of the entire book up until the last couple chapters makes the tragedy that much more of a surprise. But that’s how life is, right? We rarely see tragedy coming. I really felt like this book conveyed that sudden shock when terrible things happen, the feeling that you’ve been blindsided.
Andrew Smith was caught in a social media dust up last spring, criticizing his writing (or not) about female characters based on an interview with Vice. After reading Winger, the only Andrew Smith book I’ve read, I can see how people would take issue with the female characters and Winger’s thoughts about them. However, I found it fit with the character in this case and I never think that an author’s characters speak for the author’s personal beliefs or feelings. If you want to read about the controversy, read this article on Vice.
Winger has a sequel for Ryan Dean’s senior year called Stand Off.
Read alikes about boarding school
Bloomability by Sharon Creech
Looking for Alaska by John Green
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Balzer + Bray
Simon, a closeted teenage boy, is carrying on a secret email relationship with another boy, code name Blue, at his school but neither one knows the other’s true identity. That all threatens to crumble when their classmate Martin takes a screenshot of one of Simon and Blue’s emails and starts blackmailing Simon into setting him up with Simon’s friend Abby. Between being in the ensemble of the school production of Oliver, keeping up with his ever-changing sisters and cooky but cool parents, maintaining his friendships, and daydreaming about which of his classmates could be Blue, Simon mulls over coming out to friends and family until one day the choice is made for him.
Every once in a while a YA book and its main character are so good, so true, that it actually makes me want to go back to high school to be friends with them. The last time I felt this way was with Gabi in Gabi: A Girl in Pieces. Now I want to be Simon’s BFF. His obsession with Harry Potter, Oreos, and Waffle House, his painfully chill yet still believable parents, his friends – dancers and singers and musicians and artists who reminded me of my old high school crowd – I want to climb into this book to be with all of them. While all isn’t sunshine and Oreos – that school gossip Tumblr is the stuff of teenage nightmares – the drama is believable and the fallout of Simon’s forced coming-out is painful at times, but it is all manageable for Simon who has a great support network in his life. There’s so little melodrama – no one dies or is disowned or gets catfished (I was convinced this would be the case with the email relationship) or even loses their virginity. It ends up being a kind of sweet story about the possibilities in being brave and being yourself.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green
Everything Leads to You
Dutton Books for Young Readers
Emi, a recent high school grad living in Los Angeles, has a dream job, a great best friend, and a brother who lets her live in his apartment for the summer, but she is having a hard time getting over Morgan, her much older, on-again-off-again (seven times) girlfriend who she also works with. As a set design intern, she is looking for the perfect piece of furniture for a new project when she and her BFF Charlotte come across a note tucked into a record belonging to an uber-famous, very wealthy, reclusive old Western actor who has recently died. The note waxes poetic about love, loss, a child, and an inheritance, and the mystery is too much for Emi and Charlotte to resist. With the help of Google and some very convenient luck, they criss-cross the LA area looking for the people in the letter and befriend Ava, a troubled, homeless teen connected to the famous actor. In Ava, Emi finds not only some closure to the mystery but also a reprieve from her relationship troubles. While some of the circumstances are somewhat unbelievable and the 18-year-olds in this book have lives more like 25-year-olds, Everything Leads to You is refreshing in its normalization of same-sex relationships; the plot does not revolve around nor do the characters obsess about same-sex relationships any more than hetero relationships. Instead the characters enjoy the serendipity and possibilities of their lives among the opulence, sun, and highways of Los Angeles and the film industry.
Have you ever thought about the people who make the sets for movies and TV shows? Me neither until I read this book. I really enjoyed the glimpse into the film industry and such a specific role within it that gets forgotten (and really is meant to be forgotten if they do their job right, right?). What a great way to introduce teens to career possibilities by giving a character in a YA novel an unusual job. That the characters have jobs at all is somewhat notable! Emi and Charlotte are also have a lot of responsibility that they take very seriously, which is refreshing in the sea of irresponsible teen characters in YA novels.
Emi is the stuff diverse book dreams are made of – she’s a mixed-race lesbian who doesn’t linger on either of these identities and neither does anyone else really. Unfortunately her race goes from being totally unaddressed for the first half of the book to suddenly becoming a big deal during a scene at her parents’ house. I wouldn’t have minded except that, in an absence of any hints at her appearance, I assumed – somewhat from the cover and somewhat from my own bias – that she was white and had been picturing her in a way that made it necessary for me to completely reimagine halfway through the book what she looked like. For me, by then, it is so distracting to try to recreate Emi in my mind that it really pulled me out of the story. Also, this appears to be just another example of whitewashing children’s and YA book covers. The Lauren Conrad look-alike on the cover is pretty misleading when you have a bi-racial main character. You could argue that the girl on the cover is Ava, except the cover doesn’t fit her description either as the book goes on and on about her red hair. It’s unfortunate that Nina LaCour’s diverse character is hidden by her own publisher behind the facade of a stereotypical – especially for LA – blonde cover model, assumedly to increase sales.
I’ll Give You The Sun
I’ll Give You the Sun, the 2015 Printz Award and Stonewall Award winner, follows Noah and Jude, twins who cling to their childhood closeness despite growing apart as they become teens and face both personal and family tragedies. The chapters are told from each twin’s point of view at two different times in their lives. In Noah’s chapters, which chronicle his being bullied, creating art, and falling in love with a boy while popular Jude hangs out at the beach with her girlfriends, the twins are 13. In Jude’s chapters, when the twins are 16, their lives have seemingly reversed; now Noah is a popular athlete dating one of Jude’s old friends while Jude, withdrawn and miserable, struggles through art school until she is taken in by a famous sculptor and his mysterious and dreamy housemate. It is clear that something has shaken up Noah and Jude’s word in the time between their 13th and 16th years, and piece by piece, secret by secret, of which there are many, the truth comes to light.
I had heard mixed reviews from friends about this book, which almost always happens when a book wins an award. I found some of Jandy Nelson’s devices a little gimmicky. Noah has parenthetical asides that name his thoughts and emotions as pieces of art – “(SELF-PORTRAIT: Boy Detonates Grenade of Awesome).” Jude’s equivalent is excerpts from a “bible” full of weird, clever, or insightful sayings and advice from her dead grandma, with whom she still talks – If a boy gives a girl an orange, her love for him will multiply. The book tackles big subjects – homosexuality, death, betrayal, rape, suicide – but without judgment and with so much hope. There’s also no denying Nelson’s ability to shape characters in a way that lets them, in the course of one book, start out one way, do a total 180, and then resolve into a believable conclusion that doesn’t wrap things up too nicely. In the end, I’ll Give You the Sun is worthy of the award and worthy of your reading time.
P.S. – The Guardian printed a great interview with Jandy Nelson last month about the book, her writing process, and the fact that I’ll Give You the Sun has been optioned for a movie. Check is out here.
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.