Friday, November 21, 2014

Engaging Voices in YA novels

The distinct personality, style and point of view or "voice" in young adult novels is what keeps many readers engaged.  Many YA novels are written in first-person, which allows the character to believably present an unsophisticated and unchallenged view of herself and the world around her. The insights are frequently charmingly witty, if somewhat off base.  This month I want to suggest four new novels whose main characters had me at "What's up?"  Buzz Kill by Beth Fantaskey, author of the hilarious Dating on the Dark Side vampire series, stars a plucky heroine who is channeling Nancy Drew.  Noggin, by Printz Award Winner, John Corey Whaley, features a cancer victim who dies, has his head cryogenically frozen and then reanimated and placed on a donor body.  Anatomy of a Misfit, by adult author Andrea Portes, explores the emotions of a Nebraska teenager in the orbit of a queen bee. Finally Love and Other Unknown Variables by Shannon Lee Alexander is about a math genius who gets involved with a girl who is anything but predictable.

In Buzz Kill teen journalist Millie Ostermeyer tries to model herself after her literary heroine Nancy Drew in solving the mystery of the unpopular high school football coach's murder.  There is a long list of suspects and her father, the assistant coach and town mayor, is at the top of the list.  During her investigation, she discovers the mysterious new quarterback, Chase Albright, has ties to the coach that may help her find the murderer.  Their flirtatious banter, her self-deprecating humor, and the short chapters with cliffhanger endings make this a real page turner.  Millie is always asking herself, "What would Nancy do?" As she and Chase work together to solve the mystery, they find themselves falling in love, but his tragic past may just be a roadblock to a shared future.

Travis Coastes, aka Noggin, gets a second chance at life when his cryogenically frozen head is attached to the body of a well-built sixteen-year-old who died of brain cancer. His excitement over his hot new body lasts just long enough for him to realize his friends are now 21, and he is still sixteen and having to navigate high school without them. Travis refers to himself as "Mary Shelley's nightmare come true" but new friend Hatton dubs him Noggin. When Travis tries to reactivate his old life, he finds his friend Kyle, who came out to Travis on his deathbed, is back in the closet, and his girlfriend Cate is engaged to someone else.  His sophomoric efforts to win her back are cringe worthy.  Hatton acts as Travis's wingman, as he struggles with issues of life, love and death, and helps him realize that everyone has moved on and he may just have to begin again.  This book, by the author of the award winning Where Things Come Back, is a National Book Award finalist.

Anna Dragomir, the protagonist in Anatomy of a Misfit, is struggling to reconcile her head with her heart.  The third most popular girl, she finds herself a slave to the queen bee's ("the dark side of the force") prejudices, but Anika is secretly in love with ("nerd-ball turned goth romance hero") Logan McDonough. Their midnight rendezvouses and his romantic poetry make her heart throb, but she knows dating him is social suicide. Then Jared Kline ("God's gift to Nebraska") begins courting her and she feels compelled to go out with him. As she navigates romantic and ethical problems, as well as family issues with her stepdad, annoying siblings and demanding professor father (a "Romanian who looks like Count Chocula"), Anika wonders how to be true to herself. Her razor sharp analyses of the people around her and her quirky reflections on high school drama make for an entertaining read.

Math geek Charlie Hanson looks at the world through the eyes of a scientist in Love and Other Unknown Variables.  In beginning the story, he acknowledges there are an infinite number of ways to start but the ending will always be the same. After striking out in three attempts to get a girl's attention in elementary school, he reflects,"In each failed experiment, I kept changing the girl, when it was myself I should have taken out of the equation." Then he falls head over heels for Charlotte Finch, who is not only his sister's best friend, but also his English teacher's sister.  Charlie is Ms. Finch's arch nemesis and when he finds out Charlotte is gravely ill and her sister's attention is smothering her, he decides to launch a prank campaign against Ms. Finch to distract her.  Nothing goes quite as he plans. Charlie's mathematical analysis of all aspects of his life make for a hilarious, yet poignant read.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

New fantasy novels: The Mark of the Dragonfly, Stitching Snow and Atlantia

New fantasy novels are almost sure to be the first in a series, so I was quite surprised to read three new fantasy offerings that seem to be stand alones.  The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson is a steampunk novel filled with shape-shifters and mechanical beings who inhabit a ruined planet.  Stitching Snow by R.C. Lewis is an interstellar re-imagining of Snow White where the princess is a runaway mechanic.  Atlantia by Allie Condie (Matched series) imagines a world so polluted than an underwater city must be created to house refugees from Above.

The Mark of the Dragonfly introduces Piper, a mechanically gifted orphan who lives in the meteor fields on a decimated planet.  She makes a living collecting and repairing things deposited by meteor showers.  When she finds Anna, a young amnesiac who is marked with the king's dragonfly tattoo, Piper decides to return her to the king and collect a reward.  She smuggles them onto a train heading to the capital and meets Gee, a shape shifting boy/dragon who is in charge of the train's security. When a menacing man comes looking for Anna, Piper and Gee must go to great lengths to protect her and in the process find Anna is not all that she seems.  As they travel toward the capital, the trio discovers much about the problems the kingdom faces, as well as their roles in its future. This book, which is targeted for middle level readers, is fast paced, taking place in a unique dystopian world with characters that you really care about.

In the futuristic Stitching Snow, Princess Snow is missing from her home planet and her royal parents are frantically searching for her.  Little do they know that she has run away to planet Thanda where she spends her days repairing droids that run the local mines.  Then Dane crash lands on Thanda and Essie must repair his ship. She soon realizes his crash landing was not accidental and that she is in danger of losing her freedom, as well as her heart.  Although this re-imagining doesn't follow the fairy tale faithfully, there are enough recognizable elements to make it great fun.  Action packed and romantic, it will entertain  middle and high school readers looking for a plucky heroine struggling to find her way.

Atlantia's dystopian theme takes us under the sea where Bay and her twin sister Rio live, because the earth Above has become so polluted that most people have moved to the engineered city Below.  Unfortunately some people must remain Above to support and feed the Atlantians. Attending the choosing ceremony, Rio is shocked when Bay volunteers to go.  Rio had planned to make the sacrifice, but after their mother died she promised her sister she would stay with her Below even though it is dangerous for her.  Rio is secretly a siren and if she is found out, she will be forced to serve the city council.  As she plots to go Above to find Bay, Rio uncovers the secrets of Atalantia's past and uncertain future.  Allie Condie fans who loved the Matched series will be fans of this new offering which again pits determined teens against the powers that be.

Although none of these books is billed as the first in a new series, I wouldn't be surprised to see the authors caving into pressure to tell readers what happened next.  The complex world building required in fantasy novels makes it very tempting to create a new story using familiar characters and settings that readers know and love.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Cultural comparisons: The Tyrant's Daughter, The Secret Sky and Taking Flight

Students are back to school and teachers may be looking for some new titles to enhance their literature curriculum. Young adult novels about kids from different cultures lend themselves to teaching the writing of comparison contrast essays, reflecting on the similarities and differences between the culture depicted in the book and their own. Depending on the students’ level of sophistication, the essay can range from a simple four paragraph essay to a fully developed paper, where each similarity and difference is explored in great detail. Three new YA books that lend themselves to this activity include The Tyrant's Daughter, written by JC Carleson, a former undercover CIA agent, The Secret Sky, penned by Atia Abawi, a foreign war correspondent in Afghanistan, and Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina, co-written by Michaela DePrince, a refugee from Sierra Leone, and her adoptive mother.

In The Tyrant's Daughter Laila and her mother and brother flee their war torn Middle Eastern home, when her father, the king, is killed in a coup.  Arriving in Washington, D.C., Laila gradually adjusts to her new life, whereas, her mother is still looking for revenge.  She conspires with CIA operatives to regain the throne that is her son's legacy.  Despite her misgivings, Laila find herself caught up in the intrigue, as an international crisis threatens. She befriends Amir, a teenage boy from her country, in order to spy on the resistance movement, and navigates American high school customs and a flirtation with an American boy.  The conflict Laila feels, as she discovers her father was a tyrant rather than the loving parent she remembers, is heart breaking. Written by a former undercover CIA agent, the story captures the contrasts between American social mores and those of the Middle East in a fast paced thriller that is a real page turner.

Taking place in current day Afghanistan, The Secret Sky is a cross-cultural love story which illustrates the tribal strife in small Afghan communities.  Fatima, a Hazara girl whose father is a farmer, and Samiullah, a Pashtun boy whose father is a landowner, are childhood friends who fall in love. Their love is forbidden as the two tribes are not allowed to intermarry.  Fatima dreams of further schooling, as she learns to read from a friend's grandmother, whereas Sami has returned from his madrassa school, disillusioned by the harsh indoctrination forced upon students there.  Although they were allowed to play together as children, Sami and Fatima must now hide their friendship which has blossomed into love upon his return.  When Rashid, Sami's cousin who is a member of the Taliban, discovers and reports their attachment, it has far-reaching and horrific consequence.  The author, who was a foreign war correspondent in Afghanistan, does not shy away from depicting the disturbing physical, emotional, and sexual  violence that plagues this society.  This suspenseful love story is a rewarding read that ends on a hopeful note, but is only recommended for the mature reader. 

Michaela DePrince, the author of Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina, escaped war-torn Sierra Leone when she was adopted by an American family who fostered her love of dancing.  Considered a "devil child" in Africa, due to a skin condition called vitiligo, Michaela suffered many hardships in the orphanage where she was abandoned after her parents died.  At that orphanage she found a picture of a ballerina that gave her strength to carry on. Adopted by the DePrince family at the age of four, she began studying ballet and ultimately starred in the movie First Position, as well as appeared on Dancing with the Stars.  She is now the youngest principal dancer with the Dance Theater of Harlem. Co-written by Michaela and her adoptive mother, this autobiography is a truly inspirational story of what a child can achieve with love and acceptance. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

SLJ Virtual Trade Show finds: Like No Other, Let's Get Lost and I'll Give You the Sun.

I  attended the School Library Journal Virtual Trade Show last week and once again was introduced to some amazing gems in YA Literature.  Una LaMarche's Like No Other explores the relationship between a Hasidic Jewish girl and an African American Catholic boy. Alsaid Adi's Let's Get Lost follows the interactions a 17-year-old girl has on a cross-country trip to see the Northern Lights. Jandy Nelson's I'll Give You the Sun introduces artistically talented twins who struggle with jealousy and loss. These three unique novels mine the depths of emotion teens experience when they face struggles with family, illness, death, sexuality and ultimately growing up.

In Like No Other, Devorah, a Hasidic Jew, meets Jaxon, an African American Catholic, when they are stuck alone together on a hospital elevator during a storm.  The bond they forge is something they can't ignore.  Sneaking around to see each other, Devorah is terrified of being caught and disowned by her family, but Jaxon feels like they are destined to be together. Each has arrived at a pivotal moment in their lives, where their relationship gives them the strength to tackle the challenges that face them.  But will their love be strong enough to weather the disapproval of their families and society in general?

Let's Get Lost introduces 17-year-old Leila who is on an epic road trip from her home in Louisiana to see the Northern Lights.  Along the way she encounters four different teens, whose lives are enhanced immeasurably through meeting her.  Hudson, an honor student and excellent mechanic who repairs her car, falls madly in love with her. Bree, an orphaned runaway, hitches a ride with Leila, only to land them in jail through her reckless disregard for the law. Elliot, reeling from unrequited love, enlists Leila help after he steps out in front of her car in traffic.  Using 80's movies as inspiration, she helps him prove his love to the girl of his dreams.  Sonia, whose soul mate dies unexpectedly, needs Leila's support for moving on.  Meanwhile Leila works through her own problems in aiding these strangers.

Jude and her twin brother Noah, who have spent their childhood trading parts of their universe for favors, (thus the title I'll Give You the Sun) are both talented artists hoping to be accepted by an elite art school.  Jealousies, misunderstandings and loss complicate their relationship and the once inseparable twins become estranged.  Told in alternating chapters, Noah chronicles their lives at age 13, Jude at age 16.  Both are struggling with their sexuality, Noah with his love for the boy-next-door, who fears losing his sports scholarship if anyone finds out, and Jude with her self-imposed celibacy after a forced sexual interaction.  As they find their way back to each other, they find that love can tear people apart, but it is ultimately what heals.

All three of these authors have created deeply affecting characters, whose struggles are at once unique but relate-able. The endings include reveals that may take the reader by surprise, but are completely satisfying. I found all three books to be page-turners and can't wait to share them with teen and adult readers alike.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

New YA Novels Set in NYC: Starry Night, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club and Being Audrey Hepburn.

I just got back from my annual trip to the New York Musical Festival and am obsessed with all things NYC. Coincidentally, I have just read three fabulous novels set in the city that I would highly recommend.  Starry Night by Isabel Gillies is set against the backdrop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night." The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine is a re-imagining of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," set during the Roaring Twenties in Manhattan.  Finally, Being Audrey Hepburn, by Mitchell Kriegman, the creator of "Clarissa Tells All," chronicles how a girl's life is upended when she tries on the dress Givenchy designed for Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

Starry Night introduces Wren, whose Father curates art at NYC's Metropolitan Museum, where she meets Nolan at a black tie event and allows him to convince her to steal off to an after-hours club.  She is an arrtist and he is the lead singer in a band, and their artistic hearts speak to each other.  Wren hopes to spend her junior year in France at Saint-Remy where Van Gogh created her favorite masterpiece. However, she lets her first love derail her plans.  Predictably, Wren gets grounded after her disappearance from the party at the Met and the fledgling romance is challenged in a variety of ways.  As she struggles to make the relationship work, she loses sight of what is really important in her life.  This cautionary tale plays out in the art world of NYC which adds to its charm and romance.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club sets the fairy tale of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" during the Roaring Twenties in Manhattan.  The twelve Hamilton girls by day are kept prisoners in their Upper East Side home, but Jo, the firstborn known as "The General," teaches her eleven sisters how to dance and helps them sneak out to speakeasies each night.  They think they are avoiding discovery by their controlling father, until he announces he knows what they are up to and he is going to marry them off whether they like their prospective husbands or not.  They decide that they must escape before they lose their freedom and each other. However, before they can do so, they are caught in a speakeasy raid and flee separately, taking refuge in various places throughout the city.  The glitter and glamour of the underground dance halls and the girls' plucky personalities make for a fun read as they all find ways to survive in the city.

Being Audrey Hepburn stars 19-year-old Lisbeth, a waitress from the Jersey Shore, who is obsessed with Audrey Hepburn.  Her best friend Jess, a fashion design student, who works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, calls her one fateful evening to come to the museum to see the iconic dress Givenchy designed for her idol's role as Holly Golightly.  When Lisbeth tries it on and heads to a Manhattan socialite party where she does her best Audrey impersonation, she finds her life changed forever.  She rescues a suicidal "pop princess," meets a hip fashion designer, falls for a preppy party boy and photo bombs her way into a career as a fashion blogger, all in one evening! This campy book is filled with allusions to Audrey Hepburn's many films and her self transformation into a star who even today inspires women with her "can do" attitude.  Lisbeth truly embraces Audrey's sentiment that "Opportunities don't often come along. So, when they do, you have to grab them." Grab this book when it comes out September 16th!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Romantic Reads for Summer: The Kiss of Deception, #Scandal, The Bridge from Me to You

Three popular young adult authors are back with  romantic reads that are perfect for summer escape. Mary E. Pearson's (The Jenna Fox Trilogy)  The Kiss of Deception is the first book in her new Remnant Chronicles trilogy. Sarah Ockler's (Twenty Boy Summer, The Book of Broken Hears)   #Scandal cautions teens about the dangers of social media. And in alternating chapters of prose and verse,  Lisa Schroeder's (Chasing Brooklyn, I Heart You, You Haunt Me) The Bridge from Me to You follows the story of two troubled  teens who together find the strength to deal with their problems. 

The Kiss of Deception introduces Princess Lia, who flees from an arranged marriage, which would secure an alliance with a neighboring kingdom.  She travels with her maid to a distant village, hoping to find a new life as a commoner.  When two strangers arrive, she finds herself attracted to both of them.  Little does she know that one is her jilted fiancee and the other is an assassin who was sent to kill her. Naive and headstrong, Lia always seems to leap before she looks, which, of course, spells trouble.  The romance and mysticism, along with the nonstop action, makes this a must read for fantasy fans.  I am looking forward to the sequel The Heart of Betrayal, which comes out in 2015.

#Scandal weaves a cautionary tale about social media into a familiar tale about a girl who falls for her best friend's boyfriend. Lucy has been the third wheel in Cole and Ellie's relationship since freshman year. When Ellie claims to have the flu and asks Lucy to go to prom with Cole, she has no idea that  Lucy is in love with him, and he is attracted to her as well. Prom night revelations abound when someone steals Lucy's phone and photographs many of the revelers' indiscretions, including Cole and Lucy kissing, at an after prom party. The thief posts them on Lucy's Facebook page, as well as submits them to an online blogger's scandal contest. By Monday morning Lucy has been branded a back stabber and a narc.  She turns to members of eVIL, a school group battling the problems with modern technology, to help her find the perpetrator and clear her name. This engaging read points out the dangers of smart phones with unprotected access to social media sites, as well as explores issues of honesty in friendship. I'm a Sarah Ockler fan and this book does not disappoint.

Those of you familiar with Lisa Schroeder's novels-in-verse will enjoy her latest offering, The Bridge Between Me and You.. Lauren has been sent to live with relatives by her abusive mother, separating her from the little brother she loves.  Colby is struggling to convince his football loving father that he is done with sports once high school is over.  When they meet at the local convenience store, they are immediately attracted to each other. However, their romance barely gets off the ground when Colby’s best friend is seriously injured in a motorcycle accident and Lauren’s past begins to overwhelm her. As they struggle to deal with their problems, they turn to each other for love and support.  The novel-in-verse format makes for a quick satisfying read. It will be available July 29th. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Classic Connections

It's time once again for Classic Connections in Young Adult Literature.  Authors are getting more and more inventive as they reference or reinvent the classics.  This month I can recommend several new titles.  Being Henry David by Cal Armistead involves a teenager with amnesia whose only clue to his identity is the book he is carrying- Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Great by Sara Benincasa is a reimagining of The Great Gatsby set in the modern day Hamptons. Second Star by Alyssa Sheinmel sets the story of Peter Pan in a surfing community in California. Finally, Cinderella's Dress by Shona Slayton suggests that Cinderella's ball gown still exists and has been handed down through the centuries to girls charged to protect it.

Being Henry David begins when an injured boy wakes up in Penn Station remembering nothing and carrying only $10 and a copy of Walden. When two homeless kids befriend him, he tells them his name is Henry David and they dub him Hank.  After an altercation in which he severely injures a man who attacks him and his new friends, he finds himself on the run again, this time to Concord, Massachusetts where he hopes to find clues to his identity. As his memories slowly return, he is taken in by a librarian who poses as Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond and  gets involved with a girl with whom he discovers a mutual love of music. The unraveling of the mystery of his identity is paired with frequent passages from Walden which he seems to have memorized. Although finding out who he is and what happened to him is compelling, it is the new relationships he forges in Concord that give the story depth. Teens who haven't read Walden may want to pick it up after finishing this unique page turner.

Great introduces teenage Naomi Rye who arrives in the Hamptons to spend the summer with her celebrity chef mother.  She becomes transfixed by her mysterious neighbor Jacinta, who seems to be the Hampton's IT girl.  When she is not dishing in her blog about the Hampton glitterati, Jacinata is planning lavish parties that are the talk of the town.  Naomi, who expected the summer to be a bore, finds herself with a hot boyfriend and a new best friend who is the most glamorous teen in the Hamptons.  But Jacinta, like Jay Gatsby, is hiding secrets and scandal is on the horizon.  Changing the gender of the classic main character is not often done in YA classic connections, but it works well in Great.  The basic structure of the story remains the same with the outside narrator telling the tale.  Inviting a comparison with the original should make for lively discussion.

Second Star finds Wendy Darling searching for her missing surfer brothers  in a contemporary ocean-side setting. Although her brothers, Michael and John,  have been missing for months and are presumed dead, she is determined to find them. Her search leads her to a hidden community of renegade surfers with two factions: one led by the charismatic Pete and the other by his nemesis, the drug dealing Jas (Captain Hook).  Even as Wendy is falling for Pete, she finds herself attracted to Jas, who paints himself as a misunderstood bad boy. Although many of the names remain similar, the story veers wildly from the original Peter Pan. There is much more of a focus on the love triangle and less on Peter and the lost boys.  As everyone around her, including the reader, questions Wendy's sanity, she perseveres.

Cinderella's Dress is a twist on the Cinderella tale, in that it imagines what takes place after the story is over.  The setting is WWII and Kate, the main character, is being pushed by her mother to become a model, when all she wants to do is create department store window displays. When her Polish relatives arrive with a trunk they say is filled with Cinderella's dresses, Kate finds she is destined to become the keeper of the dresses, charged with protecting them from evil doers. Then Kate's new love interest, who is involved with creating the window displays, leaves for boot camp, and  she is allowed to take his place as the window dresser's apprentice.  Predictably, she gives in to temptation and uses the Cinderella dresses to create a series of window displays depicting the fairy tale.   With a father and brother overseas and her mother at odds with her dreams, Kate is on her own to determine the truth about her relatives' fantastic claim. Although this book reads more like historical fiction, than fantasy, there is still a magical feel to the tale.