Thursday, January 15, 2015

New YA Novels Dealing with Mental Illness: Belzhar, I Was Here, and All the Bright Places

Young adult novels can help teens dealing with mental health issues in several ways. First, they can help readers understand that they are not alone. The novels can present realistic portrayals of mental illness and offer helpful ways of dealing with it. A common theme in YA literature is searching for a sense of identity, which mental illness tends to derail. Reading about characters wrestling with this issue can help not only teens with mental illness, but also their friends and family who search for ways to be supportive.  This month I would like to recommend three novels that explore these issues in thoughtful and compelling reads. Meg Wolitzer's Belzhar chronicles the story of mentally unstable teens who attend a therapeutic boarding school. Gayle Forman's new novel, I Was Here explores the feelings of guilt and grief experienced by a girl whose best friend commits suicide. Finally, Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places follows two teens who are wondering "Should I stay or should I go?"

In Belzhar Jam Gallahue is sent to a therapeutic boarding school, after a trauma with a high school relationship, because she is unable to deal with her grief. She finds herself in a mysterious class called Special Topics in English, where she and four other traumatized students are reading works by Sylvia Plath.  The students are given special red leather journals in which to record their reactions to the assigned readings.  When she and her classmates, all of whom have endured debilitating losses, begin writing in their pages, they are transported to their former lives where they can each inhabit the past and work through their problems.  The teens bond over their experiences in what they call Belzhar and are able to share their stories and look out for and protect one another.  As the semester progresses and the notebooks begin to fill up, they must each confront some inner struggles and make some tough choices about their future paths. Adult author Meg Wolitzer's (The Interestings) debut YA novel is terrific and could be paired with readings from Sylvia Plath for a poignant thought-provoking reading experience.

I Was Here introduces Cody and Meg, who have been best friends since childhood, but are separated when Meg gets a full scholarship to a small college in Tacoma and Cody is left behind to clean houses and attend community college.  When Cody gets news of Meg's suicide, she is understandably confused and upset.  Why hadn't she seen the warning signs?  She travels to Tacoma to collect Meg's belongings and finds there are many things she didn't know about her friend with whom she thought she shared everything.  Determined to get to the bottom of her suicide, Cody searches Meg's laptop and finds she was involved with a suicide website and in particular a Pied Piper type character who encourages suicide as a way out.  With the help of Ben McAllister, one of Meg's friends with an agenda of his own, Cody searches for a way to come to terms with her friend's death. Gayle Forman's latest novel is sure to be a hit, not only with fans of If I Stay, but also with any readers looking for a suspenseful eye-opening investigation into teen suicide.

Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet when they are on the bell tower at school, each contemplating suicide.  After saving each other's lives, they pair up for a social studies project where they have to discover the Natural Wonders of Indiana. Although from different social strata, she is a popular cheerleader and he is a manic outsider, they challenge each other in ways that soon blossom into love. As they spend more and more time together, they find that it's only with each other that they can be themselves.  But will that be enough to save them from their demons?  All the Bright Places, soon to be a major motion picture starring Elle Fanning, will appeal to fans of John Green and Rainbow Rowell or anyone looking for a quirky compelling story.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

New action adventures: Princess of Thorns, Exquisite Captive and The Walled City

It's winter break for students and teachers and time for some escapist reading filled with action and adventure.  Three recent reads that made my Top Titles for 2014 list include Princess of Thorns, a re-imagining of the Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake fairy tales, by Stacey Jay, Exquisite Captive, the first book in the Dark Caravan Cycle by Heather Demetrios, and The Walled City, a tale that focuses on three desperate teens in Hong Kong, by Ryan Graudin.

In Princess of Thorns, Sleeping Beauty's children, Aurora and Jor, have been in hiding with the fey for ten years, since their mother's assassination by the Ogre Queen.  When Jor is kidnapped, fairy blessed Aurora disguises herself as a boy (Ror) and hopes to hire an army to help her rescue him. Then she meets Prince Nikklas, who is cursed to turn into a swan on his 18th birthday unless he can marry a princess.  The Prince promises Ror his help in exchange for an introduction to his "sister" Aurora. With ogres pursuing them tirelessly as they travel across lands filled with enemies, Nikklas and Ror struggle to reach Jor and free him before he dies. Their mutual attraction is fraught with problems as Aurora tries to find a way to tell Nikklas the truth without losing his support. Told from both characters' points of view, this compelling story, filled with adventure and romance, is sure to appeal to fantasy/thriller fans.

Exquisite Captive introduces Nalia, a victim of the dark caravan, a lucrative jinni slave trade between Earth and the jinni world Arjinna.  Although she has great powers, Nalia is tied to Malek, her master who possesses her bottle which enables him to use her to sustain his lavish Hollywood lifestyle.  When she meets Raif, a leader of Arjinna's revolution, he promises to help her break free of her master and rescue her brother who was imprisoned during the revolutionary coup in Arjinna that killed nearly everyone she loved.  Although she should hate him, she finds herself attracted to Raif, but needs to convince Malek she loves him in the hopes of getting close enough to him to steal back her bottle which he wears around his neck. Only then can Riaf perform the unbinding ceremony to free her. This story blends traditional Arabian jinni lore with modern fantasy to create a riveting tale filled with magical political intrigue and romance. Readers will be anxiously awaiting the next book in the series. 

The Walled City takes inspiration from Kowloon Walled City, a Hong Kong slum destroyed in the 1990s. Three teens are struggling to escape their dire fates before the city is leveled.  Jin, a girl disguised as a boy, is searching for her sister who was sold into prostitution by their father.  Mei Yee, her sister, languishes in a brothel run by the Brotherhood of the Red Dragon.  Dai Shing, a drug trafficker, is hoping to obtain the brothel's ledger so he can exchange it for his freedom. The three stories are entwined to create one fast paced narrative, as Dai solicits Jin's help in a drug deal while at the same time establishing a connection with Mei Yee in the hope of convincing her to help him find the brothel's ledger. As their paths cross, they help each other achieve their individual goals and in the process become family. This thriller takes readers into a world of fear, danger and intrigue that will keep them turning pages until the last triumphant chapter.

All three titles are recommended for the more mature reader.  Although there are disturbing situations in each narrative, none of them is overly graphic. However, parents may not want their younger precocious readers exposed to topics of drugs, violence and sexuality.

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!