Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Realistic Fiction: Mosquitoland, My Heart and Other Black Holes, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13b, and Every Last Word

With readers experiencing dystopian novel genre fatigue and YA films such as The Fault in Our Stars doing well at the box office, there is a new enthusiasm for realistic young adult novels with quirky main characters.  This year's most popular Sundance Film Festival film, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, based on a YA novel by Jesse Andrews, won both the grand jury and the audience award. The Duff, another YA film, based on a novel by Kody Keplinger, is a box office hit as well. This month I would like to recommend several new realistic YA novels that may soon be making it to the silver screen. Mosquitoland by David Arnold chronicles a teen's odyssey from Mississippi to Cleveland and the odd assortment of characters she meets along the way.  My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga tells the story of two teens who meet on a suicide website.  The Unlikely Hero Of Room 13B by Teresa Toten introduces Adam Spencer Ross, a teen plagued by OCD, who finds himself trying protect those his loves. Finally, Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone, also explores the life of an OCD suffer who is trying to cope.

After several reviewers mentioned Mosquitoland as a "must read,"  I took a leap and was not disappointed by the oddball road trip story narrated by a wacky heroine in episodic chapters interspersed with flashbacks and letters addressed to the mysterious Isabel. Fifteen-year-old  Mim, whose parents divorced, moves with her father and step-mom from Cleveland to Mississippi, aka Mosquitoland. When she finds out her mother is sick, Mim steals money, hops a Greyhound bus and begins a thousand mile adventure to see her mom.  Along the way she meets a variety of offbeat characters, including Beck, an older boy on whom she has a crush, and Walt, a homeless boy with Down's syndrome, who end up accompanying her on her quest. As the truth is gradually revealed about her mother's illness, the identity of Isabel and Mim's fragile mental health, the reader is endlessly entertained by Mim's humorous musing and reflections on the life lessons she is learning.

In My Heart and Other Black Holes, 16-year-old physics nerd Aysel meets good-looking athletic Roman on a suicide website.  Haunted and ostracized because her father brutally killed one of her classmates in his convenience store, Aysel decides she can't go on.  She enters into a suicide pact with Roman, who is guilt ridden over his sister's drowning death a year earlier.  Together they plan their date with death, but as they get to know one another, Aysel thinks there might be a reason to reconsider their plans. She decides "he is no long the person I want to die with; he's the person I want to be alive with."  These two depressed teens' journey is filled with poignant realizations, as Aysel struggles to convince Roman to take a chance on healing through a future together. The author, who was impacted by a friend's suicide, includes a note urging teens with suicidal thoughts to seek help from a list of suicide hotlines and prevention websites, which is provided.

Adam Spencer Ross, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, is plagued by OCD.  He joins a support group where he meets and falls for Robyn Plummer.  Each member of the group must assume the role of a superhero, and Adam, who is constantly striving to protect his loved ones, decides as Batman, he can save Robyn.  As he struggles to overcome his ritualistic counting habits that derail his life,  he attempts to navigate the complexities of hiding his mother's hoarding habits, placating his half-brother who also has obsessive tendencies, and wooing Robyn, who may or may not need his help. Adam is smart, funny and sensitive, yet perceptive enough to realize the first person he needs to save may just be himself.  Winner of the 2013 Governor General's Award for Children't Literature in Canada, this book can be enjoyed by mature middle level and high school readers.

Although it won't be published until June 15th, I would like to also recommend another book focusing on a teen with OCD, Every Last Word.  Samantha McAllister masterfully hides her purely obsessional OCD, which is manifested by a stream of dark thoughts that she can't stop. Her friends in the popular mean girls group would turn on her if they knew about her problems.  Then Sam meets Caroline, who introduces her to the Poet's Corner, a tight-knit group of misfits who hide out at lunch and share their poetry and music.  Sam is particularly drawn to a guitar player whom she and her friends bullied mercilessly when they were in elementary school.  Gone is his stuttering that made him an outcast, and she finds herself falling in love with him.  But now she must choose between her new friends and her lifelong attachment to the popular girls, whose friendships are quickly becoming a toxic element in her life.  The beautifully drawn characters and the poetry and music they share, as well as the surprising reveal near the end of the story, will keep readers eagerly turning the pages as they follow Sam's journey toward self-acceptance.