Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Realistic YA Romances: The Sun is Also a Star, We are Still Tornadoes, and Our Chemical Hearts

A glowing recommendation for realistic young adult romances frequently reads "for fans of Rainbow Rowell and John Green."  My final three recommendations for 2016 fall in this category.  The highly acclaimed The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon (Everything, Everything) finds two teen falling in love over the course of 12 hours in NYC.  We are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen is an epistolary romance that takes place in the 80s.  Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland follows the unconventional relationship between a traumatized girl and the boy who is determined to save her.

In alternating first person chapters The Sun is Also Star chronicles the romance between Natasha, an undocumented immigrant from Jamaica whose family is being deported the next day, and Daniel, a first generation Korean American whose parents are insisting he become a doctor.  They meet and fall in love during one fateful day in NYC.  Natasha, who is an outstanding science student, is facing deportation because her dad was arrested on a DUI charge.  She is looking for a lawyer who can help her family stay in the US long enough for her to get into college.  Daniel, a dreamer and a poet, is on his way to an interview for admission to Yale.  They witness a shoplifting incident at a record store and he falls in "love at second sight."  (where you meet a person and know you'll fall in love) Their paths continue to converge throughout the next 12 hours and Daniel is determined to make her fall in love with him. Although she is in a race against time, Natasha can't help but be charmed by his insistence that fate means for them to be together.  This book has won numerous accolades, including a National Book Award nomination.

Through an exchange of letters in the 1980s, Scott and Cath, two high school graduates, continue their best friend relationship in We are Still Tornadoes. Even though Cath leaves for college at Wake Forest and Scott stays home in Maryland to work at his dad's clothing store and start a band, they lean on each other for support and advice.  During their first year apart they weather a variety of crises, including crazy roommates and band mates, as well as family problems.  While Scott's relationship with his dad is strengthened, Cath struggles with her parents' divorce and the upcoming arrival of a half sibling.   As the year progresses, Scott finds himself regretting not going to college and Cath works to resolve her feelings of anger toward an unborn sister.  Turning to each other, as they always have, isn't as easy as when they were next-door neighbors, but together they navigate their first year apart and become closer in the process.  The epistolary banter and the 80s music references, as well as Scott's overuse of quotation marks, will keep readers laughing and turning the pages hoping for a happy ending.

When Henry Page first meets Grace Town, the protagonist in Our Chemical Hearts, he is strangely attracted to her, despite her pronounced limp and baggy boy's clothes.  Getting to know her as co-editors of the school newspaper, he is intrigued by her quick wit and occasionally flirtatious behavior.  When researching her on the internet, he finds she looks nothing like her social media pictures of a beautiful smiling athlete. Digging deeper, he finds she is the survivor of a horrific car accident, and has transferred schools in the hopes of starting a new life.  Henry's best friends, Murray, an Australian party guy, and Lola, a lesbian graphic designer, dub Grace a manic pixie dream girl and warn him to stay away from her.  But he dreams of being the one to turn her life around and end up with a happily-ever-after story.  Predictably this is not in the cards. Readers will love this emotionally complex, humorous, heartbreaking tale filled with sympathetic characters and an unusual story line.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

YA Books for Boys: The Bad Decisions Playlist, My Brilliant Idea, Character Driven, and The Haters

According to the U.S. Department of Education, school-age boys read a grade and a half lower than girls.  Boys read more comic books, baseball cards, magazines and non-fiction than novels. This is not surprising when one considers boys identify with men, who, in general, don’t read as many books as women.  Boys’ tastes in books reflect how their brains are wired.  Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently! A Guide for Teachers and Parents,writes that boys’ brains engage in less cross-hemisphere activity than girls’. In other words, boys use only half of their brain at any given time.  That means that when boys read, they need an extra jolt of sound, color, motion or some physical stimulation to get their brains up to speed. Thus boys prefer reading sports, adventure stories and fantasies.  Give boys the type books they prefer at a level of difficulty that they are comfortable with and they won’t be as reluctant to read. I am recommending four books this month that are not the typical action adventure or fantasy choices that we think of boys choosing, but rather realistic reads focusing on manic witty self-deprecating  main characters with a penchant for trouble.

The Bad Decisions Playlist by Michael Rubens focuses on Austin Methune, a musically gifted teen, who is his own worst enemy.  Austin's mishaps usually involve trying to impress girls and avoiding schoolwork.  He exhausts his single mother, who has a new boyfriend, and is threatening to send Austin off to a private school  Then his absentee father Shane, a rock star who has made plenty of bad decisions himself, shows up at the door.  Although Austin is angry at him, he is intrigued with the opportunity to play music with him.  Along for the ride are his would be tutor/girlfriend Josephine and his ex best friend/drummer Todd, who never seem to be able to stop Austin from impulsive decisions. This coming of age tale involves sex, drugs, parent issues and romance, and is filled with hilarity and sympathetic characters.  

My Brilliant Idea (and How It Caused My Downfall) was written by Stuart David, the front-man for Belle and Sebastian. Jack Dawson, "the Jackdaw," is a Ferris Bueller type character, whose madcap money making schemes lead him down a rabbit hole of crazy decisions.  Hoping to avoid a future working in a factory next to his dad, he wants to design and market an app to keep kids from getting in to trouble for daydreaming in class. Unfortunately,  Elsie, an eccentric genius who hates Jack, is the only one he knows who has the brains to do the programming.  Elsie will do so in exchange for Jackdaw arranging for her to see her crush Drew naked.  Jack approaches Drew's art school friend Yatesy to arrange the viewing, in exchange for finding someone to take the fall for a fighting incident, which will get Yatesy expelled.  Needless to say, complications ensue.  Jack is an incorrigible dreamer who won't take no for an answer.  Yatesy tells Jack, "Your mind is diseased. It's a sewer.  But I think I'm starting to like you."  Readers, too, will enjoy Jack and the quick paced hilarity and British humor of this novel.

Character Driven by David Lubar (Sophomore and Other Oxymorons) introduces 17-year-old Cliff Sparks who struggles with an angry unemployed father, an overworked mother, two jobs, a dwindling college fund and the recognizable high school bullies.  His one goal is losing his virginity, preferably with his crush Jillian, but any girl will do.  Breaking the fourth wall, Cliff engages the reader in his tale of woe, where close friends, art and books are his only solace. As the story progresses, readers work to decide what is fact and what is fiction in this first person "gotcha" style meta-fiction. For example, Cliff presents an idealized sexual encounter, but then follows it up with a much more awkward but realistic version of the same encounter, making this a book best suited for older readers. 

Finally, The Haters by Jesse Andrews (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) is a tale about three jazz camp escapees who form a band and hit the road. Bassist Wes and drummer Corey, are best friends, obsessed with music and hating on everything they encounter that isn't great.  Jazz camp misfits,who call themselves "jazz-nerd chaff" or the "worst of the best" at "Jazz Giants of Tomorrow Intensive Summer Workshop" meet Ash, a lead guitarist with a sense of adventure, who talks them into forming a band and going on a "Summer of Hate Tour." They are both crushing on her and will pretty much follow her anywhere. They load their instruments in her SUV and head South. Needless-to-say, their ideas for their world tour do not go as planned.  Jealousies and travel logistics, not to mention, lack of band cohesion make this a hilarious romp. Asides within the text, such as lists of potential band names, fake Wikipedia entries and screenplay-like flashbacks, help to create a unique contemporary read. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

New Film Related YA Novels: The Movie Version, My Unscripted Life and You in Five Acts

As the chair of the programming committee for the Boedecker Art House cinema, I find myself drawn to young adult novels that are movie related.  Three new fall releases in this category are on my list of recommendations this month.  The Movie Version by Emma Wunsch is about Amelia and her brother Toby, who are obsessed with movies and living their lives as though they are in one, until Toby goes through a drastic personality change.  My Unscripted Life by Lauren Morrill (The Trouble with Destiny and Being Sloane Jacobs) focuses on Dee Wilkie, who lands a summer job as a PA on a movie which stars a teen heartthrob on whom she has a crush. Finally, You in Five Acts by Una LaMarche (Like No Other) is a poignant story about five students at a performing arts school in NYC who are preparing for graduation.

In The Movie Version Amelia Anderson has always taken a back seat to her popular older brother Toby, whose goal is to live the "movie version" of his life.  Obsessed with movies, the two of them have always been close, but lately Toby hasn't been himself, disappearing into his room to write in his journal or hanging out with the stoners and doing drugs.  Amelia is in the throes of first love with a boy who lives in NYC, but finds herself distracted with Toby's struggles and covering up for his erratic behavior.  When he is finally diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized, she is devastated.  Ultimately, she will have to decide if she will let Toby derail her life, or let go and focus on her own hopes and dreams. Wunsch, a film critic turned author, provides detailed movie references that are a cinephile's dream.  Toby's flamboyant behavior which spirals into mental illness is heartbreaking and Amelia's reluctance to accept that the brother she idolizes is no more, will touch teens who are interested in realistic reads about teens dealing with family issues involving mental illness.

My Unscripted Life is a first person narrative about Dee Wilkie, an artistically talented teen, who is devastated when she is rejected by a summer fine arts program, but rebounds when fate throws her the opportunity to work on a movie set in her Georgia hometown.  Dee is thrilled to find the film stars Milo Ritter, a famous pop-star she has had a crush on since middle school, but she is then disappointed when he turns out to be a jerk. As they are continually thrown together, she gets to know him and realizes there is a reason for his standoffish behavior, and she may just be the girl to change his attitude. Although this is a fun light read, the author inserts movie script elements and stage directions into the text, making this a cut above many teen rom/coms. Dee's internal monologues reveal a girl who is in the process of self-discovery and decisions about life after high school and it all plays out on a movie set.  What's not to enjoy?

You in Five Acts is written from five points of view, telling the story of a diverse group of friends at Janus Academy, a high pressure performing arts school, in the months leading up to their final performances that will determine their futures. Joy, the African American ballerina, partners with the phenomenal Latino dancer Diego, who hopes their performance will move him out of the friend zone.  Ethan, the Russian American playwright hopes to turn his muse, the Puerto Rican actress Liv into something more, while she crushes on Dave, the movie celebrity, who recently transferred to Janus and is her costar in Ethan's play.  In each Act the narrator refers to the object of affection as "You." The plot is like a Shakespearean play in that love interests are continually shifting and emotions are misunderstood.  Ethan's passion for Classic American film informs his play and he tries unsuccessfully to get his friends to share his obsession. Although Liv is supposed to be his girlfriend, she is decidedly uninterested in a romance with him. Her snarky relationship with Dave belies the crush she has on him, while he tries to disregard the feelings he has for her, because she is supposedly Ethan's girl.  Diego and Joy indulge in dance films like Save the Last Dance and Center Stage, as they slowly acknowledge the passion they feel on the dance floor has blossomed into their offstage lives. The love relationships slowly work themselves out, as the story moves toward a tragedy that will change everything.  The well-written sympathetic characters, the frequent movie references and the author's clear understanding of life at an arts academy make this a truly compelling read.  It's release date is November 1, 2016.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Noted authors trying something new: Something in Between, And I Darken, and Kids of Appetite

When choosing books to read, I admit I am tempted to choose books by recognizable authors with a proven track record.  This month I will review new novels by three popular authors, who are trying something different. Melissa de la Cruz, who is well-known for her popular vampire series Blue Bloods, has written Something in Between, a stand alone novel about a Filipino girl who wins a National Scholar Award, only to find out she is undocumented. Kiersten White, who teens will recognize as the author of the Paranormalcy series, has penned And I Darken, the first book in a new historical romance trilogy. Finally, David Arnold, author of the critically acclaimed Mosquitoland, offers Kids of Appetite,  a murder mystery, whose main character is a boy with Moebius syndrome, the inability to move one's facial muscles.

In Something in Between Jasmine de los Santos, who emigrated from the Philippines at age nine, receives the National Scholar Award, complete with a full ride to the college of her choice. Naturally, she thinks her dreams of attending Stanford are within reach.  Expecting her parents to be thrilled, she is shocked when they reveal that they are undocumented immigrants and her accepting the scholarship could jeopardize their freedom.  All her years of striving for success, academically, as well as on an award winning cheerleading team, could go unrewarded.  To complicate matters Jasmine has started dating Royce Blakely, another Stanford hopeful, whose father is a California congressman, who has sponsored an anti-immigrant bill.  As Jasmine's family struggles to obtain visas, so that she can pursue her dreams legally, she searches for a solution through Stanford's need-blind international student program.  The story is semi autobiographical for the author, who attended Columbia on a need-blind scholarship, which she discusses in an author's note.

And I Darken, the first book in a new historical romance series, introduces Lada and Radu, children of Vlad Dracul, prince of Wallachia, who offers them as hostages to the Ottoman Empire, in the  hope of securing his throne.  They befriend Mehmed, the Ottoman heir, and the three grow up together, awaiting Mehmed's ascension to the Ottoman throne.  Homely, but fierce, Lada trains as a warrior, whereas, the beautiful Radu seeks peace and converts to Islam; yet both fall for the charismatic Mehmed.  As political intrigue and changing loyalties abound, the strange love triangle moves toward a denouement, setting up the sequel. This historical romance, set in the Ottoman Empire during the early to mid 1400s, weaves historical fact, including the real-life figure who served as the inspiration for Dracula, into an action-packed tale of war and romance.

In alternating chapters in Kids of Appetite, teens Vic and Madeline are individually questioned by the Hackensack Police Department about a recent murder.   In flashbacks to the days leading up to their interrogations, we meet the Kids of Appetite (KoA), a group of semi-homeless kids, who take in Vic, a boy with facial paralysis known as Moebius Syndrome, after he runs away from home.  Vic's father recently died from cancer, and when his mother's new boyfriend proposes, Vic grabs the urn filled with his dad's ashes and leaves. He is on a mission to scatter his ashes, as per dad's cryptic instructions, around NYC, and the group decides to help him.  Baz, a 27-year-old refugee from the Congo, is the group's father figure.  His mute brother Zuz and snarky 11-year-old Coco take a back seat to Madeline, Vic's love interest.  She is dealing with grief over her parents accidental deaths and abuse at the hands of her uncle, who takes in her and her demented grandmother after the accident. As the group helps Vic with his quest, he begins to feel a sense of belonging, and the stirrings of first love when he experiences his first kiss with Madeline. The solution to the murder mystery is secondary to the story of Vic's healing process, as he shows the KoA what it means to be a "heart thinker."  This is a book for kids who enjoy quirky reads with lots of character development. An added bonus is Madeline's obsession with S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders which she references frequently.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Romantic YA Reads for Summer's End: Suffer Love, Tell Me Three Things and P.S. I Like You

If teens are looking for a quick romantic read before required reading for school begins, or just an escape between loftier reads, I can recommend three new books that are a cut above.  Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake involves two teens, struggling with family problems, who meet when paired on a Shakespeare class project. Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum focuses on Jessie, a girl who is still grieving her mother's death and has to move from Chicago to L.A. when her father remarries.  She gets a little help in navigating the ins and outs of her new life from a secret email friend identifying himself as Somebody/Nobody.  In  P.S. I Like You by Kasie West, aspiring songwriter Lily also begins a secret correspondence that fuels her creativity when she finds a response to graffiti she doodled on her desk in chemistry class.

Suffer Love is a tale of star-crossed lovers, Hadley and Sam, who meet in Shakespeare class and find they are both struggling with family problems caused by a parent's infidelity. Hadley's university professor father had a year long affair with one of his students. Unbeknownst to Hadley, her dad's affair was with Sam's mother. Both Sam and Hadley are missing their respective parents who moved out when the affair was discovered, and are also dealing with the depressed parent left behind.   When Sam finds out the truth about the affair, he is afraid to tell Hadley, thinking he'll lose her. Complicating matters is Sam's fragile little sister Olivia, whom Hadley befriends. As they work on their Shakespeare project, the irony of his Shakespearean dilemma is not lost on Sam.  The plot tangles and references to Shakespearean literature make this a smart romance that readers will devour. If teachers wanted to use this in class, they could pair it with reading Much Ado about Nothing.

 Tell Me Three Things opens when Jessie, who is still grieving her mother's death, is abruptly moved from her Chicago home to the mansion of a wealthy LA widow her father met online and married. Suddenly she is trying to adjust to a new home, a stepbrother (Theo) and an elite private high school where she feels like she is swimming with sharks. When she gets an anonymous email from a boy calling himself Somebody/Nobody (SN), offering to be her "virtual spiritual guide" to navigating her new school, she reluctantly accepts his help, while wondering about her secret correspondent's identity. Is it Ethan, the cool but aloof guy in her AP English class who picks her as a study partner?  Is it Liam, the son of the owner of the bookstore where she works? Or is it Theo, who having recently lost his own father, at first treats her like a stranger at school, but slowly warms to her. As the email correspondence evolves into a game of "Tell Me Three Things," Jessie begins to get clues as to SN's identity, and at the same time begins to work through her grief, because SN is dealing with the death of a loved one, too.  The smart funny virtual conversations, filled with literary references, and the suspense as to SN's identity, as well as the sympathetic exploration of teens dealing with death, make this a compelling read that teens will love.

P.S. I Like You similarly involves a secret correspondence that blossoms into love. When aspiring songwriter Lily scribbles some indie music lyrics on her desktop in chemistry class, she is surprised to find a reply the next day. Soon she and the mystery correspondent are communicating in greater depth through notes hidden beneath the desk.  Not only does Lily enjoy getting to know him, his personal revelations seem to fuel her songwriting.  Suddenly she can't wait to get to the class she used to dread.  As she struggles to discover his identity, she crushes on Lucas, a hipster musician, and feuds with Cade, her sworn nemesis, who teases her mercilessly.  After her guitar is destroyed, ruining her chances to enter a songwriting contest, she is devastated.  Then in her role as office aide, she is sent to her pen pal's class with a note for the teacher and is shocked when she discovers his identity. She struggles to reconcile the personality in the notes, with the actual person, She can't seem to make herself stop corresponding with him and begins to realize she needs to make some changes in order to become her "best self."  Although it's fairly obvious who the pen pal is, Lily's road to discovery and reinvention of herself is the real story.  Kasie West (The Fill-In Boyfriend and The Distance Between Us) can be counted on to deliver sympathetic characters, clever dialogue and sweet romance, and in her latest offering she does not disappoint!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

YA Mysteries: A Study in Charlotte, The Only Thing Worse than Me is You, and The Art of Not Breathing

Mysteries have always been considered fun escapist literature, whether they are conventional detective yarns or unconventional narratives filled with suspense.  Although vastly different in tone, three new young adult summer reads I would recommend can be classified as mysteries.  A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro is the first in a new trilogy starring descendants of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  The Only Thing Worse than Me is You by Lily Anderson is a re-imagining of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, where the two adversaries need to cooperate to get to the bottom of a school cheating scandal.  Finally, The Art of Not Breathing by Sarah Alexander, focuses on a grief stricken girl who is trying to find out the truth about her twin brother's drowning.

A Study in Charlotte introduces Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson, the famous literary sleuths' descendants who are thrown together at Sherringford Prep School in modern day Connecticut.  Holmes' antisocial nature and drug problems are reminiscent of her famous ancestor and Watson's job again is to aid with investigations and narrate the story. When a schoolmate, who date raped Charlotte and was accosted by Jamie, is murdered, they are both under suspicion and launch an investigation to exonerate themselves.  As further crimes are committed, each mimicking a famous Holmes case,  Charlotte and Jamie use their deductive powers to solve the case.  Complete with poisons, explosions, deadly viruses and lurking descendants of Moriarty, this mystery is a real page-turner.

In the witty homage to Much Ado About Nothing, The Only Thing Worse Than Me is You, Trixie Watson and Ben West have been rivals since first grade.  Their constant snarking against each other is exhausting for their friends, but as we all know there is a thin line between love and hate.  Trixie is determined to pass Ben in class rank before graduation, but when their best friends Harper and Cornell, who are dating, ask them to declare a truce, she ends up falling for Ben instead.  She can't resist staying up at night talking with him on the phone about all their common geeky interests including Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Wars and Marvel comics. When Harper, number two in the class, is accused of cheating to pass Cornell, who is number one, Trixie can't believe it and sets out to prove her innocent.  Finding out who is really the culprit in the cheating scandal challenges her relationship with Ben.  Nerdy references and stinging wordplay, as well as riffs on Shakespeare's original story, will charm readers as the suspense-filled plot keeps them hoping for a happy ending.

The Art of Not Breathing adds an element of mystery to a tale of grief set in Scotland.  When Elsie's disabled twin brother Eddie drowns in the North Sea, her family falls into dysfunction.  Dad disappears, Mom drinks and older brother Dillon stops eating; all of them seemingly overreacting to Eddie's death.  Five years have passed and Elsie, who can't remember what really happened the day Eddie drowned, is still searching for answers.  When charismatic free-diver Tay befriends her, and she begins to explore the underwater world with him, things that happened that day begin coming back to her.  But everyone is hiding secrets, thwarting her attempts to unravel the mystery. The enigmatic setting and the vivid details describing Elsie's free-diving episodes where she communes with Eddie, are riveting, as she unravels the various subplots in this multi-level mystery.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Beach Reads: The Girl from Everywhere, Smash & Grab and Little Black Dresses, Little White Lies

Summer beach reads come in all shapes and sizes.  If you want a hefty fantasy novel, I would recommend The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Helig. This time travel fantasy imagines a girl who travels around the world across centuries looking for a map that might alter her future.  Smash & Grab by Amy Christine Parker is a heist novel that unites a rich thrill-seeking girl with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks in planning a caper that will benefit them both.  Little Black Dresses, Little White Lies, a romantic comedy by Laura Stample, finds Harper Anderson with a dream internship in NYC, writing about a topic she knows little about - love.

The Girl from Everywhere is the first book in a duology, which introduces 16-year-old Nix, a girl who has traveled around the world through centuries aboard her father's time-traveling ship.  Nix was born in Hawaii in 1868; when her mother dies in childbirth, her roguish opium addicted father sets sail with her.  He can sail anywhere in time that he wants, as long as he has a map; but now he is seeking a map to take him back to 1868 so that he can change the past and resurrect his wife.  The question is, what will that do to Nix's future, in fact her entire existence?  Along with her Persian thief love interest, Kash, who has been sailing with them for two years, Nix struggles to keep her father from acquiring the map that could lead to her demise.  This skillful mashup of science fiction, Hawaiian history, and mythology is filled with swashbuckling adventure, making it a must read for summer.

In Smash and Grab Lexi is a rich adrenaline junkie, whose greatest joy is executing dares like base jumping off a skyscraper with her crew.  Christian is a studious guy from the wrong side of town, who is blackmailed into committing bank robberies by the gang leaders in his neighborhood.  Their paths cross when Lexi, whose father had been jailed for bank fraud, is trying to find evidence to implicate his boss, at the same time Christian's gang is casing his bank for their next job.  Romantic sparks fly as they cooperate to plan a heist that will help Lexi exonerate her father and Christian find a way out of a life of crime, so he can go to college.  Told from alternating points of view, the story unfolds at a breakneck pace, keeping the reader turning pages and hoping their star-crossed love will find a way.

Little Black Dresses, Little White Lies focuses on Harper Anderson, a California girl who longs to be a writer.  When she is offered an internship at a teen magazine in NYC, she jumps at the chance.  However, her "edgy" personal essay about her fictitious dating experiences, leads her editor to make her the magazine's dating blogger.  As she tries to fit in with her fellow interns and come up with witty articles, the web of lies she spins spirals out of control.  Harper begins dating Carter, the son of the magazine's owner, but the guy she really connects with is a dog walker named Ben.  Her snarky articles make her a social media darling, but when her best friend finds out Harper has appropriated her dating experiences as her own, Harper must come clean.  The love triangle is predictable, but the author creates a sympathetic character, whose hilarious dating blogs and comedic misadventures keep the reader in stitches and rooting for her all the way.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Keepin' It Real: Pin Drop, The Smell of Other People's Houses, and The Serpent King

I recently finished a new book Pin Drop by Roz Monette, whom I met at the CTLC conference, and was intrigued when the main character meets a Denver librarian who has a "Keepin' It Real" shelf for teens, filled with young adult novels with "darker subject matter."   Pin Drop, which is about a 17-year-old homeless girl, who is living on the streets of Denver, certainly belongs on this self.  I am also excited about two debut novels that fit this category as well.  Bonnie Sue Hitchcock's The Smell of Other People's Houses explores the lives of four teens looking for second chances in Alaska 1970, and Jeff Zentner's The Serpent King narrates the tale of three rural teens whose enduring friendship helps them to deal with small minded abuse from the people in their town. All of the books deal with difficult topics and are recommended for mature readers.

Mo Perez, a 17-year-old in the Bounce Back alternative high school program, is know as "Pin Drop" to her classmates.  She is a girl of few words, but when she unleashes her caustic wit, she silences all around her.  Left to fend for herself in Denver when her 21-year-old sister and legal guardian moves to Nevada, Mo decides homelessness is better than going back into the foster care system.  She leaves school and navigates the challenges of living on the street by spending time in the library, where she devours books from the "Keepin' It Real" shelf, fishing coins out of the mall fountain, and occasionally getting a meal and bed at the Denver rescue mission.  When she gets romantically involved with Derek, a young cop in the K-9 training program, she tries to hide her homeless status, which is tough when she is always carrying a heavy backpack filled with everything she owns.  Mo's snarky sense of humor and fierce independence make her a character you want to embrace.  The author paints a vivid picture of what it's like to live on the streets of Denver and ultimately what services are available to kids in need.  Although much of what happens in Mo's life is tragic, her perseverance ultimately allows her to carve out a new life for herself that is filled with hope.

In The Smell of Other People's Houses four teenagers' lives intertwine over the course of a year in Alaska in 1970.  Ruth, who lives with her strict grandmother after her father's death and her mother's breakdown, is sent to a convent when she finds herself pregnant.  Dora, who is taken in by a loving family after her abusive father is sent to jail, comes into some luck that may be her downfall.  Alyce, a talented dancer who spends summers on her father's fishing boat, longs to try out for a dance scholarship, but doesn't want to abandon her father.  Finally, Hank and his brothers, who stow away on a boat after running away from their mother and her abusive boyfriend, find themselves in a world of trouble after one of them goes overboard.  As the title indicates the author uses sensory details to paint a picture of teens trying to find their places in a difficult world. Her lyrical prose evokes a time and place not frequently explored and leaves the reader with an emotionally honest view of kids experiencing domestic trauma.

Told from three different points of view, The Serpent King chronicles the lives of Dill, Travis and Lydia, three Tennessee teenage outcasts, who are going their separate ways after high school graduation.  Dill, the only son of an incarcerated snake handling Pentecostal minister, struggles to fend off bullies and hide his love for Lydia. His only solace is the music he writes and performs.  Travis, a gentle giant obsessed with a literary fantasy world, lives in online chat rooms to avoid abuse at home. Lydia, a highly successful fashion blogger dreams of heading to NYC to pursue a fashion career and wants the boys to dream, too.  The three navigate their last year together hoping for the best, but fearing the worst.  This debut author, a musician himself, eloquently portrays these sympathetic teens' aspirations, fears and enduring friendship.  Tough topics, including child molestation, homophobia, bullying and brainwashing, make this a high school read.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

CTLC Recommendations: Tell the Wind and Fire, The Shadow Queen, Into the Dim and Salt to the Sea

The Colorado Teen Literature Conference on April 2nd was wonderful as always.  I really enjoyed Eliot Schrefer's keynote address.  I had previously read his book The School For Dangerous Girls, but was unaware of his Ape Quartet, which includes Endangered and Threatened, thus far. His talk on the writing process and why he went in this direction topically was informative and hilarious.  As always, I got new ideas for books I want to read and confirmation that other readers liked some of my recent favorites, which I will discuss in this month's blog. Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan is a dystopian reimagining of A Tale of Two Cities. The Shadow Queen by CJ Redwine is an retelling of Snow White, where the princess is a magician and the prince is a shape-shifting dragon.  Into the Dim by Janet B Taylor is the first in a series about time travelers who go back to the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Finally, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is a WWII tale by the award-winning author of Between Shades of Grey and Out of the Easy.

Tell the Wind and Fire where to stop...but don't tell me, a quote from Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities opens a new dystopian novel in which there are two New York Cities: the Light where affluent light magicians live, and the Dark, where impoverished dark magicians live. Lucie Mannette, a girl of duel parentage, escapes the Dark City with her father, after her mother, a light magician who is using her skills as a healer in the Dark City, mysteriously dies.  Now Lucie is the symbolic "Golden Thread in the Dark," whose boyfriend Ethan Stryker, son of a prominent Light City politician, is accused of passing information to Dark City rebels.  When she attempts to save him, help comes from an unexpected source; Ethan has an illegal doppelganger, who can take the blame.  Filled with action and political intrigue, the book keeps the reader in suspense, never knowing who to trust.

The Shadow Queen imagines Snow White as Princess Lorelai, a magician with emerging powers, and Prince Kol as a shape-shifting dragon.  When the story begins, Lorelai is in hiding, working on strengthening her magic and planning revenge on Queen Irina, who killed her father and stole the throne of Ravenspire.  Meanwhile, Prince Kol has recently inherited the throne of Eldr, when his parents and older brother are killed, and is trying to save his kingdom from an ogre invasion.  He decides to travel to Ravenspire to request Queen Irina's help, but along the way he meets Lorelai, who saves his life.  When he finally enlists Irina's magical assistance, he is disturbed to find out the Princess, whose heart she demands in exchange is Lorelai.  Ultimately, he defies Irina and works with Lorelai to defeat the evil queen, and in doing so falls in love with the strong, selfless princess. I was charmed by this action packed tale of romance and revenge.

The first book in a new fantasy series, Into the Dim introduces Hope Walton, a 16-year-old whose mother supposedly dies on a trip to India.  When Hope is sent to Scotland to visit her aunt, she finds out her mother is actually part of a group of time-travelers known as Viators and she is stuck in London 1154.  Taylor, who discovers she also has the ability to time travel, goes with her friends Collum and Phoebe back to the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine to rescue her mother.  They are also looking for the Nonius Stone which contains special powers and predictably are thwarted by another time traveling family looking for the stone.  This series blends the historical and fantastical in a real page turner whose sequel will be out Spring 2017.

The new WWII historical fiction by Ruta Sepetys Salt to the Sea tells the tale of three young refugees fleeing to the ill-fated Wilhem Gustoff, a German military ship evacuating civilians and wounded soldiers at the end of WWII.  Florian, an art restorer with a secret, Emilia, a pregnant Polish girl, and Joana, a Lithuanian nurse, (Lina's cousin in Between Shades of Gray) are bound together in their flight through the Prussian countryside. Told in alternating points of view, a fourth narrator, Alfred, a low-ranking Nazi stationed aboard the ship, provides an additional perspective.  As their individual back stories are revealed amidst the atrocities of war, the refugees begin to trust each other with their lives. The author's note, including her research and sources as well as maps, adds to the authenticity of this haunting look at a little known tragedy.

Monday, March 21, 2016

New LGBTQ Young Adult Novels

Sexual identity issues have always been a problem for teens, but today's society is more tolerant and students are more comfortable discussing them. Many schools have curricula that include counseling students about being open to diversity in people’s sexual preferences.  Reflective of this tolerance is the growing body of young adult literature that focuses on this issue or includes it in a subplot. This month I would like to recommend three new YA novels that include LGBTQ issues.  We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchison, combines a sci/fi story line with a poignant exploration of a young gay man's struggles.  Unbecoming by Jenny Downham explores the lives of three generations of women, who are each hiding secrets.  The Rise and Fall of a Theater Geek by Seth Rudetsky follows Justin to NYC, where he has accepted an internship with a famous actor who is making his musical theater debut.

In We Are the Ants Henry Denton is regularly abducted by aliens who put Earth's fate in his hands.  With his dysfunctional family's indifference, his boyfriend's suicide, and his latest love's denial and abuse, Henry is not sure he really wants to push the red button and save the world from destruction.  Then charismatic new student Diego befirends him and he begins to have a more optimistic view of the future.  Although Henry thinks humans are no more significant than ants, he ultimately reasons we might be worth saving.  This book has been compared to Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, having an unreliable narrator who claims to travel to another planet.  However, this book is much more focused on Henry's problems on Earth and his sci/fi exploits seem to be a metaphor for his alienation at home.  A great read for thoughtful teens.

In her new novel Unbecoming Jenny Downham (Before I Die) explores the lives of three generations of women who are hiding secrets. When Katie's grandmother Mary is moved into Katie's family's home by social services, she turns their lives upside down.  Mary, who had Katie's' mother Caroline out of wedlock, left Caroline to live with her sister and husband, heading to London to pursue an acting career.  Caroline understandably harbors resentment, but tries to do the right thing.  Having a strong need for control, she strictly monitors Katie and her disabled brother's lives and now adds Mary's care to the mix. Meanwhile, Katie, who has been uprooted from her home and friends when her dad leaves for another woman, is struggling to fit in at a new school and deal with her growing attraction to girls. Taking on the daytime care of Mary and her brother, Katie finds herself overwhelmed by her mother's animosity, her grandmother's deteriorating memory, her brother's desire to reestablish a relationship with their father, and her attraction to a openly gay waitress.  Alternating between Katie and Mary's third person perspectives, the story slowly reveals what really happened and why Katie is so strongly devoted to helping Mary recover her memories

On a much lighter note The Rise and Fall of a Theater Geek focuses on Justin, a self-proclaimed theater geek, who heads to NYC for a winter internship.  He decides to break up with his boyfriend Spencer so that he can live it up in the city.  But when he gets there, he finds himself an errand boy for a famous actor who seems determined to self-destruct in a new musical.  To make matters worse, Spencer finds an NYC internship as well and is dating a hot young actor who is frequently in the tabloids, Justin's Broadway dreams have turned into nightmares, but his self deprecating banter keeps the reader laughing.  I particularly liked this book because Justin's sexuality is just a matter of fact element of the story. He is comfortable in his own skin, as are all the other gay characters involved.  These three books are probably best for more mature readers.

Friday, February 12, 2016

CO Blue Spruce YA Award and 2016 Nominees

The Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award winner for 2015 is The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.  Familiar to John Green fans, as well as a major motion picture, the beloved book about a young cancer survivor probably needs no further description.  The 2016 Blue Spruce nominees have also been announced.  Several of the books have already been reviewed in this blog, including Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, and I'll Give You the Sun (2015 Prinz Award winner) by Jandy Nelson. Two nominees are sequels to reviewed books that were nominees last year: Rebel Spring by Morgan Rhodes is the sequel to Falling Kingdoms and Ice Like Fire by Sara Raasch is the sequel to Snow Like Ashes. The Selection is the first in a dystopian Cinderella series by Kiera Cass and The Young Elites is the first in a dystopian series by Marie Lu. The Amazing Book is Not on Fire by internet sensations Dan Howell and Phil Lester is a collection of writings from their series and The Longest Ride by Nicholas Sparks probably owes its nomination to the movie version starring Scott Eastwood and Britt Robertson. The three final nominees that I would like to discuss in more detail are An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, The Program by Suzanne Young and I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai.

An Ember in the Ashes, the  first book in a new fantasy series inspired by Ancient Rome, introduces Elias Veturius, the son of the military commandant in the Martial Empire, and Laia, a Scholar whose parents led the Resistance before their mysterious deaths.  When Laia’s grandparents are killed and her brother is taken prisoner, she agrees to go undercover for the Resistance if they will rescue him.  She poses as the personal slave of the commandant of the Blackcliff Academy where Elias trains. Although Elias would like to desert, he is chosen to undergo trials in a competition to become the next emperor.  He and Laia find themselves falling in love as they become unwitting comrades in the trials that are filled with magic and supernatural challenges.  Already optioned by Paramount pictures and sold to 19 international markets, this series is sure to be a winner. The sequel, The Torch Against the Night, will be out in August.

The Program is the first in a duo-logy about a program designed to deal with a teen suicide epidemic. The book focuses on Sloane, a teen whose brother committed suicide in front of her.  Fighting depression, her only solace is her boyfriend James, who is her support system.  When James is committed to the Program, which will wipe his memories, Sloan despairs and ultimately is sent to the Program as well. The book is divided into three parts, reflecting her life before, during and after her treatment.  Fighting to resist losing all her memories, she is aided by a troublemaker named James, and when she is released, she has one key memory which will help her fight the system.  In the sequel, The Treatment, James and Sloane rekindle their romance and are on the run in this exploration of the relationship between memory and identity. 

I am Malala is an autobiography written by Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Prize winner in history.  It tells the story of a young Muslim Pakistani girl who was taught to stand up for what she believes.  When the Taliban took control of her region, they dramatically reduced the rights of women, denying them education and freedom of movement.  Malala fought for her right to be educated and on October 9, 2012, she was shot point-blank while riding the bus home from school.  Defying all odds, she survived and began her campaign of peaceful protest.  This book is available in adult and young adult versions.  I would recommend the YA version which includes exclusive photos and material that complement her story, detailing how one young person can inspire change in the world. 

Book talks for all twelve Blue Spruce nominees, as well as tips for promoting the award, are available at 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Stories with a Soundtrack

I just finished the 2015 revision of my book What's New in Young Adult Novels? and Ideas for Classroom Use, adding over a hundred new titles. One of my favorite chapters is "Stories with a Soundtrack." Just as many movies have soundtracks that help define characters and move the plot forward, more and more books are including musical references that create a mood and provide background information.  Some authors even offer soundtracks online that complement the novel. Frequently, the main characters bond over a shared love of music or friendships are initiated by one character introducing another to her favorite tunes.  If readers have a working knowledge of the music incorporated in a novel, it helps them understand the personality of the characters and the stage upon which the story plays out.  A variety of projects can be assigned to help students explore the story soundtrack and analyze how it impacts the novel.  These projects are detailed in the book. Four books I recently added to the chapter will be reviewed in this month's blog. Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly is about a young Filipino girl who moves to Louisiana and is obsessed with the Beatles.  Placid Girl by Brenna Ehrlich focuses on a drummer in a punk band.  For the Record by Charlotte Huang chronicles the tale of a reality show contestant who takes the place of the lead female singer in a popular band.  This Song is (Not) for You by Laura Nowlin is about a love triangle which complicates band dynamics in an experimental noise rock trio.

In Blackbird Fly April Yengkoa and her mother move from the Philippines to Louisiana after her father dies. The only thing she has of his is a Beatles cassette, which she cherishes.  Hoping to learn all the Beatles songs on the cassette, she wants to take up the guitar, but her mother vehemently objects.  After becoming a social pariah when her name appears on the "Dog Log" list of ugly girls, she makes friends with a fellow listed girl and a new boy who encourage her to follow her dreams.  A music teacher, who discovers April has a natural gift for the guitar, takes her under his wing, providing her with a guitar and lessons.  Through music April is able to deal with her classmates' prejudice and the conflict with her mother, and find a way to follow her heart.  The subtitles of each chapter are Beatles songs which reflect what happens in the chapter.  The author also provides an "Apple Yengkoa" playlist on her website. 

Hallie, aka Placid Girl, is a drummer in a punk band with her best friend Sarah. They deal with their dysfunctional parents by embracing punk music, in particular the music of a masked musician named Haze.  Although he hasn't been heard from in five years, Hallie, who has begun an online flirtation with a mysterious stranger, wonders if it's him.  Aspiring music journalist Steve, who recently moved into her neighborhood, says he can get her into Haze's secret comeback gig, so she decides to hit the road with him and Sarah to solve the mystery once and for all. This story is filled with suspense and is also a cautionary tale about social media and obsessive fan behavior. 

Ever wonder what happens to reality show singing contestants who don't win?  In For the Record Chelsea Ford initially goes back to a life of anonymity after being voted off the show.  Then the lead singer of the band Melbourne quits and the manager of the band, who has seen her in the competition, invites her to take her place, sending Chelsea on the road with three hot musicians who barely tolerate her.  When teen movie star Lucas Rivers begins romancing her,  the band is furious with the kind of media attention it brings.  Suddenly she and Lucas are the focus, which threatens her already shaky relationship with the band. To complicate matters Chelsea and the band's guitarist Beckett are involved in a forbidden flirtation, which keeps readers guessing.  As Chelsea tries to prove herself before the end of the summer tour, she wonders if it's worth it. The band's tour itinerary and their song lyrics are included at the end of the book. 

Ramona and Sam are best friends and band mates in This Song is (Not) for You.  They are secretly in love with each other, but don't want to risk the band or their friendship by acting on it.  When they meet Tom, a guy who loves experimental music and glitter bombing, they realize that he is just what the band has been missing.  They quickly become inseparable. Then Ramona decides she is in love with Tom, and although she still has feelings for Sam, she and Tom become a couple, complicating band dynamics.  The story is told from three alternating points of view and deals with themes of unconventional friendships, musical experimentation and  different types of love.  In the author's note Laura thanks The Icebergs, an experimental noise rock band who let her "hang out with them during practice and call it research for her novel."  Their music can be found online.