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.