Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
I have not read much in the way of teen novels lately, but did get around to Paul Griffin’s 2010 effort entitled The Orange Houses. It concerns three rather unlikely allies, brought together by various circumstances into a state of friendship. The novel takes place during the course of a little over one month and the stories of these three individuals are told in alternating chapters.
First, there is Tamika, or Mik, who has been partially deaf since childhood. She attends a tough high school and manages to close herself off to the world around her by using her disability as an excuse.
Then there’s Jimmi Sixes, a nineteen year old war veteran, whose girlfriend committed suicide while he was enlisted. He turns to drugs, and despite trying to straighten up his life, his thoughts are regularly interrupted by a nagging question...Is life really worth living? And if so, then at what expense? Although he is Mik’s protective friend, (especially from the bullies she encounters at school), he is nonetheless detested by her mother as being a bad influence.
Finally, there is Fatima, a rather gentle soul who is an illegal immigrant from Africa. She arrives in New York on a ship all alone, with only the clothes on her back. She is looking and hoping for a better future in the United States and longs to see the Statue of Liberty up close. She is also a whiz at making beautiful, folded paper creations that are endearing mementos to those she shares them with.
This novel is a fast moving and absorbing read, ending in a dreadful outcome that the reader will not soon forget. The “orange houses” in the title refers to the projects, where all three characters reside; a place that offers little hope of redemption, where poverty prevails and where life is put on hold. The book made it onto the 2010 list of the best books for teens.
Reading this novel, brought back very fond memories of meeting one of my favorite teen authors, Robert Cormier, who did a book talk at Kent State University in the late 1970s while I attended library school there.
During the mid to late 70s and beyond, Mr. Cormier had written The Chocolate War, published in 1974 and I Am the Cheese, published in 1977, probably his most prominent and attention receiving books that were later made into movies. His other works included Beyond the Chocolate War, Tunes for Bears to Dance To, After the First Death, and Other Bells for Us to Ring.
His novels were famous at the time for their complex intensity. They covered sensitive as well as controversial themes, such as abuse, violence, revenge, betrayal, and conspiracy.
All in all Cormier, who passed away in late 2000, was considered by many experts as a gifted author and a major influence on teen literature. To this day, KPL still owns many of his books in their collection, and if you are not familiar with his writings, whether you are a teen or not, do yourself a favor and check them out.
The Orange Houses
This book is the story of Sam Lewis and the events that unfold during the 33 Minutes until Morgan Sturtz kicks his butt at recess (and then around 60 more minutes of aftermath). The author speaks directly to his tween audience, and gets it right. The voice of middle school is heard loud and clear over food fights, fire alarms and friendships. It’s funny, fast paced, heart-warming and breaking all at once. It’s the perfect book to recommend to kids that are starting to outgrow the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. The lessons in 33 Minutes on friendship and staying true to one’s self will stick with the reader long after the worst day of Sam’s life and his middle school years have passed. I think it would be awesome to have a teacher like Ms. Z who can say: “This sucks….Wait. Be patient. You’re not going to be here forever. And in the meantime, even though you and this place don’t fit together so great all the time, be you.” Now, a sigh of relief from me that middle school has passed and that authors like Todd Hasak-Lowy are writing realistic books for tweens to read during the transition of middle school. Meet Todd at Bookbug in Kalamazoo on May 5 at 4 pm!
“The suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth,” sang Geddy Lee, lead singer of my favorite band Rush when I was a teenager growing up in a Chicago suburb. This is not the case in Shaun Tan’s book of mini-surreal masterpieces, Tales From Outer Suburbia. In these suburbs, there is a water buffalo that answers questions in an empty lot, a dugong (manatee type creature) that appears on someone’s lawn, ICBMs in everyone’s backyard, and a man wandering around in a diving suit.
I found the stories from Tales From Outer Suburbia to be a little too bizarre at first, but my compulsion to finish books that I’ve started carried me through until I slowly became enchanted. The stories feature physical manifestations of the hopes and fears of the people who live in these suburbs and they wove their way into my psyche and released strong feelings of wonder, healing, and letting go. The strange story lines somehow open you up and leave you thinking about them long after you have read them.
I especially identified with a story about two brothers who have a map of their suburb and decide to walk to where the map ends to see what is there. It reminded me of a 10 mile hike my brother and I took to complete the hiking merit badge. We weren’t going to get “out in nature” anytime soon, so we just decided to walk around our Chicago suburb (which, oddly enough, included a stop at the public library to pick up some 8mm films). The experience did have a surreal feeling and it completely changed the way I felt about where I lived. Walking gives you such an intimate connection with your surroundings and it empowered me, as I went to places I had only gone with my parents up to that point.
I was so struck by the book that I asked my son if I could read him the extremely short stories before he went to bed. He agreed and loved the stories and I got to have the nice experience of reading aloud to him that I hadn’t had in several years and to talk a little bit about what it is like to have an older brother who is always right.
Tale From Outer Suburbia
An idea hatched in our KPL Innovation Team to celebrate the popularity of teen novels to adult readers during the month of April. No other segment of the publishing industry has consistently grown over the past few years. Adults are unabashedly checking out novels specifically written for teens. In 2012, Amazon listed John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars as one of the overall Ten Best Books of the Year which is quite an accomplishment when measured against the adult competition. I spent the first half of my career at KPL as the Teen Services Librarian and during that time a new “Golden Age” of Teen Literature had begun. During that time I read hundreds of novels for teens and below list the five titles I would want with me if stranded on a desert island.
1.Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas – The creator of the cult classic TV show Veronica Mars pens a now classic tale of Steve York, troubled teen and son of an astronaut. York is charged with writing an essay about his life in order to graduate. The result is a hilarious look at one teen’s transformation from shooting star to crashed space debris.
2. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher – Disfigured Sarah and formerly fat kid Eric are unlikely friends. When she enters a mental institution, Eric learns the story behind her “accident” and demonstrates incredible loyalty to readers. The in-class discussions the teens have in this novel are amazing.
3. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson – Melinda is raped at a party right before entering high school. When she is discovered calling the police by her friends, they turn on her because they are unaware of her situation. She decides not to speak during the school year and is haunted in the halls every day by her attacker.
4. Feed by M.T. Anderson – In the future humans are implanted with feeds to help them digitally navigate the world. Titus and his friends love being able to interact with one another, immediately order clothes, and listen to the latest music. His view changes when he meets Violet, a girl with a damaged feed and little hope for the future.
5. Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books by Francesca Lia Block – Five short novels combined to make a magical book featuring the eccentric Weetzie Bat and friends. A modern fairy tale of mysticism, and hot dogs that is filled with inventive slang, colorful settings, and most importantly a huge dose of love in a dangerous world.
Rats Saw God
Artemis Fowl is a 12 year old boy genius who kidnaps a fairy in order to get her gold. This is the first in a series and is titled Artemis Fowl. Artemis is what every 12 year old boy wants to be. His mom has dementia so he is not hampered by her rules and having to go to school, yet he does miss her and would still like to have her back as his mom. Artemis has a man servant with the last name of Butler who is huge and protects Artemis. The first thing that happens is that Artemis captures a fairy book. With this first chapter we are introduced to Artemis and find out that he has a castle, has a great computer network, that he is always two steps ahead of everyone and that Butler is very strong and dedicated. Artemis uses the knowledge in this fairy book to ambush Captain Holly Short of the LEPrecon fairy unit. He holds her hostage and demands a ton of gold. The fairies try to get Holly back but are defeated time after time by Artemis. Root, a commander in the LEPrecon unit decides to send in a dwarf named Mulch. This book is written for a teen age audience. It is heavy into to fairies, dwarfs, goblins, trolls etc. It also has the gassy fart humor that teen age boys enjoy. The drawf can unhinge his jaw and tunnel through dirt. Prior to starting he also opens the back flap of his tunneling pants because what goes in the jaw comes out the other end. He also builds up a tremendous amount of air pressure and he actually is able to use this to incapacitate Butler. This book is full of details about fairy life. This is book one of a series. I got my copy from KPL's digital audio collection but we also have them in hard copy. I look forward to “reading” (having them read to me) the others.
Having spent the first part of my KPL career working in the Teen Services area, I had the opportunity to be exposed to a whole new genre of literature that I’m quite sure didn’t really exist when I was a teen. As a result, and because I had to know what I was talking about when recommending books, I read perhaps a disproportionate amount of teen literature as an adult. Among some of my favorites, in no particular order, were:
The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson
The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt
I Am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
Going Bovine by Libba Bray
As I review this list, I recognize that the overriding theme of most of these titles is self-identity, obviously a developmental hallmark for kids between the ages of 12 and 18. I also recognize honest characters, humor, and intelligent writing as some common features of many of these books, things that I would think are important to kids today who are looking for a book that will be worth the time it takes to read…no small task in this digital age of immediate gratification.
What’s worth noting, however, is that those themes still speak to me as an adult and that sometimes, tackling them through the eyes of young protagonist gives me just the perspective I need in my own life.
If you haven’t been to the Teen room lately, you owe it to yourself to check it out and perhaps find a book that will appeal to you.
Beach reads can be great, but they imply a certain amount of fluffiness that simply doesn't come to mind when I think about Huntley Fitzpatrick's My Life Next Door. Not that you'd know that just from a quick glance at the cover art and brief description... so I was surprised when I quickly discovered that My Life Next Door is most definitely not a turn off your brain and settle in for a comfy, sedate ride kind of book. Instead, it was filled with angst, painful decisions, and intense romance and friendship and family drama.
The characters of My Life Next Door are one of the best aspects of the novel. Each has a very distinct personality, so, despite there being quite a few children running around in various passages, each character was easily identified. I felt like I knew these characters... like maybe I lived on the other side of the Garrett's growing up and we all happened to be neighbors. I found myself tightly wrapped in the emotional ups and downs of these characters.
The main character, Samantha, is not perfect, though she's spent much of her life trying to fit the image her mother so carefully cultivates. I cheered each of Sam's rebel moments, proud of her for doing something for herself rather than her mother. And I appreciated the fact that Sam really didn't do anything that would be harmful to herself. Her rebellion wasn't full of drugs, alcohol, and sex, but rather the bravery to accept the sometimes messy, but rewarding parts of life outside of one's comfort zone.
Huntley Fitzpatrick is a talented writer and I can easily imagine her novels gaining a healthy following, much like Sarah Dessen and Deb Caletti's novels. I, for one, am anxiously awaiting news of her next project!
My Life Next Door
Every time I stumble across a book like Kathleen O'Dell's The Aviary, I'm amazed that more readers - of all ages - don't read middle grade. The Aviary is very Gothic in setting and tone and simultaneously bursting with colorful characters, a unique combination. There are secrets and magic, plus a good dose of realism and a lesson or two as well. It actually reminded me a bit of Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.
The main character, Clara, is a delightful character: headstrong, adventurous, and incurably curious. I would have enjoyed The Aviary based solely on the premise and setting, but Clara made me love it. Her curiosity was engaging and infectious, ensuring that the reader was never plagued by a dull moment or stale passage, simply because Clara herself was always plotting her next move and going off on some adventure.
Since The Aviary is in many respects a mystery, there are many great elements I feel I can't really comment on in much depth. I can, however, say that every detail in The Aviary comes together quite elegantly and I was left completely satisfied by the ending. I spent much of the novel hypothesizing about how everything fit together... I liked that the mystery wasn't ridiculously easy to solve, but all the pieces of the puzzle were there, waiting to be put together by the reader and the intrepid Clara.
The Aviary is one of wonderful titles that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of readers. It is, plain and simple, a wonderfully written and imagined novel and didn't feel at all confined to one specific reading level. It could easily be a read for the whole family and will appeal to those who usually read young adult or adult titles.
Me, Him, Them and It by Caela Carter is definitely one of the best literary takes on teen pregnancy I've read. Carter tackles the subject with a deft hand, and while it can be said that she pushes her heroine, Evelyn, in some directions more than others, I felt that the novel presents a well-rounded and realistic portrayal of a teen faced with an unexpected pregnancy.
Evelyn is a smart girl who makes some reckless decisions in an attempt to both punish and draw the attention of her very absent parents. While she used to have a relatively strong relationship with her father and at least a passably good relationship with her mother, that all changed when her father had an affair. Instead of her parents splitting up, her mother decided to take her father back and stay together, but things are far from normal. The house is always tense and silent and Evelyn rarely see her parents who are so busy avoiding each other they forget she's even around.
Evelyn takes what one might consider the stereotypical route and begins rebelling. She quits her extracurriculars, starts lying, distances herself from her friends, and decides to lose herself in meaningless sex. Except for what starts out as meaningless sex turns into more when Evelyn finds herself falling for Todd. And then finds herself pregnant.
One of my favorite aspects of Me, Him, Them and It is how real Evelyn felt. There are moments when she's brave, moments of realization, and moments of undeniable immaturity. At first, she's terrified of what will happen to her life and what people will think of her. Not only is she pregnant, but she doesn't have a boyfriend, which she knows will create all kinds of gossip. Her aunt, who she looks up to and considers one of the only reliable adults in her life, lives far away and has no idea how much she's changed and Evelyn fears disappointing her. Along with the fear of what others will think, come Evelyn's fears about losing her freedom, gaining weight, her grades slipping, and her entire future. Overwhelmed, Evelyn shuts down and attempts to push all the decisions regarding the pregnancy and the baby onto her parents and every other adult she comes in contact with. But the author doesn't let Evelyn off the hook that easily, which I feel is extremely important. Evelyn's mother would be more than happy to make all the decisions, but she doesn't. Instead, she stresses to Evelyn how important it is that she make the decisions because, ultimately, it is her life and nobody can live it for her. This doesn't mean that our heroine is left all alone to figure things out, after all, she's only sixteen. There are many great secondary characters that form a support system for Evelyn that are integral to her decision making process.
In addition to Evelyn's parents, she also gains insight from her aunt, her partner, a counselors, and doctors. Despite her negative view of her parents, it's clear that they care a great deal for her and, though they've both made mistakes, are determined to be there for her no matter how she decides to proceed. Evelyn's aunts, who she lives with during the decision making process, are a fantastic support system, as one provides much needed understanding and the other provides structure, while they both provide plenty of love.
One character who is notably absent from the decision making process is the baby's father, Todd. While he does have some input, more or less saying that the decision is completely Evelyn's and that he doesn't want to participate in the baby's life if she chooses to keep it, he is otherwise absent when it comes to the pregnancy. I came to appreciate this detail as Evelyn struggled internally with her feelings for Todd and the idea of the baby being a catalyst for them to start a family. I'm so glad that Todd wasn't physically near Evelyn as she sorted through her options because it would have been entirely too easy for her to succumb to that fantasy, but it was fantasy and his distance allowed her to see that.
I also appreciated that Me, Him, Them and It touched on every available option to consider when faced with an unexpected pregnancy and the pros and cons. Adoption, both open and closed, teen parenthood, alone and with help or the father, and abortion are all discussed and explored. Furthermore, Planned Parenthood, religion, and family opinion are all considered. I truly felt that all options were fairly represented.
In the end, I feel that Evelyn not only made an educated decision, she also made the decision that was best for her. Of course, I can't say much more without spoiling the ending, but had come a long way by the conclusion of the novel. Her situation, though not ideal, forced her to think about her future, change her lifestyle, and her take some time away from a pretty unhealthy environment to figure things out. Though the novel did wrap up neatly, I wasn't left feeling that things were too calm or perfect. The Evelyn at the end of Me, Him, Them and It is clearly different than the one at the beginning and that, for me, allowed for a satisfying conclusion.
Me, Him, Them, and It
Kiersten White's Paranormalcy books missed the mark for me, but I was pleasantly surprised by her newest offering,Mind Games, which achieves a maturity the Paranormalcy books did not. I think it was actually the UK version title, Sister Assassins, that really caught my attention - as I'm obsessed with assassins, especially female assassins - though, after reading, I feel that Mind Games is a more fitting title. I was also drawn by the description, found below:
Fia was born with flawless instincts. Her first impulse, her gut feeling, is always exactly right. Her sister, Annie, is blind to the world around her—except when her mind is gripped by strange visions of the future.
Trapped in a school that uses girls with extraordinary powers as tools for corporate espionage, Annie and Fia are forced to choose over and over between using their abilities in twisted, unthinkable ways…or risking each other’s lives by refusing to obey.
A detail that I feel I should touch on is that the book has been marketed as an "intense psychological thriller about two sisters determined to protect each other," and while this may be technically true, I felt that the older sister, Annie, wasn't focused on nearly as much as Fia. I knew she was there in the plot, doing things, but I simply wasn't as concerned about her and I certainly wasn't as invested in her character.
However, I really enjoy Fia as a character. She's a dangerously broken individual that has the potential to turn dark, but she's inherently good. Because she sometimes lapses into immaturity and shows unexpected emotion, emotion that is the very opposite of the cutthroat assassin she's been trained to be, it's easy to see the Fia she could have been if her life hadn't been hijacked by the mysterious group that runs the "school" she and Annie attend.
The atmosphere of this novel (i.e. Fia, her boss, love interest, and the group that controls the sisters) are reminiscent of the characters and plot of shows like ABC's Alias and The CW's Nikita, which I love... and which probably contributed to my liking Mind Games as much as I did. Many of the characters are more than they seem, hiding something, or have the potential to give into the power they yield and use it for evil rather than good.
I feel that Mind Games is a great introduction to Fia and Annie's world. The action really picked up by the end of the novel, which I think bodes well for the next installment.