Consent – Nancy Ohlin

When Nancy Ohlin’s YA novel Consent opens, seventeen-year-old Bea is in an interrogation room at the local police station. Her goal is to “Stay as close to the truth as possible.”

The truth is a grey area, though.

Bea and her best friend Plum attend Andrew Jackson High School, a “Campus for Baccalaureate and Performing Arts”. The two girls are over-achievers with “the two highest GPAs in school.” They have their lives mapped out: graduation and then Harvard. That is, until Bea meets Dane Rossi, the new AP Music History teacher.

Mr. Rossi turns from the blackboard and scans the class. Oh my Godi, he’s cute. Chiseled features and sexy stubble…Are teachers allowed to be that good looking?

Mr. Rossi is more than cute, though. He sees Bea, and recognizes her talent, a talent she has kept hidden from everyone. For reasons. He encourages her to join two other students in an ensemble; he hooks her up with an audition at Julliard; he deflowers her. Because, of course he does.

Consent is problematic, but not for the reasons that you might think. Yes – it’s all sorts of wrong that a teacher enters into a sexual relationship with a student, but it’s more the way that. None of the characters feel fully fleshed out. Bea’s father, a lawyer, is basically absent – until he isn’t. Her older brother is a non-entity. Dane is too good to be true, and their insta-attraction to each other just doesn’t seem realistic. Before you can Schumann they are planning their lives together. Just, y’know, after she turns eighteen. When they get caught, Bea convinces Plum and another boy to lie for her.

It was easy to read, but I never truly felt invested in these characters. It was hard to see Bea as a victim or Dane as a predator and although there was certainly potential for something a bit more dramatic, it never really happened.

The Closest I’ve Come – Fred Aceves

This year in my grade ten English class we’ve decided to try something new: podcasts. I have never made one and have only recently started to listen to them, but one of my colleagues and I thought it might be a great, non-traditional way for students to show their learning. We hooked up with a local organization called Brilliant Labs for the tech-y stuff and paired students up to read books that dealt with the topic of coming of age, which is this term’s big idea. Then, my colleague and I decided that we should give it a go, too.

We read Fred Aceves debut novel The Closest I’ve Come which tells the story of fifteen-year-old Marcos Rivas who lives in Tampa, but not in the part of Tampa tourists see. His mother seems sort of checked out and her boyfriend, Brian, is a bully. Marcos notes “With every step home my bones are getting shakier.”

He moved in last summer, just before the worst heatwave in a decade, but the strangling humidity didn’t faze him none. The douche sat in the armchair (my armchair when my mom’s between boyfriends) with the fan pointed at himself. Even with me and my mom also watching TV, even though the fan has an oscillating setting, it forever pointed his way.

Things are pretty grim for Marcos. They’re poor, he struggles in school, some of his friends are borderline criminals and although he dreams of getting out of the hood, he doesn’t really know how he’s going to accomplish this. Then an opportunity lands in his lap.

Congratulations! You’ve been selected to take part in a new, exciting program.

The exciting program is an after-school group which is meant to provide enrichment to students with potential. One of those students is a take-no-prisoners girl named Amy who Marcos has admired from afar for many months. Marcos muses: “Me and Amy got something in common, even if it’s only this. Us together ain’t crazy. It might be fate.”

Marcos’s experiences in the class and interacting with students he might not normally interact with helps Marcos realize his potential. He learns that while it might be nice to figure out how to fit in, it’s also important to remain true to one’s self. Watching him struggle to play the crappy hand he’s been dealt is inspiring, especially because nothing comes easy for him.

I really enjoyed The Closest I’ve Come. I will post a link to our podcast here when it’s finished.

Finding Felicity – Stacey Kade

Although I was much older than the show’s target audience, I fell madly in love with the J.J. Abrams/Matt Reeves coming-of-age drama Felicity (1998-2002). In the show, Felicity Porter gets the boy she’s loved from afar, Ben Covington, to sign her yearbook on graduation day, and what he writes causes her to abandon her post-secondary plans and enroll at NYU, which is where Ben is going to university. The series’ four years follow Felicity through her friendships and relationships and decisions, both good and bad, and it is all must-watch television. I still love the show and rewatch it start to finish every couple of years.

In Stacey Kade’s YA novel Finding Felicity, eighteen-year-old Caroline Sands has just graduated from high school, meaning she’s leaving the mess of the last few years behind and hoping for a fresh start when she starts Ashmore, a small liberal arts college in Iowa, in the fall.

After her parents’ divorce, Caroline and her mom moved to Arizona, and she just never really found her people. Instead, she found Felicity, so when her mom asked her about school and her friends, she just told them about the characters from the show. What could go wrong with that?

Ashmore is supposed to be Caroline’s new beginning, a chance to reinvent herself and make new friends. She neglects to tell her mother that part of the reason she wants, no needs, to go to this school is because Liam Fanshaw – her Ben-equivalent – is going there, too. What could go wrong with that?

Finding Felicity will speak to anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable in their own skin and desperately just wants to fit in. Caroline is awkward, for sure, but mostly she lacks confidence. That’s relatable, I think. Common wisdom would suggest that a new place doesn’t equal a new you and sometimes figuring it out is hard, but not impossible. Caroline makes a few missteps, but ultimately starts to craft the life she has wished for, and many teens will enjoy the journey.

Every Exquisite Thing – Matthew Quick

Nanette O’Hare is trying to figure stuff out in Matthew Quick’s (Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock) YA novel Every Exquisite Thing. She’s a straight-A senior, and a super-star soccer player from an affluent family, so on the surface one might assume that Nanette has got it all going on. But it’s not true. Since mid-way through her junior year she’s been eating lunch with her English teacher, Mr. Graves, and avoiding her bestie, Shannon, whose questionable sexual escapades had started bothering Nanette back in middle school.

One day Mr. Graves hands her a tattered copy of Nigel Booker’s novel The Bubblegum Reaper, a book that Mr. Graves claims changed his life.

It’s maybe not the most literary work in the world. Probably a bit dated. But it’s a cult classic and I have a feeling that it might be the perfect read for you. Maybe even a rite of passage for people like us.

The Bubblegum Reaper does, in fact, have a tremendous impact on Nanette’s life. The book’s author lives in her home town, and Mr. Graves arranges for the two to meet.

Spending time with Booker was becoming an addiction, mostly because it was the only part of my day when I felt like I could be myself – or maybe like there was one person in the world who didn’t want me to be something I didn’t want to be or to act a certain way or to go along with everything that others pushed into my life.

Through Mr. Booker she meets Alex, a boy her age who writes poetry. The bond between the two teens is cemented as they talk about the book and share their own feelings of isolation and disenfranchisement.

It is through these relationships that Nanette is able to shake off some of the personas she’s adopted over the years. She starts to say no when she might have just said yes and, ultimately, though certainly not without some heartache, Nanette is able to forge her own path and become the person she really wants to be.

Every Exquisite Thing is a philosophical, quirky and thoughtful coming-of-age story.

Rosie & Skate – Beth Ann Bauman

Sisters Rosie, 15 and Skate, 16, share the narrative in Beth Ann Bauman’s YA novel Rosie & Skate. They live in a crumbling house on the Jersey Shore. Well, Rosie lives there with her cousin, Angie. Skate lives at her boyfriend’s house with his mother, Julia. The sisters’ father is currently in jail for committing petty crimes while under the influence. although Rosie insists that her father is “a nice drunk.”

Bauman’s novel follows the sisters as they navigate their relationship with their father (Rosie is hopeful and forgiving; Skate has given up on her father and doesn’t believe he will ever get better), and each other. Skate is clearly the more worldly of the two: her older boyfriend, Perry, is in his first year at Rutgers and Rosie hasn’t even been kissed. Over the course of a few weeks, though, each of the girls will encounter unforeseen challenges that will push them along the path to adulthood.

Rosie & Skate is one of those quiet books where not much happens, but it still feels packed. I suppose that’s because when you are a teenager everything feels momentous. Who is guiding these girls? Who can they turn to but each other when things go off the rails – as they so often have in their lives.

There are no bad actors in this novel, even Rosie and Skate’s dad is searching for answers as to why he can’t seem to stop drinking. Rosie and Skate have their own way of coping and they certainly make mistakes, but anyone who was ever a teenager will recognize themselves in some of the questionable decisions the sisters make.

Ultimately, though, Rosie & Skate is a hopeful book about family, particularly found family, and spending time with these sisters is time well-spent.

Alone – Cyn Balog

Cyn Balog’s YA novel Alone is the story of sixteen-year-old Seda who lives with her mother and four younger siblings in Bismarck-Chisholm House or, as she calls it, Bug House. Seda’s mother is a former Boston College professor who is currently writing a book, her father is MIA and her siblings are two sets of twins aged six and four. Seda was a twin, too, but her brother Sawyer was absorbed into her own body in the womb, or so says family lore.

For years Bug House was run as a “Murder” house, where patrons could stay in one of eighteen guest rooms and had the daylights scared out of them. It’s an isolated spot; the nearest store is twenty miles down the mountain. Seda, our narrator, laments the isolation, the loss of her life in Boston, her father’s disappearance from her life, her mother’s kookiness, the fact that there’s no cell service, and just the general creepiness of Bug House.

All that changes though when a freak snow storm ushers in a handful of strangers, three boys and two girls.

The other members of his group are beautiful, yes, but he – with his thick mop of hair spilling out of the openings of the hockey mask and big heavily-lidded brown eyes – is godly. He’s the kind that always gets it last and worst in slasher films, just before his smart and sassy girlfriend-heroine saves the day.

Alone amps up the creepy house narrative with an unreliable narrator, a house full of secrets and a scavenger hunt game that quickly goes off the rails. There’s enough twists and turns and things that go bump in the night to make any fan of horror movies or scary stories happy. I did find that it got off to a slow start, but once it got going it was an enjoyable page-turner.

It Sounded Better in My Head – Nina Kenwood

Nina Kenwood’s YA debut It Sounded Better in My Head wasn’t even on my radar when I recently picked it up at the bookstore. It was a William C. Morris Debut finalist and had excellent reviews from School Library Journal and Bookpage (I trust those sort of endorsements over author plugs, tbh) so I bought it. It might have languished with all the other unread books in my class library, but I picked it up to read and honestly couldn’t put it down.

Eighteen-year-old Australian, Natalie, is waiting for her university admission results and planning her future with her besties Zach and Lucy, when her parents announce that they are separating. Worse, they knew this was coming and had neglected to tell her for ten months. Some almost-adults might take this in their stride, but it knocks Natalie sideways because she likes solid plans and the status quo. That’s how her world works.

Or that’s how it has worked ever since she hit puberty and her body betrayed her.

I went from being a straight up-and-down stick figure to a scribble of hips, stomach, breasts, thighs and stretch marks. I didn’t even know stretch marks were a thing.

[…]

But the stretch marks were nothing compared with the pimples. A regular scattering of pimples at first, and then more, and more. Then pimples that turned, almost overnight, into deep, cystic acne. […] It’s gross. I was gross. I woke up thinking that every day for a long time.

I suspect we can all remember the awkwardness of being a teenager, of comparing yourself to others, and Natalie spends most of her early teens friendless and hiding out. At thirteen, she becomes “Reluctant Natalie. Anxious Natalie. Bitter Natalie. Neurotic Natalie.” At fifteen, though, after medication clears up her skin a little and her mother convinces her to attend a creative writing camp, she meets Lucy and Zach.

It’s still hard for Natalie to put herself out there, but all that is about to change when Zach’s older brother, Alex, and his friend, Owen, invite her to a party and Natalie surprises herself by accepting. When Alex and Natalie find themselves in a dark alley because of a game of Spin the Bottle, Natalie finds herself in uncharted water.

And the whole thing is sheer delight. Honestly, I loved Natalie. Let’s face it, it’s only as an adult looking back that your teen years seem even mildly awesome. The best years of your life, my ass. I suspect Natalie speaks for a whole bunch of teens who breathe a sigh of relief when Friday night rolls around. For Natalie it meant that she didn’t “have to go outside or see anyone other than [her] parents for the next two whole days.”

Over the course of just a few days, Natalie’s life is upended, but sometimes that’s what needs to happen in order to get the life you want.

Highly recommended.

Punching the Air – Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam

I try to remember what I privileged position I inhabit when I read books like Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam. What can I, a white, middle-aged (I know, it’s a stretch to call me middle-aged), middle-class woman from Eastern Canada, really know about what it is to live in this world as a BIPOC? Nothing. It would be a stretch to even say that I have been discriminated against because I am female because if I have been, I haven’t really been aware of it.

I do think I have a responsibility, as an educator – sure – but also as a human being, to educate myself and expose myself to experiences that are unfamiliar to me. It’s not enough to hope that our children will be better humans than we are; we all have to do better.

Punching the Air is a novel-in-verse that tells the story of sixteen-year-old Amal Shahid, an artist and poet, who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, although he does admit that he “threw the first punch.” Turns out “…it wasn’t about/who threw the first punch/ It was about courts, turf, space/ Me and them other boys/ were just trying to go home”.

Jeremy, the white boy who gets hurt in the altercation is in a coma, and Amal ends up in a juvenile detention facility. He tries to work through his confusion and anger, but it isn’t easy. “I went from/kid to criminal to felon/to prisoner to inmate” and despite a supportive family he must navigate his new reality on his own.

Punching the Air tracks Amal’s time in the facility where he vacillates between hopelessness and hopefulness. Although he is not doing hard time with hardened criminals, juvie is still an unpleasant place. Amal tries to keep his head down. He goes to school. He does what is asked of him – mostly. But he’s a kid and the system is stacked against him and the weight of all those bricks of discrimination weigh heavy on him.

I read Punching the Air in an afternoon. Amal’s voice is clear as a bell. This experience, while fictional, comes from a place of truth. Yusef Salaam himself was convicted of a crime he did not commit when he was just fifteen. (Central Park Five) His experiences with a justice system that is clearly stacked against people of colour – and there is no one in their right mind who could dispute this – adds a layer of authenticity to Amal’s story. But even without Salaam’s experiences, this novel has much to contribute to the discussion and is a worthy addition to classroom and personal libraries. I will certainly be recommending it to my students.

Turtles All the Way Down – John Green

turtlesI have a deep and abiding love for John Green. He’s a passionate advocate for reading and learning. He makes nerdish pursuits cool and I think he’s a terrific writer. Lord knows, I was a sobbing, snotty mess at 2 a.m. finishing The Fault in Our Stars. I was pretty excited, then, to get my hands on Green’s latest book, Turtles All the Way Down.

Aza is sixteen and suffers from almost debilitating mental illness. She has no control of her thoughts and her thoughts take her to some pretty unusual and scary places. Even the simple act of eating is problematic for Aza who finds “the whole process of masticating plants and animals and then shoving them down my esophagus kind of disgusting, so I was trying not to think about the fact that I was eating, which is a form of thinking about it.”

Still, she finds ways of coping. Daisy, for example, “played the role of my Best and Most Fearless Friend.” And then there’s Davis Pickett, a childhood friend with whom Aza reconnects after she reads in the paper that his billionaire father, Russell, has disappeared.

There’s not really a plot, but that’s not to say that nothing happens in the novel. Aza and Daisy decide they are going to play detective and figure out what happened to Russell. That leads to Aza and Davis picking up their friendship and discovering that they might have feelings for each other, which is complicated by the fact that Aza has spiraling thoughts. She fixates on things and can’t seem to stop, which leads her down a rabbit hole of worry. I suspect that anyone who suffers from anxiety or mental health issues will totally get Aza’s erratic thoughts. I didn’t, especially, but I thought Green did a tremendous job of illustrating how Aza gets trapped in her own head.

The sting of the hand sanitizer was gone now, which meant the bacteria were back to breeding, spreading though my finger into the bloodstream. Why did I ever crack open the callus anyway? Why couldn’t I just leave it alone? Why did I have to give myself a constant, gaping open wound on, of all places, my finger. The hands are the dirtiest parts of the body. Why couldn’t I pinch my earlobe or my belly or my ankle? I’d probably killed myself with sepsis because of some stupid childhood ritual that didn’t even prove what I wanted it to prove, because what I wanted to know was unknowable, because there was no way to be sure about anything.

Green has spoken quite openly about his own struggles with mental health. In an article with Time he said: “I still can’t really talk directly about my own obsessions. The word triggering has become so broadly used in popular culture, but anyone who has experienced an anxiety attack knows how badly they want to avoid it. It was really hard, especially at first, to write about this thing that’s been such a big part of my life. But in another way, it was really empowering because I felt like if I could give it form or expression I could look at it and I could talk about it directly rather than being scared of it. And one of the main things I wanted to do in the book was to get at how isolating it can be to live with mental illness and also how difficult it can be for the people who are around you because you’re so isolated.”

Turtles All the Way Down does not simplify Aza’s problems and there are no happy endings here, but I do believe this is a hopeful novel. And while it didn’t leave me a sobbing mess like The Fault in Our Stars there is much to admire here. Green remains one of my favourite YA writers.

Thornhill – Pam Smy

Thornhill-HousePam Smy’s lovely hybrid novel tells the story (in words) of Mary and (in pictures) Ella – two girls separated by twenty-five years. Ella and her father have moved into a house that looks out onto Thornhill Institute which was “established in the 1830s as an thornhill orphanage for girls” and sold in 1982 “after the tragic death of one of the last residents, Mary Baines.” For the last twenty-five years, the house has remained vacant, although plans have been made to develop the site.

Through a series of diary entries, we meet Mary. She’s an odd, mostly silent girl who is virtually friendless. As Thornhill prepares to be fully de-commissioned, the few girls who remain are merely passing time, waiting for placement with a family. Mary’s chief tormenter has just returned from a situation which didn’t work out and Mary feels she must “lock myself away. Now that she’s back it is the only way I can keep myself safe.”

Up in her attic bedroom, she spends her time making puppets.

I often wonder what my life would be like without my puppets. …I love that I am surrounded by the things I have made. They sit on shelves above my bed, on my bookcase, suspended from the ceiling, balanced on my windowsill – my puppets are like friends that sit and keep me company..

thornhillellaIn the present day, Ella spends much of her time alone, too. Her father, who clearly seems to love her, is away a lot. Her mother is presumably dead. Ella is curious about the house she can see from her bedroom window and the girl she sometimes glimpses in the overgrown garden behind the walls

One day, she manages to creep into Thornhill’s garden and she discovers  a puppet head. As the days go on, she continues to see the girl in the garden and to discover more puppet pieces.  She becomes more curious about Thornhill’s history and who the girl might be.

Smy makes great use of Mary’s diary entries to round out the story. Her story is particularly sad because there is no one in Mary’s life to take her side against the terrible bullying she endures. The adults in this story are either non-existent or ineffective. Her housemates are cruel and manipulative. Even though it’s obvious that her story isn’t going to end well, you can’t help but root for her.

As for Ella, the monochromatic pictures tell her story as beautifully as Mary’s diary.  It will be impossible not to race through the pages to find out what happens.

Ultimately, Thornhill is a story of loneliness and friendship, and although there’s no happy ending, it’s a journey worth taking.