Tag Archive | teen

The Truth Commission – Susan Juby

Normandy Pale, the narrator of Susan Juby’s award-winning YA novel, The Truth Commission,  lives with her parents and older sister, Keira, on Vancouver Island. Keiratruth is a celebrated graphic novelist, whose series Diana: Queen of Two Worlds, tells the story of “a suburban girl who lives with her “painfully average”  family which includes her  high-strung easily overwhelmed mother, her ineffectual father, and her dull-witted, staring lump of a sister.”

Keira published three volumes of Diana, a smash hit with a huge cult-following, and then went off to college in the States.

That’s the same time Normandy (Norm for short) started attending Green Pastures Academy of Arts and Applied Design where everyone knew who she was because of her sister. It was notoriety Norm didn’t particularly covet because “you cannot imagine how embarrassing it is to be in these books, especially when all the Earth plotlines are taken from minor and usually un-excellent incidents in our real life.”

The Truth Commission‘s conceit is that Norm is writing her Spring Special Project, a story which covers three months from the previous fall (Sept-November).

Here’s how the project is supposed to work: Each week I will write and submit chapters of my story to my excellent creative writing teacher. She will give me feedback on those chapters the following week. I will write as if I do not know what will happen next – as if I’m a reporter, which is a device used in classic works of non-fiction.

Norm’s story is about The Truth Commission, a committee consisting of Norm and her best friends Neil and Dusk (aka Dawn) who “went on a search for the truth and…found it.” Norm discovers that the truth is a complicated thing and that is especially true in her own family.

Keira has returned from college under a rather dark cloud. “She wouldn’t tell us what happened,” Norm tells us, “and when my parents asked if everything was okay, Keira got mad and said she’d leave if they asked again.”  Now she spends most of her time in her room or in the closet she and Norm share and “when she did leave, she stayed out for days and we had no idea where she went.”

Since Norm and Keira have never been particularly close, Norm is almost flattered when Keira starts sneaking into her room at night admitting “I think it’s time for me to tell someone what happened.”

I loved every minute I spent with Norm and her friends, who are equally smart and funny. There is a sort of mystery at the core of the novel: what happened to Keira? Although that is certainly one reason to turn the pages I think Normandy pretty much had me at ‘hello.’

Highly recommended and BONUS! Canadian.

 

 

 

Stolen – Lucy Christopher

Sixteen-year-old Londoner Gemma  is in the Bangkok airport, a stop-over on her way to a family vacation to Vietnam. She’s just had a fight with her parents and she’s gone off on her own to grab a coffee and cool down. That’s when she notices the man. He’s hard to miss because he “had that look in [his] eyes, as though [he] wanted something from me.”  Gemma, on the precipice of adulthood, is drawn to the man and “those blue, blue eyes, icy blue, looking back at me, as if I could warm them up.”

stolenThis encounter is the beginning of Gemma’s journey in Lucy Christopher’s debut novel Stolen. Before Gemma has even realized what’s happening, the man is buying her coffee, introducing himself as ‘Ty’ and engaging Gemma in a conversation that makes her feel “grown-up, sitting there with the most handsome man in the café, drinking a coffee he had just bought for me.”

But then, things change for Gemma. When she wakes up – hours or days later – she is far away from her family, alone in the Australian outback with Ty. Thus begins a period of captivity for Gemma. Ty claims to have stolen her as a way to keep her safe, although from what, Gemma cannot discern.

Ty has clearly been planning this kidnapping for a long time. He slowly reveals parts of his life to Gemma and in some ways he is a sympathetic character – until you remember that he’s taken a sixteen-year-old girl away from her family and friends. The harsh landscape is alien to Gemma; they truly are in the middle of nowhere. Although there is a vehicle, Gemma has no idea where she is or how to find help. Although Ty has not physically harmed her, Gemma is constantly worried that he’ll soon tire of her and kill her. If he doesn’t, any number of poisonous critters or the harsh conditions might get her.

It all makes for a pretty compelling read.  Gemma slowly begins to adapt to her new reality and begins to trust that Ty doesn’t want to harm her and the book’s strange and alien landscape (he captures a wild camel, for instance) begins to work its peculiar magic on both Gemma and the reader.

In some ways, the book reminded me of an old movie from the 1970s, Sweet Hostage. In that film, Martin Sheen picks up hitchhiker Linda Blair and takes her to his version of  ‘Xanadu’. Under his tutelage, Blair begins to see the world as a much more beautiful place than her hard-scrabble upbringing would have her believe it is, but you can’t argue with the fact that she was, in fact,  kidnapped. Both the movie and Christopher’s novel plumb the depths of Stockholm Syndrome.

Christopher’s novel certainly offers something new to the YA genre and many teens will find Gemma’s story riveting.

 

 

 

Vanishing Girls – Lauren Oliver

Now that I am back at school, it’s time to start reading YA fiction again. I give it a little  break in the summer so that I can tackle my own mammoth tbr pile. I started this year by reading Lauren Oliver’s highly praised book Vanishing Girls. It’s pretty un-put-down-vanishing-girls-jacketable, folks.

Nicole (Nick) and her younger sister, Dara, couldn’t really be more unalike. Nick is the responsible one; Dara is the wild child and for as long as Nick can remember, people have been comparing the sisters.

She’s not as pretty as her younger sister…shyer than her younger sister…not as popular as her younger sister.

But despite their differences, Nick and Dara are close. Dara recalls that they’d spent

practically our whole lives sneaking into each other’s rooms to sleep in the same bed, whisper about our crushes, watch moon patterns on the ceiling and try to pick out different shapes…cut our fingers and let them bleed together so we’d be bonded forever, so we’d be made not just of the same genes but of each other.

Parker is Nick’s best friend – the boy from the neighbourhood who has shared every single milestone in Nick’s life. Then he and Dara hook up and things get awkward. Dara goes off the rails – drinking and doing drugs – and then there’s the car accident.

Oliver has written a novel that is both an exciting page-turner (a young girl goes missing and then Dara disappears and Nick is convinced the two disappearances are somehow connected) and a moving family drama. Nick and Dara’s parents have separated and the accidents adds extra emotional weight to the already damaged family.

The narrative unfolds in dual first-person narratives, through diary entries and police reports and photographs and illustrations. Each sister has her own version of the truth of what happened on the night of the accident and the time-shifting narrative will yield important clues to careful readers, but the truth is that when all is revealed, you’ll probably still be scrambling to figure out how Oliver’s pulled it off.

Oliver is well-known in the YA world. She wrote the popular Delirium series and I have been looking forward to reading her adult novel, Rooms. After reading Vanishing Girls I think I’ll have to move Rooms up my reading list. That’s pretty much the highest praise I can give.

Two books for summer school

Every year for the past seven, I’ve transitioned from regular school to teaching a month of summer school. Why, you might very well ask? Mostly for the money – although this summer my paychecks hardly seemed like incentive enough.Obviously I can’t cover a year’s worth of curriculum in three and a half weeks, so it’s mostly trying to teach grade nine and ten students reading and writing skills that will help them be successful next year. We read some short stories and poetry and this year we read Lois Lowry’s The Giver (Grade 10) and Todd Strasser’s The Wave. I’d never read either of them, but I knew they were accessible, high interest and short enough to get through in the limited time we had.

the_giver_1.jpg.CROP.promovar-medium2The Giver takes place in a community that values Sameness. On the surface it might even appear like a Utopia. Eleven-year-old Jonas lives in a family unit lives with his younger sister, Lily, and his mother and father. None of them are biologically connected.  His life is structured around school and volunteering and ceremonies that mark the important moments in the lives of the citizens. He is apprehensively waiting the next ceremony. His mother tries to calm Jonas’s nerves by telling him

“Well, it’s the last of the ceremonies, as you know. After Twelve, age isn’t important. Most of us even lose track of how old we are as time passes, though the information is in the Hall of Open Records, and we could go and look it up if we wanted to. What’s important is the preparation for adult life, and the training you’ll receive in your Assignment.”

Feeling apprehensive is unusual for members of this community. Their lives are not complicated by hunger,  disease or even bad weather. Everyone has productive work to do. They share their feelings as part of a nightly ritual. They apologize immediately if they say something even remotely offensive to another member of the community. They start taking a pill as soon as they acknowledge “stirrings” of a sexual nature. The Elders make all the decisions and “Rules were very hard to change.” The very old, the very weak and those who commit crimes are “released.”

At the Ceremony of the Twelves, Jonas gets his assignment. He is to be the Receiver, which means he will work with The Giver, the community’s most important citizen. He alone holds all the memories and he will transfer them to Jonas. Suddenly the only home Jonas knows seems less like Utopia and more like a nightmare.

The Giver is a great book – suitable for all readers and filled with lots of opportunities to talk about what it is to be human, free-will and the value and importance of memory. I really enjoyed it and would definitely use it in the classroom again.

Todd Strasser’s novelization The Wave is less literary, but offers lots of opportunities to51MDeY-2CjL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_ talk, too.  The book is based on the true story of  California history teacher Ron Jones’ social experiment. (He’s been renamed Ben Ross in this book.) The year was 1969 and Ross had just shown his senior class a film about the Holocaust. When one of his students asked how the Germans could have just sat back and let the Nazis do what they did, Ross tried to think of a way he could illustrate the power of a fascist movement. He came up with “The Wave” and began to teach his students about discipline, community and action. Although the experiment was meant to be short-lived, it grew to include a salute, slogans and even a secret police force before it was finally dismantled due to complaints from parents and colleagues.

Virtually every one of my grade nine students really enjoyed reading The Wave. It was easy to read, so it’s perfect for struggling readers, plus it offered a lot of food for thought.

 

Another Little Piece – Kate Karyus Quinn

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book as whackadoodle as Another Little Piece. But I kinda mean that as a compliment because even though I often didn’t have a sweet clue how all the disparate pieces of Kate Karyus Quinn’s novel worked together, I couldn’t seem to stop reading.

12665819A teenage girl wanders out of a field, her feet “bare and bloodied” tugging at the “garbage bag she’d refashioned as a poncho.” She doesn’t know who she is or where she is. It turns out she’s Annaliese, missing and presumed dead for the past year.

Her identity and what happened to her is just one part of the mystery and quite frankly I’m not sure I’m up to trying to untangle the messy threads of Annaliese’s life because it’s not just Annaliese’s life. In fact, Annaliese isn’t actually Annaliese at all. It’s hard to say much, but  there’s definitely something not quite right about her. She’s a girl who watches a football player across the field and feels, of all things, a pang of hunger.

I could see the beads of sweat on his golden brown skin. Except it didn’t resemble sweat so much as the juices dripping from the crisp and crackling skin of a roasted chicken. I wanted to sink my teeth into him.

As Annaliese (let’s call this one Annaliese Two) tries to reconcile her new life in this body that isn’t hers, she starts to have flashes of memory. In the first memory she is standing in the woods watching a girl (the real Annaliese, let’s call her One) have sex with a football player (same as the juicy  chicken one) and when they are done and the boy has left her, Annaliese Two steps out from her hiding place and tells  Annaliese One that “It’s time to pay.” Payment, as it turns out, is pretty gruesome, but that’s how Annaliese Two gets from body-to-body. And she’s been doing it for a long time.

Despite the desire to bite someone, Annaliese isn’t a vampire, but she is something very old (I think) and very deadly. That said, she isn’t altogether unsympathetic. When she meets Dex, the reclusive boy next door, she starts to wonder if she might not have another kind of life, a real life, one that actually belongs to her.

I had a hard time keeping all the girls straight in the story and I think that after a while I just stopped caring so much about the logistics of the plot. I followed the through-line of Annaliese and glossed over the bits that made me go WTF. Another Little Piece is well-written, creepy and original. There’s lots for careful readers to gnaw on…and that line will be really funny once you’ve read the book.

 

What She Left Behind – Tracy Bilen

13040715Sara’s mom finally has a plan to get the two of them out of Dodge – okay, they don’t actually live in Dodge, they live in Scottsfield, a town so small it doesn’t even have traffic lights. Life with Sara’s dad, Ray, an ex-cop cum hardware store owner, has passed the point of impossible and taken a right turn at scary. He’s abusive and a tad on the crazy side considering he still thinks his son, Matt, lives at home. Matt’s dead.

This is what we know at the beginning of Tracy Bilen’s YA novel What She Left Behind. Getting away is a good plan, Sara thinks, until her mother fails to pick her up at the appointed time and place. When she gets home from school her father tells her that her mother was called away on a last minute training course, but every time Sara tries to call her cell it goes straight to voice mail and the duffle bag she’s packed and stowed under her bed, well, that’s been unpacked and everything returned to its place.

Sara was always the invisible one in the family. Her mother and brother took the brunt of Ray’s abuse. Now all eyes are on Sara and she’s desperate to find out what’s happened to her mother and to avoid her father’s ire.

Two boys come to her aid: Zach, her brother’s best friend and Alex Maloy, hot boy from school. Zach knows Sara’s family history; Alex is new on the scene and seems to be interested in Sara, for real, and although Sara likes Alex she also knows there’s no point in pursuing anything with him since she and her mom are leaving…just as soon as her mom returns. He’s cute, though.

I read What She Left Behind in one sitting. Seriously. The plot clicks along at a good clip; Sara is likeable and sympathetic. Ray is one brick short of a chimney. Alex is too-good-to-be-true, but don’t you kinda want that for the girl whose life is pretty much shit.

I’d have no trouble recommending this book to my students.

Two Or Three Things I Forgot To Tell You – Joyce Carol Oates

I have a love/hate relationship with Joyce Carol Oates. Sometimes I read her and after I’ve settled into the odd rhythm of her writing I think, yeah, that was pretty good (We Were the Mulvaneys; Beasts) and then sometimes I read her work and think, that was a lot of effort for nothing (Rape: A Love Story) and then there’s this time, when I read Two Or Three Things I Forgot To Tell You and about two thirds of the way in I thought, what the hell just happened? 13501407

Merissa Carmichael has just been accepted into Brown, her first Ivy League choice. Merissa, M’rissa to her friends, has it all going on: good students, good athlete, good friend, pretty and popular, but she is also deeply troubled.

…in the little bathroom adjoining her room, with trembling hands – trembling with excitement, anticipation! – opening a drawer beside the sink, and, at the very back of the drawer, seizing the handle of a small but very sharp paring knife – bringing out the knife, and pressing its tip against the inside of her wrist, where the skin was pale and thin…

Nadia Stillinger, Merissa’s friend, “hadn’t a chance of getting into Brown, or any Ivy League university” has her own problems including a father who works too much and a too young step-mother. She’s fat, too, weighing in at a whopping 119 pounds. And everyone knew that  it was “utterly, utterly disgusting to be fat.”

The one thing Nadia and Merissa share is Tink, the child-star who moved to their town of Quaker Heights, New Jersey during their junior year. Tink is a “short, fiery-haired girl” whose  “face was pale and plain, as if it had been scrubbed, and even her freckles looked bleached.” She’s unlike any other girl at Quaker Heights High.  She talks back to teachers, doesn’t give a rat’s ass for fashion and doesn’t even seem all that interested in making friends, which is why the girls in Merissa’s circle so desperately want to fly in Tink’s orbit. She seems fearless. Until she kills herself – which actually happens before the story begins – so much of the story is told in flashback.

Two Or Three Things I Forgot To Tell You  isn’t your average YA novel. First of all, the narrative is  Joyce Carol Oates wacky. The narrator is one of the girls – but not Merissa and not Nadia and not Tink. Lots of personal pronouns, though, like “We were stunned” and  “We laughed because Tink laughed”. Still, the first part of the novel is tightly focused on Merissa and her penchant for cutting and the trauma of her parents’ crumbling marriage. Then, Merissa is abandoned (presumably in a much better emotional place than when we meet her) and the focus switches to Nadia and her problems – mostly to do with an incident at a party and her inappropriate feelings for her kind (and handsome) Science teacher.

You either get used to the way Oates writes or you don’t. This book is rife with parentheses and asides couched in dashes. Perhaps the writing is meant to mimic the frenetic minds of its characters, but whatever the case I read the novel quickly. I can’t say I didn’t like it, but I can’t say I loved it, either. There is potential for discussion because the book is topical and in many ways captures the complicated and fraught time in a young woman’s life just before she is about to step over that imaginary line into adulthood. Sadly, some don’t make it.