Skim – Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki

I am surrounded by teenagers every day and their world seems difficult to me, more200px-skim_bookcover difficult than I remember my adolescence. There was no social media back then. We hung out, gathering at someone’s house on Friday night to play Trivial Pursuits and drink Pop Shoppe soda. We had dances where you’d just pray not to be asked to slow dance with some geeky guy, especially for the last dance, which was always “Stairway to Heaven” – longest song on the planet. My locker was covered with pictures of Robby Benson. The drama happened in the girls’ bathroom and the bullying happened in person. We talked for hours on the phone…which was in the kitchen, so your end of the conversation could be heard by pesky brothers and eavesdropping moms.

It’s always interesting to read about young people because even though I feel so far removed from those years (my 40th high school reunion happens this summer!), their lives are fascinating to me. A really good YA novel can capture the essence of what it is to be young and send me spinning back to my own fraught teenage years.

Skim, the award-winning graphic novel by the cousin team of Mariko Tamaki (writer) and Jillian Tamaki (illustrator), unspools the life of sixteen-year-old Kimberly Keiko Cameron aka Skim as she navigates friendships, crushes, school, suicide and depression. Like with their graphic novel This One Summer, the Tamakis zero in on what it is to be young and to cope with all the shit life often throws at you.

Skim’s parents are divorced. She’s interested in wicca and tarot cards and her English and drama teacher, Mrs. Archer, who is “always saying weird stuff like – I’m telling you girls. You might think different, but chocolate is better than sex.” Skim relates to Mrs. Archer because she considers herself a bit of a freak, too.

The simple black and white illustrations capture the essence of high school life; the constant navigating and negotiating that comes with being a young person. Skim is thoughtful and fragile, but there is a toughness to her that allows the reader to believe that she will survive.

skimsillywalk-min

You couldn’t pay me money to be a teenager. All those hormones. All that heartache. Still, there is something about this period in your life that is pretty amazing. All that potential. All those feelings so close to the surface. Skim manages to capture that beautifully and Skim’s story will resonate with anyone…well, anyone. Because we were all young once and if you are young now – then at least part of Skim’s story is your story, too.

jake, reinvented – Gordon Korman

jake reinventedGordon Korman’s YA novel jake, reinvented takes a page straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic,  The Great Gatsby. Like, straight out of it. This is the story of Rick, a high school kid who is only marginally cool because he is the kicker and back-up quarterback for the F. Scott Fitzgerald (yep!) high school football team and hangs out with Todd Buckley, the team’s hyper-masculine starting quarterback.

Rick Paradis is an observer, much in the same as Nick Carraway watched the action in The Great GatsbyWhen the story opens, he’s observing a raucous party being held at the un-parented home of new-to-town Jake Garrett, the football team’s new long-snapper. It’s the first of many Friday night parties that Jake hosts, each one getting bigger and more out-of-control.

Jake is an enigma. He watches his house getting trashed with an “unruffled calm.” His speech is peppered with ‘baby’ as in “Good hang time, baby”, I suspect an outdated tag even back in 2003 when the book was published.

He looked like he just waltzed off the pages of the J. Crew catalog, or maybe Banana Republic. I mean, nothing he was wearing was all that special – just a plaid shirt, untucked over a white tee and khakis. But everything went together perfectly, and hung on him with that rumpled casual effect that you can’t get by being casual. This guy worked it.

Jake befriends Rick, pulling him into his orbit. It seems like an odd friendship at first, but Rick does have something that Jake needs: a connection to Didi, Todd’s self-absorbed, but perfect girlfriend.

Like in Fitzgerald’s novel, none of these characters are particularly likeable. Todd aka Tom is a big-feeling womanizer; Didi aka Daisy is vapid and spineless; Rick is an observer who is soon calling himself Jake’s bestie, but I was never really sure how they managed to get to that place beyond acquaintances.

The novel’s plot mirrors Fitzgerald’s too, so for anyone familiar with that book, this book will not require much effort. And love or hate Fitzgerald’s novel, there’s no denying the quality of the writing. Korman’s novel suffers a little by comparison in that department.

On the other hand, Korman’s novel does speak to that crappy period of time when you are no longer a kid, but you are not quite an adult. There aren’t any of those (adults, I mean) in this novel, anyway. These kids are pretty much left to their own devices. Like Gatsby, everything Jake has done, the persona he has manufactured for himself, has been done to attract the attention of Didi. Is she worthy of his love? Probably not. As Rick says to Jake: “They’re crappy people. You’re worth more than the lot of them put together.”

As an homage to its source material, jake, reinvented will likely speak to any teen who has desperately wanted to reinvent themselves. And if it encourages students to read The Great Gatsby, then that’s a win in my book.

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy – Kate Hattemer

vigilanteEthan Andrezejczak attends Selwyn Academy, a fine arts high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’s the narrator of Kate Hattemer’s debut YA novel The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy. His life revolves around hanging with his friends Jackson, Elizabeth and the too-cool-for-their-friend-group, Luke, and teaching Jackson’s gerbil, Baconnaise circus tricks. Ethan pines for ballerina Maura and loathes Miki Frigging Reagler from afar. Maura and Miki are two of the stars of the reality show For Art’s Sake (FAS), which is filmed at Selwyn.

They’d chosen a school (our school) and they’d chosen contestants (not me). Every episode, they had some artistic challenge and someone got kicked off. The last person standing would be crowned America’s Best Teen Artist.

Ethan and his friends are convinced that For Art’s Sake is wrecking Selwyn. Luke is especially bent out of shape because the school’s literary arts magazine refuses to publish his commentary about the TV show. “It’s a review, but mostly it’s editorial,” he tells Ethan. “I tried to suppress my snideness. I may not have been totally successful.”

The fact that someone as cool as Luke is anti-FAS is a touchstone for Ethan. When he enters Ethan’s orbit in grade seven, Ethan describes him as

the most popular prepubescent on the planet. He was impossible to dislike. That’s not hyperbole: I tried. I have a strict policy of holding automatic grudges against people everyone likes. But Luke had a mouthful of braces and said “awesome” all the time, and he was totally genuine.

It’s Luke’s idea to roast FAS in a poem. He announces “We need to reclaim our society and values and culture.”

Conquistadors, they thundered in,
And dizzy, we succumbed to spin.
They’ve colonized our native land.
What once was vivid now is bland.
We sing and dance at their command.
 – The Contracantos

 

 

Luke’s ultimately betrayal is especially hard on Ethan, but it gives him the chance to take some chances and find his own voice.

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy plumbs the depths of poetry, friendship, loyalty, art, betrayal and growing up. These characters (and I am certainly including Baconnaise) are witty, intelligent and human. They are trying to figure it all out. They don’t always get it right, but Elizabeth asks Ethan if he thinks he’s “the only one who’s amazed and scared and freaked out by how complicated everyone is.”

This is a smart book. I highly recommend it.

Lessons From a Dead Girl – Jo Knowles

Before Laine Green even hears her mother answer the phone, she knows that Leahlessons Greene is dead.

As I listen to her panicked voice, I feel the tiny bricks that have walled away certain memories continue to crumble….All I see behind my eyelids is Leah. Leah with her red-glossed lips. Leah standing above me. Leah telling our secret to a crowded room of strangers and my only friends in the world. Leah walking away, leaving me in the rubble of my ruined life.

Laine, the seventeen-year-old first person narrator of Jo Knowles’ YA novel Lessons From a Dead Girl, had willed Leah to die, had wanted it more than anything. And now that it is actually fait accompli, her feelings are complicated, an “overwhelming sense of guilt and fear.”

Once Lainey and Leah were best friends. Their older sisters were friends, and they’d decided that Leah and Laine should be pals, too. It’s an awkward relationship at first, for reasons that are obvious,  at least to Laine.

Leah is popular and I’m not. Leah is also beautiful. Everyone wants to be Leah’s best friend. But me? Most people don’t even know who I am.

When the pair are children, the forced friendship soon morphs into something more genuine…and then seems to morph into something else again. The girls practice being husband and wife in Lainey’s “doll closet”, a game that makes Lainey both uncomfortable and “tingly.”

It is easy to see why Lainey is so conflicted. She’s not like the other girls. Her hair is “like a boy’s, short and brown and messy. My striped shirt is too small and has a grass stain on the front. Even my face is dirty. I look like a boy. An ugly boy. And I feel like one, too. Why would Leah be my friend?”

That question is at the root of this compelling novel and as the girls grow up and their relationship shifts and strains against the warped rules of adolescent girlhood, their bond frays and eventually breaks. Laine chafes against the secret she is keeping, but Leah has a few troubling secrets of her own.

Lessons From a Dead Girl is a very different book from See You at Harry’s. Knowles writes with authority no matter the topic, and Laine’s journey from innocence is powerful and compelling.

 

Belzhar – Meg Wolitzer

belzharJam Gallahue just hasn’t been able to recover from the death of her boyfriend Reeve Maxfield. “I loved him,” she explains, “and then he died, and almost a year passed and no one knew what to do with me.” As a last resort, Jam’s parents send her to The Wooden Barn, “a boarding school for ’emotionally fragile, highly intelligent’ teenagers.”

Meg Wolitzer’s YA novel Belzhar follows Jam on her journey of recovery, although it probably won’t be the sort of recovery readers will be expecting.

Jam is picked to take a course called Special Topics in English, the “smallest, most elite class in the entire school.” Taught by Mrs. Quenell, Special Topics has a reputation at The Wooden Barn. Jam’s roommate, DJ, tells her that students who haven taken the class act like it’s no big deal, but “when it’s over, they say things about how it changed their lives.”

Jam shares the class with Casey, a girl in a wheelchair, Sierra, Marc, and Griffin, a boy who is “good-looking but in a hostile way.” Their special topic is Sylvia Plath, who will be the only author the five students will study. In addition, they are required to write in journals that Mrs. Quenell hands out to them. Mrs. Quenell tells the students that each of them “has something to say. But not everyone can bear to say it. Your job is to find a way.”

The thing about these five students is that they have each suffered some sort of trauma and it turns out that their journals and the entries they write in them magically transport them back to a happier time in their lives. These experiences, which they call going to Belzhar (a weird take onthe title of Plath’s only novel The Bell Jar) causes them to open up to each other and to the world.

Whether you buy into the magical realism elements of this novel or not, there is certainly truth to the fact that some people get stuck in their grief or anger. Each of these teens has been trapped by their experiences  and the act of writing allows some of the poison in their lives to seep out.  “Words matter,” Mrs. Quenell tells her students, and I wholeheartedly agree.

Not everyone will appreciate Belzhar. I can see how some students might balk at the notion of Belzhar as a real place, but as a metaphor it most certainly works. Human beings do get stuck. We hold on to things and people that are not healthy. We don’t fully live; we deceive ourselves. It takes work, sometimes, to shed trauma, but surely it’s worth it.

“You’re all equipped for the world, for adulthood, in a way that most people aren’t…So many people don’t even know what hits them when they grow up. They feel clobbered over the head the minute the first thing goes wrong, and they spend the rest of their lives trying to avoid pain at all costs. But you all know that avoiding pain is impossible.

Belzhar is worth a look.

 

 

Mosquitoland – David Arnold

Mary Iris Malone, Mim for short, is not okay. Life has thrown her some curve-balls of mosquitolandlate: her parents’ divorce; her father’s quicky marriage to Kathy; their subsequent move from Ashland, Ohio to Jackson, Mississippi. When Mim overhears her father and stepmother talking to the principal, she’s convinced that her biological mother is sick and makes the decision to hop a Greyhound and travel the 947 miles back to Ohio to see her.

This is the premise of David Arnold’s debut novel Mosquitoland , a book which garnered massive praise and stellar reviews when it was published in 2015. I have to say, it’s worthy of all the fuss.

Mim’s journey is both literal, and she meets all-sorts on the bus and beyond, and figurative; this is a journey of self-discovery only a quirky, intelligent and empathetic sixteen-year-old could take.  Mim reveals herself in journal entries addressed to Isabel, and to various passengers, including Arlene, the old lady who sits next to her on the bus. Arlene turns out to be just what Mim needs because “it’s nice to sit that close to someone and not feel the incessant need to talk.”

Then there’s Walt, the boy Mim meets when she ends up getting off the bus. Walt is slightly left of center. He lives in a tent in the woods. “What are you doing?” He asks her  when he finds her asleep under an overpass. “…as a part of big things?”

Walt is a completely endearing character and Mim is “100 percent intrigued” when he says “Do you like shiny things? I have lots of shiny things there. And a pool…You’re a pretty dirty person right now. You could use a pool. Also, there’s ham.”

And then there’s Beck. Mim first notices him on the bus and then in a weird twist of fate, she meets him again at the police station (long story).

He’s older than me, probably early twenties, so it’s not completely out of the question – us getting married and traveling the world over, I mean. Right now, a five-year difference might seem like a lot, but once he’s fifty-four and I’m forty-nine, well shoot, that’s nothing.

There’s a quality about him, something like a movie star but not quite. Like he  could be Hollywood if it weren’t for his humanitarian efforts, or his volunteer work, or his clean conscience, no doubt filled to the brim with truth, integrity, and a heart for the homeless.

There is nothing I didn’t love about Mim or her journey. There is nothing I didn’t love about the other characters she meets – except for Poncho Man. (Obviously.) Mosquitoland has it all: the absurd, the laughs and the feels. It is a beautifully written book about growing up, facing your fears, what family means (both the family you are born with and the family you make) and why it is okay to admit that you are not okay.

Mad love for this book, so of course it is highly recommended.

 

The Marrow Thieves – Cherie Dimaline

marrowGah! This book, you guys.

Francis, though everyone calls him Frenchie, is on the run from the “recruiters”.  Pretty much every Indigenous person is because their bone marrow holds the key to dreaming, which is something white folks no longer have the ability to do.

“Dreams get caught in the webs woven in your bones. That’s where they live, in that marrow there.”

“You are born with them. Your DNA weaves them into the marrow like spinners….That’s where they pluck them from.”

It’s sometime in the not too distant future and we’ve pretty much wrecked the Earth. Because of course we have. When Cherie Dimaline’s YA novel The Marrow Thieves opens, Frenchie is holed up in a tree house with his older brother, Mitch. But then the recruiters show up, and the boys are separated, and Frenchie finds himself on the run once more.

The characters in The Marrow Thieves are all too aware of their rocky history with the Canadian government, and sharing those stories is part of what keeps them focused on getting to safety, which in this case is north where they hope they will find fresh water and clean air and freedom.  So north is the direction Frenchie heads and it isn’t long before he meets a group of travelers. Frenchie joins this ad hoc family and his adventure begins.

The dystopian nature of this novel is really only the story’s framework. It’s enough to know that these people are considered ‘other’ and useful only for what they can provide to the government. Their current plight mirrors the whole residential school debacle, a part of my country’s history, I am ashamed to admit, I was grossly ignorant of until recently.  Those places were less about assimilation (and even that is abhorrent)  and more about annihilation.

The real story, the heartbeat of Dimaline’s novel, is the characters and their stories – both individually (which they tell in their own ‘Coming-To’ stories) and collectively. Getting to know these people felt like a privilege; I fell in love with them and the way they looked out for each other. I experienced a real fear for their safety and on the few occasions they were rewarded with something good, I felt that, too.

I will not forget these people, their connection to the Earth and each other, for a long time. The Marrow Thieves should be required reading for all Canadians…and, trust me, once you start reading, you won’t want to put it down anyway.

Highly recommended.