The Poet X – Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut YA novel The Poet X tells the story of fifteen-year-old Xiomarapoetx who lives in Harlem with her twin brother, whom she calls ‘Twin’) and her Dominican immigrant parents. She’s a good girl; she has no choice. Mami’s rules are law, and Xiomara wouldn’t dream of breaking them. But there are some things Xiomara can’t control. For example, she is “unhide-able”

Taller than even my father, with what Mami has always said/ was “a little too much body for such a young girl.”/ I am the baby fat that settled into D-cups and swinging hips/ so that the boys who called me a whale in middle school/ now ask me to send them pictures of myself in a thong.

She starts to question organized religion and at school, she finds herself drawn to her classmate,  Aman.  She starts keeping secrets from her mother because religious conviction is non-negotiable and  Mami’s dating rules are written in stone: she can’t date until she’s married.

When her English teacher encourages Xiomara to write poetry, she discovers that she has a lot to say and there might actually be a way to say it. As she commits her thoughts to the page, her confidence grows.

…I know that I am ready to slam. / That my poetry has become something I’m proud of./ The way the words say what I mean,/ how they twist and turn language,/how they connect with people,/ How they build community,/ I finally know that all those/ I’ll never, ever, ever”/ stemmed from being afraid but not even they/ can stop me. Not anymore.

There’s no reason to be intimidated if you’ve never tried a novel written in verse. The writing is stripped down, these’s no pesky exposition, and it cuts straight to the bone. Xiomara is a thoughtful, intelligent character and you will be cheering her on as she finds the power of her own words.

I loved spending time with Xiomara. As an English teacher, I appreciated that words offered her an escape and comfort and eventually the freedom to speak her truth. I highly recommend The Poet X especially if you’ve never given a novel in verse a go.

Watch Elizabeth Acevedo talk about how the novel came to be:

Emergency Contact – Mary H.K. Choi

Penny Lee can’t wait to get away from her mom, Celeste. Not because she’s overbearing, emergencybut because Penny has always felt like she’s the parent and her mom’s the kid. Sometimes Penny wanted to “shake Celeste until her fillings came loose.” Now it’s time for Penny to go off to college –  University of Texas in Austin, only an hour or so away, but away nonetheless.

Her dorm mate Jude, and Jude’s bestie, Mallory, seem like every mean girl Penny has ever encountered, but like everyone else in Mary H.K. Choi’s debut novel Emergency Contact appearances can be deceiving. Penny isn’t anything like them, she’s like the “tiny Asian girl from the Japanese horror movie The Grudge.” (Penny is, in fact, Korean.) Although her friendship with Jude and Mallory isn’t immediate, it turns out, once she lets them in, they’re tremendous allies.

Then there’s Sam. Sam is related (sort of) to Jude through some complicated family tree consisting of defunct marriages. At twenty-one, he works at a local coffee shop where he cooks scrumptious pastries, and lives in a room overhead. He’s skinny, floppy-haired and tattooed, and Penny is almost immediately smitten when she joins Jude and Mallory  for iced coffees. Sam is “different. Sleek. Brooding and angular.”

A chance encounter one afternoon, causes Sam and Penny to become each other’s emergency contacts,  and thus begins a series of light-hearted, and then increasingly more personal texts. Such is romance in the 21st century, I guess. The thing is, Penny has a boyfriend back home and Sam is still in love with his ex, the obnoxiously self-centered Lorraine. But since Penny and Sam never meet in person and only rarely speak on the phone, they manage to keep their relationship superficial, even if neither of them actually feels that way about each other.

I read my fair share of YA romance, and I have to say that Emergency Contact  is definitely one of the better ones I’ve read. Both Sam and Penny are delightfully drawn. Penny is closed off, but clearly as smart as a whip. Sam, too, has had his problems, and things get more complicated for him as he tries to navigate his feelings for Lorraine and his growing feelings for Penny. The thing about these two people is that they are genuinely nice and Choi doesn’t resort to any ridiculous tactics to keep them apart…or push them together, either. There’s certainly lots of potential for misunderstandings and crossed wires, but the little snags in their journey seem realistic rather than ridiculous.

And even though you know where all this is headed and you’ll want these guys to get together, too, it’s the journey, not the destination.

 

 

A Short History of the Girl Next Door – Jared Reck

shortI can’t remember the last time I cried actual tears reading a book, but Jared Reck’s debut novel A Short History of the Girl Next Door actually made me cry. And also laugh.

This is the story of 15-year-old Matt Wainwright, who is in love with his childhood bestie, Tabby, who lives – not exactly next door – but across the cul-de-sac from him.

I am completely in love with my best friend from childhood, she has absolutely no idea, and now she’s interested in older, more popular guys.

This sounds like a bad movie already.

Matt is a talented basketball player and a writer, big brother to four-year-old Murray. He is pretty awesome in every category, actually, but Tabby has definitely friend-zoned him. They’re freshmen at Franklin High and by October, she’s caught the attention of senior stud Liam Branson, starter on both the school’s football and basketball teams. Matt is consumed with jealousy, even though, as it turns out, Liam is a pretty awesome guy.

And it’s not like Tabby is flaunting her new relationship in Matt’s face. They’ve always been just friends. They like Star Wars movies and Nerds and, until Liam started picking Tabby up in the mornings, riding the school bus together. Tabby has always been a part of Matt’s family dynamic because his “mom started babysitting Tabby when she was four months old. And since my mom stayed home with me until I started school, Tabby was at our house nearly every day. She’s part of our family.”

Matt imagines a different future with Tabby, but his longings live in his head. He never actually gathers the courage to tell her how he feels, and their relationship endures some bumps along the way as she navigates her first relationship and Matt tries to tamp down his feelings about that relationship.

Their relationship starts to deteriorate and then the unspeakable happens.

Reck’s novel is everything a great YA novel should be. The characters are believable and appealing; even the adults get a fair shake. I especially loved Matt’s grandfather and this book really made me miss my own grandparents, long gone now. Matt is, often, immature, as you’d expect him to be, but he’s smart and sensitive, too. Tabby is more than just the gorgeous object of both Matt and Liam’s affections. She has feelings and depth.

I loved everything about A Short History of the Girl Next Door and highly recommend it.

 

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.