Tag Archive | YA

Salt to the Sea – Ruta Sepetys

salt-to-the-sea-bigcoverA couple years ago I read Ruta Sepetys’ novel Between Shades of Gray with my grade nine students and we all really loved it. Salt to the Sea treads familiar ground, telling the story of four very different young adults fleeing their homes to escape advancing Russian troops during World War Two.

There’s Joana, a Lithuanian nurse, who had fled her homeland four years earlier for the relative safety of East Prussia and who is now on the run again.

There’s Florian, a talented Prussian artist who had been working for the Nazi cause  as an art restorer.

There’s Emilia, a pregnant fifteen-year-old from Poland.

And there’s Alfred, a self-aggrandizing sailor for Hitler’s navy.

Joana, along with an old shoe-maker, a little boy and a tall woman named Eva,  is already making her way towards Gutenhafen where she hopes to board a ship that will take her to safety.

Germany had invaded Russia in 1941. For the past four years, the two countries had committed unspeakable atrocities, not only against each other, but against innocent civilians in their path. Stories had been whispered by those we passed on the road. Hitler was exterminating millions of Jews and had an expanding list of undesirables who were being killed or imprisoned. Stalin was destroying the people of Poland, Ukraine and the Baltics.

Emilia and Florian meet by accident in the woods. They don’t speak the same language, but Emilia sees Florian as a white knight, a title Florian does not want or even believe he deserves. They soon meet up with Joana and her group. They are all heading in the same direction and it is at the port where they meet Alfred.

The novel’s short chapters and alternating points of view make it a perfect novel for younger readers, although the subject matter is quite often upsetting. As happened with Between Shades of Gray, I fell in love with these characters (well, not Alfred) and I so wanted to see them find their way to safety.

Salt to the Sea, while a work of fiction, is based on the real life sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff,  “the deadliest disaster in maritime history, with losses dwarfing the death tolls of the famous ships Titanic and Lusitania.” In her author’s notes, Sepetys tells us that in 1945, it is estimated that 25,000 people lost their lives in the Baltic Sea.

I think one of Sepetys’ gifts is her ability to create flesh and blood characters, giving voice to the thousands of innocent children and men and women whose lives were irrevocably changed by the horrors of war.

I loved the time I spent with these brave young people, and only wish that the ending hadn’t felt so rushed. This was the one little niggle I had with Between Shades of Gray, too. I would have happily read another fifty pages just to have a little more time with these characters.

 

We’ll Never Be Apart – Emiko Jean

wetogetherSeventeen-year-old Alice is a patient at Savage Isle, an institute for adolescents with mental health problems. She’s recovering after a devastating fire, set by her twin Cellie, killed her boyfriend, Jason.

In the prologue of Emiko Jean’s YA novel We’ll Never Be Apart, Cellie says

…I’ll say it was an accident. An unfortunate tragedy. But it was neither. When they asked me what happened that night, I’ll say, It was a mistake. But is wasn’t. I don’t remember, I’ll say. But I do.

After the death of their grandfather, Alice and Cellie bounce around to various foster homes. In one of those places, “the worst home yet,”  they meet Jason. Jason becomes their protector from their foster father. “He’d wrap his arms around us like a comforting blanket. He smelled of clean laundry, a smell that still makes me feel loved and protected. Cherished.”

Jason’s flaw is that he loves fire. Cellie does, too. Alice can only watch helplessly, but it doesn’t prevent her from falling in love with Jason. After his death, she vows revenge against her sister who turns up at Savage Isle, too, albeit in a locked ward. Alice needs another patient’s help to find her so she can kill her.

The story is told in present day – as Alice, with the help of Chase, attempts to find a way to get to Cellie, and also unfolds the girls’ tragic story through a series of journal entries.  Readers might sense that the narration is unreliable – and they’d be right. There’s a propulsive element to Jean’s story, as we follow Alice on her search for the truth of what happened the night Jason was killed.

We’ll Never Be Apart will probably be enjoyable to mature teens who like a twisty tale with a sympathetic narrator.

 

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.

 

 

 

This One Summer – Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki

thisonesummerThis One Summer by cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is a Governor General’s Literary Award winner in addition to being on several Best Of…lists. I can’t claim any real expertise when it comes to graphic novels, so I don’t really know what the criteria might be for determining what makes a graphic novel superior to others. Like everyone of my generation, I used to be a big fan of Archie and horror comics, but it’s only since I returned to the classroom that I have made it a point to read graphic novels – mostly because I do have students who enjoy them and I want to be sure that I include them in my classroom library.

Rose and her family have been going to Awago Beach every summer since she can remember. Rose says, “My dad says Awago is a place where beer grows on trees and  everyone can sleep in until eleven.” It’s magical. It’s also where  Windy, Rose’s “summer cottage friend since I was five” lives.

This summer is captured in monochrome as Rose and Windy revisit old haunts and settle back into their summer routine. thisonesummer_gifIt’s clear, though, that the one and a half year difference between the girls is impactful this year. Rose, the elder, is contemplative and watchful and often reacts to Windy’s suggestions with a shrug and a “maybe.”  At Brewster’s “the only store in all of Awago” the girls buy penny candy, rent horror movies and watch (Windy with girlish disgust and Rose with curious fascination) the overtly sexual relationship between older teens Dunc and Jenny.

This one summer is different in another way. Rose is hyper aware that her parents don’t seem to be getting along all that well and Rose senses the rift is sucking them all in even when her father assures her that “It’s all  just adult junk that doesn’t mean anything.” It’s hard to navigate that tricky path from childhood to adulthood without touchstones and Rose is aware, perhaps without quite understanding it, that she is on shaky ground.

This One Summer is a coming of age novel steeped in nostalgia. It will remind adult readers of their “one” summer, that time that now seems captured in a permanently dreamy  gauze and it will ring true to young adults for whom that one summer may be this summer.

 

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

I cannot remember the last time I fell so hard for fictional characters. I just wanted to hatescoop Starr Carter and her family up and hug them forever. Starr’s the sixteen-year-old narrator of Angie Thomas’s debut novel The Hate U Give, and her story might have been ripped from recent headlines. It feels especially timely now, given what is happening in the U.S.A and around the world. I would like to think Canada is immune to racism, but I know it’s not true.

Starr lives with her parents, Lisa, a nurse, and Maverick, an ex-con who now owns and runs the neighbourhood grocery store in Garden Heights, an inner-city neighbourhood prone to violence and crime. Starr straddles two worlds; she lives in Garden Heights, but she and her older brother, Seven, and younger brother Sekani attend a “bougie private school” across town. Starr realizes at a young age that “Williamson is one world and Garden Heights is another, and I have to keep them separate.”

Driving home from a spring break party, Starr and her childhood best friend, Khalil, are pulled over by the police and Khalil is shot and killed by the cop. (Not a spoiler – honest!) It is a horrifying moment in the book, and for Starr the beginning of personal journey which changes her life and the lives of those around her.

Let’s just establish some context for me as a reader. I live on the East Coast of Canada, in a small blue collar town of about 75,000 people. I can count on one hand the number of black kids who attended my high school back in the 70’s. I knew them; I was friendly with them; I don’t recall them being treated any differently, but how would I know? Fast forward almost 40 years and now I teach high school – same city, different school. There is certainly more racial diversity at my school of about 900 kids, but it is still predominantly white. My city has had an influx of Syrian refugees in the last couple years, but still, mostly white. I would like to think that I am not racist, but honestly, sometimes I say things that are probably not PC and my kids – who are 20 and 18 –  say “Mom, you can’t say that.”  I have never been the minority, but as a woman I have encountered – I am sure – instances of discrimination or harassment that I have likely joked about or glossed over.

Starr agrees to testify in front of the grand jury to determine whether or not the officer who shot her friend should be indicted for the crime, but she has already come to understand how the world works. She sees it first hand every day – on her own streets where gangs and drug lords run the show and the potential for violence is simmering on the surface. She’s seen it her private school  where

Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang – if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood.” Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the “angry black girl.”  Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is nonconfrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.

I can’t stand myself for doing it, but I do it anyway.

Starr tries to keep her two lives separate and she doesn’t tell her school friends that she’s the witness in the shooting death of her friend. There’s a lot of pressure on her from all sides – to maintain the status quo and to stand up for what’s right. Finally, Starr decides to choose differently in all aspects of her life, telling her Chinese friend, Maya, “We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay to them and normal for us. What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”

How can that not resonate with people? How long will we let the  Donald Trumps of the world trash talk  – well – just about everyone? Because if The Hate U Give taught me one thing (and trust me, it taught me way more than one thing) it’s that we need to stand up and call people out when they are speaking derogatorily about others.

The Hate U Give ripped back the curtain and exposed a world I knew nothing about and as a reader and an educator, that’s a good thing. I often say that books are a great way for young readers to see themselves reflected back at them, but I think it’s equally important for them to see into the lives that are not like theirs. How else will they ever understand someone else’s point of view if they are never exposed to it? There is beauty to be found in our differences, people.

I loved every second spent with Starr and her amazing family. The Hate U Give is hopeful, heart-breaking,  beautiful and important and highly recommended. Read it and then get everyone you know to read it, too.

 

Delicate Monsters – Stephanie Kuehn

The three central characters in Stephanie Kuehn’s darkdarkdark YA novel Delicatedelicate Monsters are hard to spend time with. From the moment we meet  Sadie, and Emerson  and his  brother, Miles, we embark on a journey that is both awful and strangely – redemptive. In any case, these train-wreck teens are hard to look away from.

Sadie has just returned to her home from a camp where the girls were “all supposed to be “troubled”” Sadie’s far tougher than these girls who are “wide-eyed and tragic, fragile herd-like things, brimming with stories of Painful Childhoods.” Sadie can’t relate because she is not like them. She has “no interest in introspection” and “she found threats a curious thing because she didn’t respond to them the way she was meant to…threats made Sadie’s skin grow cold and her brain grow mean.” Mean is exactly what Sadie is, too.

At first eighteen-year-old Emerson seems like an uncomplicated lug of a guy. He lives with his widowed mother and younger brother, Miles, 15. Miles is sickly and has been diagnosed – or misdiagnosed –  with a variety of ailments: night terrors, separation anxiety, rashes, fever, celiac. Despite his health concerns and the fact that Miles “didn’t like other people,” Emerson was convinced that his younger brother is “destined for…something. Greatness?” Miles is peculiar and although Emerson seems to care about Miles, he doesn’t defend him against the constant barrage of abuse – both physical and verbal – Miles takes from the thugs at school.

Kuehn dances these three teens together when Sadie returns to her hometown. She’s been expelled from boarding school (again) for almost getting someone killed. (The details of that are revealed through email exchanges between Sadie and her ‘victim’, Roman Bender.) The aforementioned camp was clearly a placeholder because her father is M.I.A. and her mother seems to have no real interest in her daughter. She’s been out of the hometown loop for a while, but she remembers Emerson. She specifically remembers the things they used to do together when they were kids and his mother, a nurse, would bring them out to Sadie’s family’s vineyard to care for Sadie’s grandfather.

Sadie doesn’t remember Miles, though. They meet during fencing and if she has any redeeming qualities, she shows them in her interactions with him. For a kid who tries to blend into the shadows, Miles seems to respond to Sadie’s “I don’t give a shit, but here, eat this sandwich” approach to friendship.

I love the way Kuehn writes her characters. This is my third book by her and although I didn’t love it as much as I loved Charm & Strange, I still couldn’t stop turning the pages. We’d be naïve to think there aren’t lost, damaged kids like Sadie, Emerson and Miles in the world. Kuehn doesn’t mince words or tread lightly in Delicate Monsters, and as prickly as these three are – the mother in me just wanted to hug them and try to right their scarily off-kilter worlds.

This Gorgeous Game – Donna Freitas

Olivia Peters, the protagonist in Donna Freitas’ YA novel This Gorgeous Game,  is a seventeen-year-old aspiring writer who lives with her single mom and older sister in a close knit Catholic community in Boston. How Catholic? Let’s just say that the Peters’ have lots of priests and nuns for dinner and Olivia attends a high school where the principal is a nun.

gorgeousOlivia is beautiful and outgoing, but she’s one of those girls who doesn’t really know it – or, if she knows it, she doesn’t flaunt it. She’s a good girl. She’s obedient. All she wants-  all she can ever remember wanting – is to be a writer. When she wins the first annual Emerging Writers High School Fiction Prize  she admits “I’ve always loved writing but I didn’t really think it would amount to anything.” The prize is substantial: a ten thousand dollar scholarship towards the college of Olivia’s choice, publication of her story and a spot in Father Mark Brendan’s prestigious summer fiction seminar.

Yeah, that  Mark Brendan. Olivia knows him – by reputation, at least.

I am struck by the tiny lines that web from his smiling eyes, the gleam from his perfect white teeth, his thick salt-and-pepper hair, the size of his hands, so large, the hands of a strong man. Everything about him seems to glow from within and soon I am aware that I am not the only person in the room who finds this visitor striking.

This priest is a celebrity, and also super-creepy. I mean, c’mon, the first thing he does is invite Olivia for a drink. She shows up in her school uniform and drinks hot chocolate while he drinks scotch and holds court.

I probably shouldn’t say this, but the moment I first saw you, I wondered to myself: how did so much talent, such insight and imagination, come from a girl so young, and with such startling beauty? What a beauty! I thought. God must have such extraordinary plans for such a creation as this.

In the beginning, Olivia basks in the glow of Father Mark’s attention: the private meetings to (ostensibly, at least) work on editing her story, the notes he leaves for her, the packages he sends. But soon Olivia is feeling isolated from her friends and family and Mark’s enthusiasm for her talent starts to feel like a yoke around her neck. He turns up unexpectedly in places he shouldn’t be, waits for her outside the school, gives her inappropriate gifts, calls her incessantly.

Turns out, Father Mark is not only a talented writer, but a talented stalker, too. Is it because of his celebrity status that the adults in Olivia’s life don’t see the change in her demeanor: she stops eating, her hair is listless, the spark is gone. She makes excuses until she can’t anymore, but I was really disappointed in her mother and in Sister June, the school principal, who seemed to have some misgivings early on, but didn’t intervene.

This Gorgeous Game is a page-turner that highlights the ways  in which someone in a position of power takes advantage of someone vulnerable. There is nothing graphic here and Olivia is a likeable narrator, if a little sheltered and naïve – which is, of course, completely understandable given her upbringing.