Tag Archive | YA

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.

 

 

 

Modern Monsters – Kelley York

Kelley York’s YA novel Modern Monsters is a relatively straight-forward story about the modernmonstersaftermath of a sexual assault. This is my second novel by York and while there is certainly nothing wrong with it, I preferred Made of Stars, which I found to be beautifully written and nuanced. Modern Monsters suffers (but only slightly) by comparison.

Vic Howard is a senior at high school. He’s a slightly awkward loner with a stutter who knows his place on the social ladder.

I am not important. I am tolerated by association. I am Vic Howard, Brett Mason’s Best Friend, so while people don’t always care to learn anything about me, they do recognize my face. Being cool to me, they seem to think, is a way to stay cool with Brett.

Vic and Brett have been friends since they were kids. Sometimes when Vic looks at Brett he sees “the chubby pimple-faced kid with braces and glasses.” This long-standing relationship is why Brett doesn’t impress or intimidate Vic. It’s also the reason why Vic does anything even remotely sociable: he is often Brett’s plus one.

That’s how he ends up at a huge party out at a cabin by a lake. He doesn’t want to go, but Brett insists. And that’s how he happens upon Callie Wheeler throwing up in the bushes. Vic deliberates leaving her alone – but only for a moment. Vic helps Callie to a bedroom, places a waste bucket beside the bed, and acknowledges that he’s done his part.

Except a day or two later the police arrive at Vic’s house to question him. Callie was raped at the party and Vic was the last person seen with her.

Modern Monsters tackles a tricky  and timely subject with a great deal of care.  The horror of being accused of something is bad enough, but Vic’s mother doesn’t seem to believe Vic when he vehemently denies the accusation. She can’t even seem to look him in the eye. He takes refuge at Brett’s house. Brett’s parents have always been like a surrogate family and Brett’s father is a lawyer who agrees to help him.

The kids at school are less forgiving and when the rumours start to spread Vic finds himself in some pretty dicey situations. It is Callie’s best friend, Autumn, who first believes Vic’s innocence and together the two begin to try to figure out who the real rapist is. Their sleuthing also leads to a relationship, Vic’s first.

Vic is a likeable character. He’s not perfect, but he’s decent. He’s a hard-working, honest and sympathetic character and it’s impossible not to like him. Autumn is feisty and smart. Even Caillie, although her role is peripheral, reveals herself to be forgiving and human.

This book is as much about standing up for yourself as it is about the horrors of sexual assault. Vic must navigate tricky family dynamics, the first stirrings of romance, and people’s mistrust of him. Whatever his perceived shortcomings, Vic is a good guy and readers will be rooting for him.

A Step Toward Falling – Cammie McGovern

astepAlthough Belinda and Emily, the alternating narrators of Cammie McGovern’s excellent YA novel A Step Toward Falling, attend the same high school, the two girls couldn’t be more unalike.  Belinda is twenty-one and spends her days in the Life Skills class with other students who have physical  or developmental disabilities. Emily is a high school senior who co-chairs her school’s Youth Action Coalition with her gay bff, Richard, but hasn’t ever really taken a stand, preferring to work behind-the-scenes..

At a high school football game, Belinda is attacked and Emily witnesses the event and does nothing – not because she’s a horrible person, far from it, but because her “brain couldn’t process what it was seeing.” Anyway, in the next instant she sees Lucas, one of the school’s football players, running from under the bleachers and she is sure he saved Belinda. The fact that he did nothing either, sends Lucas and Emily to the Lifelong Learning Centre where they must volunteer with young adults who have  a variety of  developmental disabilities.

As for Belinda, she retreats to the safety of her home where she lives with her mother and grandmother. She watches Pride and Prejudice, and avoids talking about what happened to her because according to her Nan “what’s done is done, sweetheart. The important thing is you’re home now and you’re safe. You never have to go back to that school or see those people again as far as I’m concerned.”

Navigating high school is hard enough, but everything about the girls’ journey – albeit different –  feels  honest. Belinda is in love with Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy. She is quite sure that he is watching her from the television screen, and she’s “pretty sure he loves me, too.”  Belinda’s innocence is what protects her from understanding that Ron, one of the football team’s star players, doesn’t actually care for her, even though he asked her to dance at a Best Buddies event.

Emily has spent all of high school hiding out in the library. She watches the table of football players and their picture-perfect cheerleader girlfriends and dreams about a post-high school life where everything will be better.

Lucas, who is seen only through Emily’s eyes, is huge and “a little scary-looking.” But, like all the characters in McGovern’s novel, there is more to him than first meets the eye.  And that’s kind of the point. How can we ever truly know someone if we never bother to talk to them, try to understand them or  extend the branch of friendship?

McGovern’s novel might have veered into ‘preachy-ness’ had it not been for the authentic voices of Belinda and Emily. I loved spending time with these girls. I loved how Emily and Lucas made a genuine effort to make amends and, in the process, became better people. There is certainly a lesson here, but it doesn’t feel instructive as much as it feels heartfelt and human.

Highly recommended.

All The Bright Places – Jennifer Niven

Not all YA books are created equal. When I was a teen in the 70s YA was barely a thing. Basically I went from reading The Bobbsey Twins and Trixie Beldon to reading Jane Eyre and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The Scholastic flyer at school offered some options and I can all-the-bright-places-jktspecifically remember reading and falling in love with S.E. Hinton’s That Was Then, This is Now (a book I loved way more than I loved The Outsiders), and Judy Blume’s Forever, but the reading choices certainly weren’t as varied as they are for teens today.  I read a lot of YA now because I teach teens. Lots of it is mediocre. Lots of it is good. Then, every so often, you read a book you just want to tell all your students about. You want every single teen you know on the planet to read it. Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places is one of those books.

Theodore Finch is seventeen. He begins his story by asking “Is today a good day to die?” He’s considering this question from “a narrow ledge six floors above the ground.” That’s when he sees the girl, Violet Markey. “She stands a few feet away on the other side of the tower, also out on the ledge…”

This is how Niven begins to tell the story of Finch and Violet. Finch ‘rescues’ Violet, but because he has a reputation as being a freak, a loser, and unstable, the rumour around school is that Violet saved him. From this unlikely scenario, a beautiful friendship springs.

After Finch talks Violet off the ledge he asks her: “Do you think there’s such a thing as a perfect day?…A perfect day. Start to finish. Where nothing terrible or sad or ordinary happens. Do you think it’s possible?”  Just typing that now makes me feel as though I want to cry.

Violet doesn’t seem like a likely match for Finch. She’s “cheerleader popular” and dates Ryan Cross, a movie star handsome baseball star. Still, when the two are paired to participate in a “Wander Indiana” project (part of a course in U.S. Geography), they discover a kinship neither expected. As they travel to various points of interest, they start to trust each other. Violet begins the painful process of shedding the grief of a tragic accident and Finch finds more and more reason to stay “awake.”

One of the things that makes a YA novel great for me is characterization. I want the teens to feel authentic, not like stereotypes. Finch and Violet are beautifully crafted creations, and the people who circle their lives (parents and siblings and friends) are also well-drawn and nuanced. Finch’s mom is broken from her failed marriage; Violet’s parents are over-protective. As a mom of teens myself, I like to see parents in YA portrayed as real people – flawed and messy and trying to do the best they can even when can’t fix anything at all.

The other element of the novel that Niven handles so well is the issue of mental illness. All the Bright Places is not a “sick lit” book. Finch’s struggles are authentic and nuanced and painfully rendered in prose that is a joy to read. I can’t remember the last time a character has broken my heart, but Finch most certainly did.

I can’t recommend All the Bright Places highly enough. Buy it for every teen you know. Buy it for yourself.

 

 

Ten – Gretchen McNeil

There are enough diversions and red herrings in Gretchen McNeil’s YA mystery Ten to tenkeep attentive readers on their toes. The straight-forward narrative and familiar characters (the mean girl, the jock, the good girl) will certainly be appealing to readers of a certain age, but there isn’t much on offer here for anyone else.

Meg and her best friend, Minnie, have been invited to a weekend party on Henry Island, one of the islands off the coast of Washington State. Meg’s not really the party type and she’s already anxious about the fact that they’ve “lied to [their] parents and gone to a house party in the middle of nowhere.”

The party comes on the heels of a gruesome discovery at a rival high school – “the charred remains of a body found in the locker room.”

When the girls arrive (by ferry), they find the rest of the party guests: T.J. Fletcher, hunky football player and Meg’s not-so-secret-crush; Ben, the new boyfriend of their hostess, Jessica (who never shows us); Gunner, surfer dude; Kumiko, Gunner’s new girlfriend (Minnie was his former girlfriend); Vivian, seemingly sensible; Lori, random girl; Nathan and Kenny; token Neanderthals.

The festivities start with a few beers and then things start to go whacky. First of all, Ben almost dies from anaphylactic shock. Then, the group watches a strange and disturbing video that claims : “Vengeance is Mine.”  Someone tosses the room Meg and Minnie are sharing. Meg finds a strange diary. And then, one by one, people start to die.

Alliances and nerves start to fray as the teens realize they are cut off from civilization (no cell service or Internet) and that no one knows where they are. The most they can hope for is that Jessica arrives, as planned, on the next ferry.

McNeil keeps the action ticking along. The third person narrative is focused pretty tightly on Meg – but who hasn’t heard of an unreliable narrator before? There’s not a lot of opportunity for character development, not that it really matters. I think most teens will enjoy the straight ahead action, the creepy deaths and Meg’s valiant attempt to figure out who the killer is before it’s too late.

For the record: I didn’t get it right.