Orbiting Jupiter – Gary D. Schmidt

I’m not sure if award-winning author Gary D. Schmidt’s 2015 novel Orbiting Jupiter is supposed to be Young Adult or Middle Grade, but either way it’s a terrific albeit heart-wrenching tale which I read in one sitting.

Jack is just 12 when Joseph, 14, comes to live on his family’s organic farm in Maine because his parents have a reputation for successfully fostering difficult kids.

…he won’t wear anything orange. He won’t let anyone stand behind him. He won’t let anyone touch him. He won’t go into rooms that are too small. And he won’t eat canned peaches.

[…]

“He has a daughter.”

Despite his troubled past, Joseph is not a delinquent. It is clear he’s been dealt a shitty hand, but his quiet determination soon wins over his foster family as well as a couple teachers at his school. Honestly, it was impossible not to like Joseph, which is what makes the story so tragic.

Another reason to like this novel is Jack. Although he is younger than Joseph and certainly far less experienced, his hopefulness and loyalty to his new ‘brother’ grounds the novel. He catalogues the times Joseph smiles (or almost smiles) and is constantly reminding Joseph that his name is Jack not Jackie, but their banter and their silences is certainly indicative of two boys who care for each other.

Orbiting Jupiter is a thoughtful, quiet and heart-breaking book and I highly recommend it.

Consent – Nancy Ohlin

When Nancy Ohlin’s YA novel Consent opens, seventeen-year-old Bea is in an interrogation room at the local police station. Her goal is to “Stay as close to the truth as possible.”

The truth is a grey area, though.

Bea and her best friend Plum attend Andrew Jackson High School, a “Campus for Baccalaureate and Performing Arts”. The two girls are over-achievers with “the two highest GPAs in school.” They have their lives mapped out: graduation and then Harvard. That is, until Bea meets Dane Rossi, the new AP Music History teacher.

Mr. Rossi turns from the blackboard and scans the class. Oh my Godi, he’s cute. Chiseled features and sexy stubble…Are teachers allowed to be that good looking?

Mr. Rossi is more than cute, though. He sees Bea, and recognizes her talent, a talent she has kept hidden from everyone. For reasons. He encourages her to join two other students in an ensemble; he hooks her up with an audition at Julliard; he deflowers her. Because, of course he does.

Consent is problematic, but not for the reasons that you might think. Yes – it’s all sorts of wrong that a teacher enters into a sexual relationship with a student, but it’s more the way that. None of the characters feel fully fleshed out. Bea’s father, a lawyer, is basically absent – until he isn’t. Her older brother is a non-entity. Dane is too good to be true, and their insta-attraction to each other just doesn’t seem realistic. Before you can Schumann they are planning their lives together. Just, y’know, after she turns eighteen. When they get caught, Bea convinces Plum and another boy to lie for her.

It was easy to read, but I never truly felt invested in these characters. It was hard to see Bea as a victim or Dane as a predator and although there was certainly potential for something a bit more dramatic, it never really happened.

Breathless – Jennifer Niven

Oh, young love.

Jennifer Niven’s (All the Bright Places ) novel Breathless took me back, way back, to a very particular time in my life. You know, that time when you fall in love and you’re filled with both dread and delight.

Claudine Henry’s life is pretty sweet. She lives with her mother (an acclaimed writer) and her father (works at the local college) in small-town Ohio. She and her best friend, Saz, are about to graduate from high school and embark on a post-graduation road-trip before they head off to their respective colleges. Then her father drops a bombshell: “…your mom and I are separating, and she asked me to tell you because it’s not her idea; it’s my idea.”

Claude is devastated by the news, and it upends her plans and her life. Instead of heading off with Saz, she and her mother make their way to an island off the coast of Georgia. The island has ties to their family and Claude’s mom is going to use the time to do some research and some writing. Claude is going to spend her time being miserable.

That is until she meets Jeremiah Crew. He has a “resting wiseass face” and an easy charm that is almost irresistible. The island is small and it’s impossible for Miah and Claude to avoid each other and it’s clear pretty ear they don’t want to anyway. He’s always around, barefoot and ready with some witty or caustic remark. I think I fell in love with him almost as quickly as Claude did.

As Miah and Claude start to spend more time together, Claude also starts to come to terms with her own life. Being away from Saz (there’s limited WiFi/cell service on the island) causes some tension, and miscommunication. And how is she supposed to navigate this new family dynamic? Her father was her person, the parent she shared morning rituals with, her protector, and now she doesn’t know who he is or how she’s supposed to feel about him. We forget at that age, that our parents are just trying to figure it out, too. Sometimes we get caught up in our own feelings and we forget that our parents have their own stuff to get through. Both Claude’s parents seemed like real people – which is often not the case in YA fiction. I loved Claude’s coming-of-age journey.

Ultimately, though, this is Claude and Miah’s story – and it is swoon worthy. They are eighteen, so this is slightly more NA than YA (and while the sex scenes aren’t particularly graphic, there are some in the book). Their banter is ::chef’s kiss:: awesome. I loved Miah so much.

“Here’s the thing,” Miah tells Claude. “I don’t want you getting too crazy about me, because I’m only here for the next few weeks.”

Trust me, resistance is futile.

All the Things We Do in the Dark – Saundra Mitchell

One hot summer when nine-year-old Ava is outside riding her bike around the apartment complex where she lives, a man tells her “I have something that will keep you cool…” He leads Ava down a lane between the apartments and the trees and assaults her. This is the beginning of Saundra Mitchell’s YA novel All the Things We Do in the Dark.

Flash forward and Ava is now seventeen. Her parents are divorced. She has one best friend, Syd. She tries to be as invisible as possible, although she lives in small-town Maine where everyone knows who she is and what happened to her and if they didn’t, the scar the man left down the side of her face would certainly be cause for curiosity.

Ava has never really dealt with the trauma of her assault. Her mother keeps close tabs on her, but even she doesn’t know everything and Ava is prone to keeping secrets. This becomes evident when one day, walking home through the woods, she stumbles upon the body of a young girl.

She’s twisted like a Barbie doll at the waist. Her top half points forward, baring her face, her chest, those Vs. It takes me a minute to realize they’re stab wounds. Her bottom half faces down. Somehow both her breasts and her butt are exposed at the same time.

Human people, alive people, they don’t make that shape.

Ava makes a decision: she doesn’t tell anyone about the body. Chalk it up to shock or her own bad experience post-assault, but she decides to protect her. It’s a ridiculous decision to make – readers will know that – but Ava hasn’t ever really recovered from her own post-assault experience.

When Ava returns to the scene of the crime, she discovers someone else there, and convinced that she has stumbled upon the murderer, she gives chase. That’s where Mitchell’s book morphs from an examination of the trauma of assault to a straight-up mystery. I think I found this part of the book a little less successful, mostly because some of the decisions Ava makes (even though I could sort of understand why she was making them) seemed a little unrealistic.

Mitchell does do a wonderful job of crafting a character who has been through something horrific, something she still struggles with many years later as she tries to navigate relationships (with her bestie and a new friend, Hailey) and her own complicated feelings about her body and sexuality.

While I found the writing a bit choppy, a students in my class (who recommended the book) said that she liked the writing, that it felt like a conversation with her friends and that she related to some of the relationships in the book. That’s the true test of a YA book, I think: does it speak to its intended audience?

Fire Keeper’s Daughter – Angeline Boulley

Angeline Boulley’s debut Fire Keeper’s Daughter was my first read in 2022 and it’s a cracker. It’s almost 500 pages long, but it was so good I had a hard time putting it down. It’s nice to start a new reading year with a great book!

Eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine lives in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Her white mother comes from a wealthy, important family – a building at the local college is named after her grandfather. Her Ojibwe father, who died when she was seven, lived on the Sugar Island reservation, the place Daunis calls her “favorite place in the universe.” Daunis has a brother, Levi, who is just three months younger than her. There’s complicated family history, but Levi and Daunis are close; they are both talented hockey players, and they both idolized their father, who himself was a superstar on the ice, destined for great things until he was injured in a car accident. Daunis is meant to be headed to the University of Michigan for pre-med, but when her uncle David dies and her maternal grandmother ends up in a nursing home, Daunis makes the decision to start her post-secondary education closer to home.

Then she meets Jamie. He’s a new recruit to the Supes, the local elite junior A team her brother captains. There’s an immediate spark between the two. Soon they are running together in the morning and Daunis finds herself sharing things with him that she’s never shared before.

There is so much to love about this book I don’t even know where to start. First of all, Daunis is a fabulous character: smart, resilient, capable, loyal. She aligns herself with her Ojibwe heritage even though she is an unenrolled member because her father isn’t listed on her birth certificate. Her best friend Lily is in the same boat and “We still regard the tribe as ours, even though our faces are pressed against the glass, looking in from outside.”

Boulley captures all the hardships of being a biracial teen, the casual racism Daunis experiences, the sexism; it’s all here, but none of it is didactic. The novel also weaves traditional beliefs as well as stories and language throughout the narrative, which as a white person with very little knowledge of these things, I found fascinating.

Something else that is encroaching on her life is the proliferation of meth, which seems to be coming from Sugar Island and which is starting to impact people she cares about. Her childhood friend, Travis, who has become a shadow of his previously charming, handsome and goofy self now has ” hollows under his cheekbones [that] are concave to the point of sickly. Any softness is gone.” Travis’s addiction is just the tip of the iceberg, though and when Daunis witnesses a murder and discovers that Jamie is not quite who he seems, she finds herself helping the FBI investigate the meth and the novel kicks into high gear.

It would be one thing if Fire Keeper’s Daughter was just a story about a girl trying to figure out how she fits into two very different worlds, but this ambitious novel is so much more than that. It’s a mystery, it’s a coming-of-age story; it’s a story about culture and family. It’s so good.

Highly recommended.

The Black Flamingo – Dean Atta

Although I do not know this for sure, Dean Atta’s novel-in-verse The Black Flamingo feels like a very personal story. Atta tells the story of Michael, born in London to a Greek Cypriot mom and a Jamaican dad who exits the family shortly after Michael is born.

“…six days before the millennium,/ she burned their Christmas dinner/ and he shouted, “You’re useless!”/ before throwing his plate down, turkey/ stuck to the kitchen floor. and I cried,/ startled by early indoor fireworks./ That was the end for them. The beginning/ for Mummy and me.”

Atta unspools Michael’s story, which is the story of someone who isn’t quite Greek enough or Jamaican enough, and definitely not straight enough, a fact he seems to realize relatively early on. When he is just six he tells his mother “If you only get me one present/ this year, please can it be/ a Barbie?”

I can relate to that. My son was totally enamoured with Bratz dolls when he was a kid. And long hair; he desperately wanted long hair, so eventually we got him a hat with all these long braids sewn along the edges. He wore that thing constantly.

The next year Michael tells his mother he wants to change his last name to hers, a request that earns him “the longest hug I’ve ever had.” (Nineteen seconds!)

The novel traces Michael’s adolescence, his friendship with Daisy, and finally his journey to attend university in Brighton. It is here that he finds his people at Drag Society, and ultimately himself.

“I’m just a man and I want/ to wear a dress and makeup on stage./ I want to know how it feels to publicly/ express a side of me I’ve only felt privately/ when playing with my Barbie as a boy.”

The Black Flamingo is a coming-of-age story, a story about identity and family, and it is lovely and lyrical and hopeful, too.

The Closest I’ve Come – Fred Aceves

This year in my grade ten English class we’ve decided to try something new: podcasts. I have never made one and have only recently started to listen to them, but one of my colleagues and I thought it might be a great, non-traditional way for students to show their learning. We hooked up with a local organization called Brilliant Labs for the tech-y stuff and paired students up to read books that dealt with the topic of coming of age, which is this term’s big idea. Then, my colleague and I decided that we should give it a go, too.

We read Fred Aceves debut novel The Closest I’ve Come which tells the story of fifteen-year-old Marcos Rivas who lives in Tampa, but not in the part of Tampa tourists see. His mother seems sort of checked out and her boyfriend, Brian, is a bully. Marcos notes “With every step home my bones are getting shakier.”

He moved in last summer, just before the worst heatwave in a decade, but the strangling humidity didn’t faze him none. The douche sat in the armchair (my armchair when my mom’s between boyfriends) with the fan pointed at himself. Even with me and my mom also watching TV, even though the fan has an oscillating setting, it forever pointed his way.

Things are pretty grim for Marcos. They’re poor, he struggles in school, some of his friends are borderline criminals and although he dreams of getting out of the hood, he doesn’t really know how he’s going to accomplish this. Then an opportunity lands in his lap.

Congratulations! You’ve been selected to take part in a new, exciting program.

The exciting program is an after-school group which is meant to provide enrichment to students with potential. One of those students is a take-no-prisoners girl named Amy who Marcos has admired from afar for many months. Marcos muses: “Me and Amy got something in common, even if it’s only this. Us together ain’t crazy. It might be fate.”

Marcos’s experiences in the class and interacting with students he might not normally interact with helps Marcos realize his potential. He learns that while it might be nice to figure out how to fit in, it’s also important to remain true to one’s self. Watching him struggle to play the crappy hand he’s been dealt is inspiring, especially because nothing comes easy for him.

I really enjoyed The Closest I’ve Come. I will post a link to our podcast here when it’s finished.

Finding Felicity – Stacey Kade

Although I was much older than the show’s target audience, I fell madly in love with the J.J. Abrams/Matt Reeves coming-of-age drama Felicity (1998-2002). In the show, Felicity Porter gets the boy she’s loved from afar, Ben Covington, to sign her yearbook on graduation day, and what he writes causes her to abandon her post-secondary plans and enroll at NYU, which is where Ben is going to university. The series’ four years follow Felicity through her friendships and relationships and decisions, both good and bad, and it is all must-watch television. I still love the show and rewatch it start to finish every couple of years.

In Stacey Kade’s YA novel Finding Felicity, eighteen-year-old Caroline Sands has just graduated from high school, meaning she’s leaving the mess of the last few years behind and hoping for a fresh start when she starts Ashmore, a small liberal arts college in Iowa, in the fall.

After her parents’ divorce, Caroline and her mom moved to Arizona, and she just never really found her people. Instead, she found Felicity, so when her mom asked her about school and her friends, she just told them about the characters from the show. What could go wrong with that?

Ashmore is supposed to be Caroline’s new beginning, a chance to reinvent herself and make new friends. She neglects to tell her mother that part of the reason she wants, no needs, to go to this school is because Liam Fanshaw – her Ben-equivalent – is going there, too. What could go wrong with that?

Finding Felicity will speak to anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable in their own skin and desperately just wants to fit in. Caroline is awkward, for sure, but mostly she lacks confidence. That’s relatable, I think. Common wisdom would suggest that a new place doesn’t equal a new you and sometimes figuring it out is hard, but not impossible. Caroline makes a few missteps, but ultimately starts to craft the life she has wished for, and many teens will enjoy the journey.

Every Exquisite Thing – Matthew Quick

Nanette O’Hare is trying to figure stuff out in Matthew Quick’s (Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock) YA novel Every Exquisite Thing. She’s a straight-A senior, and a super-star soccer player from an affluent family, so on the surface one might assume that Nanette has got it all going on. But it’s not true. Since mid-way through her junior year she’s been eating lunch with her English teacher, Mr. Graves, and avoiding her bestie, Shannon, whose questionable sexual escapades had started bothering Nanette back in middle school.

One day Mr. Graves hands her a tattered copy of Nigel Booker’s novel The Bubblegum Reaper, a book that Mr. Graves claims changed his life.

It’s maybe not the most literary work in the world. Probably a bit dated. But it’s a cult classic and I have a feeling that it might be the perfect read for you. Maybe even a rite of passage for people like us.

The Bubblegum Reaper does, in fact, have a tremendous impact on Nanette’s life. The book’s author lives in her home town, and Mr. Graves arranges for the two to meet.

Spending time with Booker was becoming an addiction, mostly because it was the only part of my day when I felt like I could be myself – or maybe like there was one person in the world who didn’t want me to be something I didn’t want to be or to act a certain way or to go along with everything that others pushed into my life.

Through Mr. Booker she meets Alex, a boy her age who writes poetry. The bond between the two teens is cemented as they talk about the book and share their own feelings of isolation and disenfranchisement.

It is through these relationships that Nanette is able to shake off some of the personas she’s adopted over the years. She starts to say no when she might have just said yes and, ultimately, though certainly not without some heartache, Nanette is able to forge her own path and become the person she really wants to be.

Every Exquisite Thing is a philosophical, quirky and thoughtful coming-of-age story.

Odd One Out – Nic Stone

One of the topics the students in my Young Adult Literature class discussed this semester was the importance of diversity in fiction. Nic Stone wrote a wonderful opinion piece called “Don’t Just Read About Racism—Read Stories About Black People Living” where she expressed her own experiences with books featuring Black characters and the problem of having every single ‘diverse’ text tackle issues of police brutality and racism or simply featuring characters she didn’t recognize. Tokens or sidekicks.

“I met three African-American characters in books between 8th and 12th grade,” she writes. “The first was a Black man falsely accused of a horrific crime—literally because of #WhiteWomanTears—who despite his innocence suffers a horrific fate (Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird). The second was a Black man with a role so minor, most people don’t remember he was Black or don’t remember him at all (Crooks from Of Mice and Men). And the third was an escaped Black slave written (by a white man) in vernacular so dense that half the time, I had zero idea what homie was trying to tell me (Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

I hated all of it.”

Why was it, Stone posits, that growing up she never read about Black kids going on adventures, solving mysteries, falling in love? “What if we’d seen Black people in books just being human?” she writes.

Cue her 2018 YA novel Odd One Out, the story of seventeen-year-old besties Courtney “Coop” Cooper and Jupiter “Jupe” Charity-Sanchez. Coop has been in love with Jupe for as long as he can remember, but Jupe likes girls. At least she’s pretty sure she likes girls. She hasn’t really had any experience with them. Then Rae Chin moves to town. Suddenly Jupe and Coop find themselves part of a very complicated triangle.

This is exactly the sort of book Stone was talking about when she described the sort of stories that were unavailable to her when she was growing up. The characters in Odd One Out are just trying to navigate family stuff (Jupe has two dads; Coop’s father was killed in a car accident; Rae’s mom took off, but all the parents in this book are professional, loving, sane parents – not a gang banger among them), school and what turns out to be very complicated feelings for each other.

All three main characters get a turn to tell their story (Coop was my favourite; I found him funny, loyal, and charming) and I loved every second I spent with them. The drama is all self-made, but these smart and sensitive teens are trying to figure it out and that sometimes makes for hurt feelings, which Stone doesn’t shy away from. Odd One Out is a coming-of-age story which will appeal to any teen who has ever been in love or questioned their sexuality. The fact that I adored this book proves Stone’s point that “the more we see Black people living—loving and doing and being and feeling and going on adventures and solving mysteries and being the heroes—the more we come to recognize our shared humanity.”

Amen.

Highly recommended.