strongerIn  Jolene Perry’s novel Stronger Than You Know, fifteen-year-old Joy Neilsons has come to live with her aunt and uncle after having been removed from the trailer home she was living in with her mother. The Child Services Summary Report  indicates that she wasn’t allowed out of the 750 sq. ft. mobile home, did not attend school and was dehydrated and malnourished when authorities removed her.

Turns out, not having enough to eat or drink was the least of Joy’s problems, and although Perry wisely spares us the graphic details of Joy’s abuse, readers will easily be able to fill in the horrific blanks.

Stronger Than You Know is the story of Joy’s recovery which, as you can imagine, is not without its setbacks. For one thing, Joy hasn’t been properly socialized, so dealing with large groups of people is problematic. Imagine going to school – high school, at that –  for the first time. For another thing, Joy distrusts men, making it difficult for her to be around her uncle, Rob, and her cousin, Trent. Trent’s twin sister, Tara,  is a little easier to cope with, but Joy is still distrustful of this new life she’s been given, a life she knows she doesn’t belong in. Aunt Nicole offers safety and comfort, but the PTSD Joy is experiencing is palpable.

She measures her recovery by listing her accomplishments:

  • Went to school.
  • Ate in the cafeteria.
  • Answered a teacher’s question.
  • Ate a few bites of dinner with the family in the dining room.

All the people in Joy’s new life, even Trent, who initially seems like an asshat (and one could make the argument that he turns the corner with a little too much ease), are warm and loving humans. The boy she meets on the walk to school is patient and understanding when Joy acts peculiarly. Her Uncle Rob is super protective because he’s had some personal experience with trauma. If any characters are under-developed it’s because they are the villains of the piece and it’s easy enough for smart readers to fill in those blanks.

Overall, Stronger Than You Know will speak to any young reader who has had to overcome horrific circumstances in the hopes for a better life. As Joy learns, a better life is waiting.



turtlesI have a deep and abiding love for John Green. He’s a passionate advocate for reading and learning. He makes nerdish pursuits cool and I think he’s a terrific writer. Lord knows, I was a sobbing, snotty mess at 2 a.m. finishing The Fault in Our Stars. I was pretty excited, then, to get my hands on Green’s latest book, Turtles All the Way Down.

Aza is sixteen and suffers from almost debilitating mental illness. She has no control of her thoughts and her thoughts take her to some pretty unusual and scary places. Even the simple act of eating is problematic for Aza who finds “the whole process of masticating plants and animals and then shoving them down my esophagus kind of disgusting, so I was trying not to think about the fact that I was eating, which is a form of thinking about it.”

Still, she finds ways of coping. Daisy, for example, “played the role of my Best and Most Fearless Friend.” And then there’s Davis Pickett, a childhood friend with whom Aza reconnects after she reads in the paper that his billionaire father, Russell, has disappeared.

There’s not really a plot, but that’s not to say that nothing happens in the novel. Aza and Daisy decide they are going to play detective and figure out what happened to Russell. That leads to Aza and Davis picking up their friendship and discovering that they might have feelings for each other, which is complicated by the fact that Aza has spiraling thoughts. She fixates on things and can’t seem to stop, which leads her down a rabbit hole of worry. I suspect that anyone who suffers from anxiety or mental health issues will totally get Aza’s erratic thoughts. I didn’t, especially, but I thought Green did a tremendous job of illustrating how Aza gets trapped in her own head.

The sting of the hand sanitizer was gone now, which meant the bacteria were back to breeding, spreading though my finger into the bloodstream. Why did I ever crack open the callus anyway? Why couldn’t I just leave it alone? Why did I have to give myself a constant, gaping open wound on, of all places, my finger. The hands are the dirtiest parts of the body. Why couldn’t I pinch my earlobe or my belly or my ankle? I’d probably killed myself with sepsis because of some stupid childhood ritual that didn’t even prove what I wanted it to prove, because what I wanted to know was unknowable, because there was no way to be sure about anything.

Green has spoken quite openly about his own struggles with mental health. In an article with Time he said: “I still can’t really talk directly about my own obsessions. The word triggering has become so broadly used in popular culture, but anyone who has experienced an anxiety attack knows how badly they want to avoid it. It was really hard, especially at first, to write about this thing that’s been such a big part of my life. But in another way, it was really empowering because I felt like if I could give it form or expression I could look at it and I could talk about it directly rather than being scared of it. And one of the main things I wanted to do in the book was to get at how isolating it can be to live with mental illness and also how difficult it can be for the people who are around you because you’re so isolated.”

Turtles All the Way Down does not simplify Aza’s problems and there are no happy endings here, but I do believe this is a hopeful novel. And while it didn’t leave me a sobbing mess like The Fault in Our Stars there is much to admire here. Green remains one of my favourite YA writers.

that was thenBack in the day, there probably wasn’t a teenager alive who hadn’t read The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton’s first novel. Written when Hinton was just sixteen and published around the time she graduated from high school, The Outsiders tells the story of the Curtis brothers Darry, Soda, and Ponyboy. It’s considered the seminal young adult novel and remains a classroom favourite almost 50 years after its publication.

I read it as a teenager, of course. Then I read Hinton’s second novel, That Was Then, This is Now and I remember that it had a profound impact on me. So, when it came time to choose the novel I wanted to begin my first ever Young Adult Literature class with, I chose Hinton’s second book – mostly because I knew that although many students would be familiar with The Outsiders, they might not know this book. Plus, it gave me an excuse to read it 40 odd years later after my first go-around.

That Was The, This is Now treads familiar ground (and in fact Ponyboy even makes an appearance in this book). It concerns the fates of Bryon, the novel’s sixteen-year-old narrator and his boyhood best friend and de facto brother, Mark.

I had been friends with Mark long before he came to live with us. He had lived down the street and it seemed to me that we had always been together. We had never had a fight. We had never even had an argument…He was my best friend and we were like brothers.

The two boys live a relatively hard-scrabble life with Bryon’s single mother mom. They hustle pool, chase ‘chicks’ and generally get up to no good. Occasionally, they meet up with M&M, a younger kid from their neighbourhood.

M&M was the most serious guy I knew. He always had this wide-eyed, intent, trusting look on his face, but sometimes he smiled and when he did it was really great. He was an awful nice kid even if he was a little strange.

That Was Then, This Is Now  is a coming of age story. The catalyst for Bryon’s transformation from dime-store hood to responsible young adult is his blossoming relationship with M&M’s older sister, Cathy, and an incident which puts M&M in harm’s way.

There’s no question that some of the references are dated. It was kind of funny to read about hippies and parents who are cross with their kids because their hair is too long. On the other hand, although styles come and go, some things remain the same. Parents and their children still have disagreements. Lots of teenagers are left to their own devices, as Bryon and Mark often are. There were several moments in the book that felt as relevant and fresh to me now as I am sure they did then.

Ultimately, Bryon must make a decision that changes the course of his life. It’s a hard epiphany to swallow, but it’s one that makes That Was Then, This Is Now as relevant as it was when it was first published.

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.


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.


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.




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.