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.

Nothing – Janne Teller

Translated from the Danish, Janne Teller’s award-winning YA novel Nothing is pretty dang bleak. When fourteen-year-old Pierre Anthon announces on the first day of school that “Nothing matters”, he sets off a chain reaction of events that runs the gamut from the childish to the horrific to the ridiculous.

Pierre Anthon and his hippie father live in a commune, so his classmates figure it makes sense for him to take the position that “It’s all a waste of time. […] Everything begins only to end. The moment you were born you begin to die. That’s how it is with everything.”

Pierre Anthon takes his belongings, leaves school and proceeds to climb the plum tree in front of his house. As his classmates pass by he slings hard plums and his dismal world view at them. His friends decide that they have no choice but to coax him out of the tree and the only way to do that is to prove that life is worth something.

The kids come up with a plan. They’ll create a sort of installation at the old saw mill. The will collect things that matter. At first, they ask their neighbours to make a contribution and the items start to accumulate: old crockery, a rose from a bridal bouquet, photographs. Then, feeling that they didn’t have enough skin in the game and that Pierre Anthon would see straight through them, they decided they needed to pony up and make a personal contribution to the cause. That’s when things start getting tricky.

Pierre Anthon’s view is decidedly nihilistic: religious and moral principles don’t matter, and life is meaningless. As the teens push each other to contribute things that are deeply personal, they cross more than one line. They soon lose sight of what they set out to do and their whole experiment becomes less about trying to help their friend see the value in life and more an exercise in horror.

Translation aside (and you know how I generally feel about them), Nothing is a surprisingly complex book. At first I thought it was going to be juvenile; the characters are barely teens and they sound young; the ideas and the themes in this novel, however, are anything but. The novel starts out quite innocently, but it goes down a very dark path, invites the reader to consider some equally dark ideas and you won’t come out the other end feeling even remotely hopeful about life.

Lies You Never Told Me – Jennifer Donaldson

Ohhh. This one got me.

Jennifer Donaldson’s YA mystery Lies You Never Told Me is a dual perspective narrative that should keep readers guessing until the end. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how Gabe’s story intertwined with Elyse’s.

Gabe and Sasha are their school’s power couple. Sasha is one of the Austin elite and Gabe is a Chicano skateboarder he knows Sasha’s parents don’t approve of even though he “grew up in the same bougie neighborhood [and] my mom’s family has been in the U.S. for generations. They’re old money. They could find any of a hundred reasons not to like me.”

But Gabe is actually a good guy. He’s a great big brother to his six-year-old sister, Vivi, who was born with Down syndrome. He does well enough in school, has a couple great friends and puts up with a lot from Sasha, who seems stuck up and high maintenance from the get go.

One night, leaving Sasha’s house on his skateboard, Gabe is hit by a car. The girl who finds him and calls 911 is a new girl at their school, Catherine, and Gabe is drawn to her in a way he can’t explain. When he can no longer deny his growing attraction to Catherine, he breaks up with Sasha, but she’s not having it. Sasha mounts a full on campaign to get Gabe back.

The other narrator is Elyse, a girl with her own troubles. Her mother is an addict and Elyse is just barely holding it together. She does her best to pay the bills and look after her mother, but she’s just fifteen and it’s hard.

When her best friend Brynn convinces her to try out for the school’s production of Romeo & Juliet, Elyse barely hesitates.

I can feel the change come over me as I recite the words. It always happens – or it happens when I’m focused, when I’ve found something in the role to love. My shoulders round forward, my mouth quirks upward into a wistful grin, and I slide into character with ease.

Elyse is convinced that Brynn is going to snag the lead, but when the new drama teacher, Mr. Hunter, awards the role of Juliet to Elyse, her life explodes with possibilities.

Donaldson skillfully weaves these two stories together, and even though none of the four main characters (Gabe, Sasha, Elyse and Catherine) necessarily interact with each other, your brain will work overtime trying to figure out what links them together. Lies You Never Told Me is a well-written YA mystery with lots of twists and characters you will like and loathe in equal measure.

This Is Our Story – Ashley Elston

I read a fair number of thrillers and mysteries. I love the propulsive nature of the plot, the twists and turns, and the hero/heroine in danger. It’s hard to write a thriller that keeps you guessing, unless the writer makes a complete 360 that leaves you shaking your head. Behind Her Eyes springs to mind. I love books with sinister underpinnings like Unspeakable Things or The Roanoke Girls.

Ashley Elston’s YA mystery This Is Our Story puts a lot of adult mysteries to shame, really. It’s the story of five best friends: Grant, Shep, Logan, Henry and John Michael. After a wild night of partying at John Michael’s father’s hunting lodge (these boys are all from wealthy families), Grant is dead.

One of us pulled the trigger, but we all played our own part in his death. They will find marks on Grant that don’t fit with an accidental shooting. They will find marks on us that shouldn’t be there either. The last twenty-four hours will have them talking about more than what happened during this early-morning hunt.

The remaining boys, known collectively as the River Point Boys, leave their fancy private school and enroll in the local public school, but Belle Terre, La is a small town where everyone knows everyone anyway.

Kate Marino attends this school and she is quietly devastated by Grant’s death as the two had been texting each other for weeks and had planned to meet at a party the night before Grant was killed. As part of her senior year, she’s interning at the District Attorney’s office, a job that mostly consists of boring filing, until her mother’s boss tasks her with taking photos, a skill she has honed during her time working for the school’s paper and yearbook.

The powers that be might have a vested interest sweeping this incident under the rug, but Kate is determined to get to the bottom of who killed her friend/potential more than friend. And then she discovers that maybe she didn’t know Grant at all.

I literally couldn’t put This Is Our Story down. Kate is a smart, mature narrator and she keeps digging through the clues, determined to get to the truth even when it seems like her personal safety might be at risk. The novel also uses an anonymous third person perspective – one of the River Point Boys – to give us some insight into what the group might be thinking. It’s impossible to work out which of the remaining four boys might be the culprit, though.

There are lots of twists and a few real surprises, too, and I took the book home with me so I could read the last 75 pages because I HAD TO KNOW.

This well-written, YA mystery is really awesome and I will certainly be looking for more books by this author.

Rosie & Skate – Beth Ann Bauman

Sisters Rosie, 15 and Skate, 16, share the narrative in Beth Ann Bauman’s YA novel Rosie & Skate. They live in a crumbling house on the Jersey Shore. Well, Rosie lives there with her cousin, Angie. Skate lives at her boyfriend’s house with his mother, Julia. The sisters’ father is currently in jail for committing petty crimes while under the influence. although Rosie insists that her father is “a nice drunk.”

Bauman’s novel follows the sisters as they navigate their relationship with their father (Rosie is hopeful and forgiving; Skate has given up on her father and doesn’t believe he will ever get better), and each other. Skate is clearly the more worldly of the two: her older boyfriend, Perry, is in his first year at Rutgers and Rosie hasn’t even been kissed. Over the course of a few weeks, though, each of the girls will encounter unforeseen challenges that will push them along the path to adulthood.

Rosie & Skate is one of those quiet books where not much happens, but it still feels packed. I suppose that’s because when you are a teenager everything feels momentous. Who is guiding these girls? Who can they turn to but each other when things go off the rails – as they so often have in their lives.

There are no bad actors in this novel, even Rosie and Skate’s dad is searching for answers as to why he can’t seem to stop drinking. Rosie and Skate have their own way of coping and they certainly make mistakes, but anyone who was ever a teenager will recognize themselves in some of the questionable decisions the sisters make.

Ultimately, though, Rosie & Skate is a hopeful book about family, particularly found family, and spending time with these sisters is time well-spent.

Alone – Cyn Balog

Cyn Balog’s YA novel Alone is the story of sixteen-year-old Seda who lives with her mother and four younger siblings in Bismarck-Chisholm House or, as she calls it, Bug House. Seda’s mother is a former Boston College professor who is currently writing a book, her father is MIA and her siblings are two sets of twins aged six and four. Seda was a twin, too, but her brother Sawyer was absorbed into her own body in the womb, or so says family lore.

For years Bug House was run as a “Murder” house, where patrons could stay in one of eighteen guest rooms and had the daylights scared out of them. It’s an isolated spot; the nearest store is twenty miles down the mountain. Seda, our narrator, laments the isolation, the loss of her life in Boston, her father’s disappearance from her life, her mother’s kookiness, the fact that there’s no cell service, and just the general creepiness of Bug House.

All that changes though when a freak snow storm ushers in a handful of strangers, three boys and two girls.

The other members of his group are beautiful, yes, but he – with his thick mop of hair spilling out of the openings of the hockey mask and big heavily-lidded brown eyes – is godly. He’s the kind that always gets it last and worst in slasher films, just before his smart and sassy girlfriend-heroine saves the day.

Alone amps up the creepy house narrative with an unreliable narrator, a house full of secrets and a scavenger hunt game that quickly goes off the rails. There’s enough twists and turns and things that go bump in the night to make any fan of horror movies or scary stories happy. I did find that it got off to a slow start, but once it got going it was an enjoyable page-turner.

The Missing Season – Gillian French

My first novel by YA writer Gillian French was The Lies They Tell and I loved it. The Missing Season was also a great read, especially the last third or so when the action ramped up.

Clara and her parents move to Pender, Maine, where her father has been hired to help with the demolition of the town’s paper mill. Clara is used to being the new girl, but she’s a senior now and hoping that maybe they could stay put.

Pender is a hick town, but it’s also a town with a seam of darkness running through it. For one, several teens have gone missing. Then, there’s the “Mumbler” a legendary boogey man.

Clara meets Bree and Sage, who introduce her to some other people who hang out at the local skate park including Sage’s boyfriend, the larger-than-life, Trace, and Kincaid, who has “the most incredible face.” It seems that life in Pender might be okay, until the attraction she feels for Kincaid turns out to be mutual and Bree’s feelings get hurt.

The Missing Season is really a teen drama wrapped up in a creepy All Hallows’ Eve package. Clara and her new friends get up to no good, but these are mostly harmless pranks. Clara tries to navigate the tricky waters of being the new girl, wanting desperately to be a part of something bigger than herself. Kincaid is secretive and despite their attraction, Clara never really knows what he’s really thinking. Ahhh, high school relationships.

When a girl on the periphery of their group goes missing, though, things start to get real. Maybe the warnings to “Fear Him” actually have some validity. About two thirds of the way in, when Clara suddenly finds herself in danger and another girl goes missing, The Missing Season really takes off. Clara is a likable heroine who demonstrates grit when needed, making her someone readers will surely root for.

It Sounded Better in My Head – Nina Kenwood

Nina Kenwood’s YA debut It Sounded Better in My Head wasn’t even on my radar when I recently picked it up at the bookstore. It was a William C. Morris Debut finalist and had excellent reviews from School Library Journal and Bookpage (I trust those sort of endorsements over author plugs, tbh) so I bought it. It might have languished with all the other unread books in my class library, but I picked it up to read and honestly couldn’t put it down.

Eighteen-year-old Australian, Natalie, is waiting for her university admission results and planning her future with her besties Zach and Lucy, when her parents announce that they are separating. Worse, they knew this was coming and had neglected to tell her for ten months. Some almost-adults might take this in their stride, but it knocks Natalie sideways because she likes solid plans and the status quo. That’s how her world works.

Or that’s how it has worked ever since she hit puberty and her body betrayed her.

I went from being a straight up-and-down stick figure to a scribble of hips, stomach, breasts, thighs and stretch marks. I didn’t even know stretch marks were a thing.

[…]

But the stretch marks were nothing compared with the pimples. A regular scattering of pimples at first, and then more, and more. Then pimples that turned, almost overnight, into deep, cystic acne. […] It’s gross. I was gross. I woke up thinking that every day for a long time.

I suspect we can all remember the awkwardness of being a teenager, of comparing yourself to others, and Natalie spends most of her early teens friendless and hiding out. At thirteen, she becomes “Reluctant Natalie. Anxious Natalie. Bitter Natalie. Neurotic Natalie.” At fifteen, though, after medication clears up her skin a little and her mother convinces her to attend a creative writing camp, she meets Lucy and Zach.

It’s still hard for Natalie to put herself out there, but all that is about to change when Zach’s older brother, Alex, and his friend, Owen, invite her to a party and Natalie surprises herself by accepting. When Alex and Natalie find themselves in a dark alley because of a game of Spin the Bottle, Natalie finds herself in uncharted water.

And the whole thing is sheer delight. Honestly, I loved Natalie. Let’s face it, it’s only as an adult looking back that your teen years seem even mildly awesome. The best years of your life, my ass. I suspect Natalie speaks for a whole bunch of teens who breathe a sigh of relief when Friday night rolls around. For Natalie it meant that she didn’t “have to go outside or see anyone other than [her] parents for the next two whole days.”

Over the course of just a few days, Natalie’s life is upended, but sometimes that’s what needs to happen in order to get the life you want.

Highly recommended.

The Great Godden – Meg Rosoff

Nothing much happens in Meg Rosoff’s latest novel The Great Godden. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say nothing happens. The novel is a quiet gut-punch rather than the wallop Rosoff packed with her novel How I Live Now, but it’s a fascinating character study and great read.

Two families spend time every summer on the Suffolk coast. There’s our unnamed narrator and their siblings Mattie, Tamsin and Alex and their parents. Then there’s Hope and Mal, who live in another little house on the property. Hope is the narrator’s father’s “much younger cousin”. This summer is disrupted by the arrival of Kit and Hugo Godden, sons of Hope’s godmother, Florence, Hollywood film star.

Our narrator’s gender is deliberately ambiguous and one of the delights of the novel is trying to suss out if they are male or female – although ultimately it doesn’t matter. Either way, the first time they see Kit Godden, as he unfolds himself from the back of his mother’s limo, they think

Kit Godden was something else – golden skin, thick auburn hair streaked with gold, hazel eyes flecked with gold – a kind of golden Greek statue of youth. […] In my memory he seems to glow. I can shut my eyes and see how he looked to us then, skin lit from within as if he’d spent hours absorbing sunlight only to slow release it back into the world.

Kit’s younger brother, Hugo, pales by comparison and the two brothers don’t seem to get along. Kit’s charm contrasts sharply with Hugo’s surly quiet. But as we all know, all that glitters in not gold.

The narrator watches as Kit’s attention focuses on the their younger (and beautiful) sister Mattie, and how “Within four seconds he had charmed her practically to death.” The narrator is also smitten, though. As the summer goes along, they watch Mattie coast on the romantic highs Kit offers, and also watch her shrink when Kit diverts his attention away from her. And that’s what Kit does: he’s a player and The Great Godden is a wonderful character study of how we take the shiny, pretty bauble at face-value.

The Great Godden is shot through with a vein of dread; we can see the potential for the train wreck a mile down the track, but we keep heading for it. That’s what the narrator does. One part of them doesn’t believe a thing that comes out of Kit’s mouth; the other part believes every word and the whole thing is fascinating.

This is a story which is told from some distant point, where the narrator has had time to reflect on that summer and it adds an air of melancholy to the story because the narrator realizes, in retrospect, exactly what was lost. I love books that do this. The plot unfolds in the moment, but the gaze is distant. The writing is straight-forward and clean and I gobbled the book up in a couple of sittings.

Meg Rosoff talks about the book here.

Punching the Air – Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam

I try to remember what I privileged position I inhabit when I read books like Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam. What can I, a white, middle-aged (I know, it’s a stretch to call me middle-aged), middle-class woman from Eastern Canada, really know about what it is to live in this world as a BIPOC? Nothing. It would be a stretch to even say that I have been discriminated against because I am female because if I have been, I haven’t really been aware of it.

I do think I have a responsibility, as an educator – sure – but also as a human being, to educate myself and expose myself to experiences that are unfamiliar to me. It’s not enough to hope that our children will be better humans than we are; we all have to do better.

Punching the Air is a novel-in-verse that tells the story of sixteen-year-old Amal Shahid, an artist and poet, who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, although he does admit that he “threw the first punch.” Turns out “…it wasn’t about/who threw the first punch/ It was about courts, turf, space/ Me and them other boys/ were just trying to go home”.

Jeremy, the white boy who gets hurt in the altercation is in a coma, and Amal ends up in a juvenile detention facility. He tries to work through his confusion and anger, but it isn’t easy. “I went from/kid to criminal to felon/to prisoner to inmate” and despite a supportive family he must navigate his new reality on his own.

Punching the Air tracks Amal’s time in the facility where he vacillates between hopelessness and hopefulness. Although he is not doing hard time with hardened criminals, juvie is still an unpleasant place. Amal tries to keep his head down. He goes to school. He does what is asked of him – mostly. But he’s a kid and the system is stacked against him and the weight of all those bricks of discrimination weigh heavy on him.

I read Punching the Air in an afternoon. Amal’s voice is clear as a bell. This experience, while fictional, comes from a place of truth. Yusef Salaam himself was convicted of a crime he did not commit when he was just fifteen. (Central Park Five) His experiences with a justice system that is clearly stacked against people of colour – and there is no one in their right mind who could dispute this – adds a layer of authenticity to Amal’s story. But even without Salaam’s experiences, this novel has much to contribute to the discussion and is a worthy addition to classroom and personal libraries. I will certainly be recommending it to my students.