Long Way Down – Jason Reynolds

long-way-down_1_origIt’s hard to wrap my head around gun violence as it exists in the U.S. My dad had a couple hunting rifles when I was a kid, but I don’t recall ever seeing them. No one I know has a gun in their bedside drawer…just in case. When I wrote a review for This Is Where It Ends a few months back, I tracked down some  stats about school shootings in Canada versus the U.S. and the disparity between our two countries is staggering.

Award-winning author Jason Reynolds addresses the issue of gun violence in his novel Long Way Down. Written in verse, the novel follows the aftermath of a shooting in which the narrator, 15-year-old Will, struggles to come to terms with the shooting death of his older brother, Shawn.

“The Sadness/is just so hard/to explain,” Will tells us. “Imagine waking up/ and someone,/ a stranger,/ got you strapped down,/ got pliers shoved/ into your mouth,/ gripping a tooth/…and rips it out./ But the worst part,/ the absolute worst part,/ is the constant slipping/ of your tongue/ into the new empty space,/ where you know/ a tooth supposed to be/ but ain’t no more.”

Will has clearly grown up in a neighbourhood where gun violence is a way of life. When they hear a gun everyone “Did what we’ve all/ been trained to do.”  And after the shooting, there are yet more rules to follow: 1. No crying. 2. No snitching. 3. Get revenge.

That’s what Will is after and he knows where Shawn keeps his gun. He thinks he knows who shot his brother, too, and he is headed there when something astonishing happens.

“…I’m telling you,/ this story is true./ It happened to me./ Really.”

Will gets onto the elevator in his apartment building, and the elevator stops at every floor on the way down. At each stop,  Will is joined by a ghost, someone connected to him, someone whose life was also ended by a bullet. As the elevator descends, each spirit shares their story, compelling stories of lives cut short, accidental deaths, and the horrific consequences of choices made.

Just because I have no experience with guns, doesn’t mean I am not affected by gun violence. I am about as anti-gun as a person can be, but Reynolds’ novel goes far beyond that. It’s a philosophical book about the deep roots of violence, the tentacles (sorry, I am mixing my metaphors here) of which reach out into the community in ways that are probably impossible for a white middle-aged mom in Canada to understand.  All I know is that when I finished reading Long Way Down  I felt hollowed out.

Complacency is not an option. Reynolds’ novel should be required reading for everyone.

White Rabbit – Caleb Roehrig

white rabbitRufus Holt is having a really fucking bad day. I use the expletive because, well, there’s a lot of F-bombs in Caleb Roehrig’s YA mystery White Rabbit. I’m not a prude by any stretch, but I have to admit that by the end of the novel I was getting a little tired of all the swearing. Surely teenagers as smart as the ones who populate Roehrig’s world would have the vocabularies to match.

But, really, that’s just a niggle. Overall, Roehrig has written a tightly plotted and well-written (I know what I said, it’s still a well-written book!) mystery.

Sixteen-year-old Rufus has just received a call from his half-sister April. He’s pissed because his ex-boyfriend, the handsome and thoughtful Sebastian, has just hauled him out of the 4th of July party they were attending to “talk.” But then, April tells Rufus that she’s in trouble and needs his help.

Rufus’s relationship with April is somewhat contentious. Her father is his father, but Rufus is the black sheep. His father is never anything but cruel to Rufus. His relationship with his older brother, Hayden, is downright abusive. But when April calls, Rufus feels obligated to help. What he discovers is his sister, whacked out of it,  sitting in a puddle of her boyfriend Fox Whitney’s blood surrounded by White Rabbits, “a designer drug known to cause euphoria, heightened sensory perception, and hallucinations.” But “the pills have also been linked, notoriously, to acts of extreme violence.”  April swears she didn’t kill Fox and begs Rufus to help her.

Rufus and Sebastian spend the rest of the book trying to prove April’s innocence by visiting the other people who’d attended the same party. Rufus has never been a part of the “IT” crowd, but one of the party attendees is Lia, Sebastian’s ex-girlfriend. Sebastian insists that he’s not leaving Rufus, and besides he has the car.

White Rabbit  is a carefully plotted mystery. The characters are, generally speaking, awful people – with the exception of Rufus (despite his potty mouth) and Sebastian. As the boys try to get answers to clear April’s name (and there is a financial incentive for Rufus to take on this mostly thankless task), they are lied to, shot at, chased with cars. While they try to figure out whodunit, Rufus and Sebastian also try to navigate their feelings for one another. There are red herrings galore and people with nefarious motives, but all of it makes for page-turning fun.

 

 

Paperback Crush – Gabrielle Moss

paperbackI couldn’t resist picking up Paperback Crush,  a colourful, sometimes snarky look at the Young Adult fiction published in the 1980s and 90s. Author Gabrielle Moss say that the book is “here to honor the young adult lit published after Judy Blume but before J.K. Rowling.” Those decades produced more YA than the previous decades, but the quality, I suspect, wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from modern YA. And I read a lot of YA.

It’s a hotly debated subject (okay, maybe not hotly): what’s the first YA book?

…experts don’t agree on exactly when [YA] dawned. Books from the original 1930s Nancy Drew stories to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1932 book Little House in the Big Woods  to the 1936 novel Sue Barton, Student Nurse by Helen Dore Boylston have all been held up as the first-ever YA novel

I like to think that S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders  is the first true example of YA, a story written expressly for young people, but according to Young Adult Library Services Association president Michael Cart YA “all started with Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer.” I actually have vague memories of reading that book, but my memories of reading The Outsiders and Hinton’s follow-up That Was Then, This is Now  are seared into my adolescent memory.

Moss tracks the trends in YA, everything from first love and love-gone-wrong to sick lit and paranormal romance. She examines teenage jobs (babysitters and camp counselors); friendships (bffs and frenemies); family (siblings and cousins and evil step-parents).  She looks at specific books and authors, flagging the more famous titles with passive-aggressive admiration (Wakefield twins!)

I wasn’t reading a lot of YA lit in the 80s and 90s, but I am a reader, so I was at least familiar with 80% of the literature Moss mentioned. I mean, you would have had to be living on another planet not to know Sweet Valley High  or The Baby-Sitters Club [sic]. I enjoyed reading about these books, and often found Moss’s commentary laugh-out-loud funny.

Literature from this time period was not without its issues. As Moss points out “a lot of these books centered on the stories of white rich thin heterosexual women with naturally straight hair.” But no matter. For better or worse “They validated girls’ stories by putting them to paper….”

I came of age in the 1970s, but as a teacher I enjoyed Paperback Crush.  It is pure nostalgia. Although I am just a bit older than the book’s target demographic, I too remember the joys of the Scholastic flyer, and the thrill of choosing my own books to read. Many of the titles mentioned caused a flood of memories. If books were a part of your life, this one will give you all the feels.

this is where it ends – Marieke Nijkamp

Columbine. Newtown. Parkland. The fact that we know these towns because of the school shootings that happened there is shocking. According to Everytown there have been 302 school shootings in America since 2013. True, not all of these incidents have resulted in death, but the fact that someone brought a gun into a school is pretty horrifying.

For comparisons sake, there have been seven school shootings in Canada with a total of 28 fatalities. (And I’m not talking since 2013, I’m talking in total.) The first happened at a high school in Brampton in 1975. The worst happened at École Polytechnique in 1989 where 14 women were killed. The most recent happened in La Loche, Saskatchewan in 2016 where four people were killed and seven were injured.

I know that guns (and gun control and 2nd amendment rights) are a contentious bowl of soup, but, people! Seriously.

thisiswhereMarieke Nijkamp tackles gun violence in her compelling (and heartbreaking) YA novel this is where it ends.

Four narrators tell the story of what happens when a student locks the entire student body (almost) into the gym and starts shooting.

There’s Claire, a senior track star who isn’t in the gym because she’s training for an upcoming track meet.

There’s Autumn, a dancer who can’t wait to blow her popsicle stand of a town, a backwater named – ironically – Opportunity.

There’s Sylv, a girl who would sacrifice anything to keep those she loves safe, including Autumn.

And there’s Tomas, Sylv’s twin, who is breaking into the principal’s office with his friend Fareed when the chaos start.

What do these four people have in common? That would be Tyler, Autumn’s brother, a beautiful but damaged boy who clearly feels he has nothing left to care about. But really, Ty’s motives for shooting up the school don’t matter, really. The terror is real. The violence is real.

The action of the novel takes place over the course of 54 minutes. In that time, we come to understand how these five students are connected. We also learn about their hopes and dreams; we see their bravery and their fear; we root for them and we mourn with them. It’s pretty compelling stuff especially now when school shootings seem to be happening with alarming regularity.

Nijkamp was smart to let us into these character’s heads. They reveal secrets they’ve kept from each other – mostly out of love. They admit to weaknesses and also dig deep for reserves of bravery and strength. And, they even find compassion.

“Grief is one big, gaping hole, isn’t it?” Sylv says to Ty.

I don’t know if he hears me, but my words are as much for myself as for him. “It’s everywhere and all consuming. Some days you think you can’t go on because the only thing waiting for you is more despair. Some days you don’t want to go on because it’s easier to give up than to get hurt again.

this is where it ends is a timely book with an important message.

 

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda – Becky Albertalli

simonBecky Albertalli’s YA novel Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda won the William C. Morris Debut Award, but the accolades don’t stop there. The book has been praised or recognized by everyone from ALA, Carnegie, Oprah and Lambda. Although this book has been on my shelf for a couple years, as soon as I knew the movie was coming out – I knew I had to read it…and I am soooo sorry I waited so long.

Simon is a junior in high school. He lives with his younger sister, Nora, and his parents. His older sister, Alice, is away at college.

Simon is all kinds of awesome. He’s funny, self-aware, smart and gay. The problem is that he hasn’t told anyone yet – about being gay. Everyone knows the other stuff. Well, there’s one person who knows Simon’s secret. His name is Blue. He and Simon have been exchanging emails and those emails are what set Simon’s story in motion. When he forgets to log out of his Gmail account at school, another kid, Martin, sees the emails and uses them to blackmail Simon into helping him hook up with one of Simon’s friends, Abby. It’s kind of a ridiculous premise, really, but let’s remember the cesspool that is high school.

…the whole coming out thing doesn’t really scare me.

I don’t think it scares me.

It’s a giant holy box of awkwardness, and I won’t pretend I’m looking forward to it But it probably wouldn’t be the end of the world. Not for me.

Simon’s blackmailer is “a little bit of a goober nerd”, but Simon doesn’t want to out Blue and so he does his level best to match make, but the problem is that Abby likes someone else, Nick, who is one of Simon’s best friends. And then there’s Leah, Simon’s other bestie, who may have feelings for Nick herself. It’s a tangled web, but maneuvering through these relationships is part of the high school experience.

Watching Simon and Blue’s relationship unfold via their emails is really beautiful. Despite attending the same school, they don’t know each other’s true identity and so they speak freely about their insecurities and hopes. They fall in love without meeting and, I have to say, it’s pretty damn romantic.

The other awesome thing about Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda is that it’s funny. Like laugh-out-loud funny. And also heart-felt without being schmaltzy. Even Martin has his moment of redemption. There are no bad guys in the story, but there are plenty of opportunities to learn (sans didactics).

…people really are like houses with vast rooms and tiny windows. And maybe it’s a good thing, the way we never stop surprising each other.

High recommended.

//players.brightcove.net/823022174001/0de3ded5-8290-49c7-b25d-fcddec46dfb3_default/index.html?videoId=5713014172001

Stronger Than You Know – Jolene Perry

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.

 

 

That Was Then, This Is Now – S.E. Hinton

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.