American Street – Ibi Zoboi

death, diversity in YA, families, Female Leads, gay characters

Fabiola Toussaint and her mother are traveling from Haiti to America to join her aunt and cousins, but when Fabiola’s mother is held back by customs, Fabiola joins her cousins and aunt alone.  In Detroit, a city much different that Haiti, Fabiola tries to remember her mother’s guidance in a city where everything is different, her cousins act older than they should, and a mysterious stranger seems to be sending Fabiola messages.

She wants to gain her mother’s freedom, but without money or knowing how to find her once she’s been sent to New Jersey, Fabiola must turn to her cousins and friends in this new city.  Among them is Kasim, the cute boy who seems to prefer Fabiola’s natural hair and Haitian accent over the makeover and slang her cousins give and teach.  Only when a detective approaches Fabiola to assist them in a previous crime and offer to help her with the immigration process for her mother must Fabiola decide which family is more important: the life with her mother or the new love and family she has found with her cousins and Kasim.

It is often a difficult balance in trying to portray a group of people without falling into stereotypical traps in language or behavior, but this is a nice balance offered by Zoboi.  Fab’s cousins are mostly American in behavior and pretend to be strong, but when faced with challenges and fear, they fall into each other with the vulnerability that is only protected in the safely of siblings.  Stereotypes and strengths are gone and we see four young females from a different country trying to survive in a cruel world when they get swept up in greed and a new way of survival.

Fabiola’s experience with family, neighborhood criminals, her Haitian culture, and the need of her mother still detained by Immigration officials makes for a unique story of life in America, but be warned – drugs, crime, sex, death, and cussing.  Still, Fabiola (as well as some other finely created female characters) is smart, strong, and brave.  This is a new story, a strong story, and one worth sharing.


Spontaneous – Aaron Starmer

Best "best friends", Books Worth Crying Over, death, families, Female Leads, gay characters, love

Right when I think, “Where can YA books go next?  What will make a dystopia or a realistic fiction different?” I find my answer in Spontaneous: spontaneous combustion.

Yep, it’s just a normal day at high school when a student explodes in pre-calculus.  At first what seems an odd, freak accident causes everyone to pause and grieve for their loss when *kapow* (my words, not Starmer’s) another student explodes, splattering himself and blood all over classmates.  The FBI comes to investigate, but for Mara, she’d rather not try and figure out why this is happening, but wants to deny it – first with drugs, later with a boy named Dylan.  Through the year, an FBI investigation, a hashtag led night of vandalism, someone exploding in front of the [female] president, a brief reprise from spontaneous combustion, the senior class seems to survive with only the occasional explosion.  Mara’s focus on survival is set more on her best friend, Tess, and a new boyfriend, Dylan, who has a dangerous past. I’m not sure how teenagers exploding can still have a humorous tone, but this story does.  It also has a much deeper message behind the obvious plot.  From a recovering PTSD war verteran teacher to misfit teenagers finding common ground in their situation.  In the end differences are not what matter, but their common humanity does.

In a vulgar, ludicrous (often over-the-top with language or descriptions) storytelling, the heart of the story is exposed at the very end, on a prom night when the surviving senior class members all feel, and admit, they are to blame for the Covington Curse.  In reality, they are not, but isn’t that how teenagers internalize a problem?  By trying to explain both their role in an unfortunate experience and the reason why, they are lost and hurting. So while the premise is a bit over-the-top, the deep message of the story is as simple as it can be: love, loss, friendship, healing.  I’m not alone in praise, it’s in the works to be made into a movie.

In the end, I loved this for creativity and honesty with loss and coping mechanisms, even the unhealthy ones.  Self importance, grief, and anger are explained in a perfect teenage mind (Mara sometimes tries to trick the reader or asks us, taking a pause from the storyline, what we believe).  There are unanswered questions by the end, but Mara’s coping, growth, and hope at the end makes me happier than any answer.

Life is rough and we love, learn, grow.  People who like to read about a heartbreak and coping along the lines of Untwine, The Fault in Our Stars, and All the Bright Places, will find a sweet love story among best friends even among the bloody explosions.

“I am the same.  Through all this shit, I haven’t changed.  Not really. I love my parents.  I love my best friend.  I am capable of so much love.  Even if I am capable of so many other dark and strange feelings.  Maybe because of that fact.  I have thoughts.  I have opinions.  I have emotions that run the gamut.  They come on all of a sudden, and I will feel guilty about some of them, sure.  I will try to be better, of course.  But I can’t will it all away.  These things are me.” (page 347)

“I will do  more with the time I have but not because I’m afraid that the time I have is limited.  It may be a lot longer than I could ever expect, and I sure as hell don’t want to waste it brooding and worrying about my every little thought.” (page 351)

Final thoughts which leave me struggling about the book as whole for knowing your audience before recommending:

I’d be hesitant to recommend it to younger YA readers*.

The ending and last paragraph about sitting out the sunset made me cry.

A great book and a lesson how how to shape your overall outlook on life.

*I’m not a prude, but be wary of this one for language and a page and 1/2 sex scene.  Though I appreciate Starmer’s writing about safe sex with birth control and condom use, words typically avoided in YA books.

Out of Reach – Carrie Arcos

Award Nominee, families

Everyone Lies. Siblings often lie thinking they are helping or covering for their other sibling.  In this case, the lies lead to loss.  Not intentionally of course, but how often do we lie thinking of the snowball effect they will cause.  People often don’t think of the pain a lie will cause – simply because the pain wasn’t intentional.  But intentions aren’t what matters when the end result is the same.  In this story, the lies led to Micah’s downfall, disappearance, and a family searching for answers.

Rachel reflects on the beginning of Micah’s drug use and compares living with a lie as a tapeworm that isn’t removed from your life until it is physically removed from its host and she spends the entire novel trying to remove her symbolic tapeworm.

Rachel goes through guilt of her brother’s bad decisions and not telling her parents sooner that he was using drugs (the first time and when he began again), being angry at him for lying to them all, for leaving.  Soon her anger subsides to concern when she receives an anonymous email that Micah is in trouble. She enlists Micah’s best friend, Tyler, on a road trip in search for Micah.

  • Shock, denial, anger, responsibility and in the end she understands the necessity and coping in the ability to let go of what one cannot control (a note to myself since my next article for The Hub is about loss, grief, and bibliotherapy in YA fiction.)

The novel’s entirety is less than a 36 hour weekend, but the flashbacks provide a detailed telling of Micah’s destructive downfall.  Tyler helps Rachel look for Micah and come across various misfits, drug users, and concerned friends. Rachel comes to terms that her brother’s choices were not anything she could control or wish for a different outcome and there is some closure at the end – but not the closure she had hoped.  An important undertone of the story is also how Micah’s spiral from a regular teenager to a runaway, drug addict affects those around him, an element that even with the darkness of this book a lot of teens would benefit to witness.  In the words of Stephen Sondheim, “You are not along” and all of our actions affect those nearest to us.

National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature (2012)

H2O – Virginia Bergin



It begins outside of London with a bunch of friends drinking at a party and many in the hot tub.  That’s the most “YA” upper age thing – besides all the blood and death, but know it begins with making out in a hot tub.

An outbreak overseas has made its way to Europe and by the time they realize the disease is in the rain, it is too late.  In a matter of days, Ruby has gone from making out with her crush in a hot tub to traveling alone and no longer remembering how many dead bodies she has seen.  As she begins living fearful of rain, neighbors, and all water those first few days after the first deadly rain, it becomes clear that her village outside of London is alone.  And soon Ruby is alone.

Lots of action, very gory and descriptive.  A great story, but probably best for the older readers of YA due to the violent, bloody, flesh scratching way people die…. and the smell and decay that is mentioned throughout the story.   There are some comical parts – when Ruby uses self tanner by candlelight and her rescue of neighborhood dogs, but there are passages that are borderline science fiction end-of-days and lonely passages of Ruby’s personal thoughts or memories of her mom and baby brother.

Sequel (UK title) – The Storm

Sweet – Emmy Laybourne

Action, death, Favorites, Female Leads

Celebrities and overweight people are on a cruise with a special, new, dietary aid.  Solu is a sweetener to put on your food, in coffee, or cook with, and it will help people lose weight – or at least that is the stipulation for this expensive PR 24/7 event.  Its introduction is a week long cruise, with press, celebrities, and average people (well, those that can afford it) being televised over satellite before Solu is released to the public 7 days later.

The story has dual narrators – Laurel who is along with her best friend.  Both girls are slightly overweight and while Laurel is not there to lose weight her best friend Viv is.  Viv’s dad paid for the girls to go on this cruise hosted by Tom, our second narrator.  Tom is a reality star who is famous for his years of being overweight child Tom-Tom to a televised audience.  Now in shape, Tom doesn’t care to take Solu and neither does Laurel.  The foreshadowing that they will not only witness the effects of Solu, but then have to try and survive isolated on this ship is clear, but just like Monument 14 – Emmy Laybourne keeps on delivering twists to the plot and crazy gruesome details of injuries and death.  I love her books, but I do recommend them with caution and often only to older readers.

I can’t give much more detail to the story itself without giving a lot away.  There’s a love connection, a corrupt scientist, and a whole lot of addicts who being to resemble zombies or brainwashed people losing all inhibitions and fear.  Parts seem to be more zombie-esque than survivalist, but it’s full of action –  and funny at times even when people are going crazy, which is a pretty impressive balance to pull off.

Love Letters to the Dead – Ava Dellaira

Award Nominee, death, families, Female Leads


For a school assignment, 15 year old Laurel is instructed to write a letter to a dead person.  Instead of choosing her hero, recently deceased older sister, she opts for various celebrities: Kurt Cobain, Judy Garland, Amelia Earheart, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger.  In between her letters to the dead – some praising them, some thinking aloud – we follow her days in a new school, bouncing between the house of her dad and her aunt, and her struggle to fit in and make friends while still under the shadow of her sister.

It’s not very depressing or sad at the beginning. In fact, it seems fluff at first.  The most entertaining parts (for me) were learning about the backgrounds of Kurt Cobain and Judy Garland.  Laurel gives lots of history in her letters to bond or share similarities with these dead celebrities, so there’s a bit of nonfiction to their biographies.  In real life, her friends at school are all misfits: secret lesbians, smart girl dating the “doesn’t apply himself” boy, and the crush with a bad history.

Like most teens with a tragedy behind them, Laurel blames herself for May’s death.  As she writes her letters to the dead, her truth comes out: abuse and self blame.

The only real star quality of this book is that in losing her sister, Laurel appreciates life.  This isn’t a great piece of literature or doesn’t have a shocking climax.  For an overly dramatic teen or one who loves these musicians or celebrities (or someone who thinks their journal writing is the most significant writing out there) a teen will enjoy the book.

Sadly, most adults reading this YA won’t feel like they found a new “hit”, but will simply be reminded of their own high school, overly dramatic and self important, days.

But, Laurel grows to be stronger.  So there’s a conclusion, still….not the next big hit.  But for a teen who struggles, he/she may find some connection. To me, it’s just aimed at whiny, self-important preteens.

Due to the sexual abuse, death, and alcohol use —- still 14 and up.

The Program by Suzanne Young

death, Dystopian, families, Favorites, love, suicide


Teens + suicide epidemic = The Program

When suicides among teenagers continuously increases, the government – with the support of parents – created The Program.  For Sloane The Program is a place that steals her friends’ memories and returns them as strangers because once you are in The Program, your sad memories are erased in an effort to keep teenagers from getting depressed.  Sloan hides her feelings well, even though people watch her more closely than others since her brother committed suicide.  There is one person who she can be honest with and that is her boyfriend James – her brother’s best friend.  Together they grieve, they hide their true emotions from others, but soon the depression gets too strong for them and they are taken into The Program.

The book is divided into three parts: Before Sloane and James are taken into The Program, Sloane and James in The Program, and then once they are returned to their families.  The plot takes a serious turn in the second part as Sloane tries to survive her time in The Program.  Like an medical institution when the doctors believe the patients are a danger to themselves, certain restrictions apply.  Sloan does find one friend – and one enemy.  As she learns more about The Program she finds out there is a pill that will help you hold onto one memory even if in The Program.  Unfortunately the one keeping this pill from her is only willing to give it to her after she gives in to his advances.

In the third part, and conclusion, Sloane and James are assimilated back into their lives outside of The Program.  Only, like other patients, they do not remember a lot of their past.  And most upsetting is James does not remember Sloane.  There are a few more plot twists along the way, such as the true cause of The Program, but the remainder of the book is focused on whether James will get his memories back and remember his love for Sloan.

Other elements: drugs, sex, (obviously) depression and suicide

Best for ages 13 +

The Sequel: The Treatment