A Time to Dane – Padma Venkatraman

diversity in YA, novel in verse, religious

Veda is a trained prodigy in bharatanatyam dance.  In India, she is well respected as a skilled dancer.  When a bus accident results in the partial amputation of her leg, she not only loses the ability to dance, but also her connection to the story of the dance and its significance to her culture.

Trying to overcome the unfairness of the accident is only part of her struggle, she must learn that her identity as a dancer must change or disappear altogether.  Knowing dance is in her heart, she finds strength to not only begin dancing using her prosthetic leg, but to begin many aspects of her life again.  Helping her along is her lovely grandmother who has supported Veda in dance and life and Jim, the American doctor who fixes and teaches Veda how to use her new leg.  Veda is strong and resilient and when her dance teacher refuses to continue teaching her, she finds another dance teacher who isn’t put off by her disability.  In fact, it’s at this new studio where she meets Govinda, a young dancer and dance teacher, who treats Veda as an artist.

This is a story about more than dance, but the spirituality of dance cannot be ignored.  It’s as important to the story as any character.  This is a beautiful novel about healing the mind, body, and spirit.

Everywhere in Everything

Everywhere, in everything, I used to hear music.                                                                        …

in the scents of cumin, coriander, and red chili.                                                                   Wrap my arms around Paati’s plush body.                                                                                   At night I’d hear music                                                                                                                         in the buzz of hungry mosquitoes                                                                                           swarming outside my mosquito net, …

In the grey-green hospital room                                                                                                 silence                                                                                                                                         stretches.                                                                                                                                      (42-43)

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Holding Up the Universe – Jennifer Niven

diversity in YA, families, Favorites, gay characters

Jennifer Niven continues to bring together two unlikely people with the characters of Libby Strout (the fattest teen in America) and Jack Masselin, who cannot recognizes faces.  After years of Libby being home-bound (and losing hundreds of pounds) she reenters the world of public school, years after she had to be removed from her house by a crane.  Libby has overcome her mother’s death and faces high school bravely and with a fierce sense of humor.  Jack, always trying to fit in with those around him so that they don’t notice his moments of confusion at not recognizing his friends, remembers Libby from the night her house was taken apart so that an overweight girl could be lifted from it.

Now in high school, Jack gets caught up in a cruel game of ‘fat girl rodeo’ and he and Libby are linked together beginning with the prank and ending with group sessions and community service.  Libby is brave throughout the story, hardly letting teasing affect her.  She dances, has a quick wit, and knows people have seen the news story of her years ago, but doesn’t let it define her.  Soon she is also the only one Jack has confided into about his Prosopagnosia disorder.  An unlikely friendship for sure, but it is one with humor and support.

“We’re all weird and damaged in our own way. You’re not the only one.”

In the bravest move Libby could imagine, she proves to students – and herself – that she IS wanted, that everyone has insecurities, and that she is alive and present.  She encourages everyone to be proud of themselves and dance!  With a unique challenge/diagnosis pairing, the plot is original and really focuses on being true to yourself and loving what makes you – You!  There is a lot of cussing in this one though which is why I have it as 14 or over.


I kept thinking of the title and wondered if ‘holding up the universe’ was the weight on Libby’s shoulders, or thinking back to her substantial weight gain after her mother’s death, but finally I think it’s about how everyone is connected.  It’s a collective togetherness.

On a side note

– there is some backlash on the internet about Niven’s portrayal of obesity and the few moments Libby doubts her worth.  Instead of focusing on those fictional thoughts, the more significant portrayal of Libby is one who is fiercely strong, funny, kind, brave, and happy.  In the letter she writes to everyone/anyone, she gives worth to everyone, no matter their intelligence, size, race, or skill.  Some also think her portrayal of a cognitive disorder is romanticizing mental defects and focuses too severely on prosopagnosia.  Niven always researches for her books and writes in a respectful, profound, and delicate way.  I’m sure, like every disorder there is a range of severity, and she focused on Jack’s as severe.  As always though, this is fiction.  Enjoy fiction and know the overall tone is one of kindness, being true to yourself, and seeing past the labels of high school.

As always, I love Jennifer Niven and find her writing beautiful and that the story is always worth reading.

“Dear friend, You are not a freak. You are wanted. You are necessary. You are the only you there is. Don’t be afraid to leave the castle. It’s a great big world out there. Love, a fellow reader”

Faceless – Alyssa B. Sheinmel

Books Worth Crying Over, families, Favorites, Female Leads

Maisie, on a morning jog, becomes the victim of a freak accident.  Lightening strikes a tree causing a large branch to fall on electrical wires and Maisie is severely burned.  She does not remember the event, but wakes in the hospital after being in a medically induced coma.  Before the accident she was looking forward to Junior Prom, her jogs, and trying to ignore her fighting parents.  Now, waking months after the accident her injuries are worse than 3rd degree burns.  With half of her face gone, bones missing, and bandages along the left side of her body, Maisie’s life is altered forever.

With the possibility of a partial face transplant, Maisie must face (no pun intended) if moving on means moving on without the face she has known.  Can she return to her old life, but with a new face?  The transplant would possibly allow her to smell, taste, and feel the skin on her face, which is what she wants, but the thought of someone else’s face staring back in a reflection might be more difficult than healing physically.

As Maisie struggles to adjust both in the new flesh and immerse herself back into the high school setting, she begins a dangerous self-medication, or rather not-medicating.  On top of her own thoughts, she also overhears the opinions of her classmates and boyfriend Chirag who are struggling with the “new” Maisie as well.  As physical therapy continues, Maisie also goes to a support group with people coping with their physical ailments.  There she meets Adam who never knew the “old” Maisie.  And in Group, Maisie finally finds people who can understand what she is going through.

“You have to learn to love yourself before you can love someone else. Because it’s only when we love ourselves that we feel worthy of someone else’s love.”

The struggles, insecurities, and anger are truthful and beautifully written.  Maisie’s inner thoughts are honest and real, even once she has finished mourning her loss.  She has a few moments when she is able to joke and laugh again.  The process of healing (or even not healing) is long and different for everyone (as shown by people in her support group) and Sheinmel covers it with care, respect, and realistically.  With the whole last section focused on processing information, it being OK to be angry, resentfulness, jealous, and mad at the world, there is precious time given to the process of understanding and the psychological aspects of healing.  Maisie constantly refers to her current life as “Maisie 2.0” since she is no longer who she was. But, as the character Adam says, (paraphrasing), life continues to move and experiences shape you, whether old Maisie or 2.0 Maisie were here.  The fact is YOU are here and what will YOU do?

This is a beautiful story.  A top favorite like All The Bright Places.

 

The War That Saved My Life -Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Award Nominee, families, period pieces, Safe Bets, Young Readers

This is a great historical fiction about the beginning of World War II when Ada and her brother are sent from London to the countryside of Kent with other evacuee children.  The story begins with Ada’s difficult life in London and her transition not only to country life, but also to a life of kindness, education, and love.

Ada is a ten year old, well maybe ten – the truth is her life in London is difficult and her mother not only is cruel to Ada, but does not even tell the poor girl know her birthday.  Ada was born with a twisted foot and her mother has kept her held up in their one room flat due to shame and ignorance.  When Ada learns from her little brother Jamie that children are being sent to the countryside she is determined to learn how to walk so that she can travel with her brother.  Once they arrive at Kent, they are the last children left to be chosen.  When they are placed with Susan, an education, but single woman in the village, they all must learn what it means to live as a temporary family.

Ada and Jamie rely on each other and through new experiences of country life, community, and love of two new pets, and curious ambition, they adapt to a new life.  As Hitler invades Europe, their oasis in Kent begins to suffer wartime hardships.  Susan helps Ada become a typical child and once they are told that Ada’s foot could be surgically fixed, Susan is sure that Ada’s mother will consent.  War looms, bombs become a daily occurrence, still it is the looming presence of a cruel birth mother that haunts Ada.  How long will she and Jamie get to stay in their new home?  Will Hitler’s armies reach Kent?  And will Ada finally get the medical treatment she deserves or will the cruel nature of her mom return to claim her children and lock Ada up in the one room flat?  Now that Ada has experienced friendship and love and the prospect of a future, does she even want her mom to come for her?

This is a story of how strangers come together and form a family, all saving the other’s and lead to living a better, more fulfilled life of love and joy.


Newbery Honor (2016),  Schneider Family Book Award for Middle School (2016), Odyssey Award (2016), Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee (2017)

The Distance Between Lost and Found – Kathryn Holmes

Action, religious, Young Readers

If ever there was a metaphor, this title is the icing on the cake (get it?)

In all seriousness, Hallie (Hallelujah) is dealing with a deep secret and some serious isolation and bullying.  On a youth group trip, the story begins reliving the last 6 months of Hallie’s life as well as the current predicament of trying to both be invisible and also how to stand her ground towards the cause of her troubles – Luke.  She explains early on to a newcomer Rachel, that Luke didn’t raper her, but while you read you wonder what could have done to her besides that which led to rumors resulting in her friends abandoning her, her parents distrusting her, and her inner anxiety and self of irrelevancy that removed her voice, both figuratively and literally (the singing voice, that is).

On the day of a 12 mile hike with her youth group, Hallie finds herself with Rachel, both willing to lose the group and be reprimanded with being sent home.  Only they, and a once-friend, now foe Jonah, end up isolated from the group and lost in the woods ….. for days.  As the rain pours down and their energy bars soggy, the threesome realize their own damaging pasts and guilt, but know for the sake of survival they must focus as a team.  Hallie and Jonah face their past when his friendship abandoned her and together the three of them try to survive the nights and days lost in the woods.

I liked the premise, but it got a  little religious for me and my YA typical reading.  I think it’s fair to believe teenagers have these questions of when God is present, when he is not, how bad things happen, etc.  But it was a bit overkill for me.  I believe the character growth, forgiveness, and facing fear (as well as beauty in nature – yes, even on their 5th day lost, really…..) could have been covered with a little less focus on spirituality, but some may dig it.  I imagine preteens or parents of who want certain behavior from children and want them to be devout would enjoy the book.  I really liked the three friends coming together and finally Hallie stands up for herself once rescued.  But I feel the adventure and survivalist plot was overshadowed by the religious conversations.  Still, teenagers could all learn some to focus on treating people kindly and also on the skill of forgiveness so maybe I’m reading too much into this plot [get it?  another pun …. “reading into it” and it’s a novel, ha].

 

 

Court of Fives – Kate Elliott

Authors, Award Nominee, families, Favorites, Female Leads, Series

The intro is part Game of Thrones, Shakespeare, and mystery – sign me up!

Five sisters, one of which is Jessamy, a strong willed daughter who seeks adventure and freedom, are prim and proper born to a family rising in power and expected to behave as the highborn.  Since her father was born poor, but whose status has elevated due to his career and her mother is a commoner (who her father cannot marry!) the daughters are constantly insulted and considered commoner’s in their family’s new elevated status.  They are not the same as highborn, yet they are not commoners.  If this wasn’t challenging enough, Jessamy is a free spirit who wants to compete in the games of the Court of Fives.

The Fives is part gladiator games and part Ninja Warrior with alternating challenges of strength and flexibility.  The contestants can be anyone who can afford the entry fee and they are masked so identities are unknown.  Jessamy finds a way to enter, but she knows she must lose for winning would bring shame to her father and family – and they already have enough obstacles against them.  Once her secret is discovered, by a fellow highborn contender, her life gets even more complicated.   As Jessamy struggles with her want to compete, she must fight the urge of The Fives, but also with the want to see the boy she cannot.

When a death causes a life twist to Jessamy and her sisters, she both gets what she’s always wanted and also what she’s always feared – how does she choose between her dream and her personal freedom or her devotion to her family?

This is action, entertainment, character growth, and facing how allegiances made from the strangest of partners can be the strongest of partners [see, Shakespearean]. The writing is both old fashioned and beautiful, similarly as Jane Austen or other period pieces.  I have a new insult: “Your argument is a sieve that cannot hold water”

There are plenty of twists, dangers to overcome, but mostly Jess learns that decisions aren’t always clear and even after made, sometimes there was no choice at all, but an unfortunate ending to those who do not control their own lives.


Series continues with: Poisoned Blade and a 3rd untitled.

Ask the Passengers – A. S. King

Award Nominee, diversity in YA, families, Female Leads, gay characters, love

No one is perfect.

There are sort of three stories in one with this novel, which takes a little bit to get really into but it’s worth the wait. First, is the narration of Astrid Jones’ 17 year old life.  Her family moved to a small town from New York after her mom decided to buy the old family estate.  The mom is a piece of work, judgmental, favors Astrid’s younger sister so openly to serve her alcohol, take her on “mommy dates”, and favor any moment spent with her ignoring Astid for similar things.  Her sister is more small town minded than Astrid and focuses on what her schoolmates think.  Then the dad is clearly unhappy in a dull job and avoids his passive aggressive wife by smoking pot.  Astrid is also secretly trying to figure out if she’s gay and afraid to let anyone know.  Oh, she also helps keep the cover up of the perfect “it” couple at school, Christina and Justin (who are both gay, but pretend to be dating).

The second aspect of this story is when Astrid lays on her picnic table in the backyard and imagines the lives of passengers as planes fly above her.  We are given little mini-stories of passengers as Astrid imagines who is in the planes.  But in a touching way for a girl who receives no real love at home, she passes love to these strangers thousands of feet above her whose lives she imagines.  She doesn’t want to keep all of her love since she doesn’t feel she needs it all, but in a full circle at the end, it is Astrid who receives love.

The last part is actually quite funny.  It helps to offset the homophobic slurs that eventually get said and the sad lack of a mother-daughter relationship that Astrid wants, but doesn’t have.  Astrid is in a humanities class studying philosophers and she’s decided to take her appreciation of Socrates by imagining “Frank” Socrates and how he’d react to her life.    As she discusses Plato’s  Allegory of the Cave, she eventually compares those cavemen who want to stay living in the shadows to that of her close-minded classmates, and even her own sister who refuses to branch out from their mother’s favoritism to be an independent thinker.

cave

This is definitely a novel for older readers, not because of the many gay characters (who most are still in the closet other than their friendship), but due to the cussing.  There is a lot of cussing.  Once Astrid and her friends are outed (a raid on the gay bar in the city) prejudice and stereotypes become more apparent in their high school and Astrid not only has to struggle with the small minded hatred, she has to decide whether to tell her parents the truth.  She questions her arousal to Dee, her openly out female coworker and girlfriend.  There are great points made in this book about trying to find the truth and what people actually need to be honest and happy.  Even from her judgment mom, Claire, Astrid is told being gay isn’t a choice, you’re either born gay or straight.  While Claire hates how the gossip affects her and is not a warm mother to her eldest daughter, King has this otherwise bad mother say a loving comment which offers overall support, even if her daily actions are contradictory.

In the end a big discussion on labels and placing people in boxes to try to categorize them is the point – and being true to yourself.   With the humanities project of arguing paradoxes, Astrid argues against the idea of perfection and proves her point that no one is perfect, not her overcritical mother, her best friends, or passengers that fly over her house.  Everyone is simply trying to live and she sends love to them, but decides to keep some for herself as well.

 

Lost Girl Found – Leah Bassoff and Laura DeLuca

Uncategorized

lost

This is another title I am reading since I’m on a selection committee for an award.  Not my regular YA dystopian.

This is story of an African child living in her village until the soldiers come – and then she must run….and survive.  She continues running – running away from her village; running to (and later from) the refugee camp; then running toward her future.  So it’s similar to Caminar  in that it talks about a child fleeing the village in Africa due to war, but this is not in verse and it is from a girl’s perspective. It’s a bit more real too.

Poni is a child and the story beings with her friend becoming a child-bride.  Within the first two chapters, we see how life is hard and not fair for women in her village.  Daily life continues for a couple of chapters then there is a bombing in the middle of the night which causes Poni to run and flee with various people from her village.  As days, and possibly weeks pass, the walk these villagers take to the next village is difficult and many die.  Finally, they reach the next village and the United Nations workers, but life in Africa is not any easier.

While Caminar focuses on one boy’s ability to survive in the wilderness, Poni must survive in a Refugee Camp.  It’s not a nice situation and I would not recommend this book for any pre-teen.  While I love a strong ‘overcome hardships’ and a strong female character, especially a child – the image of a mom running from bombs with a headless child on her back, a rape that happens in front of Poni’s eyes against a child, starving adults and children who die along the walk through the dessert, child bride who dies in childbirth, and all the death that surrounds her….. these points of the story made me bothered, and I’m an adult.

The authors have experience working with the Sudanese and I don’t doubt these stories occurred, but for a lesson in war, refugee camps, African history, girl empowerment, I’d go elsewhere for a young reader.  8th graders and above can handle it.

Poni is strong.  She finds a nun with a convent who takes her in and eventually she gets to America to continue her education, but along the way she must leave her childhood, her only friends, and lose her family.

Lost Girl Found —- she was lost in the dessert and the refugee camp, then found by her rescuer and rescued because she was a hard worker and wanted to learn.  While it’s a good story, I can’t imagine preteens picking it up on their own to read.  It could be a good assignment, but I’d worry about parent backlash for the above mentioned reasons.

It’s nominated for the Arkansas Teen Book Award and adults may think it’s a great story, but I doubt the teens vote on it.

Love Letters to the Dead – Ava Dellaira

Award Nominee, death, families, Female Leads

love

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.

Reality Boy – A.S. King

Uncategorized

reality

Gerald, now 16, was a reality show child – and not the cute, talented kind.  In fact, he was on Network Nanny because of his bad behavior.  Now 11 years later, he cannot escape the fact that his town, kids at school, and the nation saw him as a 5 year old who pooped, anywhere he wanted when upset.  Gerald is known as “the crapper”.  As if having the world know your childhood was not bad enough, his violent tendencies continued so now he goes to anger management; he has an overly verbally and emotionally violent drop-out sister; and Gerald lacks friends.  Throw in a tendency to cuss a lot and his rage issues …. and one sees how being a reality-show participant has messed up his life.

Gerald’s positive things in his life – Gersday…. an invention in his mind of daydreaming escapism, it’s another day of the week where he often eats ice cream, visits with his normal sister (who loves him).  He also has a job he likes and a cute girl who soon befriends him.  When a stranger’s hug and sympathy about what Network Nanny did to him causes him to breakdown, the reader more easily relates to him.

Chapters alternate between Gerald living his life and the episodes of Network Nanny that focused on 5 year old Gerald and his 8 and 11 year old sisters, Lisi and Tasha.  Tasha already clearly a psychopath. What’s worse, is Gerald begins to realize that besides his mom favoring Tasha, the psychopath, she clearly ignored Gerald and wanted him in the Special Ed classes to explain his bad behavior so that it was no reflection of her parenting.

Gerald fears he is about to let go on an intense violent outburst and is always trying to keep his anger bottled up, but there are numerous times when it comes out – often scaring those around him.  The struggle of trying to keep well deserved anger within and the new friendship, realizations that his mom was an enabler, and the dream to leave town and “the crapper” image behind is always present … and we root for Gerald getting out from his reality boy image.

A girl, a dream of running away to the circus, and eventually Gerald realizing his worth and demanding changes in his life lead to Gerald living in the moment and letting go of Gersday.  A symbolic swing on a trapeze bar releases him from his shell and there’s quite a lovely ending for him leaving the past behind and having dreams and goals for the future.

14 and older, tons of cussing/fighting/and lots of mentions of sex from the psychopath sister.