Monthly Archives: May 2009

“The Summer I Turned Pretty” by Jenny Han


"Shug" author Jenny Han's newest book is "The Summer I Turned Pretty." I have to be honest, I was pretty disappointed in this one, and I loved "Shug." Maybe my expectations were just too high, or any summer-themed novel for girls pales in comparison to Sarah Dessen's fabulous "Along for the Ride," which I just read and reviewed. I wish I knew why, but I never felt much of a connection to either the characters or the story here.

Belly, her obnoxious older brother Steven, and her mom spend each summer at the expansive beach house of mom's best friend, Susannah, and her two sons, the complicated, aloof Conrad and the outgoing, friendly Jeremiah. The story primarily involves Belly's 16th summer (the one where she, you know, turns pretty – heh), and how her relationship with the guys changes as the months pass. Belly's always had a fierce crush on Conrad, who is a few years older than her and has never seemed to notice her much. She and Jeremiah, who are closer in age, have always been best friends, laughing and swimming together, but even he excludes Belly from lots of "guys-only" fun. Now that Belly's got the goods, looks-wise, both Conrad and Jeremiah are no longer seeing her as Steven's pesky little sister, complicating Belly's life in ways both good and bad. It takes her ages to realize that maybe dreamy Conrad might actually have a thing for her and that's why he's acting like such a total jerk, which, I suspect, most readers will clue in on pretty quickly.

Scenes from other summers of Belly's life are interspersed throughout the novel, which is a lovely way to help us understand the current relationship dynamics. There's a great flashback to a night when Conrad takes a young Belly out to the boardwalk; Belly is crushed and then rather brave and honorable upon realizing she's only there to break the ice with a cute arcade worker. And I liked how Belly found her own summer boyfriend, smart guy Cam, and used him to figure out what she's really looking for and how far she'll go when she finds it. That felt honest and authentic to me, the uncertainty of that relationship's boundaries, especially when Belly couldn't stop herself from using Cam to make Conrad jealous.

What I didn't like as much were the inconsistencies and empty characterizations. I never felt as if we got to know Steven at all, and then he completely disappeared from the story. Okay. But I also felt the same way about the brothers, almost as if they were a list of traits and disjointed actions rather than living, breathing people. For example, the brothers start acting crazy protective of Belly when she meets Cam at a keg party, dogging her everywhere she turns, only to ignore it completely when she goes with him to a drive-in movie (!) the very next night. And where were the boys' friends? Conrad and Jeremiah are repeatedly presented as two popular, athletic, handsome, all-American guys. They don't have any true friends from home or from the beach community itself? Really? In an era of instant communication — text, IM, email, cell — no one stays in touch over the summer? For me, that sense of isolation from the "real world" was a problem, as was the continual distance I felt from both brothers.

There's a whole subplot here about Susannah and her personal struggles, but since we only see brief glimpses of her before she runs out on errands with Belly's mom, I never felt invested in her story. [Total side note, but this is how I know I'm getting old — I kept wondering who pays for all this free time at the beach. Jeremiah's lifeguarding job must bring in the big bucks!]

Overall, "The Summer I Turned Pretty" is good, but not great. There are better summer novels out there, but there's nothing offensively wrong with this one. I was put off by the false moments and the fact that the characters always remained at arms' length from me. Other readers might be more willing to overlook these flaws, which is fine. We're all different! If you read this one, I'd say it's aimed directly at girls heading into high school. There's some strong language peppered throughout and several drinking scenes as well, swinging it toward an older age group. While I was disappointed, I hope you'll enjoy this one more than I did!

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Posted by on May 15, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“The Homeschool Liberation League” by Lucy Frank


I know, it's getting old, but once again I have to give props to the Penguin Young Readers Group for their package of teen ARCs (advanced readers copies). Lucy Frank's "The Homeschool Liberation League" is a book I probably never would have picked up on my own, but I was intrigued by a homeschool-themed middle grade novel and figured, what the heck, it's free. I'm so glad I gave it a try, because this book is so much different — and so much better! — than what the generic "chick lit" cover might indicate.

Kaity has just completed a summer at wilderness camp, and it's changed her whole outlook on returning to Martin Van Buren Middle School for eighth grade. She loved learning about nature, wildlife, and foraging for food. She also loved the person she became at camp (she's even renamed herself "Katya"). Katya is a smart, independent, interesting girl, in contrast to the catty, troublemaking prankster Kaity often was during the school year. Katya feels like middle school, besides stifling her inquisitive mind, also forces her to play a certain role, and, quite frankly, she can't bear to do that to herself again.

Katya bails on the first day of school and prepares two massive research binders on homeschooling for her parents. Mom and Dad are working class folks, and, while they understand much of what Katya's complaining about, they're, for lack of a better term, "school people." Besides, they don't even believe they're capable of teaching their daughter. Katya eventually gets a trial homeschooling run, which mainly involves downloaded worksheets, a part-time job in her mom's salon, and a little bit of what she loves — engaging with and studying nature. As you might expect, there are many missteps along the way.

Much of the novel involves Katya, with an assist from her parents, trying to find her place in the world. Her folks aren't stupid, but they're not intellectual or academic people, and they worry — legitimately so — about Katya's education at home. Katya, meanwhile, is a bit frantic in trying to convince everyone that she can do all this schooling alone. "Unschooling" is, in fact, her dream. Unfortunately, to hide what's really going on, Katya tells some whopper lies to Francesca, the most popular girl at school, including one about the non-existent Homeschool Liberation League. As it turns out, though, even the seemingly perfect Francesca knows all about having to play a role to survive at school, and the Homeschool Liberation League, with an assist from cute violin master Milo, soon becomes a reality.

So there are a few things I loved about this book, which I'll just list for you:

(1) It's so rare to find a girl-oriented, light novel that takes place in a rural setting and focuses on the utter coolness of learning and education. The naturalist theme is wonderful and just so different, and the message here is a timely one.
(2) The romance with the homeschooled Milo, himself a smart, quirky, conflicted guy, is charming and innocent enough for the age group but realistic enough to capture our interest; and
(3) There's an important idea here about the ways in which school — teachers, peers, routines, and politics — forces some people to behave in artificial ways that absolutely kill their spirits. Even better, this book reassures those kids who feel as frustrated by school as Katya.

"The Homeschool Liberation League" is an appealing, good-natured novel that will be adored by middle school girls. It's also pretty clean — I think I remember one fleeting bit of profanity — so it's perfect for fifth graders and up. Katya's self-introspection, grudging slide into bad behavior, and recognition of her flaws reminded me of Ant in Gennifer Choldenko's delightful "Notes From a Liar and Her Dog," so fans of that book might want to check this one out, too.

This smart, likable novel comes out in early July. I hope you'll look for it then!

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Posted by on May 5, 2009 in Uncategorized


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