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“Every Day” by David Levithan


David Levithan is an amazing, amazing writer who needs no accolades from me. Nevertheless, I’m giving them to him. 😉 Levithan is the author of one of my all-time favorite YA novels, the incandescent “Boy Meets Boy,” and co-author of books you, dear reader, and I absolutely adore, like “Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” “Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares,” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.”

“Every Day” is Levithan’s latest book, and the concept is blow-your-mind unique: A is a genderless entity, a being or soul, who inhabits a different 16 year old body each day. Boy, girl, black, white, Asian, straight, gay, transgendered, fat, slim, popular, suicidal … you name it, A has been that person for one day. A’s host remembers nothing of the “lost” day, apparently because A is able to implant alternate memories. A can access only internal facts about the host — locker combinations, sibling names, etc. — not emotional connections. A is, however, subject to the biological or chemical constraints of the host body and any corresponding emotional conditions caused by those constraints. (There is an absolutely harrowing day when A, in an addict’s body, uses every bit of mental energy to combat nearly overpowering drug cravings; similarly, A’s one day as a clinically depressed girl is devastating.)

When we meet A, A is in the body of Justin, a typical brooding high school guy with a chip on his shoulder and a pretty girlfriend. That girlfriend is the vulnerable, often heartbroken Rhiannon, who basically stays with Justin because (a) she thinks he’ll become a better version of himself, and (b) she’s afraid to be alone. Lo and behold, when A is in Justin’s body, Justin is, indeed, a better version of himself. A ignores the “rules” and has Justin do some un-Justin-like things, like ditching school and taking Rhiannon to the beach. Even worse (or better?), A-as-Justin is suddenly more caring, attentive, and open, leading the beaten-down Rhiannon to emerge more fully from her protective shell. In one epic day, Rhiannon falls in love with “Justin” again, while A, for the first time in A’s life, falls in love, too.

Except, of course, that epic day has to end. When A next lands in the body of Nathan, an overachieving, straight-laced guy, he drives for hours and crashes a party attended by Rhiannon. “Nathan,” posing as a gay, non-romantic interest, dances the night away with Rhiannon and later contacts her by email. (A keeps a personal email account.) Unfortunately, A has to keep Nathan out late for the party — the switch to the next host always occurs at midnight, regardless — meaning that Nathan wakes up on the side of the road with no memory of how he got there. When Nathan’s story of demonic possession goes viral — and when Nathan himself starts emailing A demanding answers — A’s anonymity and very existence become threatened. Still, being smitten and nursing the hope of finally living a regular life, A risks all and reveals all to Rhiannon. She reluctantly agrees to keep meeting A, in all A’s different bodies, while she sorts out her feelings.

“Every Day” is so thought provoking and raises such intriguing questions about personhood and identity and love, that for these reasons alone — not to mention the beautiful writing and amazingly complex one-day characterizations — it’s a winner. Do we really love the person inside, or is the exterior an inevitable factor? A slowly realizes that it’s easier for Rhiannon to connect with him when A is inhabiting a hot guy than when A is morbidly obese or female. A is such a remarkable character, mature beyond A’s earthly years, yet still a teenager who can be rash and impulsive. But A is different in one crucial way. Unlike the rest of us, A sees no gender or sexual orientation. A exists as a pure identity. An essence. A being. Seeing how this all plays out is illuminating and heartbreaking and kind of beautiful. Huge kudos to David Levithan for pulling off the logistics of the hosting so smoothly and for making the romance between A and Rhiannon so incredibly ill fated (and, thus, so incredibly intriguing).

[Total side note, but as I read “Every Day,” I thought of Against Me! lead singer Laura Jane Grace. Laura Jane was born as Tom Gabel, but she knew from a very young age that she was a woman. Tom married Heather Gabel a few years ago, and together they had a daughter. Tom struggled all this time with gender dysphoria, the technical term for feeling like your external anatomy and the sex roles assigned to it don’t line up with your internal gender identity. In May of 2012, Tom came out publicly as transitioning to a woman, Laura Jane, despite the prejudices of some in the punk and wider communities. Laura Jane is an absolute inspiration of being true to who you are. And you know what’s cool? Heather has stayed with Laura Jane, saying that she fell in love with the person who is Laura Jane, not the external male who was Tom. Awesome. A would be proud.]

There are some truly genius touches here — A inhabits twins on back-to-back days, allowing A to see the after effects on the host — as well as so many captivating insights into the relationships between teens and their peers, parents, and siblings. I highly recommend “Every Day” to older middle and high school readers. It’s really like nothing else I’ve ever read, and a full week after finishing it, I still find myself thinking about A. Which, sign of a great book, y’all. Please check out “Every Day” and see what you think!

every day

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Posted by on October 3, 2012 in Uncategorized


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“The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life” by Tara Altebrando


I know I’m dating myself with this reference, but it’s actually not a secret that I’m old, y’all. OLD. But do any of you remember that 90s high school graduation night flick, “Can’t Hardly Wait”? It was a fairly generic film about having a best night of your life experience — partying, falling in love, having sex, drinking, changing who you are; you know, the whole deal — as a way to celebrate freedom from high school. Cliques were busted, unspoken loves were revealed, and shenanigans ensued. It was certainly not a great (or even good) movie, but it made enough of an impact on me to stick in my brain all these years later.

I’m pretty sure “The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life,” Tara Altebrando’s new novel for Penguin Teen, aspires to the same “let loose / there are so many possibilities / anything can happen in one night!” vibe that permeated “Can’t Hardly Wait.” It probably tells you everything you need to know about “The Best Night …” that it fails miserably at achieving even these meager heights. “The Best Night …” is just so tame and tired, and it features such a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist, that I found myself wishing for more of the fun and freedom of, gulp, “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

The concept here is absolutely killer, which makes it even more of a shame that “The Best Night …” sputters out so quickly. Check this: teams of seniors participate in an all-night scavenger hunt on a quest for fame, glory, and a Yeti statue. The clues are both clever and silly (everything from a “find a #1 foam finger” to “shuck a Mary on a half shell”), requiring the teens to drive all over to acquire more booty and gain more points. [Although, in an indication of this book’s lameness, the *illegal, unsanctioned* hunt must end by 12:30 am. Um, seriously? Because kids have never lied about where they are to stay out all night? Oh boy.]

Our protagonist here is Mary, who, along with her fellow math nerds, musicians, and drama geeks, has vowed to win the hunt and finally, FINALLY!, be taken seriously by Barbone and the other popular kids. Mary is so resolutely fixated on winning the race that she’s often incredibly obnoxious to her own teammates and friends. She’s especially rude to her alleged best friend, insanely smart, suspenders-wearing, uber geek Patrick, who made a poorly received pass at her at prom. Patrick is clearly in love with Mary, who instead of showing any bit of warmth or compassion for her alleged best friend, instead ignores him, belittles him, and otherwise treats him like a dog. Meanwhile, her other best friend Winter is sullen and moody throughout the initial stages of the hunt, and it’s clearly telegraphed that there’s something going on between Winter and Mary’s crush, this boring rich kid named Carson. That’s the problem with “The Best Night …”, that everything outside of the clues — all the human relationships and feelings and revelations — is so stinking obvious. There is absolutely nothing unique here, from the standard jock stereotypes to the unworthy crush to the wholly unbelievable ending, in which we must buy that a high school senior is more afraid of being grounded than of committing grand theft auto.

I could go on, but you get the point. It’s hard to care at all about a selfish, petty, wholly juvenile main character with an annoying best male friend, a pouting best female friend, a dull crush, and a night filled with very few hijinks and no real sense of risk or danger. Overall, I wish “The Best Night …” was just more FUN than it ultimately turns out to be, because isn’t that the whole point of a “one wild night” story? [Or even a “one wild day” story. Hello, “The Breakfast Club!”]

If I haven’t dissuaded you, “The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life” will be published in July 2012. I think an older middle school audience would be fine, as there is only a bit of harsh language and one example of off-screen drinking. See what you think this summer … and please let us know!

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in Uncategorized


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“Shine” by Lauren Myracle


Thank you Net Galley and the good people at Abrams / Amulet Books for the electronic galley of Lauren Myracle's forthcoming teen novel "Shine." Author Myracle is probably most well known for her bestselling IM-speak "Internet Girls" series. In "Shine," she gives us a powerful, evocative novel of a small southern town's secrets.

As the book begins, we're in a rural North Carolina town shortly after the brutal beating of Cat's former best friend, Patrick. Patrick, a charming, easy going teen, was closing up the local gas station / quickie mart when he was pummeled with a baseball bat and left unconscious with a gas nozzle taped inside his mouth. While Patrick lies in a coma, Cat begins searching to discover what really happened. As the town's only known gay resident, Cat believes that Patrick was the victim of a hate crime; the local sheriff, however, wants to blame the attack on outsiders and make the whole mess disappear. During her investigation, Cat confronts older brother Christian's friends — obnoxious Tommy, goodhearted Beef, and drug addled Dupree — as well as Wally, the local meth dealer, and some of his clientele. She also befriends Jason, a local college student who knew and respected Patrick, and learns that Patrick had a secret boyfriend, who may have played a vital role in his attack.

I loved the sense of danger surrounding Cat's investigation. Myracle does a superb job of depicting a secretive, oppressive town with unspoken rules, enforced silence — she finds a severed cow's tongue in her bed — and a toxic subculture of drug and alcohol abuse. This strong undercurrent of violence and drugs, of a sweltering town in a hot summer just waiting to explode, informs everything Cat does. Add to this the fact that Cat has been harboring a secret pain of her own, and you get this constant, creepy tingle of foreboding … which is exactly what you're looking for in a mystery. When a brave Cat rides her bike out to a forest-shrouded meth lab, I truly felt afraid for her. Ok, I will fess up fully: I actually had to stop reading! The town itself, with its bigots, dropouts, and lost, broken people, is so clearly presented that it almost serves as an additional character in the book.

I also really liked the layered portrayal of religion here. Cat's Aunt Tildy drags her to church, where the local ladies are mostly self-righteous and gossipy, and where Patrick's "lifestyle" is condemned. But religion is also shown as a source of comfort and strength, as when Cat recalls the Bible blessing about the Lord's face shining upon you. Indeed, this story is as much about Cat's journey toward finding her own voice and spirit again — her personal shine, if you will — as it is about solving the mystery surrounding Patrick. [Side note: at an Abrams' presentation I attended last November, this book was still entitled, "Speechless." "Shine" is, in my humble opinion, a much better choice.]

Similarly, the characters are developed in nuanced, believable ways. When we first meet Jason, he comes off like a rich, hateful brat, which couldn't be further from the truth. Stoic brother Christian, whom Cat has resented for his aloofness for years, becomes a friend and protector. Even the vile Tommy, who hurt Cat years before, may not be as awful as he first appears. I could give five more examples of this sort of slow unfolding of a character's true nature, which is a testament to Myracle's writing skills. Because so much of this story involves finding the truth beneath people's exteriors, this careful method of presenting folks "from the outside in" works beautifully.

I do have a complaint, though, and it's a fairly big one. I had and have the nagging sense that there is just far too much going on in this story. It's part mystery, part social commentary on abuse and addiction, part love story, part coming of age tale, part discussion of hatred toward gays and the self-loathing that may come with being different … is that one too many parts? The story feels crammed full of varying threads and issues, not all of which fit neatly together or within the flow of the story itself. I found myself wishing for just a little less. If this book was more streamlined, the issues presented here, and the dramatic turns surrounding them, would have even more of an impact.

"Shine" comes out in May 2011, and it's clearly geared toward the high school crowd. (Abrams is recommending 14 and up, which, based on the content and language, seems appropriate to me.) This is definitely one of those books that will stick with you for awhile, and I think it's well well worth reading. Please keep a look out for "Shine" in the spring.

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Posted by on January 24, 2011 in Uncategorized


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“Will Grayson, Will Grayson” by John Green & David Levithan


Huge thanks to the generous people at Penguin Books for Young Readers. I cannot imagine a better advanced copy to receive than "Will Grayson, Will Grayson," a joint effort by John Green and David Levithan. Yes, you read those authors' names correctly. Squee!

Basically — as the title may indicate — we have two Will Graysons, both high school students in the greater Chicago area. The Wills' stories play out in alternating chapters, each narrated by a Will. Our first Will is, for lack of a better way to phrase this, a small moon to the blazing sun that is his best friend, Tiny Cooper. Will is sardonic, quiet, and repressed, a low-key, background kind of guy who devours music but shies away from the trauma of real life. Will believes that getting involved means getting hurt, so he mostly doesn't get involved. His best friend, Tiny, is this huge (literally), incandescent creature bubbling over with life and spirit. Tiny's emotions are always right on the surface, so he cries and shouts with joy and is, always, unfailingly hopeful.

Tiny's also gay and writing a candy colored musical of his life. Before you worry that Tiny is some queen stereotype, remember that David Levithan is writing here, too, and he would never commit such a crime. In fact, one of the things I loved about this book is how multidimensional Tiny is. He's a sweet, thoughtful boyfriend, a callous best friend, a glorious egomaniac, a no-confidence loser … well, you get the picture. He's got believable shading. Without giving anything away, at the end of the novel, Tiny delivers a stirring speech about always having to work so hard to be appreciated; when I read that, all the facets of Tiny's personality clicked into place and I loved him.

The other Will Grayson (who, awesomely, refers to the first Will Grayson as o.w.g.) is a slight, depressed, closeted kid. He mostly despises his few friends, especially goth girl Maura, with whom he has a love/hate relationship (one probably not helped by the fact that Maura is seriously crushing on him, which makes her angry toward Will and herself). This Will Grayson's one lifeline is his online boyfriend, Isaac, who is warm, attentive, and accepting. When Will bravely ventures into the city to meet Isaac in person, he encounters his counterpart Will Grayson, Tiny, and a cool, droll girl named Jane, who may or may not become the first Will Grayson's love interest. From there, shenanigans ensue. 🙂

Nah, I will spoil no plot here. Instead, I'll just provide a list detailing why I really, really enjoyed reading "Will Grayson, Will Grayson":

(1) Granted, while some of the characters are standard here, you'll still come to adore them. The first Will Grayson is a typical John Green clever, maybe cute, loner/nerd/secretly incredible guy, while the aloof, super cool Jane strongly reminded me of the title character in "Looking for Alaska" as well as Margo in "Paper Towns." That's okay. These characters are written in such a smart, endearing way that you'll forgive them for not being wholly original creations. Besides, the epically wonderful Tiny, not to mention the beautifully complex other Will Grayson, are fantastically drawn characters.

(2) There are parental figures here who are loving, understanding folks when given half a chance by their kids. YES! I'm so tired of teen novels with conveniently absent parents. If teen novels are supposed to reflect teen life, then, like real kids, we readers need to see some real parents, too.

(3) I should not have been surprised — David Levithan is the author of the fabulous, genre-busting "Boy Meets Boy" — but I was nevertheless all warm and fuzzy to find a novel with gay characters who are happy and accepted by their peers. When the second Will Grayson comes out at school, it is so blase and ordinary, that I just about burst out in applause. While there is always a place for "issue" novels with GLBTQ characters, I think there's even more of a need for ones where a different sexual orientation or identity doesn't equal some horrible, wrenching fate.

(4) I get that John Green is a big idea guy. Remember all the discussion of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" in "Paper Towns?" In that case, I found the characters' exploration of Whitman's themes to be tedious discussions that halted the narrative's momentum. Here, the philosophical implications of the Schrodinger's Cat thought experiment for love and life are seamlessly melded into the story. Well done!

"Will Grayson, Will Grayson" is a lovely combination of humor, sarcasm, warmth, and sweetness. It's definitely a high school age novel — an entire scene takes place in a Chicago sex shop — with all the appropriate language and topics for that age group. I found myself smiling, sighing with delight, and getting choked up at so many points in this novel, which I'd guess is as sure a sign as any that it's a winner. Look for "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" in April of 2010.

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Posted by on December 11, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“Two Parties, One Tux, and a Very Short Film About The Grapes of Wrath” by Steven Goldman


"Two Parties, One Tux, and a Very Short Film About The Grapes of Wrath" (hello, unwieldy title!) is a sharp, funny, engaging novel that I bet plenty of teen boys would love. Whether they'd be willing to overlook the weirdly juvenile cover is another issue, so this one likely will require a hefty dose of handselling and strong word of mouth.

"Two Parties …" is narrated in a droll style by 17 year-old high school junior Mitchell, who is one of those shy, offbeat, but not totally nerdy boys who tend to populate many a teen novel. Mitchell has one best friend, the wonderfully aloof David, who, it turns out, is not only gay but crushing on Mitchell. Before you think this is one of those awful "gay teen issue" novels, let me assure you it's not. David's sexual orientation, and Mitchell's well-meaning struggle to treat his pal like nothing has changed, is more of a subtle backdrop to the story than the overarching theme. Without giving anything away, I loved how Mitchell did just about everything wrong in trying to accept David's news, because his behavior — good intentions devoured by fear and awkwardness — is precisely how a teenage boy would act. Everything about Mitchell's quiet friendship with David is perfect.

In the end, this book is unequivocally Mitchell's story. In addition to dealing with the David fallout, Mitchell is also juggling his guilt over an AWOL English teacher; the repercussions of his Claymation-style, very R-rated film version of Steinbeck's classic novel "The Grapes of Wrath"; a popular but shallow younger sister and her bubbly best friend; the sudden romantic attention of the hottest girl in class; the politics of where to stand at a party; a bombastic yet perceptive pal; and a potentially disastrous prom night. In other words, it's a male coming of age story peppered with smart jokes, wry insights, authentic moments, and a light touch of meaning and, well, humanity.

Although the characters always felt slightly out of reach to me — perhaps the tone is a bit too droll at times? — "Two Parties …" remains a delightful, deadpan tale that's truly perfect for teen guys. Please don't be put off by the cover! If you take a chance on this one, you'll find a winner.

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Posted by on April 28, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“Boy Meets Boy” by David Levithan


"Boy Meets Boy" — as the title may indicate! — is a love story about two teen guys falling for each other. High school sophomore Paul catches sight of new guy Noah in the self-help section of a local bookstore during a reggae concert. Noah is new in town, a photographer and artist who recently survived a terrible breakup. Paul falls hard for Noah, who seems like the perfect match for him, and their burgeoning relationship is like pure magic. They go on a paddle boat date, pass notes in the hallway, and even paint music in Noah's hidden studio. Loving Noah is like floating joyously along. Unfortunately for Paul, he screws the whole thing up by kissing his ex, Kyle, in a moment of compassion and sympathy. What follows are Paul's clever, heartfelt attempts to win Noah back by showing rather than telling him how he feels.

So that covers the love story portion of the book, but, truly, there's tons more going on here. First off, Paul's world is like something out of a fantastic, candy-colored parallel universe where the high school quarterback (Infinite Darlene) is a transvestite … and no one blinks an eye. The local VHS rental store is shelved according to the owner's whims, a high school pep rally features, like, the chess club, and the big dance requires someone to take a whirl with the portrait of a long dead woman. Still, while Paul's life might be a bit wacky from our perspective, it still features its fair share of bigotry; Joni, Paul's best friend, gets a meathead boyfriend who hassles Infinite Darlene and, in the book's most poignant passages, Paul's gay friend Tony finally stands up to his fundamentalist parents, but in a remarkably understated yet brave way.

"Boy Meets Boy" is in no way a story for only gay and/or questioning teens. It works as a love story, a high school coming of age tale, and, perhaps most effectively, as a story about the true measure of friendship. While parts of the novel are silly, there are plenty of moments of genuine feeling, particularly those involving Tony. I loved how this book moved from absurd elements to hard realities without losing any momentum. I'd definitely recommend "Boy Meets Boy" for high school readers.

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Posted by on July 2, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Hero” by Perry Moore


In some ways, Thom Creed is a typical teenager. He loves playing basketball. He has a part-time job as a dishwasher. He fights with his dad a lot. He volunteers time working with kids at a local community center. And he has a pretty fierce crush on one of his fellow tutors, a rival basketball player with piercing eyes named Goran. Interestingly, it's being gay that makes Thom so different from his peers — not the fact that he has a superhuman ability to heal people.

Set at some unnamed point in the near future, "Hero" is set in a world where superheroes regularly step in to rescue mere mortals from all manner of crime and evil. Thom's abilities, which are a bit random and out of control, attract the attention of the League, the official organization of superheroes. Thom is invited in for a tryout, and he soon becomes a probationary League member, assigned to a team of misfit heroes that includes a man with the power to infect others with disease (Typhoid Larry); a cranky, chain-smoking senior citizen with the ability to see the future (Ruth); and a bitter, sarcastic pizza delivery girl who can burst into flames (Scarlett).

The League is a source of national pride, so you would think Thom's dad Hal would be delighted at his inclusion in the group. The problem? Hal is a fallen superhero himself. As Major Might, his decision to sacrifice an office building to save the world from an invading alien resulted in thousands of deaths. Although Hal had no choice, the public blames him for the tragedy. In total disgrace, Hal has had to scrape by for years with warehouse work. Hal hates the League and would never allow Thom to join up. Father and son have such a strained, tense relationship to begin with — Thom lives in mortal fear that his dad will discover he's gay — that Thom hides his League involvement from Hal. As you might imagine, Hal eventually discovers both of Thom's secrets, although with results that may surprise you.

I actually liked this book, but I'll be the first to admit that it can be all over the place. The mash-up of sincere coming-of-age novel with comic-like action elements doesn't always work successfully, as there are sometimes jarring shifts in the tone of the story. But "Hero" is such an interesting novel packed with likeable, quirky characters that you'll probably be willing to forgive its failings. Author Perry Moore does a fantastic job of showing how Thom gradually learns to accept and explore his homosexuality, giving him plenty of obstacles and missteps along the way. Thom's relationship with the enigmatic Goran develops in a slow, believable fashion, and the contrast between the prejudices Thom faces and the joys of that first love are beautifully portrayed.

There are also plenty of scenes of superheroes flying, zapping, and otherwise fighting villains. These action sequences are so over the top that they feel like reading a comic book without the pictures. The various superheroes have talents ranging from gross to cool, and seeing Thom's team evolve as crime fighters is both sweet and fun. Lastly, Hal, Thom's dad, is one of the more complex parental figures I've seen in a teen novel in quite some time. It's a credit to the author that he makes a character who at first seems like a cold, bigoted bully develop into something so much more.

As I said, although flawed, this is a very entertaining, engrossing novel. There's probably enough here to appeal to both comic fans and teens who like more realistic, heartfelt stories. One word of caution — this is definitely a book for older teens. There is an abundance of harsh language (much more than necessary, in my opinion) and some very adult situations. The publisher recommends a target age of 13 and up, which seems about right to me.

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Posted by on September 13, 2007 in Uncategorized


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