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“Every Day” by David Levithan

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

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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“Pink” by Lili Wilkinson

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

"Pink" is an Australian import, originally published Down Under in 2009 and recently released in this country by one of my favorite teen publishing houses, HarperTeen. In the interest of full disclosure, I read "Pink" primarily for two reasons:

(1) The goth girl / girly girl lip cover. Look below. It rocks!
(2) There are so few teen novels with a bisexual main character, so I was dying to see how author Lili Wilkinson portrays what still seems like a taboo subject in teen literature. (Which, FYI, it really shouldn't be taboo.)

What I found is a funny, witty, heartfelt story about a high school student who transfers to a private school to reinvent herself. Gone is black haired, loner Ava, the one with acerbic goth girlfriend Chloe and no interest in school activities; in her place, we have pink cashmere sweater Ava, she of the lustrous brown hair, impractical shoes, and a sudden interest in both the school musical and one of its handsome lead actors. Much of this story is about Ava's desire to be someone else, someone more like Alexis, the cute, perfect, popular girl who immediately befriends her. Following Alexis' lead, Ava tries out for the school musical (a gangster show called "Bang! Bang!"), with disastrous results. Wanting so much to belong to the theater crowd, even tangentially, Ava joins Screw, the unpopular stage crew composed of lovably geeky misfits like nerdy Trekker Jen, sweet schlump Jacob, gay (with an h!) performer Jules, and ginger-haired wiseguy Sam.

So that's basically the story. Ava reluctantly becomes friends with the Screw kids, while trailing after Alexis and her crowd whenever she can. She hooks up a few times with gorgeous actor Ethan, but it's all a lot of work being perfect for the popular kids, hiding Chloe, her bisexuality, and pretty much her entire life. She also sort of, maybe, kind of starts feeling something for Sam, the outcast Screw leader who challenges her at every turn.

The lessons here go down gently. We learn that many of the other characters — Sam, Jen, Alexis, Ethan — are also hiding their own painful secrets. But none of these revelations are done in a horribly heavy handed, after school special manner. The themes of acceptance and being true to yourself are usually conveyed in a charming, enjoyable way. Trust me, this is so not an issues book!

Instead, "Pink" is breezy and very readable, with plenty of humorous moments provided by the Screw kids. I loved the sense of camaraderie among the Screw members; these were the truest, most fully developed friendships in the book. By comparison, it was hard for me to understand why Ava twisted herself around for boring, toothy Ethan and nihilistic, one-note (that note being bitchy) Chloe. Both characters felt incredibly empty — almost impersonal — to me, while the Screw kids and Ava were leaping off the page with complexity. While I appreciate the efforts to show some vulnerability and soften Ethan and Chloe, for me, they just never progressed beyond cardboard stereotypes. Unlike Alexis, Sam, Jen, and many of the other characters, neither Chloe nor Ethan ever seemed real, and so I had a hard time caring about or understanding Ava's attraction to either of them.

Because of that vacuum at the center of the story, Ava's explorations of her bisexuality seem more discussed than actually explored. Yes, she considers / ponders / analyzes the issue, but it remains mostly a cerebral exercise. And, since Sam is so beautifully shaded — he can be sweet, sullen, charming, shy, boisterous — it is natural for us readers to favor him in any romantic triangle. We just know him better. Having said that, the romance angle largely goes nowhere. I was disappointed in how "Pink" ultimately shies away from really embracing Ava's bisexuality. The love story ends on a vague, unsatisfying note, with some cliched lines about life being messy and confusing and that no one should ever force you to choose. Yes, bisexuality is a perfectly normal orientation that should be accepted like all the others. We can shout that one from the rooftops until the rest of the world understands! But in a novel about one bisexual teenager, I need a more definitive conclusion. I was let down by the ending, plain and simple.

Don't get me wrong. I'd still recommend "Pink." It's a fun, often lighthearted romp that touches upon some universal issues of identity, acceptance, understanding, and friendship. The pages fly by and, with the exceptions discussed above, the characters have plenty of depth and the ability to convey genuine emotion. They will draw you in! The screwball antics at the "Bang! Bang!" show and the gross-out "would you rather" games played by the Screw kids provide plenty of levity and lots of laughs. "Pink" is a book that I can see being read by many high school girls, regardless of their sexual orientation, since it has wide appeal (and, again, that killer cover). I just feel the potential was here for this novel to have been so much more.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Shine” by Lauren Myracle

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

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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ALA Youth Media Awards

At a ceremony in San Diego this morning, the American Library Association announced the finalists and winners of its annual Youth Media Awards. These awards, which are divided into different categories like picture books, middle grade literature, and non-fiction, are selected by librarians. Here are a few of the honored books and authors in the area of teen literature:

MICHAEL L. PRINTZ AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE:

Winner:
"Ship Breaker" by Paolo Bacigalupi

Finalists:
"Stolen" by Lucy Christopher
"Please Ignore Vera Dietz" by A.S. King
"Revolver" by Marcus Sedgwick
"Nothing" by Janne Teller

SCHNEIDER FAMILY BOOK AWARD FOR BOOKS THAT EMBODY THE DISABILITY EXPERIENCE:

Middle School:
"After Ever After" by Jordan Sonnenblick

High School:
"Five Flavors of Dumb" by Antony John

STONEWALL CHILDREN'S AND YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE AWARD FOR EXCEPTIONAL MERIT IN BOOKS RELATING TO THE LGBT EXPERIENCE:

Winner:
"Almost Perfect" by Brian Katcher

Finalists:

"Will Grayson, Will Grayson," by John Green and David Levithan
"Love Drugged" by James Klise
"Freaks and Revelations" by Davida Willis Hurwin
"The Boy in the Dress" by David Walliams

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

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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“Love is the Higher Law” by David Levithan

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

David Levithan's new novel, "Love is the Higher Law," is one of the few pieces of September 11th-related YA fiction that I can recall. It's an occasionally talky yet emotionally resonant novel that features Levithan's usual mix of multiple narrators, lyrical language, and meditations on the power of music.

Our narrators here are three New York City teenagers. We have sweet, giving high school student Claire, her music-loving pal and classmate Peter, and snarky college guy Jasper, whom Peter is set to date for the first time on September 11th. The kids' responses on the day of the attack, that awful mixture of horror, confusion, dislocation, and longing for normalcy, are superbly depicted. Anyone who lived through that day, particularly in the immediate NYC area, will absolutely relate to the whirlwind of emotions experienced by the teens. Levithan is particularly adept at using small details — Claire steadily lighting memorial candles at Union Park in a driving rainstorm or Jasper desperately picking up scattered papers from the World Trade Center site — to convey the almost overwhelming sense of sadness and powerlessness that followed the attack.

For the most part, the three narrators are an effective device, nicely presenting the wrenching recovery from different perspectives. The boys' voices, especially when describing their terrible first date, are spot-on. We see so clearly the mixed signals, hurt feelings, unspoken words, and, above all, the longing that the characters both miss in the moment itself.

Both Peter and Jasper are so flawed yet cautiously hopeful — so real — that I found myself irritated by Claire's distance from the readers. She seemed too perfect and selfless, too much of an idealized type rather than a human being. At one point, Claire remarks that if she hadn't met Peter and Jasper, she fears she'd be living her whole life inside her head. And that's the problem — too much of Claire's passages are devoted to big ideas and reflections that lack any emotional connection. For me, Claire's thoughts started to feel like weighty abstractions or philosophy lessons, which often undercut the novel's impact.

Still, there are such moments of poetry here, so many lines of text that scream out to be savored and reread, that the intermittent failings of one character can be overlooked. Besides, Levithan's ability to evoke music as a force of nature and present its ability to heal a community or allow one boy to lose himself for awhile is stunning, as always. All the best music-related parts of "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," are matched here by the sheer joy and power of a Travis or U2 concert.

I'm somewhat concerned about the audience for this book — how much do today's teens remember about an event from 8 years ago? — but maybe fans of Levithan's other novels will give this one a try. There is ample strong language here, but nothing beyond the ways in which real teenagers talk every day of their lives. Overall, while there's much here for adults to like, I'm hoping there are teen readers out there as well. "Love is the Higher Law" is a somewhat sad, beautiful, and largely optimistic novel about one of the most important moments of our lives. It's definitely worth reading.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

"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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