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“Where Things Come Back” by John Corey Whaley

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Author John Corey Whaley was recently honored by the National Book Foundation as one of its "5 Under 35" young fiction writers. Whaley's first novel, "Where Things Come Back," was placed on the list for my Sleepers discussion group at this year's Book Fest at Bank Street College. [Which, side note, but Book Fest is a great event, y'all. Get on the mailing list for next year!] I can honestly say I would not have read this literary teen novel if not for Book Fest; I can also say that, a full two weeks after finishing "Where Things Come Back," I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it.

In the simplest terms, we have parallel stories with different narrators and points of view. The main thread is narrated by Cullen Witter, the kind of sardonic teen we know well in the world of YA fiction. Cullen's sensitive, endearing younger brother Gabriel mysteriously vanishes one day, shortly after a phony naturalist lands in Lily, Arkansas and announces the reappearance of the long extinct Lazarus woodpecker. The second thread, told in the third person by an omniscient narrator, involves a young, overwhelmed missionary named Benton Sage and his college roommate, handsome, popular Cabot Searcy. After Benton commits suicide, Cabot becomes obsessed with Benton's diary, which leads him to researching fallen angels, reincarnation, the apocalypse, and the Book of Enoch.

Right, so simple, linear plot, huh? 😉 There is much to admire about "Where Things Come Back." Whaley is a wonderful writer, impressively melding two very different storylines into a cohesive unit while maintaining suspense and tension along the way. There are lovely characterizations here — the friendship between Cullen and his loyal, unwavering best friend Lucas is breathtaking in its depth — as well as biting commentary on media hype and social hysteria. Whaley deftly explores the wounds caused by grief, portraying both the unending desperation of pain and the stoicism of survival. Even Cullen's snarky list of possible book titles can be both wistful and incredibly funny.

Yet, despite these obvious strengths and my genuine respect for Whaley's talent, I never felt very connected to Cullen. His detached, ironic manner — and his distance from his own emotions — made it difficult for me to feel invested in his story. For me, Cullen only came alive during his interactions with Lucas, as Lucas' profound love for his friend humanized this otherwise aloof character. The story itself (a brother physically lost, a troubled man lost to his own obsessions) also failed to maintain its intensity, as long passages would pass in fantasy or intellectualism. Until its finale, when Cabot emerges as a deranged monster, I was impatiently waiting for *something* compelling to happen.

With its bland folk art cover and truly bizarre plot points, I can't imagine a teen willingly selecting this novel. I felt as if I had to slog through long portions of this book, leading me to believe that teen readers would surrender long before the conclusion. In my Book Fest discussion group, several people actually raised the question of whether "Where Things Come Back" is even a teen book at all and, instead, perhaps an adult novel featuring teenage characters. Maybe this was my main issue, that this otherwise worthy novel is simply aimed at the wrong audience?

If you read "Where Things Come Back," please know it is most definitely not intended for very young readers. There are casual references to drinking, drug use, and sex, and Cullen (like many teenagers) regularly uses profanity in his daily dialogue. "Where Things Come Back" is out now. Hopefully you'll enjoy it more than I did.

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Posted by on November 1, 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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“How I Live Now” by Meg Rosoff

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Meg Rosoff's "How I Live Now"won the American Library Association's Printz Award back in 2005 as that year's outstanding novel for young adults. Ok, I realize I am a little late in reading this one — hey, I have a pretty big "to-read" stack! — but since I thought this novel was so striking and original, I just had to write up a review for our blog readers.

Quick summary: Daisy is a 15 year-old American sent away from New York City by her apparently exasperated dad and stepmom. She arrives in rural England to stay with her eccentric Aunt Penn, a slew of cousins (precocious 9 year-old Piper, 14 year-old, seemingly empathic twins Isaac and Edmond, and 17 year-old would-be-man Osbert), and a healthy assortment of sheep dogs, goats, and other animals. Aunt Penn quickly departs for a vague peacekeeping task in Oslo, leaving the kids the run of their country house and surrounding farmland. Daisy, a cynic who struggles with anorexia, finds herself quickly opening up to her cousins, especially compassionate, insightful Edmond. While she recognizes it's technically wrong — they are, after all, first cousins! — she falls into an obsessive, all-encompassing love with Edmond, which makes her days fly by in sheer bliss. Even after a London bombing leaves thousands dead, plunging England into chaos and war and preventing Aunt Penn's return, Daisy can't help but savor the delicious freedom inherent in her new, unsupervised life. One glorious day, all the kids, including the aloof Osbert, spend a magical afternoon picnicking and frolicking by the river.

Unfortunately, the once unseen and distant war soon reaches into Daisy's life. An occupying army, never identified for the reader, lands in the countryside, and the few remaining British forces commandeer Aunt Penn's house as a barracks for their troops. Daisy's newfound family is wrenched apart, and she and the gentle, resourceful Piper are left on their own to make a long, arduous journey back home.

I'm not sure if my plot synopsis conveys it, but "How I Live Now" is a fantastic read for so many reasons. First, Daisy's narration, which occurs in an almost frantic, run-on manner, is captivating. This is the way a teenager thinks, with intense, sometimes jumbled ideas rampantly speeding along. Daisy's description of her intoxicating affair with Edmond is portrayed in a dreamlike, hazy fashion. It's as if she and Edmond share a bond that transcends the mortal and physical, which we soon learn may be the case; Daisy can literally feel Edmond in her mind during their painful separation. I also loved Daisy's unrepentant honesty and brashness, which, again, make her such a realistic teen character.

What else was great? Hrm, where should I start!? The ruthlessness necessary to endure hard times is beautifully portrayed, particularly during Daisy and Piper's struggle to reach home. Yet, despite the often brutal conditions, both dignity and humanity survive in, say, the brotherly attention of a soldier or the knowing advice of an army major. These small touches of compassion have so much more meaning in a landscape of brutality. I also thought Rosoff's depiction of England encountering a faceless enemy and a war with no stated purpose or goals was absolutely brilliant, giving the story a futuristic feel while glancing back to Britain's history of self-sufficiency during two world wars. Rosoff's subtle descriptions of Daisy's eating disorder are similarly wonderful, including the climactic moment when a starving Daisy realizes just how hungry she has been for so long. Finally, the mutually protective relationship between Daisy and Piper is believable, lovely, and occasionally heartbreaking; Daisy mentions holding an exhausted Piper's "paw" on the night their lost dog returns, which is simply beautiful. Readers may find this relationship similar to the touching bond that developed between jaded Katniss and the doelike young tribute Rue in Suzanne Collins' stunning novel, "The Hunger Games."

"How I Live Now" is a compelling, unique, fast-paced novel that has a little something for everyone (love, self growth, action, danger). It is written in an exceptional manner, with insight, hard-earned emotion, and a gripping sense of drama and tension. I would definitely recommend this short novel with a powerful impact to teen readers, both boys and girls, in grades 8 and higher. While there is both sex and violence present here, neither is depicted in a gratuitous manner. Although this novel may challenge you, I think it's a worthy, rewarding read.

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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“Looking for Alaska” by John Green

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

I loved author John Green's second novel, "An Abundance of Katherines," which was hilarious and touching and simply a fantastic read. For some reason, although I started it a few times, I never got around to reading his first book, "Looking for Alaska," which won the 2006 Printz Award for outstanding young adult novel. Consider that omission corrected!

Miles Halter is a teenager who's about to embark on his junior year at a new school, Culver Creek boarding school in Alabama. Miles is a skinny, smart, acerbic kid who specializes in quoting the last words of dead folks. Shockingly, Miles doesn't leave a whole lot of friends behind in Florida. At the Creek, he is renamed "Pudge" and immediately becomes tight with an unusual crew of similarly smart and smart alecky teens, including his brilliant, deadpan roommate Chip "The Colonel" Martin; Romanian-born nice girl Lara; all-around pal and sidekick Takumi; and the independent, beautiful, frustrating, and ultimately enigmatic Alaska Young.

I say with no exaggeration that certain sections of this book had me bursting out with laughter, but I'm a sucker for dark, ironic, self-effacing humor, of which Pudge, Takumi, and especially the Colonel are masters. The story, though, becomes quite serious, which I felt was jarring at the time. In retrospect — and without revealing any critical plot points — the title does clearly say "looking" for Alaska, which should've been an obvious clue that our girl Alaska might somehow get lost. My bad. I just got so caught up in the sheer delight of Pudge's first semester at the Creek, reveling in his enjoyment of new friendships, crushes, drinking games, pranks, and even eye-opening classes, like Mr. "The Old Man" Hyde's religion class, that I wasn't fully prepared for the book's deeply serious turn.

"Looking for Alaska" delivers the hilarious highs and crushing lows of a pivotal year in Miles' life, one that contains its fair share of laughter, pain, and confusion. That feels about right in the end, since life often comes at you from all sides, with both good and bad, occasionally even at the same time. In the face of this turmoil, it's the bond between Pudge and the Colonel that helps both boys survive. I particularly loved the friendships in this book, and the fact that teen boys are portrayed in all their awful, real glory as immature, silly, loyal, introspective, confused, quirky, brave, and honorable people. Again, just like in life, with all the good and bad.

After following his journey, I think many readers, like Miles, will reflect on the Old Man's final exam question, borrowed from Simon Bolivar's alleged last words and Miles' yearlong quest: "How will you personally ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?" Not too many young adult novels even have the nerve to ask such a profound question, let alone do so in a book that is also funny, heartfelt, and wickedly intelligent.

Although I'm late to the party here, I'll gladly add my voice to the others who have praised "Looking for Alaska" as a great book for high school readers. Yes, there is plenty of smoking, drinking, cursing, and sex in the story, but none of it feels gratuitous. This is how teens act, and it's entirely appropriate to include these behaviors in a realistic tale of teen life. I hope folks look beyond any potential red flags and see "Looking for Alaska" for what it is — a wonderful story of growing up. Definitely recommended.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel, "American Born Chinese," won the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award presented by the American Library Association. The Printz Award was created to recognize excellence in teen literature, and "American Born Chinese" is the first graphic novel to win this honor.

The novel features three seemingly unrelated stories that intersect in really interesting, unusual ways. The first story revolves around the Monkey King, who according to Chinese fable ruled all the monkeys on Flower Fruit Mountain. Here, the Monkey King is furious after he's refused entry to a party of the gods because, as a monkey, he doesn't wear shoes. In the course of transforming himself into a deity, the Monkey King gets so wrapped up in his own arrogance that he ends up trapped for hundreds of years at the base of a mountain. Meanwhile, we watch as Jin Wang, who was born in San Francisco, enters Mayflower Elementary School as only the second Asian child in his class. Jin encounters open prejudice from his classmates, who taunt him about eating dogs and having buck teeth. As Jin ages over the course of the story, he reluctantly befriends a student from Taiwan (whom he derisively calls an "F.O.B." — fresh off the boat), tries to make himself more like his white classmates, and falls for a white girl named Amelia. The third seemingly parallel story involves a white teen named Danny and his horror and embarrassment when his Asian cousin Chin-Kee — a character who embodies every awful Asian stereotype — comes to visit his school.

To be honest, I'm not sure if this was in fact the best teen novel of the past year. Having said that, it's certainly a unique, funny, touching story of being different. The artwork is very well done, and some of the wry expressions on the characters' faces made me giggle out loud. Like me, I think most readers will be quite satisfied with the way the three individual stories eventually merge together. I would recommend this book for all readers in middle school or higher, regardless of whether they're already graphic novel fans.

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2007 in Uncategorized

 

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