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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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“Shut Out” by Kody Keplinger

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Teen author — and I mean that literally; she's still a teen! — Kody Keplinger had a big hit last fall with her debut YA novel, "The DUFF." Kody is back this coming September with her sophomore effort, "Shut Out." If you loved "The DUFF," or if you're otherwise a fan of smart, breezy romps, then you'll delight in reading "Shut Out." It's a fun, steamy novel filled with believable girl friendships and some refreshing discussions of female sexuality. Plus, did you see the cover? How cute!

"Shut Out" is a loose, modern retelling of the Greek play "Lysistrata." In "Lysistrata," the women of Ancient Greece banded together to stop the Peloponnesian War by using a pretty ingenious method: they withheld sex from their lovers as a way of forcing the men to put down their weapons and negotiate a peace settlement. In "Shut Out," Lissa — get it!? — is tired of the constant battles between the football players (her boyfriend Randy is the quarterback) and the soccer guys. The sports fighting takes up nearly all of Randy's attention, and when a young soccer player is injured in a prank that goes too far, Lissa decides to take a stand. She gathers the other football girlfriends, as well as the rival soccer player girlfriends, and convinces them to withhold all affection — from kissing to sex — to get the boys to end the feud.

Of course, this being a teen novel, Lissa's campaign does not go exactly as planned. Along the way, Lissa breaks up with the incredibly doofy Randy — he's the worst kind of cheater and cad — and begins flirting with the dreamy Cash, her co-worker at the library (which, yes!) who also happens to be a star soccer player. Lissa had kissed Cash on a starry night the previous summer, when she was briefly broken up with Randy, but Cash never called her afterward. When Lissa starts twisting her honorable intentions around from feud-ending to settling her own score with Cash, the novel really takes off.

I have to say, I was surprised by the fact that Lissa isn't the typical YA heroine (you know what I mean, the smart, confident, sarcastic type). Her mom died years earlier, leaving Lissa with way too much responsibility for her paralyzed dad and older brother, Logan. Lissa is rigid and controlled about everything (Randy, cooking meals, her library job, Logan's whereabouts), and her anxiety — though presented in the book as an eccentricity or quirk — is prevalent enough to interfere with her life. Her counting of objects and excessive planning are manifestations of obsessive compulsive disorder, which, if not thoroughly addressed, is at least acknowledged. It gives her character unexpected dimension.

My favorite thing here is the portrayal of female friendship and, along with it, a frank discussion of teen sexuality as it applies to girls. Good looking out, Kody! Lissa's best friend Chloe is widely viewed as a slut. Rather than shy away from this label, Chloe embraces her sexuality and makes no apologies for the fact that she enjoys sex, even when it's not part of a formal relationship. As Chloe points out, why is it okay for a guy like her hookup partner Shane to have lots of sex, but not a girl like herself? Bitchy Kelsey, one of the football player's girlfriends, is cruel and demeaning to Chloe … until a series of sleepovers help her see beyond the stereotype. We later discover that Kelsey doesn't much like sex at all, while other girls feel pressured to hide their virginity because that's way too uncool. All this girl talk feels real and honest, never preachy or didactic. And when the girls start learning more about each other and forming honest friendships, it feels like an authentic progression in their characters' lives. Nicely done.

As for Cash, he's swoon worthy and kind and funny and … yeah, you know the type. And while there's no story here if Lissa stops overreacting / assuming and simply asks Cash why he never called her after their summer kiss, I can live with the plot device. Cash and Lissa's flirting and makeout scenes — at the library, folks! — are fresh and steamy, and you'll definitely root for this good guy … even if he is a soccer player. 😉

Is everything perfect here? No, of course not. Kody is terrific at portraying teen behavior, language, and friendships, hitting every bitchy and insecure note along the way. And she does a great job of providing some punch and sexual tension in a book that, surprisingly enough, has no actual sex. But her writing style still needs work — how many times can one character "grin" at another? — and she would benefit from some tighter editing.

All that will come in time. For now, read "Shut Out" for what it is — a fast, funny, believable story with an original hook, great female characters, and an honest discussion of female sexuality. It's a shame this book won't be released until autumn, because it'd be perfect for the beach (who doesn't want an effervescent, romantic page turner in the summer?). "Shut Out" is sure to find a wide audience among teen girls (the cursing and sex talk here probably push this one towards 8th grade). One of my teen readers breezed through "Shut Out" and loved it. I'm sure she won't be the last! "Shut Out" will be published in September. Look for it then.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“The DUFF” by Kody Keplinger

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Kody Keplinger is a first-time teen author with a new book, "The DUFF," coming out in a few weeks. Little, Brown's Poppy imprint is doing a big publicity push for this novel, and I can definitely see why. "The DUFF" — it stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend — is a quick read with an interesting hook, a compelling main character in Bianca, and, let's be honest, an awful lot of sex appeal for a teen novel.

Bianca is the Duff of the title. Although she's smart, feisty, and acerbic (yup, she's the typical YA heroine), Bianca often plays second fiddle to her model-beautiful best friends, Casey and Jessica. At a local teen dance club, Bianca erupts at the gorgeous, cocky player Wesley when he teasingly calls her Duffy. Bianca despises Wesley for his sense of privilege and the casual way he uses and discards girls. Still, while Bianca says she finds Wesley repugnant and argues with him constantly, she abruptly kisses him during a fight. She then realizes that kissing Wesley is like a drug; it can make all her other problems — her parents' divorce and later her dad's alcoholism — disappear, even if only for a few fleeting moments.

The kissing escalates, and from there, Bianca and Wesley begin secretly sleeping together on a regular basis, mostly at his mansion, where he lives alone while his sister stays with a grandmother and his parents travel. Bianca avoids Wesley at school and keeps her involvement with him secret from everyone, which leads to a rift with her friends and accusations of abandonment. After a violent encounter with her drunk father, Bianca realizes that things with Wesley may have inadvertently become serious and that they each may have developed feelings for each other. A real connection — to Wesley of all people! — freaks Bianca out, so she literally bolts, turning to polite, boring classmate Toby.

What works here? The quick pace, which allowed me to burn through this book in one sitting. I loved Bianca's authentic first-person narrative, which nicely expresses her inner conflicts, her weaknesses, and why she's acting so impulsively. I was pleasantly surprised by the character of Wesley, who is so much deeper than Bianca first imagines, yet still remains a realistic, flawed high school boy. There's also a good deal of discrete passion here and, ultimately, a showing of genuine emotion that feels well earned. Lastly, I liked the easy manner in which the book's message, that everyone feels as if they're the Duff at one time or another, was conveyed. Well done.

All these positives far outweigh the flat characterizations of the secondary characters (Toby, Jessica, Casey, a slutty girl at school) and the unbelievably fast and smooth manner in which Bianca's dad recovers from a relapse into alcoholism. But these are minor criticisms and will be easily overlooked by teen girls, who seem the most obvious target audience for this fun, engaging read. Please note that Little, Brown is recommending a target age of 15 and up, based largely on the sexual content here, which is not scandalous by any means by which is prominently featured. Just a heads up. Look for "The DUFF" in the next few weeks. Enjoy!

PS – The cover of my advanced copy of "The DUFF," generously provided by the folks at Little, Brown, features a close-up shot of a different girl than the one depicted in the finalized edition, shown below. What's up with that?

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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“Unraveling” by Michelle Baldini and Lynn Biederman

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

"Unraveling" is a provocative, amazingly realistic story of how one girl regrettably trades her sexuality for fleeting popularity. Honestly, this is one of the most gripping, stunningly accurate depictions of teenage life that I've come across in ages, and I think high school girls should read it both as entertainment and, perhaps, cautionary tale.

High school sophomore Amanda Himmelfarb is blessed with a curvy body and lots of natural sex appeal. A member of her school's swim team, Amanda exists in that netherworld of invisibility between popularity and geekdom. In the summer before tenth grade, Amanda performs a sex act on a crush while her family is staying at the shore. Although the boy never speaks to her again and her overbearing mother punishes her, Amanda chooses instead to focus on those precious few moments when she was important to that boy. Back at school, after a hot jock starts to secretly sneak around with Amanda — he has a girlfriend he sees in public — she again can't help but recognize the power she possesses in her sexuality. In a bit of flirting that gets way out of hand, Amanda offers to sleep with the dreamy Rick Hayes if he will escort her to the homecoming dance. Rick, as you might expect, agrees.

What makes "Unraveling" work so well is that we as readers understand exactly why Amanda would enter into such a demeaning bargain. Her own mother was an overachiever with plans for college and a career when she unexpectedly got pregnant with Amanda as a teen. Amanda's mom, whom she labels "the Captain," constantly criticizes, scolds, nitpicks, and otherwise hassles Amanda, all under the mistaken belief that such actions will help Amanda achieve her full potential and avoid her mom's past errors. Instead, Amanda sees herself as an unwanted mistake, a constant burden, and as someone who can never seem to do anything right. Naturally, then, Rick's hideous offer makes perfect sense to Amanda, as now she can finally become someone. Amanda believes that when she walks into homecoming on Rick's arm, her life, at long last, will be perfect.

It's refreshing to read a novel that portrays loveless teen sex in a straightforward, non-moralizing manner. Amanda's fractured self-esteem and sense of shame, as well as the utter frankness of this novel's depiction of the consequences of sex for teen girls, reminded me of Sara Zarr's "Story of a Girl" and Ellen Wittlinger's "Sandpiper." This blunt — but not at all lewd! — novel features a complex, fully realized mother/daughter relationship, some harsh but believably conveyed life lessons, and deeply personal and moving poetry. I recommend it to high school age readers.

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“Down to the Bone” by Mayra Lazara Dole

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

In theory, an energetic, upbeat novel about a Cuban-American teenager struggling with her sexuality while being supported by an offbeat set of friends seems like a great idea. Unfortunately, "Down to the Bone," while easy enough to read and mildly entertaining, doesn't leave much of an impact.

As the novel starts, Laura is expelled from her strict Catholic high school after it's discovered that a confiscated love letter was written to her by another girl. Laura refuses to reveal the identity of her girlfriend, Marlena, since both are closeted and come from strict Cuban-American families. In fact, both Laura and Marlena initially don't even label themselves as lesbians; they just know they're in love. Mami, Laura's unyielding mother, throws Laura out of the house without a second thought, leaving Laura to take shelter with her wild best friend Soli and Soli's big-hearted new age mom, Viva. Despite Mami's awful treatment — among other things, she calls Laura immoral and a degenerate — Laura wants desperately to be allowed back home so she can again see her younger brother Pedri. But Mami is firm about her conditions, and if Laura remains a lesbian, she wants nothing more to do with her.

While this description might make "Down to the Bone" seem weighty in its tone, it's actually very light and buoyant, perhaps too much so. Laura relates her story in a frantically paced dialogue that barely pauses to acknowledge the seemingly life-changing events that are occurring around her. Everything is quickly glossed over as Laura seems more intent on weaving Spanish words, Cuban food, and silly nicknames into this whiplash-inducing account of her life. Because of this writing style, all of Laura's interactions with her friends, including the transgendered Tazer, come off as woefully artificial. What a shame.

So, yes, there's a fantastic message in here about accepting yourself for who you are, whether that's gay, straight, bisexual, or transgendered. That's definitely a message worth spreading around. And it's admirable that a book that could have been depressing is quite fluffy in tone. I'm not crazy about "issue" books, which typically include those discussing sexual orientation, that are overly serious and grim, as if gay teens can never be happy. That's simply not true. Here, as I said, the entire book just never grabbed me with any emotion, relationship, or situation that felt authentic, despite the fact that elements of the author's own life were the background for this story. If you give this book a try, please know that its language and several references probably make it a better choice for high school age readers. Hopefully, you'll enjoy it more than I did.

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

One quick disclaimer before I launch into my rave review of Jay Asher's "Thirteen Reasons Why": I listened to the audiobook version, which is performed with compelling depth and emotion by Joel Johnstone and Debra Wiseman. While I think the text alone should make a fantastic read, the audiobook brings it up to a whole other level, as we get to hear the sad, increasingly desperate voice of suicide victim Hannah Baker.

Yes, as stated in the preceding sentence, high school student Hannah Baker is dead as the novel begins. Her suicide, shrouded in mystery and rumor — as her life often was — has devastated her sort-of-friend and one-time hookup Clay Jensen. As the novel opens, Clay has received a mail package with no return address. Inside, he finds a set of cassette tapes (think 80s-style Walkman) recorded by Hannah in the time before her death. Hannah has directed one side of each tape (13 in total) to a friend, classmate, or enemy who in some way contributed to her emotional destruction. Clay listens to the tapes through his headphones as he retraces Hannah's last steps, visiting the home of a peeping tom, the local coffeehouse and diner, and the site of a climactic party. As each tape passes, Clay is increasingly horrified to discover that the most popular girl in class, the cheerleader, and the guy who is everyone's friend have committed awful — or at the very least terribly mean-spirited — acts upon Hannah. At the same time, Clay keeps searching his memory for the instance when he, too, wronged Hannah. Clay is confused, because he genuinely cannot recall feeling anything for Hannah but longing, affection, and, finally, sorrow.

At first, I thought Hannah's voice from beyond the grave, and her insistence that the tapes' recipients retrace her steps, keep her secrets, and pass her package along to the next person, smacked of an ugly vindictiveness. But as Hannah's heartbreaks become clear, as the awful toll of each misery, ill-founded rumor, and broken friendship pile up, I lost any sense of animosity toward her character. Instead, I felt much like Clay, wanting only to reach through those tapes and somehow stop this sad, broken girl from completely destroying herself.

I won't say too much else about the plot, because it's important to follow Hannah's story of betrayal in the order in which she presents it. As I mentioned, it's the impact of all those actions, the sum total upon Hannah's psyche, that makes this book so devastating. I think as soon as you start reading, you'll be hooked. Even knowing in advance that Hannah is dead, this gripping novel is full of suspense. It also works great as a discussion book, as "Thirteen Reasons Why" raises lots of complex issues like the effects of teen gossip, self-destructive sexual behavior, loneliness, and, of course, suicide. Since many of these topics are a bit sensitive for younger readers, I'd say this one is targeted squarely at high school age folks. I don't think you'll be disappointed. Truly, this is one of the best books I've read in the past year, and it deserves every bit of praise I can heap upon it.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“Before I Die” by Jenny Downham

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

I recently read Chris Crutcher's "Deadline" (reviewed below), which tells the alternately funny and touching story of a dying teen's last year on Earth, during which he triumphs, finds love, and struggles to accept his fate. How strange, then, to find another "teen dies of fatal illness" novel published mere months after "Deadline," one which also follows the same general plot line. Is this the new wave in teen fiction?

It's unfortunate to have to compare the two books, but it's natural — isn't it? — to measure one slowly fading teen's story against another. Essentially, "Before I Die" is "Deadline" set in England with a female lead character and an overall harder, more abrasive edge. Tessa is dying of leukemia, and when this fact becomes clear, she embarks on a somewhat misguided effort to fulfill a list of things to do before she dies. Tessa has a very authentic voice, and she acts, sounds, and talks like a real teenager. This means that Tessa can be petty, spoiled, petulant, and selfish. As such, this also means that Tessa can be a tough character to like and support at times. Her behavior is often so self-destructive (sex with a stranger, diving into a filthy river on a whim, shoplifting, fleeing a hospital stay, etc.), that, while you may in theory want to support a character who is trying to squeeze all life's experiences into a short window of time, you can't help but be annoyed at her antics. Even worse, Tessa's dad is portrayed as so steady, caring, and long suffering that it's difficult to separate Tessa's desire to live and create memories from the awful effects of her behavior on poor dad.

Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews recently named "Before I Die" one of the best teen books of 2007, and it's easy to see why. Author Jenny Downham has a lovely writing style, and she's able to nicely intersperse descriptions and observations that feel like bits of poetry into Tessa's account of her final year. I thought the second half of the novel, after Tessa opens herself up to her neighbor Adam, loses and regains love, and watches angrily as her health rapidly declines, was quite beautiful to read. Downham is able to create real emotion at Tessa's end, but not in a saccharine or falsely sympathetic way.

Most likely, girls will be drawn to Tessa's story, and I have no problem recommending it to high school readers. There is an abundance of serious subject matter here — death, sex, drugs, crime, teen pregnancy — so it's definitely a story for older teens. If you give it a try, let us know what you think.

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2007 in Uncategorized

 

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