A Must-Read

 

32075671The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas (2017)

First line: “I shouldn’t have come to this party.”

If you are active in the #kidlit world, you have probably already heard about this book. After all, it’s currently sitting number one on the NY Times Bestseller list, and was one of the inaugural winners of the Walter Dean Myers Grant awarded by We Need Diverse Books. It’s getting LOTS of buzz, one of the reasons I dropped what I was reading to squeeze it in when my hold came in at the library.

The title, The Hate U Give, is reference to Tupac’s explanation of the meaning of “Thug Life” (“the hate u give little infants f***s everybody”), meaning that what society gives its youth, comes back to affect us all. When the author experienced the aftermath of Oscar Grant’s shooting in Oakland, CA, in 2009, Tupac’s words seemed to bring up new relevance, and from that Starr Carter’s story was born.

In the first chapter of The Hate U Give, 16-year-old Starr finds herself at a house party over spring break in Garden Heights, the neighborhood where she lives and has spent her entire life. She feels uncomfortable, though, because for several years Starr has been attending a predominately white private school in the suburbs, 45 minutes and a world away from the Garden. She has become acutely aware of the two different parts of her identity, and is adept at code-switching between the two, not wanting to seem “too ghetto” while at school, but still wanting to be able to fit in in the neighborhood.

While at the party, Starr runs into Khalil, her childhood best friend but a guy she hasn’t seen in a couple years. At once, he’s the same little kid she used to goof around with but also somehow grown up. When the party gets out of control and they hear gunshots, Khalil offers to drive Starr home. On the way, they are stopped by the police for “a broken taillight,” but soon Khalil is asked to get out of the vehicle, and while he is looking back in the window to check to make sure Starr is okay, he is shot in the back 3 times. Starr holds him in the street while he bleeds out.

Starr then finds herself in another very uncomfortable situation. While she grieves for her former best friend and fears all white cops she encounters, she also hears her current friends refer to Khalil as a thug and a drug dealer, as if that justifies his death. They stage a protest at school, just to get out of class, and simultaneously sympathize with the family of the cop who shot him. And Starr has no idea what to do.

I quickly understood what all the buzz was about when reading this book. It was heartbreaking, eye-opening, real, and hilarious all at once. I recently saw Jason Reynolds speak at an author panel, and he mentioned that in his writing, he tries to show not only some of the injustice and dark side of neighborhoods like where he (and Starr) grew up, but also how those people love to laugh, have favorite foods, goofy habits, best friends, etc. That people from the hood are people first. I think Angie Thomas does a superb job of this as well. I found myself fully attached to these characters, laughing and loving right along with them. Despite the dark content matter, there were some hilarious parts of this novel. This blend is what I think makes it so powerful.

I am so pleased that this novel is getting the attention it deserves. The more who read it, the better. It will do what novels do best: create empathy, build bridges, and cause change to those who read it.

3 stars

 

A Beautiful Gift for a Sad Anniversary

All We Have Left, by Wendy Mills (2016)

Opening line: “Travis draws my face into his chest as the smoke engulfs us.”

That opener gives you an idea of the intensity of this book. Wooo boy.

The smoke that main character Alia is referring to is the smoke from the burning floors above her and near-stranger Travis where a Boeing 767 crashed into 1 World Trade Center. The date, of course, is September 11th, 2001, and America as Alia knows it, is about to change. She was never meant to be at the WTC, but after a terrible fight with her mother, Alia’s only chance at getting into an incredible summer art program to develop her passion for drawing (specifically, drawing her kickass Muslim girl superhero comics), is to skip first period and head to visit her dad at work to convince him to sign the permission form. Only, when she gets there, her Ayah isn’t at his desk, and on her way back down, there’s an ominous explosion, and the elevator suddenly stops working.

Meanwhile, we also hear the story of Jesse, living fifteen years later. Jesse’s just trying to survive high school with her three best friends, while being as invisible as possible at home where her parents have not moved on from her brother’s death on that fateful September day when Jesse was just a baby. Jesse’s father, in particular, has spiraled into a raging alcoholic, angry at the world — and particularly all the Muslims in said world, who are responsible for his son’s death (in his eyes). But things start to shift for Jesse when cool, edgy Nick starts to take notice of her and invites her into a dark web of tagging buildings, something that starts as an adrenaline rush, but culminates into hateful graffiti.

This novel will keep readers at the edge of their seats, not only with the intensity of all that is happening on that terrible day in Alia’s world, but also with the regular shifting of perspectives and time periods. The pacing of the chapters was on point, and just when I felt the need to get back to the other character, Mills seemed to anticipate that and POOF, chapter end. I was swept up in both the girls’ stories — Alia’s a little more so, due to the obvious magnitude of her situation — and felt desperate to catch up to the little snapshot the prologue gave to both their narratives.

While there were some bits that felt unrealistic (some of Jesse’s moments with Dave, the resolution of the story), there were a lot of parts that felt incredibly authentic (Jesse’s whirlwind involvement with Nick and his dangerous friends, Jesse’s girl gang, Alia’s short moments with her older brother before school and her inner monologue upon first meeting Travis, Jesse’s visit to the 9/11 museum). Here’s what I think about this book on a whole: It captured me and brought me right back to that day, giving me all the “remember where I was” feelings that accompany any mention of September 11th. But I also felt like it does an excellent job of making it real for all of those teenagers who weren’t alive yet in 2001, or were just tiny babes like Jesse. The author mentions in an interview she did with The New York Times that when her teenage son finished reading the novel, he asked her, “Did all that stuff really happen?” I’m guessing for today’s teens reading about September 11th is similar to how I feel when I read about the Titanic. It seems too dramatic to be real. But it was. So very real. Mills also does an excellent job (I think) of representing Islam to unfamiliar readers. Especially at a time when our President-elect is someone who wants to restrict the immigration rights of all Muslims, we need so many more stories that show the truth of Islam among all the misinformation and misconception. I’m not sure how Mills did her research on this part, but her execution felt spot-on (to this non-Muslim reader).

I want to give this book to all my students. It would probably help if I’d stop hoarding it on my bed table and get it back to school. It also made me want to read all the other 9/11 fiction that’s come out this year, although it sets quite the precedent.

2.5 stars

Finding truth while being lost

51w1vnrjk9lThe Distance Between Lost and Found, by Kathryn Holmes (2015)

Opening line: “The laughter starts as a low murmur.”

Hallelujah Calhoun has found herself back at a church youth camp, after an extended absence from all youth group activities. Although the reader isn’t clear about what happened exactly, we know that it involved the preacher’s son, Luke, and extremely disappointed parents. We know that since, Hallie has quit choir, has lost her friends, and has retreated inside herself. But now she’s back at camp, hiking through the Smokey Mountains, and every moment in the same vicinity as Luke and his cohort is excruciating.

There is a new girl at camp, however, named Rachel, who is outgoing and attempts to befriend Hallie. When she and Rachel and Jonah (Hallie’s friend prior to the Luke incident) find themselves separated from the hiking group, Rachel is insistent in hiking back to camp, and Hallie and Jonah agree to go with her. But when they reach a Y in the trail, they choose the wrong path, and soon are completely lost. Day turns to night turns to morning and night again, and days  go by without any sign of rescue. Before long, their situation turns dangerous, and they have to rely on each other entirely if they are going to have any hope for survival.

I struggled to get into this one. I found myself dreading finding out what actually happened between Hallie and Luke, while I was simultaneously somewhat bored by the tedium of their being lost in the woods. Nothing was particularly wrong with the novel, I just wasn’t immersed. But THEN, for the last 150 pages, I simply could not put it down. The intensity of their situation picks up, we finally hear the full story of “the incident” (don’t worry middle school librarians, it’s early-teen friendly, and even a healthy way for teens to explore early romantic pressures), and we are able to see some hope among their desperation.

Hallie’s story is wonderfully relateable, and I will definitely recommend it to my kiddos.

2 stars

Fostering a father

41uzrunxtklOrbiting Jupiter, by Gary D. Schmidt (2015)

Opening line: “‘Before you agree to have Joseph come live with you,’ Mrs. Stroud said, ‘there are one or two things you ought to understand.'”

The one or two things Jack and his parents “ought to know” about Joseph are these: Two months ago, Joseph almost killed a teacher in a bathroom, and a month before that, Joseph became a father. The last thing? Joseph’s fourteen.

I feel like right there, you know this story is going to be a heartbreaker. As someone who works with 14-year-olds on a daily basis, I cannot physically imagine any of them being fathers or mothers, despite the fact that I know it happens. As someone twice that age, I am just beginning to imagine myself in that role. 14-year-olds are supposed to be worried about basketball practice and pop quizzes and obnoxious siblings, not about caring for an infant.

However, within these first few pages of a potentially heartbreaking story, we also see a glimmer of hope. Because despite these concerning facts about Joseph, Jack and his parents are completely on board with welcoming him into their family, and do so with gusto. Jack, age 12, takes it upon himself to be there for his new foster brother, sitting by him on the bus (against the advice of his friends), walking with him to and from school when the bus isn’t an option for Joseph (despite his principal’s warnings), and having his back in fights (even though he’s two years younger). Although he doesn’t yet know the full story of Joseph’s life (Joseph is pretty clammed up about it), Jack somehow recognizes that there’s got to be more to it, and more to Joseph than what initially meets the eye. Through the patience and kindness of Jack and his parents, Joseph begins to open up. When he does, Jack learns that the thing Joseph wants most in the world is to meet his baby daughter, Jupiter. It’s the only thing he cares about, the only thing he’s focused on. And he’s willing to risk everything to do it.

Not only did this story hook me right from the very beginning with it’s plot, but Gary Schmidt’s storytelling completely absorbed me. I loved hearing the story from Jack’s perspective, a somewhat objective viewpoint, although still deeply involved. I loved the sparse, purposeful dialogue that let the story be revealed to us, rather than the abundant “he said/she saids” that are so frequently sprinkled throughout middle grade lit. I even loved the winter setting, feeling the thick snow drifts up to my knees and burning sensation of your ears and nose when you come in from being outside (and for those of you who know my disposition to warmer climates, you understand how impressive that is).

I have to tell you, I was blown away by this book. I read it almost all in one sitting (I think I was about 15 pages in when I picked it up yesterday morning), and it gripped me the entire time. I JUST WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW ABOUT IT. If you are familiar with the foster system, you should read this. If you are someone who works with teens and preteens, you should read this. If you are a teen or preteen, who knows that life really is more complicated despite what adults believe or want to believe, you should read this. Just, read this.

3 stars

Get ready to be swept up

51zohd5wlplThis is the Story of You, by Beth Kephart (2016)

Opening line: “Blue, for example. Like the color that sun makes the sea. Like the beach bucket he wore as a hat, king of the tidal parade. Like the word and the hour of nobody awake but me. I thought blue was mine, and that we were each ourselves, and that some things could not be stolen. I thought the waves would rise up, toss down, rinse clean, and that I would still be standing here, solid. I was wrong about everything.”

Okay, so, confession time… sometimes I buy books because they’re pretty. Perhaps you think this is an irresponsible use of school money, but I say, IF IT’S PRETTY, THEY’LL CHECK IT OUT. I mean, I did. (Plus, of course, it had some great reviews, so low risk). I feel like I’m just rewarding the graphic designers for doing their job well.

So, because #IJudgeBooksByTheirCovers, there was a chance this would be a dud. But GUYS, I LOVED THIS.

As someone who reads a lot of middle grade fiction, I’m sometimes wildly surprised by beautiful writing. That’s not to say that middle grade fiction doesn’t have good writing, but it has its audience. And that audience is primarily made up of 8-12-year-olds. Not 28 year old former English majors. So when I come across a book whose language and writing is as beautiful as its story, I may become obsessed. I mean, check out that opening line I included at the top. Usually, I just have an opening sentence. But I couldn’t stop at a sentence! I just couldn’t!

Mira lives with her mother and younger brother on Haven, a small island just off the Jersey Shore, where the summers are filled with tourists and the off-season is filled with racing around the 3 sq miles of island with her two best friends, Eva and Deni, on their “modes” (of transportation): a golf cart for Deni, a skateboard for Eva, and a pair of old school skates for Mira. Mira’s brother, Jasper Lee, has a crippling congenital illness that requires weekly treatments on the mainland, so on this particular Wednesday, it’s normal that her mother and brother hop in the car and head off of Haven. It’s normal when the clouds roll across the waves, because as the weather forecasters tell them, it’s headed back to sea. It’s normal.

But it’s not normal when her mom calls to tell her that Jasper Lee had a terrible reaction to one of the medications and has to stay at the hospital for several days. It’s not normal when she sees a dark shadow of a person walk up her boardwalk to her house and shuffle around for a while before walking away. It’s not normal when the wind and rain pick up and it’s clear the storm did not head back out to sea.

After a terrifying night, which Mira almost doesn’t survive, she is forced to head out to check out the damage of the island, and see how she’s going to pick up the pieces.

Like I said, the lyrical and poetic writing just swept me along with the story, and made me stay up way past my normal sleepy-girl bedtime. I hope my students will be swept along like me, rather than stuck at what may not be as straightforward as they’re used to.

2.5 stars

Middle School Drama at its Finest

Awkward, by Svetlana Chmakova (2015)61yatzrvzjl

What a perfect title for this graphic novel set in middle school. Because, coming from someone who spends everyday in a middle school, it’s a word that describes anywhere from 50%-75% of any given day.

Penelope feels super awkward every time she sees Jaime in the hallways, due to a terrible interaction she had with him on her first day at a new school. After tripping over her own feet in front of everyone, Jaime stops to help her pick up her stuff. The local bullies start harassing them, calling Penelope Jaime’s “nerder girlfriend”, and in a desperate attempt to distance herself from a low social status, she pushes Jaime away and yells at him to leave her alone. Now she feels incredibly guilty for her reaction to a kid who was just trying to be nice to her.

Awkward.

I can identify with Penelope’s severe guilt complex (I still cringe when thinking of a similar moment of over-reaction in 5th grade), so I immediately felt the truth of these pages. Soon, she gets in with the art club crowd, a weird but welcoming group of friends — another thing I can identify with after spending four years in drama club. But the art club’s bitter rival is the science club, who recently stole their table at the school club fair, and the principal plans to cancel both clubs if they can’t get along. Penelope’s anxious to keep the art club running, because it’s the only place she’s felt comfortable — and the one person from the science club who might be willing to help bring the clubs together is none other than Jaime. Can she push aside the awkwardness to save the clubs?

I loved this graphic novel for it’s engaging artwork, complex and diverse characters, and simple yet relevant plot. Another good one to hand to those that love Raina T.

2 stars.

The Mountain calls.

61fvtvw74elThe Honest Truth, by Dan Gemeinhart (2015)

Opening Line: “The mountain was calling me.”

I mean, I get it. One of the best things about my new living situation is that when I turn a corner I might get surprised by a sudden mountain view. And the mountain this opening line is specifically about, Mt. Rainier, is particularly noteworthy. I vividly remember the time my family went on perhaps the greatest roadtrip vacation ever, along the northern west coast, and had been at Mt. Rainier National Park all day without seeing the actual mountain because of clouds, and then, on our way out, we came around a bend and THERE IT WAS IN ALL ITS MAGICAL GLORY.

rainier

I mean, you see those “mountains” down at the bottom? That’s what we thought were the mountains before this bad boy came into view.

So, I get it. The mountain calls to me too. Not that I’m going to try to climb it, like Mark does in The Honest Truth.

Mark is a normal kid. As normal as a kid who has been through multiple cancer treatments, beating the odds, can be. But now the cancer is back. And Mark is out of options.

More than anything, Mark wants to follow his grandfather’s dreams of climbing Mt. Rainier, but he knows his parents will never let him with his current diagnosis. And so, he sets off on his own, with just his beloved dog Beau, telling no one — with the exception of leaving a secret haiku for his best friend Jess.

While Jess struggles with whether to tell Mark’s parents where she’s pretty sure he went, Mark journeys across state lines with little Beau. Despite his well-orchestrated plans, things go awry, and the trip is much more difficult than Mark imagined. Still, his determination will stop at nothing to reach the summit.

This story is raw and honest and the reader feels the desperation Mark feels along the way. If you have readers like I do that “want something that’s going to make me cry”, suggest this. You will never feel sorry for Mark, but you will definitely feel for him (and bff Jess, unsure of what she should do to save her friend).

All heart, this one. 2 stars.