War Brothers: The Graphic Novel by Sharon E. McKay, illustrated by Daniel LaFrance
This is the graphic novel version of McKay’s teen novel of the same title. Based on interviews with child soldiers, this novel pulls no punches when telling the story of Jacob, a Ugandan boy taken by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as a soldier. Jacob is a teenager who is headed to a boy’s school. Knowing the danger from Joseph Kony and his LRA, Jacob’s father provides additional armed guards at the school. But it is not enough, Jacob and his friends are taken as child soldiers. That begins a story of brutality, murder, starvation, and survival. But this story is not without hope and resilience and heroism that flies in the face of the desperate and violent situation the boys find themselves in.
McKay warns readers right from the beginning about the violence of the storyline. Through a letter from Jacob, the book warns of the brutality of what happens, ending with “There is no shame in closing this book now.” McKay does not try to lessen that brutality, showing how child soldiers are indoctrinated into the LRA and broken. Jacob struggles with having to commit atrocities himself, despite the food that is promised for him and his friends. One of his friends does become a soldier, well fed and cared for, but with his spirit entirely decimated by what he has done. It is an impossible choice, kill others or die yourself.
LaFrance does an admirable job of showing violence but without adding drama to an already volatile and horrific situation. He does not shy away from showing the brutality, often using close ups and unique lighting to show what happened without becoming too bloody. It is a fine line to walk, demonstrating that this is real and actual, while leaving it powerful enough to speak on its own.
Highly recommended, this is a story that is riveting to read as long as you are brave enough to continue turning the pages. The fact that this is based on true stories of child soldiers adds to the compelling nature of the tale. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from copy received from Annick Press.
The Sin-Eater’s Confession by Ilsa J. Bick
Ben saw what happened to Jimmy. Ben was the only witness except for the murderers who stoned Jimmy to death in the woods. Ben shouldn’t even have been there, not after what Jimmy did to him by taking a sensual photo of him when he was sleeping. But Ben found himself drawn to Jimmy and understood that Jimmy had no one else to turn to. His older brother was dead and his parents could not accept having a son who was suspected of being gay. Ben wasn’t sure that Jimmy is gay, and he was not clear about himself either. What he does know is that Merit, Wisconsin was not an easy place to be gay with prejudice still very evident throughout the community. Ben had to decide what to do about what he witnessed, what to tell the police. Now he has to grapple with the guilt that came from the decisions he made and what he intends to do moving forward.
Bick is the author of the Ashes trilogy and here writes a contemporary teen novel that focuses on several large issues. Issues like parental pressures are huge in Ben’s life where his mother expects him to get into Yale and become a doctor. Ben never goes out, has never dated anyone, and pours all of his energy into school and his part time jobs. The book also covers prejudice and homophobia, along with domestic violence. It’s a lot for a single book to deal with and at times some of the subjects seem to be there more for effect and to make a point than to really be part of the story itself.
The book does suffer from slow pacing in some areas, though the underlying story is taut and almost mesmerizing. Seeing into Ben’s thought process is interesting at first, but there are some layers to it that could have been left off to make the book even stronger.
What Bick really does well here is to create a compelling character in Ben. Jimmy was interesting as well, but it is Ben who really is the soul of the story. Through his eyes and his hindsight, readers are able to see the mistakes that Ben has made, the impossible decisions he has been forced into, and eventually his coming to terms with his own responsibility for what happened. Bick has left large parts of Ben unexplained, which works well. Readers will never be clear about his sexuality, which mirrors the questions about Jimmy as well, placing the reader right in the same place as the bigots in the community. One has to start questioning why it matters so much to label someone.
A harsh and unflinching look at bigotry and one’s personal responsibility in a community, this book asks tough questions and then leaves the answers in the reader’s hands. Appropriate for ages 16-18.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Netgalley and Carolrhoda Books.
Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys
Published February 12, 2013.
Josie knows that she wants to leave New Orleans behind. She wants to leave her mother, a prostitute who works in a brothel. Josie wants to leave behind her job of cleaning the rooms of the brothel. But it’s not so easy to leave The Big Easy, especially when a wealthy man just turned up dead soon after meeting Josie in the bookstore she works in. Josie is also caught up in lying about the mental condition of the bookstore’s owner so that he won’t be committed. And there may just be romance flying with not one handsome young man but two. Yet Josie has one specific dream and that is getting into Smith College. The question is just how many people she may have to step on to get there and how she will have to compromise herself. This vivid portrayal of a 1950s New Orleans takes us into the seedy world beneath the shiny beads and lovely architecture.
The setting of this novel is such an integral part of the story that it simply would not have worked anywhere else in the world. Beautifully captured, readers get to really see the time period reflected as well as the city herself. Add to that the wonderfully charged atmosphere of the story and you get a book that is impossible not to fall for, just like New Orleans.
Sepetys has created a complex heroine in this novel. Josie is both ashamed of her background and yet defensive and proud about it as well. As she gets deeper and deeper into the secrets and troubles of the storyline, her character is tested and Josie does not always react the way one might expect a heroine to. Instead she is genuine, making wrong choices, correcting and then making others. Often there is no right answer, just not the worst one.
Well-written and compelling, this glimpse of New Orleans features a striking heroine and a tumultuous storyline. Appropriate for ages 15-17.
Reviewed from ARC received from Philomel.
Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield
When the girl is found dead on the highway near Becca’s small hometown, the entire town is enveloped in the question of who she was and who killed her. All Becca knows is that she is going to leave town at the end of the summer, and leave her boyfriend behind too. But then her boyfriend breaks up with her right after they have sex, and Becca’s world shifts. She too becomes captured by the drama of the murdered girl and finds herself unable to move forward with her plans to head to college. Amelia Anne, the dead girl, was already in college. Caught with a boyfriend who no longer understands her, Amelia continues to date him waiting for the best time to break up. Two girls who end up in the same small town for very different reasons, one at the beginning of her life and the other at the end.
Rosenfield’s writing is unique and heady. She writes with all of her senses, creating a feeling that is almost smothering at times, flying high in others, and always remarkable. Her writing is best when creating a world for just two people, something that happens often here. Those dynamics ring true and painful and wistful.
Her writing about the small town and its history of death is also beautifully done. As readers, we inhale along with the characters, breathing in the scents of the woods and the roses. We witness the fact that small town knowledge can also kill, work through grief with people, and jump to the wrong conclusions. It’s an exhilarating ride of a novel that also takes the time to truly create its own setting and history.
Amazing writing, a violent mystery and a small town setting create a book that is impossible to put down, yet invites you to linger with it longer. Appropriate for ages 16-18.
Reviewed from copy received from Dutton Books.
Lark by Tracey Porter
Sixteen-year-old Lark is kidnapped, raped and left to die in a snowy woods. The story is told in alternating chapters by Lark and two of her friends. There is Eve, a girl who used to be Lark’s best friend until one argument destroyed their friendship. Finally, there is Nyetta, who struggles with being able to see and hear the ghost of Lark. She is tasked by Lark to save her from being bound into a tree. Nyetta is put into therapy because of this. While the book is certainly centered around the tragedy of Lark’s murder, it is also about the two living girls and their need to be believed, cherished and understood.
Porter’s writing is art. She has created a book that has only 192 pages, but is a book that also requires careful reading and has depth and darkness as well. Her writing verges on verse at times, thanks to it being spare but also filled with images. She plays with magical realism here, speaking definitely to the real-life issues but imbuing them also with a certain symbolism that reaches beyond the actual. This lends a real depth to the story, creating a book that is worthy of discussion and thought.
The three lead characters are differentiated well, each a solid character with her own personality and problems. One issue that is woven into the story is sexuality and molestation with two of the girls having experienced molestation or rape. The book teases readers with reading too much into what the girls were wearing or what they looked like, but then firmly says that that is not why girls are molested or raped. It is well written, clear and reassuring.
This is a short book that is a deep read. The darkness will appeal to some teen readers and the magical realism to others. Appropriate for ages 15-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
Released September 12, 2011.
Blood Wounds by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Willa’s life may not be perfect, she lives in a blended family with sisters who get their expensive hobbies and trips paid for by their mother, while Willa doesn’t get those opportunities. Their family is happy though. Of course, there’s a reason that Willa feels the need to cut, so maybe things aren’t as good as they seem. Then one day, with a series of murders in a faraway state, Willa’s life is thrown into crisis. Her biological father is on the run after killing his wife and children, and he’s probably headed to get Willa next. As the crisis throws their life into turmoil, Willa discovers more about her family than she’d ever known, including secrets that answer a lot of the questions she’s never dared to ask.
Pfeffer has created a book that starts with a thrilling premise but that turns out to be less of a thriller and more of a psychological look at a teen girl who has to deal with the aftermath of her father’s madness. Willa is a very intriguing and complex heroine. She struggles to be the perfect daughter, never revealing what she really thinks to her family. On the inside though she is filled with doubts, with unvoiced thoughts, and with resentment. With her father’s murders her life begins to reflect more of her inner world, becoming just as confused and tumultuous.
The writing here is very well crafted. With so many themes: blended families, cutting, murder and forgiveness, it could have become muddled. Instead the themes support one another, creating a tapestry of interwoven ideas that strengthen one another.
Readers will pick the book up for the thrilling premise and then be riveted as they discover a much more complicated read than they were expecting. Appropriate for ages 13-15.
Reviewed from ARC received from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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Blank Confession by Pete Hautman
This book begins with Shayne Blank entering a police department to confess a murder. The question for readers is how this kid who is new to school got into the situation. Mikey is a kid whose mouth always gets him into trouble. Though he thinks he wants to blend in and be invisible at times, he dresses in secondhand suits that make him stick out from the regular high school crowd. When Shayne seems interested in being his friend, Mikey has just ticked off his sister’s boyfriend, drug dealer Jon by dumping a bag in order not to be caught in a sweep of the school. Jon now says that Mikey owes him $500 and that he will pay it back. As the tension grows throughout the novel and the damage done by Jon and others gets more intense, readers will be caught in flashbacks looking for the trigger to the murder. A riveting and tense story about truth, friendship and what one is capable of, this slim novel will hook many readers.
Hautman has written a novel with a structure that creates tension all on its own. Add in some evil drug dealing teens, a mouthy unusual teen who tells the bulk of the book in his voice, and the natural vibe of the police department, and this is one pulse-pounding book. Additionally, Hautman puts the characters in situations where murder is not only possible but likely. This adds to the taut nature of the book even further. The characters are interesting, especially Shayne who is very bright, very tough and a complete mystery. Mikey is a character who would be easily unlikeable but because much of the book is shown through his perspective becomes understood at least by the reader.
That said, the book is not perfect. The ending was brilliant, twisting away from the twist I had expected to my great delight. But the book should have ended a chapter earlier than it does. It should have left us hanging a bit, figuring it out for ourselves. With the final chapter added in, the mystery of Shayne is revealed and it is all a bit too neatly resolved. I’d have much preferred the mysteries and questions to remain.
A book that teens will relate to and be unable to put down, this is a tense and thrilling ride from confession to deed. Appropriate for ages 16-18.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke
This graphic novel tells the true story of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer. In 1994, Yummy, called that because of his sweet tooth, fired a gun into a crowd of rival gang members. He ended up killing a bystander, a teen girl. Yummy was just 11 years old when this happened. The story is told from the point of view of Roger, another boy who knew Yummy from school and the neighborhood. Roger tries to make sense of Yummy and how he became a gang member and killer. This is made even more tangible to Roger because his own brother is in the same gang as Yummy. Throughout this book, deep questions are asked and explored.
Neri’s text creates a great platform to understand the gang wars of the 1990s and the dynamic of southside Chicago. Though the bulk of the book is from Roger’s point of view, the reader also gets to see what Yummy is going through as he hides from police and is eventually killed by his own gang. There is a real restraint in the writing that allows the drama of the tale itself to take center stage.
DuBurke’s illustrations done in black and white are a study in light and dark. Faces change as the light changes on them, becoming sinister and strange. The images are dynamic and underline the youth of Yummy and the transition from bully to killer.
A beautifully crafted graphic novel dealing in brutal subjects, this book is an important exploration of gang warfare. It is also an even more important look at childhood. Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from copy received from Lee & Low Books.
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