The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis (9780062659002)
Evan Panos has been dealing with physical and emotional abuse from his mother since he was five years old. Now at almost 18, he is simply trying not to let his different worlds collide. At summer Bible Camp, he has his first kiss with a boy, who then comes to his small town to visit, something that makes Evan very nervous in case his mother discovers the kiss. Then there is his long time best friend, Henry who has suddenly become very hot over the summer. Evan pours his emotions into his art and his notebooks where he meticulously documents his mother’s abuse, his father’s inability to step in, and his own isolation and fear. As his mother becomes even more suffocating and cruel, Evan has to find a way forward that will allow him to survive and maybe even fall in love.
Surmelis grew up in a very similar strict Greek family as a gay boy who was shunned for being who he was from a very young age. The writing here is strong and powerful, particularly during the scenes of abuse, the way that time slows down and then rushes forward again, the terrifying switches from kindness to cruelty and violence, the warning signs far in advance that still don’t allow the abuse to be avoided. It is chilling, violent and gut wrenching.
The character of Evan is multidimensional and complex. The extensive secrets he is hiding and the horrible abuse could have defined him as a character, but instead they serve to show even more clearly his intelligence, artistic nature and ability to forgive. Even as his mother is hurling insults at him, readers will know who he really is and will never question him the way that he questions himself. He is a vital character, one who survives and moves forward despite being trapped for so long.
An important look at the abuse suffered by gay teens at the hands of their families, this teen novel is riveting. Appropriate for ages 16-18.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Balzer + Bray.
The Summer of Owen Todd by Tony Abbott (9780374305505)
Owen and his best friend Sean are looking forward to the perfect Cape Cod summer spent playing baseball, driving go-karts at Owen’s family’s business, and just messing around. But then Sean’s mother hires a babysitter for him for the summer even though he’s eleven years old, because she has a new job out of town and Sean has diabetes that she worries about. She also won’t let Sean head to the go-karts anymore. Owen tries to spend a lot of time with Sean anyway, but their summers steadily head in different directions. When Sean tells Owen that his babysitter is treating him strangely, Owen can’t tell how serious the problem is. Sean swears Owen to secrecy and seems fine a lot of the time. But other times, when Sean shares more of what is happening, Owen can’t tell if Sean is lying or not. When Owen realizes that it is all true, it may be too late to save his friend.
Abbott has created a book about the beauty of summer as a kid. That theme contrasts with the darkness of sexual abuse that is also central to the story. It’s a book about friendship and what it takes to be a best friend, break a confidence, and tell. It’s also a book about being a kid, the epic nature of summer break and growing up. Abbott beautifully contrasts Owen’s experiences with the trauma that Sean is going through.
This book simply because of its theme may be too mature for some readers. The way the abuse is dealt with offers just enough details for young readers to understand the seriousness of what is happening but not too much to overwhelm them. This is a book that demands to be discussed and will leave readers feeling shaken. There is no simple happy ending here, which speaks to the damage and complexities of sexual abuse.
Strong writing combines with a harrowing story to create a book about what it means to really be a best friend. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Farrar Straus Giroux.
Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman (9781481487726)
Kiko struggles to find her own voice in many ways. She can’t seem to be herself in crowds, even small ones. She certainly can’t tell her mother what she actually thinks, particularly when her mother lets her uncle return to their home after Kiko had accused him of molesting her as a child. It is only in her art that Kiko tells her own story and speaks the truth. She plans to finally get away from her mother by attending art school in New York City. When she doesn’t get in, Kiko is trapped in a life of seeing her molester in her home, being with her horrible mother, and seeing her best friend head off to school. That is when a childhood friend comes back into her life and she begins to see what a future filled with art and honesty looks like.
I read only the first few lines of this debut book and realized that I had tumbled into the world created by a very talented storyteller. It is a world of abusive mothers, where the abuse is emotional rather than physical. Bowman draws the abuse clearly and subtly, allowing readers to realize the depths of the damage along with Kiko herself as her mother not only fails to protect her but also hurts her directly. It is a world of art, where art pieces end each chapter, the image capturing the emotions that Kiko was just feeling with an accuracy that lets you see it before your eyes.
This is a book that explores being different, particularly Kiko, who is half Japanese and half Caucasian, looking different than her blonde mother. Her mother has specific cruelties related to Kiko’s appearance that are particularly awful. As Kiko begins to think for herself, readers will be able to start breathing along with her and see just how strong Kiko is as a young woman on her own.
A book that celebrates individuality, art and survival, this novel is fresh and deeply moving. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
ARC provided by Simon & Schuster.
Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green (9781941302415)
A harrowing look at anorexia from its very beginnings as a child through to new adulthood and its lingering effects even after recovery, this graphic novel is frank and honest about the illness. A personal memoir, Green tells the story of herself as a child in England being a picky eater and her parents trying to make her eat, of hiding food from them. As a teen, she became anorexic to the point of near death and potential hospitalization. She was pulled from school in order to regain her health. With the help of a nontraditional therapist, Katie did recover but only to find that he had been abusing her. Now her recovery was in peril and she began binge eating to stop the thoughts and feelings that overwhelmed her. Through a slow new recovery, Katie came to terms with food, emotions and being good to herself.
I read this book in a single sitting, unable to turn away from Katie’s very personal story of illness, recovery, setbacks and recovery once more. It’s not a small graphic novel, coming in at over 500 pages but once you begin it, it’s impossible to not know what happens to Katie in the end. She puts an incredibly human face on anorexia, showing readers an amazing vulnerability and strength on every page.
The art here is handled with a delicacy and subtlety that suits the subject well. Small changes in background color, show the difference between memory and current time in the story. The illness of anorexia is shown as a black cloud of tangled lines that follows Katie wherever she goes and takes over entire panels on the page. It is a particularly effective choice so that readers can see the struggle as something tangible.
Heartfelt and vibrantly personal, this graphic novel takes on difficult subjects with grace and care. Appropriate for ages 14-18. (E-galley received from Edelweiss and Lion Forge.)
The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade by Jordan Sonnenblick (9780545863209, Amazon)
Released August 29, 2017.
Maverick knows that sixth grade is going to be his year. This year he’s going to make a difference. He’s going to help those smaller than him, if he can find anyone shorter than he is. He’s going to stand up to bullies, particularly Jamie and Bowen, who have tormented him for years. But being a hero is not as simple as carrying the plastic badge that his father left him. Every time that Maverick tries to help, things turn out worse, often for him. He can’t stand up to his mother’s abusive boyfriend, can’t get his mother to stop drinking so much, and can’t seem to stop ending up in the assistant principal’s office. Can you be a hero when your own life is endless trouble?
Sonnenblick’s take on sixth grade is wonderfully dark and funny. He looks straight at bullying in middle school and clearly understands it. This book grapples with serious subjects such as physical abuse, abandonment, alcoholism and the loss of a parent. Happily, Maverick is a character who somehow manages to look at these troubles with a sarcastic wit that allows readers to cope as well. When looked at without Maverick’s lens on things, his home life is not only terrible but dangerous as well. Sonnenblick manages to use humor not to minimize these issues but to allow readers to see them clearly without pity but with lots of empathy.
Sonnenblick’s take on school administration is equally successful. He creates a pair of horrors for students: The Bee who is the terrifying assistant principal and The Bird who is the awful school nurse. The Bee turns out to have a heart of gold and to be aware of what is happening in the halls almost before the students are. The Bird on the other hand wields Lysol spray as antiseptic for cuts.
A triumphant story of a young hero who finds help in unlikely places on his journey. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
Blood Family by Anne Fine (9781481477734, Amazon)
At age seven, Edward was saved from his abusive stepfather, Harris, when a neighbor saw him peeking out of their apartment through a boarded-up window. He had been shut in with his mother for three years, unable to leave. The only glimpse of the real world that he had was through a series of videotapes that the previous resident had left behind. Thanks to those videos, he was able to learn about the world and mentally escape the horror of his life. After he is rescued, Edward struggles to adapt to real life. He is smart and fascinated by everything, but his peers realize how different he is. When Edward becomes a teenager, he is suddenly confronted by the idea that Harris might be his real father after all. Is there a monster waiting inside him to break free?
Shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, this novel is heartrendingly realistic. The book is told in many voices. They include Edward himself and also the adults around him from the social worker who first rescues him from the apartment to the couple who foster him to the family that adopts him and his adopted sister. This is necessary as Edward begins to spiral out of control, so that readers can still view him clearly and better understand the hidden impacts and scars that his tortured upbringing have left on him.
Edward is a strong and interesting protagonist who is vastly human and easy to relate to. Fine uses the videos of a Mr. Rogers like figure to explain how Edward’s mind survived intact. As Edward seems completely fine much of the time, it is his fall into darkness that makes the book believable and allows readers to more fully understand the deep despair that has been lapping at him all along. Fine’s writing allows us hope for Edward’s future, then takes that away, only to restore it once again, showing that all of us have the potential to lose ourselves and find ourselves over and over again.
A powerful read that will be popular with those teens who like A Child Called It. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
A List of Cages by Robin Roe (9781484763803)
Julian just wants to get through high school without attracting anyone’s attention. He has a secret spot to hide during lunch where he feels safe, something he never feels anywhere else even at home. Julian’s parents died when he was a child and now he lives with his last remaining relative, an uncle by marriage. Adam is a popular kid in high school, bouncing with energy from his ADHD and full of smiles to brighten everyone’s day. When Adam is sent to find a freshman who is missing his sessions with the school counselor, he is surprised to discover it is Julian, who had once been his foster brother. But as the two get closer, it is clear that something awful is happening to Julian, something that may be too big for them to handle.
This teen novel is about grief, loss and pain. It’s about possibilities lost, other lives dashed. It’s gut-wrenching and powerful and devastating. And yet, it is also brimming with hope, with a gritty potential for change that just won’t stop, with the power of friendship and the deep abiding love of brotherhood. It’s complicated and not easy in any way. It’s wonderful.
The writing by Roe makes everything powerful and dense with meaning. Here is how she has Adam describe Julian on Page 170 of the book:
I used to think struggle was what aged you, but if that were the case, Julian should’ve been a hundred years old. Now I wonder if the opposite is true. Maybe instead of accelerating your age, pain won’t let you grow.
The characters here are brilliantly juxtaposed. She does not turn to the trope of the well-off teen being a bully or a jerk. Instead, Adam is a bright spot for everyone until he faces something he can’t deal with. It’s such a mix of tragedy, hope and fear. One that Roe has written with depth and care.
A stunning debut novel that is deeply moving and wondrously hopeful. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King (InfoSoup)
Sarah has stopped going to high school after an event that she doesn’t want to talk about or even think about. Sarah is a master at not thinking about certain things, like what she witnessed on vacation in Mexico with her family. Instead Sarah thinks about things like doing something original and what art is. She spends her days on the streets of Philadelphia, visiting a derelict school building, speaking with past and future versions of herself, and wondering about art and how to start creating again. She isn’t able to continue keeping the secrets deep inside hidden even from herself. So she begins to work through her thoughts, ideas and what she has seen. She contacts the brother that she hasn’t seen since the Mexico trip six years before and begins to wake up to the problems that have always been there in her family.
My goodness, this book is impossible to explain in a single paragraph. It is multilayered book that shifts and grows and builds underneath the reader as Sarah’s memories are revealed. It is wild and powerful, the tornado in the title an apt image for the rawness of this book. King depicts the dangers of living lies, whether they are built by those who say they love you or yourself. The force of those lies, the determination it takes to keep them hidden, and the emptiness of the world shaped by those lies make for a landscape that filled with traps and danger. King is a master at allowing a character to tell her own story at her own pace while making sure that the book continues to move forward, building tension upward and showing the deep humanity inside.
Sarah is an exquisite character. She is an enigma for the first part of the book, since she is determined to keep the lies spinning and not allow the truth to escape into the world. She is the epitome of an unreliable narrator, one that becomes more reliable as the book continues. Yet even as she is unreliable, she is completely relatable. Her pain is tangible on the page, her loneliness is palpable. It is in hiding her real truth and living the lie that she becomes most human.
A powerful novel filled with pain, lies, guilt and searing truth. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from ARC received from Dutton Books for Young Readers.
Rules for Stealing Stars by Corey Ann Haydu (InfoSoup)
Silly is the youngest of four sisters and the older sisters tend to leave her out of a lot, like the secret boyfriend one of the twins has and what they are doing for hours in their bedroom so quietly. Their family has moved to New Hampshire to a home that used to be used just in the summer, the house where their mother grew up. But the move is not helping their mother who is quickly declining into alcoholism and abusive behavior. It isn’t until their mother turns on Silly too that the sisters bring Silly into their secret: their closet can take them to a different world. The sisters are shocked when Silly joins them and the magic becomes much stronger. As the sisters turn more and more to the closet for relief from their lives, they have to face the darkness they discover there as well. It may just be the answer for them all.
Haydu has created a lush book based loosely on The Twelve Dancing Princesses. She embraces the darkness of family life, offering a family dancing on the edge of something terrible, avoiding the truth about what is happening to their mother and what happened in her past, a father unable to cope with reality, and children trying to hold them all together. It is against that dark backdrop that the closets glimmer and glitter, beckoning the sisters and the reader to a different place where there is wonder and magic. But escaping into that place is not reality and Haydu shows this with a daring climax that speaks volumes about facing truth and being a family.
A book filled with four sisters can be challenging. Haydu pulls it off with grace and style, offering each of the girls a distinct personality but keeping them from being stereotypical. Silly is the main character, a girl who has been left out of much that the sisters have done and feels that she has no special sister to pair with the way the twins do. Silly feels alone even in a bustling houseful of people, which speaks volumes about her family. Silly is also the one protected from much of the abuse, but she witnesses more than the others do.
This brilliant starry novel takes a dark reality and a dazzling magic and creates wonder all its own. Appropriate for ages 11-14.
Reviewed from library copy.