Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams (9781481465809)
Genesis keeps a list of things that she hates about herself. Some of it is the color of her skin and the way that others tease her about how dark she is, unlike her light-skinned mother with good hair. Some of it is about the way that their family keeps getting kicked out of the houses they live in because they don’t pay the rent. Some of it is the way her father speaks about her when he is drunk. Some of it is based on her grandmother’s hurtful comments about Genesis. So after being kicked out of yet another house, Genesis’ family moves to a more affluent neighborhood outside of Detroit. Genesis discovers that she likes her new school and even finds herself making real friends for the first time. The house is the nicest they have ever lived in too. But other things aren’t any better. Her father keeps on drinking. Genesis is still as dark-skinned as ever, but she has plans to try to lighten her skin, thinking that will make her entire life better. As Genesis discovers her own talents, she must learn that learning to accept herself is a large piece of moving forward in life.
In this debut novel, Williams writes with a strong voice, taking on difficult topics including verbal abuse, racism, skin tone, alcoholism and co-dependency in an unflinching way. Williams reveals the deep pain and lasting scars that cruel words and verbal abuse can have on a young person, particularly when it is about a physical characteristic that is beyond their control. With Genesis’ parents caught in a marriage filled with anger and substance abuse, Williams offers other adult figures and also young peers who model a way forward for Genesis.
Genesis’ growth is organic and well paced. She learns things steadily but has set backs that end up with her damaging herself. She is a complicated character who looks at life through a specific lens due to her upbringing. She is constantly judging others before they can judge her, placing distance where there could be connections, and making poor decisions when offered compliments. Still, she is a good friend, someone willing to look beyond the surface and see what others can’t. But only when she allows herself to do that. Her complexity is what makes this book really shine.
Strong and vibrant, this book takes on the subject of skin tone in the African-American community as well as other heavy topics. Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Atheneum.
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.
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.
The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg
17-year-old Carson has moved from New York City to Billings, Montana with his mother to take care of the dying alcoholic father he hasn’t seen in 14 years. When they first get to town, his mother drops Carson off at the zoo to spend the day while she handles the initial contact with his father. At the zoo, Carson meets Aisha and finds himself able to speak to a pretty girl for the first time. Aisha is cool, she doesn’t mind his odd sense of humor, and she is also a lesbian. Carson also discovers that Aisha is homeless, thrown out by her father once he found out about her sexuality. Carson begins to discover that there are secrets in his own family, ones that lead him and Aisha to head out on a road trip to explore what happened to his grandfather and what caused him to leave his family and never return. Carson hopes that the answers to these secrets may be enough to help his father heal, but they also have the potential to hurt him badly as well.
I adored Openly Straight by Konigsberg and I am equally excited about this novel. In both, Konigsberg manages to speak to the gay teen experience but he does it in very inventive ways. The focus here is on Carson, a white straight male, but one who is beautifully and hauntingly damaged. Throughout the book, that damage is explored and exposed. Aisha is an incredible character too, an African-American lesbian character who refuses to be anyone’s sidekick or any novel’s secondary character. This is her journey as well, though the two of them are looking for different things along the same path. Konigsberg also takes a hard look at AIDS and early gay activism in this novel, something that is important for modern teens both gay and straight to understand.
I am rarely a fan of road trip novels since they often meander too much for my liking. That is not the case here where the journey is part of the discovery about the characters. The journey is also a way to give these two teens time to talk about big things like families and faith. It offers the core of the novel, a connection between two very different personalities where both of them discover home in one another. Even better, it’s not a romance book at all even though it has a male and a female in the lead roles. Hurrah!
An important addition to the LGBT collections, this book explores faith, sexuality, and family with humor and depth. Appropriate for ages 14-16.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
Recovery Road by Blake Nelson
Madeline is in rehab at Spring Meadows. She has been moved to the halfway house where they are allowed to go to a movie once a week. What starts as a protest and a joke, becomes a habit for Madeline even after her only friend at rehab leaves. She meets Stewart there, a gorgeous boy who is also at the halfway homes. The two of them connect immediately and even though there are strict rules about associating with the opposite sex, they manage to start a relationship. Madeline leaves rehab to continue high school, leaving Stewart to finish his time in rehab. Now the question is whether their relationship live without the intensity of rehab and in the cold light of real life.
Nelson has captured the intriguing mix of boredom and intensity of rehab. He explores addiction and recovery with an unflinching honesty that forces readers to see the reality of the situation. Through his two main characters of Madeline and Stewart, readers can see the different paths that recovery can take.
I don’t want to make this seem like a clinical look at recovery. Rather, it is filled with emotions and connections and failures and humanity. It is that humanity that makes the truth so brutal at times. Madeline is a great protagonist: a person who has made many mistakes but is striving to fix their impact on her future.
One quibble I have about the book is the sudden change of Madeline’s opinion about going to college after high school. While it is a choice that makes perfect sense, her rapid change of a strong opinion happened a bit too quickly for me. I found myself thinking about how it would have made much more sense delayed by a chapter or two as Madeline continued to grow and learn.
This is a superior book about addiction and recovery that is honest and human. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
Also reviewed by:
Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Zach is in rehab with no memory of how he got there. His therapist tells him that he was going through alcohol withdrawal so severe that he could have died, but all of the other details remain hidden in Zach’s mind. As Zach goes through therapy, learning from therapists and others going through rehab, he learns to feel emotions again even though he longs to stay in the cocoon of amnesia that he has built. This powerful novel shows the unpeeling of denial and addiction to reach the essence of memory and humanity.
This book reads like a poem, a prayer. The language is by turns languid and thoughtful and then raging and taut. Readers are not spared from the emotional onslaught of recovery and truth as Zach slowly realizes what has happened to him. The prose is an inner dialogue, a wandering but purposeful journey through memory. It is a stream of consciousness that flows like a raging river, cleansing and correcting as it goes. Zach is an amazing character who even when in denial and doubt, shines like a beacon. He is strong in the face of such overwhelming change and brave as he faces his demons.
This is a book filled with such truth and honesty that it is searing and painful to witness. It is a book that will capture teen readers and not let them loose even when they finish the novel. Highly recommended, this book is appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
Also reviewed by La Bloga and The Picnic Basket.