The Fire Never Goes Out by Noelle Stevenson

Cover image for The Fire Never Goes Out

The Fire Never Goes Out by Noelle Stevenson (9780062278272)

This deeply personal graphic memoir tells the author’s story of being a creative person in our modern world. Spanning from 2011 to 2019, the book explores her life as a young adult. Starting with her time in art school with its loneliness and her growing meltdowns and self harm, the book explore the darker side of her personality. Her inner flame of creativity and passion battles the hole that she sees as gaping right at her middle. Still, that darkness is offset by wonderfully mundane happy moments such as apple picking in the fall and watching TV with people she enjoys. As the years progress, that strain of darkness and depression vs. creativity and wild energy continues. Stevenson shares her huge accomplishments too such as publishing her first graphic novel to great acclaim and winning national awards for it and running a highly successful series for Netflix. Still, those never quiet the negative thoughts. After finally crashing to her lowest point, Stevenson emerges like a phoenix, a woman in love, getting married and carrying her fire with her still.

There is so much sheer honesty and vulnerability on these pages that it is breathtaking. The mix of Stevenson’s writing with her illustrations, many created at the time she is talking about, makes for a dynamic read where her skill as both writer and artist is evident on every page. Perhaps most telling is how her huge successes did not diminish her negative internal experience, instead perhaps accelerating the crash. Her honesty about self harm and struggles with mental illness is amazing.

Stevenson carefully stays away from generalizing her experience, instead keeping her memoir very personal and about her own journey through creativity and the way it can burn and destroy as well as build. Because of this, readers can see themselves in her, relate to her feelings and see a way forward that does not involve a complete loss of self or creativity. It’s a book of hope, for creative queer people in particular.

Strong, personal and empowering, this is a memoir is a courageous look at mental illness. Appropriate for ages 16-19.

Reviewed from library copy.

Trowbridge Road by Marcella Pixley

Cover image for Trowbridge Road

Trowbridge Road by Marcella Pixley (9781536207507)

June Bug lives with her mother in the house on Trowbridge Road that everyone thinks is haunted. Her father died of AIDS, leaving June Bug with her mother who is scared of germs and obsessed with being clean. That means that she never leaves the house and food can be scarce. June Bug’s uncle brings her food once a week, limited because her mother won’t allow him to come more often, so she is often hungry as the supplies run out. Then Ziggy arrives to live with his grandmother down the road. June Bug watches them from a nearby tree, dreaming of being friends and sharing the food that his grandmother prepares for him throughout the day. Ziggy too has experienced his own troubles, immediately getting the attention of the local bullies. As June Bug and Ziggy meet and become friends, their troubles mount, but they have one another as a safe place to share and heal, because at times home is not that place at all.

Set in the mid-80’s, this novel for middle graders is written with such beauty. Pixley creates a neighborhood that is lovingly shown as a mix of safety, imaginative play and also reveals the harshness of reality too. From the foundations of a fallen house where magic blossoms to the shelter of a large tree that can be scrambled up and down, this is a neighborhood seen through the eyes of two creative children who create their own reality together to care for one another.

The two protagonists are children who have experience abuse of various kinds and find kindred spirits in one another. They have both been hungry, both been physically hurt, and both lived with emotional abuse. They are both survivors, using their imagination and the neighborhood itself as places to escape to together. The power of love soars through this book, in extended families who offer care and shelter, in neighbors who reach out and take action. It’s a book about being able to ask for help and the positive change that can come when aid arrives.

Wrenching, powerful and filled with hope, this book is exceptional. Appropriate for ages 11-14.

Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick.

The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg

The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg

The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg (9781338325034)

Two teens arrive at exactly the same time on the George Washington Bridge, planning to jump off. At the last minute, when he sees Tillie, Aaron decides not to jump, but Tillie does. Aaron now must find new ways to deal with his rising depression, struggles that he can’t admit to his father, even though his father is desperately to figure out what is going on with his son. Tillie’s family is devastated by their loss, particularly her little sister. Tillie, ignored by her adoptive father because she embarrassed him in one of her performances, is being cyberbullied by girls in her school, including one of her previous best friends. But wait, perhaps it was Aaron who jumped and Tillie survived. Or did they both jump? Or did they both stop themselves and find one another. This masterpiece of a novel looks at suicide, getting help, and the impact of loss.

Konigsberg takes one pivotal moment in the lives of two people and shows how it could be different given a slightly different reaction. How one person could be saved, or the other, or neither or both. He portrays two very different families, each struggling with loss or trying to help their teenage child. He shows glimpses of hope, the long slog of treatment, the lifesaving connections that can be made, and how one person can save another. In short, this is life on the page, captured with real empathy.

Konigsberg takes his young protagonists and builds their storylines fully, in one part even projecting us forward decades into what their loss meant for their families and how it continued to echo in their lives. He shares their deep sorrows, their reasons for contemplating suicide, their inability to put it into words themselves, and the powerful desire to have their pain just be over. He gives us the darkness and then the light, the ending portrayal of their stories are just what the reader needs, hope and unlikely friends.

Powerful, deeply impactful and masterful, this teen novel shows suicide in breathtaking complexity. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic Press.

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr by Laura Lee Gulledge

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr by Laura Lee Gulledge

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr by Laura Lee Gulledge (9781419734236)

Mona’s best and really only friend is moving to Hawaii and leaving her to face school and life on her own. It’s made even harder by Mona’s Matter. Her Matter is her dark thoughts that tell her she isn’t good enough and her depression that can take control. Mona steadily learns to make new friends, connecting with others in orchestra. She also learns ways to deal with her depression, the Matter, that keeps it under better control. She meditates, uses art to express herself, and leans on those who love her. In a culminating episode, when her depression seems to be causing physical pain, no one can figure out what is wrong. Mona insists that more tests are run and a problem that requires surgery is found. The battle against her Matter may not be fully won, but one victory at a time makes a difference.

Gulledge has written a fictional but very autobiographical graphic novel. Her representation of depression as “Matter” is really well done. It will serve as both a reflection of experience to those who have depression and a way of learning about it to those who don’t. The physicality of depression is captured here, the isolation that is self built, the nastiness of self talk, and the bravery it takes to break free of the cycle.

The art is gorgeous, beautifully showing the darkness of the Matter that lurks in corners only to suddenly surge and take over. That same darkness though is also a canvas for stars, a way of seeing the rays of yellow that promise hope and light through all of the bleak times. Gulledge uses the yellow sparingly, allowing it to pierce and glow at specific times.

A great graphic novel that tackles depression, courage and recovery. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from copy provided by Amulet.

Review: Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern

Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern

Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern (9780062463357)

When Jamie sees David in the hospital where she volunteers, she is surprised. She knows he won’t have a clue who she is, as she has become almost invisible at school. In a moment where David is curled up in pain, Jamie instinctively reaches out to him. The two of them begin to talk together, sharing texts, emails and IMs as David remains in the hospital. Jamie works out what is wrong with him based on his symptoms and learns that his cystic fibrosis will shorten his life. She shares her own knowledge of hospitals with him, but doesn’t explain her depression following her father’s death. The two of them become friends and soon David is asking Jamie to sneak him out of the hospital so that he can breathe fresh air. As their friendship becomes more intense, David asks her to befriend his sister too and help her find a new path away from destruction. But it may just be Jamie and David who are on the way to destroying their new relationship.

McGovern has written a book about mental health and physical health that doesn’t flinch from discussion suicide openly and also shows the harrowing aspects of having an intensifying physical illness. While their medical diagnoses serve as an important foundation in the novel, it is the interplay between the two main characters that makes this such a compelling read. The two of them are clever, funny and willing to debate their differences with humor and respect.

Readers will come to truly enjoy these two characters, who both struggle with friendship outside of the hospital. Their friendship becomes something precious to them both, building naturally to a romantic level. But it is complicated by health, girlfriends and much more. As the novel builds to its climax, readers will cringe at the inevitable choices that both characters make and wonder if they will ever recover from them.

A surprising and deep novel about health, friendship and breaking the rules. Appropriate for ages 12-16.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperTeen.

Review: The Year We Fell from Space by Amy Sarig King

The Year We Fell from Space by Amy Sarig King

The Year We Fell from Space by Amy Sarig King (9781338236361)

Liberty loves the stars. She creates star maps that allow her to capture what she sees in the stars by drawing her own constellations on the night sky. But when her parents get a divorce, it is like her entire world fell apart. Her father assures her that she will see him often, but they don’t see him for 86 days after the divorce! In the meantime, Lib has witnessed a meteorite fall to earth and recovered the heavy stone. As time goes on, Liberty begins to seethe with rage. It’s an anger that emerges in school sometimes, sometimes at her parents, but mostly sits inside her, red and hot. It’s that anger that made her throw the toaster through the kitchen window, hides a diamond ring from a bully at school, and allows her to tell her father what she really thinks. Liberty worries that she might have depression like her father, and she gradually learns the power of talking about her feelings openly.

Amy Sarig King is the name that the YA author A.S. King writes under for middle-grade books. She does both extremely well. Here King shows the first months of a divorce from the children’s point of view. She steadily reveals what happened in the parent’s marriage, but the real focus is on grief as the two sisters must navigate their way through the pain of losing their family. The emotions run high, from tears to yelling to throwing things. They all feel immensely authentic and real on the page.

Liberty is a great heroine. Far from perfect, particularly at school, she is navigating life by confiding in a meteorite and trying to help everyone else. She is filled with rage much of the time, but also filled with a deep compassion for others, sometimes to her own detriment. King looks frankly at mental health issues here both in parents and in Liberty herself. The use of counselors is spoken of openly and without issue as the family gets the help they need.

A powerful look at divorce, grief and coming to terms with life. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Review: For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington

For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington

For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington (9780374308049)

Keda sometimes feels like an outsider in her own family. She is adopted and the only member of her family who is African American. Moving to a new city across the country and to a new school, Keda has to leave behind her best friend who completely understands her. Keda’s parents are both classical musicians, though her mother hasn’t been even practicing her violin lately. She tends to have spells where she can’t get out of bed mixed with other times filled with lots of energy and projects. Keda feels a lot of pressure to take care of her mother, often not sharing the microaggressions she suffers at school or the racist names that others are calling her. When Keda’s mother finds out about the name calling, she pulls Keda and her older sister out of school entirely to be homeschooled. But her mother doesn’t consistently teach them, placing Keda into a girl scout troop for the summer where more racial incidents happen. As her mother’s condition worsens, Keda finds herself often alone with her mother at home trying to figure out how to help and not make things worse.

Lockington vividly tells the story of a tween who struggles to make her personal needs known to a family who doesn’t experience the world in the same way due primarily to race. The book is told from Keda’s perspective which gives it a strong voice and makes the aggression she receives feel very personal to the reader. Just telling the story of an adoptive child who is pre-teen, African-American, and in a loving but struggling home is important. The subjects of microaggressions and racism are told in a straight-forward and unflinching way that will allow readers of all races to understand the impact and pain they cause.

Keda’s character is resilient and smart. She is often struggling with huge issues from racism to mental illness. Yet she doesn’t ever give up. She stands up to bullies and racists, tries to protect her fragile mother from knowing about the hardships happening to her, and then works to care for her mother and protect her father. She is immensely alone in the book and yet always looking for a way forward.

An important and very personal story of adoption, race and strength. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Review: All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker

All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker

All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker (9780451479532)

This superb middle-grade novel introduces readers to a young artist who finds herself at the center of a mystery. Ollie’s parents are both artists. Her father and his partner Apollo restore art work and her mother creates sculptures. But then one night, her father leaves for France with his new French girlfriend and her mother won’t get out of bed. Ollie fends for herself, eating apples and peanuts, meeting Apollo for meals out, and protecting the secret of her mother’s depression. She spends time with her two best friends, Richard and Alex, throughout their Soho neighborhood. Ollie discovers that there is more to her father’s disappearance than she thought and is determined to find out what is truly going on.

Filled with compelling characters and a mystery worth sleuthing, this novel is a delight of a read. Tucker uses the setting of New York City as a vivid backdrop to the tale. Soho itself serves as almost another character in the book with its lofts for artists, empty buildings, and occasional illegal poster hanging. When Ollie and Alex head to an island getaway, that setting too is beautifully depicted as a foil to the city and is equally celebrated too. Her writing is deft and nicely keeps the pace brisk and the questions about Ollie’s parents fresh.

All of the young characters in the book are fully realized and each have a distinct personality that makes sense and carries through the title. Apollo, a giant of a man who serves as a rock for Ollie in this tumultuous time, is also a well depicted character. Ollie’s mother is an important character whose depression keeps the reader from knowing her better. The subject of parental mental illness is handled with frankness and the book concludes with a sense of hope.

A fresh mix of mystery, art and secrets, this book is full of vibrant colors and not just Greys. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Viking.

 

Review: How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox

How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox

How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox (9780525554295)

Biz can float through her life, realizing that she is part of a larger universe and leaving her current troubles behind. But every time, she is drawn back to her body and back to her life. She does have great people in her life, including her mother and the twins. Plus her best friend Grace. She also has her father, who died when Biz was young, but stays with her, reminding her of his love for her. But when something happens on the beach, things start to spiral out of control. Grace loses her boyfriend over it, and they both lose their larger friend group. When Grace reacts with fury, her family moves her away. Biz’s father disappears and she stops being able to go to school, almost unable to leave her bed. When she eventually does get help via therapy, Biz doesn’t tell the entire truth, figuring out how to build bits of her life back until they tumble over once again.

This is a remarkable debut novel. Set in Australia, the book explores mental illness with a tenderness that is haunting. The beauty of the world Biz’s mind creates for her is a mix of tantalizing promises and real dangers. Even as readers know that Biz is unwell, they too will be caught up in her visions, understand her desire to keep floating, to enter the sea, to find connections. The setting of Australia is just as lovingly depicted with details of the landscape, the stunning coastline and a trip into the heart of the continent.

In Biz, readers will find a very intelligent teen who is struggling as her mental illness continues to impact her life in profound ways. Biz is warm and funny, a person first and her illness second. Her sarcasm draws people to her. After she loses most of the support structure in her life, she meets new people who love her, accepting her as she is, though she continues to search for what she has lost.

Aching and heart wrenching, this teen novel is an honest and profound look at mental illness and being human. Appropriate for ages 13-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Dial Books.