Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles (9780062349217)
When Del’s mother starts going to church, she drags him along with her. The only thing that gets Del through those dull sermons is watching Kiera Westing, a girl he’s had a crush on since kindergarten. Even better, for the first time ever, Kiera is single! Now it’s up to Del to figure out a way to get close to her. When he sees Kiera joining a group of other students up at the front of the church, Del joins them, not realizing that he’s agreed to be part of the Purity Pledge, not to have sex until marriage. But maybe this is the key to get Kiera’s attention. He knows that his reputation makes him an unlikely participant, since everyone’s heard about the orgy that happened Freshman year. Del, with the help of a new friend, decides to play the long game and prove his pure intent. Along the way, he becomes friends with the other kids doing the Pledge and finds himself taking their sex-related questions to the sex-ed teacher at school, a class none of the other Pledge kids are allowed to attend. Del is sure he has Kiera just where he wants her, but he has yet to realize that Kiera has to be just where she wants to be too.
I am so pleased to see a book about toxic masculinity with a male protagonist who wakes up to the flaws in his intricate plans just a bit too late. Del is a marvelous hero of the book, filled with personal flaws, intelligent but also conniving. He sees himself as a good guy, but others don’t see him that way and readers will recognize that he’s not being honest with anyone, not even himself. Readers will root for Del even as he is manipulating Kiera and others around him. That is one of the best twists of the book, as readers nod along with Del, they too will realize the way they are seeing women and girls, and the changes they need to make to not be toxic themselves.
The clear writing and varied characters make this a great choice. It is the nuanced way that Giles writes about the church and being a male African-American teenager that adds a rich depth to the book. He offers readers opportunities to learn, to grow and to realize things about themselves without ever being preachy about it.
A frank look at sex, lies and toxic masculinity with a main character to cheer for, despite it all. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperTeen.
If I Was the Sunshine by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Loren Long (9781481472432)
Two master picture book creators collaborate on this lovely book filled with metaphors and using opposites as more than just a concept. On sun-drenched pages, children and animals explore relationships to one another. Using “If I was…” statements, each of the verses delicately explore the inter-connective nature of the world around us. The book moves throughout a day, from morning through to bedtime. It shows various seasons as the book continues too, filling the pages with autumn apples, frozen lakes, and fireflies in the summer.
It is the combination of the art and the words that makes this picture book exceptional. Fogliano’s words are written with such skill. The verses rhyme without any forcing of the meter or the words, made even more difficult by the relationships embedded in each verse. The play of words is so deftly done, each combination is a surprise and a joy as the pages turn.
Long’s paintings are filled with light, whether it is the spark of a firefly or the gold of summer sun. He shows the relationships with various perspectives and cleverly juxtaposes the characters in double-page spreads that one can almost sink into.
A grand picture book that celebrates our world. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Laura Dean Keep Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (9781250312846)
Freddy is dating the most popular girl at school. She is exactly the person you want to date, pretty, sexy, charming, and makes you feel like the center of her world. Until you aren’t, which happens pretty often. Laura keeps on cheating on Freddy, breaking up with her, and then asking Freddy to get back together. Freddy knows that it’s not ideal and so do all of her friends. When the two girls break up again, Freddy’s best friend Doodle encourages her to see a medium (who is also a great dungeon master too) to get advice. The medium agrees with all of Freddy’s friends, break up with Laura Dean. But it’s not that easy and as their relationship heats up again, Freddy risks her friendships to continue to be with the intoxicating Laura Dean.
This graphic novel beautifully captures a captivating but toxic romantic and sexual relationship. Tamaki has created several brilliant characters who avoid any kind of stereotype and are written as individuals. In particular, I appreciated Doodle, one of the only teen characters I have seen in a novel that avoids using a cell phone. As a parent of this type of teen, it is refreshing to see a character do this so organically. Fans of Dungeons & Dragons or other tabletop gaming will love the DM as a medium and the use of gaming as a way to connect on multiple levels.
The art is a great complement to the story line. Filled with touches of pink, the art takes small moments and tiny focal points to tell a robust story. Just the images of Freddy’s shoes walking alone after a break up speak so beautifully of loneliness. The characters themselves are also vividly depicted in the art, from Freddy alone on her rumpled sheets to Doodle’s body language when she is being neglected.
An exceptional LGBTQ graphic novel that talks openly about toxicity in relationships and the importance of friendships. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.
A Letter to My Teacher by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (9780375868450, Amazon)
The framework of this picture book is a thank you letter to a childhood teacher. Inside that framework, it is the story of a girl who is struggling to learn to read and the 2nd-grade teacher who taught patience and gave the little girl space and opportunity to bloom. Along with the little girl, there is also a gardening project in the classroom, one too that takes its own time to come to fruition though the hard work is done throughout the year. Through the year, there are learning moments, accidents, setbacks and leadership opportunities. It’s a year of inspiration that clearly lasted a lifetime.
Hopkinson’s words paint a vivid picture of a little girl who much prefers the out of doors over books and classwork. She is something of a loner, someone who learns to love books during the year and becomes much more part of the group by the end. Hopkinson shows a wonderful individual child who is still universal while being so specific. Hopkinson does the same with the character of the teacher, who is patient and yet has structure in her classroom and expectations. It is the story of all teachers who make a difference and see a child for who they can become.
Carpenter’s illustrations are also exceptional. They use color to keep the focus of the illustrations on the teacher and the little girl. The other child become part of the background at times, though they are still there. Carpenter also shows the relationship of teacher and child with a depth that is very effective, using expression on the characters faces to show the trust that is being built.
A perfect gift for teachers, this picture book is also full of hope and opportunity for children to notice how special their teachers are. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Schwartz & Wade.
The Things You Kiss Goodbye by Leslie Connor
Bettina has been raised in a very strict family. She’s not allowed to do anything other than attend dance classes, which ended when her best friend moved away. Otherwise it is only school and home. So when a very sweet basketball player at school asks her out, she is forced to say no. But he doesn’t accept that and manages to charm Bettina’s family enough that she is allowed to go out with him. At first everything is wonderful and Brady is a perfect boyfriend, who takes things very slow and doesn’t pressure. But as they date more, Brady begins to change. He gets angrier as pressure goes up on the basketball court. Then Bettina meets a man who is everything that Brady isn’t. He doesn’t ask for anything from her, never gets mad, and Bettina finds herself longing to spend more time with him even though her family would never approve. Bettina knows she has to leave Brady before he hurts her more badly, but as she hesitates something happens so that the truth of the two men in her life must be revealed.
Connor captures an abusive relationship with a delicacy that allows the reader to begin to rationalize what happens to Bettina along with her. This is not straight-forward beatings, but rather teasing taken too far, anger expressed in the wrong way, and as Bettina learns to tiptoe around Brady the reader realizes that they too have been drawn into the wrong relationship alongside her. It is powerfully done. When Connor adds the character of Cowboy to the book, it is a surprising choice. His gentleness and quiet in an older man makes for a charismatic character unusual in teen novels. While he is a foil for the young and angry Brady, he is also himself a complicated and intriguing figure.
Connor seems to write only complicated characters, much to her credit. Bettina is a girl who is eager to leave the confines of her upbringing, pushing against her parents’ control. Yet even her parents are completely drawn characters, struggling to do their best for their daughter. The book plays with overprotective parents who don’t manage to protect their daughter from anything in the end. Yet their love is what lingers beyond that.
A powerful read with moments of breathlessness from surprise and shock, this book is not only about an abusive relationship but about true love and hope too. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from digital copy received from Edelweiss and Katherine Tegen Books.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Eleanor is the new girl at school. She is different from everyone else with her bright red hair and men’s clothes. Park has gone to this school forever, he knows everyone on the bus and just wants to keep his head down and be ignored. But Park can’t ignore Eleanor when she is standing in the aisle and needs somewhere to sit. So he lets her sit by him. They don’t talk though, until he notices that she is reading his comics too. Their relationship slowly grows and they start talking together only about comics. Eleanor doesn’t want to talk about her horrible home life that had her kicked out of the house for a year. Park doesn’t want to scare her off by pushing. Little by little, this becomes a book about first love between two teens who didn’t fit in anywhere else. Little by little, this book steals your heart too.
I honestly don’t think I can voice how good this novel is. Rowell writes with such truth and passion through the entire book that it makes your breath catch at times. She does not turn away from the most horrible parts of being a teen, bullying, family crisis, the stumbles on the way to a connection. These are the moments that cast the others in such light, that make the others shine and dazzle.
Eleanor and Park both narrate the story in turns. That decision was critical to this book, allowing each teen to talk about what they love about the other and the amazement they feel that someone likes them too. The two characters are so different, from such differing backgrounds. They are living people, ones who enter your dreams because you feel like they are part of you.
Her book is just like first love. It is stunning, honest and raw. It is unforgettable. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip by Jordan Sonnenblick
Peter has always loved baseball and excelled at it. About to start high school, he looks forward to being a pitching star and playing alongside his best friend AJ. But when he ignores the pain in his arm and continues to pitch, disaster happens and he is told he can no longer pitch, ever. Peter’s mother talks him into taking a photography class in school, inspired by his grandfather who is a well-known photographer in their community and whom Peter loves to spend time with. Peter reluctantly agrees, but the class is too easy and he is moved to an advanced photography class along with another freshman, a beguiling girl, Angelika. As their relationship starts thanks to photography, Peter notices that his grandfather is starting to forget things. Peter keeps the truth about his grandfather from his parents, just as he doesn’t tell the whole truth about his arm to his best friend. How long can he balance the lies he’s been spinning before they all fall?
Sonnenblick has created a book that is smart and charming. He effortlessly blends the worlds of sports and photography, plus a dash of strong romance too. Peter is a great character: a jock who is bright, funny and endearingly unsure. A great sense of humor runs through the book as well, making the book a fast read despite the heavier issues at its heart. The book grapples mightily with truth telling and relationships. Readers get to see just enough of the grandfather before he starts to lose his memory to understand just how strong the relationship between the two of them is. Though there are many issues at hand in the book, they are all balanced on strong storytelling and vivid characters.
With its blend of topics this book should appeal to many readers, get it in the hands of teens who enjoy John Green and are looking for more smart, funny books. Appropriate for ages 14-16.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic Press.
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Maira Kalman
Released December 27, 2011.
Min and Ed have broken up, that’s why she thunks down a box full of things on his doorstep. Inside the box are the small mementos of a relationship and the answers to what is behind their break up. The box also contains a long letter to Ed that Min has written, explaining fully both the growth of their relationship and her feelings for him, but even more so the reasons that they can never be together. The box holds memories and mementos: a toy truck, a movie ticket, a protractor, a note, and rose petals. Each item is tied to a part of the story, a moment in their time together, times when there were warnings of how it would end but Min ignored all of them until that last one. The one that brings us back to this box and that doorstep.
Handler’s writing here is striking. He moves from a more normal syntax and structure into rushes of stream of conscious writing that is breathless and dazzling and bitter. These are the moments where the pain of the breakup is right there, a heartbeat away. It is a book filled with surprising moments, aching with importance and equally part of normal life.
This is a relationship laid bare and honest, searingly truthful at times. At the same time, distrust and foreboding is always right there since the reader knows from the first page that the relationship is doomed. It is this rich mix of the delight of new love and the awareness that it ended badly that makes the book compulsively readable.
Dazzling and honest, this book will speak to any teen who has been dumped, any teen in a relationship, and any teen looking for one. Appropriate for ages 15-17.
Reviewed from ARC received from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Check out the Why We Broke Up Project website too.