Survivor Tree by Marcie Colleen

Cover image for Survivor Tree.

Survivor Tree by Marcie Colleen, illustrated by Aaron Becker (9780316487672)

On a bustling street in New York City, a small tree grew along the tall steel buildings. It was there for almost thirty years, marking the seasons. Then one September day, there were explosions and buildings fell to rubble, crushing and burning the tree. The tree was found in the wreckage with a few green leaves and taken far away to fresh soil. For several seasons, the tree stayed bare, then one day blossoms and buds arrived. For ten years, the tree grew there until it was time to return home. Home to a newly empty sky, where people stopped and wept, and where the tree with its burns and scars offered a way to bridge past to present.

This picture book is based on the true story of the tree that survived the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. Through seasons of bustling city streets to the attack itself to seasons of healing afterwards, the tree shows an inspiring resilience for us all. Using delicate prose, the author writes of the beauty of the tree even when people were not stopping to notice it. The survival of the tree is told with a gentle admiration for its very survival.

Becker beautifully captures the New York City setting of the tree as it changes from before the attack and afterwards. He offers not just a story of the tree itself but an accompanying story in the illustrations about a family growing up alongside the tree and then there loss and memories after the attack. It is this subtle human connection of people to the tree that add much to the book.

A haunting and beautiful look at 9/11 and the tree that survived it and continues to inspire. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Little, Brown and Company.

The Electric Kingdom by David Arnold

Cover image

The Electric Kingdom by David Arnold (9780593202227)

There are only a few people who survived the devastation of the Fly Flu, a combination of an infectious flu carried by ravenous modified bees who will eat any living thing they can find. Nico has grown up in a house with her parents, surviving from one delivery of food to the next. But her mother recently died after losing her mental capabilities and her father appears to have the beginnings of the same problem. Nico’s father has told her tales of caring for a bell that will open a portal in another town, days away. Now Nico must hope that there is truth to her father’s stories as she leaves the shelter of their home and heads into the wilds with her dog. A young person named Kit also survived the Fly Flu. He lives with his mother and adopted siblings in an old movie theater. They grow their own food and try to reach out via radio to other survivors. Kit’s mother also starts to fail, sweating and confused. Now he and his siblings must leave their shelter as well to find a new way to survive. Deliverer is the person who delivered supplies to Nico’s home. Protected by a special suit, they work to try to have as many as possible survive the flu, no matter how many tries it takes.

Arnold has written a complex and layered science fiction novel. With moments of pure horror, the book dances that fine line between sci fi and horror beautifully with the bloodthirsty swarms of insects and the dangerous humans as well. It also incorporates time travel in a way that is delicately threaded through the book, showing up in glimpses and hints before being fully revealed. The writing is exquisitely done, offering clues and puzzles that click together into a whole by the end of the book.

The characters are well written and a pleasure to spend time with. Unique and interesting, they all are fully drawn, even the secondary ones. Nico is a strong character, driven by growing up without others around, she soon finds herself sharing her journey with others. Kit manages to draw others to him naturally, often serving as the bond that holds different groups together. Arnold writes his characters with empathy, care and yet never loses sight of the dangers he is placing them in.

Terrifying, joyous and full of opportunity, this apocalyptic book is never easy or simple. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from copy provided by Viking Books for Young Readers.

The Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling

Cover image for The Canyon’s Edge

The Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling (9780316494694)

This novel in verse tells a harrowing survival story. After losing her mother in a random shooting at her birthday celebration, Nora has been through lots of therapy trying to just survive the loss. Her father has cocooned them both, keeping Nora from returning to school and remaining isolated from everyone. For her birthday a year after the shooting, he takes Nora to a slot canyon in the Arizona desert. The two rappel down into the canyon together, remembering the many times they made similar journeys with her mother. But once again their lives are shattered by the unexpected as a flash flood rips through the canyon, separating Nora from her father and all of her supplies. Her father is washed away with the flood after shoving Nora high enough up the canyon wall to not be swept away. Now Nora must face her doubts and mental demons while also surviving sunburn, starvation, scorpions and dehydration as she searches for her father.

Bowling’s set up for the story alone would make a great tale, a girl surviving the loss of her mother in a shooting incident. Bowling though takes that first tragedy and builds on it, creating a new dangerous challenge for Nora to survive. The way that she uses what Nora learned in therapy, what Nora’s doubts are and her growing resilience is tremendous. She never becomes didactic, instead allowing Nora to steadily grow stronger mentally and know that she is capable of so much. Along the way, she also admits to herself how she has pushed her best friend away too.

The writing here is stellar, the pacing exactly right. Bowling will shock readers as she moves from the quiet of the canyon to the power of the flood. Then they are thrown directly into a survival story, one where Nora is not spared from a variety of injuries even as her mind and resilience grow. There is so much determination and grit in her, so much strength!

Verse novel meets survival story in this book that will carry you away. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Cover image for Fighting Words

Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (9781984815682)

Della has always been taken care of by her older sister, Suki. The two of them stayed together after their mother went to prison and they moved in with her mother’s boyfriend. That boyfriend did something horrible to Della, so the sisters fled. Now they are in foster care together, being really taken care of for the first time in their lives. Suki has always been Della’s protector so what happens when Suki suddenly is the one who needs help and caring for? Della is willing to talk in court about what happened to her, but Suki wants to be silent. Della is good at being loud, sometimes being too loud or swearing in class. It’s time for Della to use her voice to stand up for what they both need, but also to listen to her sister in a new way too.

This book is seriously one of the best of the year. Period. Written by an author who is consistently impressive, this is a book that is stunningly good. Bradley gives a voice to those who have experienced child abuse, showing them that they are more than the abuse, more than that trauma. It is a book that doesn’t duck what happened to these sisters, but builds towards the awful truth, warning readers that it is coming and then dealing with it when it happens. It removes the stigma of the trauma in a way that is full of compassion and empathy, giving space for assault and for the recovery from it.

Bradley’s writing is exceptional. She does so much with the voice of Della, making her both a clarion call to be heard and listened to, but also giving her a realistic vocabulary of swear words and a way to deal with them in a book for children. This book is beyond impressive. It is important and vital: a book to be shared with children and adults, an example of what children’s literature can be at its highest level.

Bravo! One of the best of the year, if not one of the best of all time. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Fall of Innocence by Jenny Torres Sanchez

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The Fall of Innocence by Jenny Torres Sanchez (9781524737757)

When Emilia was eight years old, she was attacked in the woods near her elementary school. After the attack, Emilia identified Jeremy Lance as her attacker, a boy with special needs, who lived at the boy’s home near the school. He was a boy she had seen break a school bus window with his fists as he stared out at her. Emilia’s recovery was slow and painful. At first, she would not speak at all partly because of biting through her own tongue during the attack. She saw crows all around her, watching over her and caring for her. At times, she thought that she was a crow too. Now at age 16, Emilia is a survivor. But all of that will be tested as a man comes forward as her real attacker and Emilia’s fragile world begins to crumble.

This book is not a mystery and readers looking for that sort of survival story will not find it here. Rather this is a delicate and complex look at a girl’s survival of an attack and the way that though she has survived, she has not recovered. It is a look at a family fractured by an attack, a family that has never again found its footing. It’s a look at a brother who has been ignored, his needs set aside for Emilia to be the focus. It’s a look at a father unable to stay, needing to flee his family. It’s a look at a mother who sacrificed herself for her daughter and still things are broken and unable to be repaired.

The book has Emilia at its heart, a girl who has avoided mental health care effectively.  Readers will hope that she will find the help that she needs before the darkness becomes too much to bear. Emilia creates her own fantasy world, her own space to live in that gives her room to breathe. She faces her own demons without allowing anyone to help her, isolated though there are so many who would help her.

Delicate yet strong writing allows this book to move with Emilia’s mental state, exploring darkness and mental health. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Philomel Books.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

Exit Pursued by a Bear by EK Johnston

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston (InfoSoup)

Hermione is headed into her senior year as the co-captain of her school’s cheerleading team. At her school, cheering is more important and more prestigious than the sports themselves. She’s dating one of the boys on the squad and they are all at summer cheerleading camp getting ready for the competitions coming up, knowing that they are probably heading for nationals again. The safety of Hermione’s world is shattered when she is drugged at the camp’s dance party and then raped near the lake. She is found unconscious on the lake shore, half in the water. Hermione must now face being the victim rather than the queen bee, a label that does not sit well for her. She must also wait for a pregnancy test and the decisions that that will bring with it. Hermione fights not to be defined by what has happened to her and to find her footing again so that she can still fly.

Johnston, author of The Story of Owen, once again sets a teen novel firmly in Canada, though this time not in a fictional Canada at all. Instead this book is richly real, a book for teens about a rape where it does not consume the victim or define her life. It’s a book where Hermione’s family and friends come forward to support her, never to question her own role in the attack, never to push her feelings and emotions aside, but to support her completely. A mention must be made of Polly, Hermione’s best friend who is a zingy mix of support and healthy attitude, exactly the friend you want at your side. This novel is a guidebook to how we should be treating assault survivors, not as victims but as survivors who should have our support not our pity.

Johnston takes it one step further and also has Hermione get an abortion. It was at this point in the novel that I found myself entirely overcome. Johnston writes about a Canadian abortion system, one that Americans will have problems relating to due to its ease. Still, there are emotions here, ones that are not questioning Hermione’s decision or situation at all. The emotions are large because here is another sisterhood that Hermione is a part of. It’s not dramatic for any effect or statement, it’s dramatic simply because it is. Because it’s necessary. Because it’s a choice being made. And that is so beautiful and moving.

Immensely powerful and empowering, this novel has so much to say to teens in our world. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from library book.

After the Woods by Kim Savage

After the Woods by Kim Savage

After the Woods by Kim Savage (InfoSoup)

Julia can’t remember what happening in the woods except in brief flashbacks. She knows that she saved her best friend from an attacker and then was taken by the man for 48 hours. A year later, Julia is still trying to understand what happened to her in the woods. Liv, her best friend, is urging her to forget and move on. Then a girl’s body is found in the same woods, triggering more memories that Julia had suppressed. Liv too is caught up in what happened, seemingly intent on her own destruction by dating a dangerous boy and participating in other risky behavior. As Julia starts to recreate what really happening in the woods, the incredible truth will lead to understanding what makes someone a hero.

Savage’s writing is dark and gorgeous. Early in the novel as the two friends enter the forest, the writing shows the danger coming:

Despite the desolation  – no one runs at four p.m. in November after weeks of rain – the woods pulse. The canopy shatters fast-dropping light into glittering shards. A chipmunk skitters close to my foot and ducks into a hole.

Throughout the novel, Savage offers clues of what happened in her language. It’s a wrenching combination of what Julia is discovering herself and also allowing the reader to see a bit farther ahead towards the conclusion without revealing all quite yet. The tempting and seductive mixture makes this book an especially great read.

Julia is a jagged character, covered in the pain of what happened to her, striking out at those who protected her, reaching out to those who wronged her. At the same time, she is very bright, looking at the world and this mystery as something that logic can solve. And she is funny and sarcastic too. She’s a survivor, a hero and everything that that complexity brings is shown on the page.

A brilliant novel for teens about heroism, survival and what bravery it takes to keep on going. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Edelweiss.

Review: Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick

zane and the hurricane

Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina by Rodman Philbrick

Zane lives in New Hampshire with his mother and is sent to visit his newly discovered great grandmother in New Orleans.  Unfortunately, he is there when Katrina hits.  Headed out of the city with his grandmother’s pastor in their church van, Zane is safe until his little dog, Bandit jumps out of the open window because some larger dogs in another vehicle are barking at him.  Zane goes after him, walking for miles until he catches him.  Realizing he’s closer to his grandmother’s house than the vehicle, he heads back there.  Then the storm comes.  Zane is in a house that is leaking, the flood waters start to rise, and he climbs with Bandit up into the attic.  From there he is rescued by an older musician wearing a wild looking hat and a young girl.  As chaos descends on the city, Zane finds that all of the rules change but that it is human kindness that makes all the difference.

Philbrick has crafted a very well-written book about Katrina.  He melds the details of the storm and its aftermath in New Orleans into the narrative, allowing it to form the backbone of the story.  At the same time, this is Zane’s specific story, one of luck and bravery.  The flooded city becomes the foundation of the tale, those happy to take advantage of the situation appear and the support of police is nearly nonexistent. 

Philbrick’s story is very readable, the storm offering a structure to the book that readers will feel approaching in an inevitable and inescapable way.  The beginning of the book is rife with dread and fear, knowing what is going to happen.  That fear never lets up even after the storm has passed.  Zane is a strong and resourceful character, one who is forced to trust others and their generosity. Race plays an important role in the book, from Zane’s mixed race to his two African-American companions after the flood. 

This is definitely a story of Katrina, but it is even more a survival story of a boy and his dog.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Blue Sky Press.

Review: If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch

if you find me

If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch

Released March 26, 2013.

Carey’s mother has been gone for over a month, leaving Carey alone with her little sister, Jenessa.  They live in a large woods and sleep in an old camper with no heat.  Her mother had left them before, but usually not this long, just long enough to get more meth.  But this time, their mother was not the one who came to their camp, a man and woman arrive, claiming that the man is Carey’s father.  They take the girls back with them.  Carey and Jenessa have never had a hamburger, never watched TV and never really been cared for.  Carey was the only reason that Nessa had survived at all, often serving as the only love she had.  But now the girls were expected to live with Carey’s father, his wife and their stepsister in their home.  It’s a new life filled with challenges that Carey will only be able to accept if she can see the truth of why her mother took her away and also the truth of what she had been forced to do in the woods.

Murdoch has written a book that has a very compelling premise and happily, she is able to make the book about far more than that first bit ripped from the headlines.  She writes about the power of music to heal, the ability of family and love to make things right again, but also the agony of betrayal, the ferocious power of abuse, and the building danger of lies.  Carey is a heroine who has undergone real tragedy in her life, but here is she far from being a victim.  She is instead immensely resourceful, caring and desperate to do what is right for her little sister.

Murdoch also weaves into so much of the book Carey’s connection with nature.  It is the place she turns when in distress, moving even to the outdoor courtyard at the high school in order to find solace outdoors.  Her love of music in also part of it, having played her music under the open sky for so long.  When Murdoch writes of nature, she is part poet, creating a depth in this novel that lifts it to another level.

This story is one of a tough heroine who has to be strong for both herself and her little sister.  It is a tale of survival but also one of recovery and honesty.  I’d think this one would booktalk extremely well thanks to its strong premise that will nicely tantalize teen readers.  Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Macmillan and Netgalley.