Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘abuse

cover image for Nikki and DejaNikki and Deja by Karen English, illustrated by Laura Freeman

“Nikki and Deja are best friends.”  Neighbors and classmates, they spend as much time as they can together.  But when a new girl, Antonia, arrives and starts a club – one that only some people can join – Nikki and Deja’s friendship begins to look like it might not last, after all.

I feel guilty calling this merely a good chapter book, rather than using glowing superlatives to describe it.  The truth is that most chapter books are so awful that this novel is absolutely wonderful and amazingly written by comparison.  The characters have personality, with out feeling cartoonish, and their dilemmas are both realistic and age appropriate.  English does a wonderful job of including the right kind of details, ones that give the story life without being overwhelming to new readers.  The prose fails to be as memorable as the story, and I’d like better for new readers, but this is a chapter book after all – vocabulary limits make that incredibly difficult. It’s hardly a masterpiece, but it’s solid and I highly recommend it.

I am, however, slightly disappointed in the quality of the book design. With apologies to Freeman (whose interior illustrations are perfect) the cover just doesn’t work for me and I can’t see that it would be terribly appealing to kids either.  All of which I wanted to point out not because I dislike it that much but because covers sell books.  So I see passable but not brilliant covers as another weak link in the chain when it comes to promoting “diverse” authors and books, and I wanted to note that here for future conversations.

cover image for Eleanor and ParkEleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Moving back home means that Eleanor gets to see her siblings, that she can be there to take care of them.  It also means watching what she does and says around her stepfather, and starting a new high school.  Park doesn’t mean to take pity on the new – and very weird – girl on the bus, the last thing he needs is to commit social suicide.  Yet he does so anyway.  But he isn’t going to talk to her.  Until he notices her glancing over at his comics as he reads them on the bus, and Park starts to make sure that she’s done with the page before he turns it.  Soon, Park is making her mixed tapes and Eleanor is thinking that maybe some people can be trusted after all.

I devoured this book in one night, it was that good.  Rowell has crafted a lovely story, full of stolen moments and the kinds of secrets that need to be told.  It’s refreshing to see miscommunication in a romantic relationship that actually makes sense, and to see it being worked out rather than resolved by the plot.  It should be noted that there have been complaints about Park, whose mother is from Vietnam, and how he and his family are described and portrayed.  Rowell does an excellent job handling the Eleanor’s home life, however, and how she is affected by both poverty and abuse.

cover image for We Were LiarsWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Candence spends every summer with her family on a private island off the coast of Masachusetts. And every summer she and her cousins run wild, unhampered by schoolwork or schedules or even neighbors.  Every summer except the last one, which Cady spent in Europe with her father, hating ever minute of it, desperate for emails and texts from her cousins, which never came. When Cady arrives at the island this summer, she and her cousins pick up where they left off, as if nothing had ever happened. Only Cady knows that something did happen, something their last summer together that caused the headaches she’s had ever since.  The problem is that Cady has no idea what it was; she’s been having trouble remembering things since that night as well.

I absolutely hated reading this book.

It’s not a terrible book, but my frustrations with it only increased with each page, making it not at all enjoyable to read.  Much of the suspense rests on the reveal of the twist at the end, which I’d figured out early on.  I think the book is supposed to work even if you know truth (much like Code Name Verity actually does) – that knowing the truth changes the experience rather than detracting from it .  But for me, it didn’t succeed in doing this.  Add to that the fact that it’s a book about privilege* which makes a really big mistake in terms of privilege, and I’m afraid to admit that the warmest response I can muster to this book is “meh.”

Which makes me sad because I usually love Lockhart’s books.

cover image for The Fox InheritanceThe Fox Inheritance by Mary E. Pearson

[The basic plot for this book is a spoiler for the entire first novel, so I’m putting it behind the cut.]

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cover image for Does My Head Look Big in This?Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim is sixteen and about to start her third term as an eleventh grader at the exclusive and expensive McClean’s Prepatory Academy when she realizes that she’s ready to wear the hijab full time.  But is she ready for the assumptions people will make about her – about her parents and her abilities and her dreams – if she starts wearing the hijab to school? To the mall? To job interviews?  And yet what will it say about her, and her faith, and her country if she lets fear and prejudice keep her from making her own choices.

Despite the rather slow moving plot and lack of action, I found myself liking this book quite a bit.  It’s not just that it offers a very compassionate and balanced view, and presents readers with a perspective that is sadly in short supply in YA.  Abdel-Fattah writes in a very compelling and engaging voice and I look forward to reading more books by her.

cover image for How Beautiful the OrdinaryHow Beautiful the Ordinary edited by Michael Cart

Boys who love boys.  Girls who love girls. New loves and old loves.  Teenagers forced to hide their true selves.  How Beautiful the Ordinary collects twelve stories from twelve authors who know what it’s like for their normal selves to treated as different, as outside the norm.

I expect a mixture of quality and taste when it comes to the content of anthologies, but that doesn’t excuse the disrespect for others that I found in a handful of the stories in this particular collection:

William Sleator’s Fingernail has it’s Thai protagonist and narrator telling readers that ” [English] is the most important language in the world” and pointing out that were it not for his abusive, European ex boyfriend, he never would have met his current, loving boyfriend from the West.  It’s not that it’s inconceivable for a young man like this to exist, and to have these kinds of thoughts, but that it’s not really appropriate or responsible for an white American to be putting these words into the mouth of a Thai character he created.

Jennifer Finney Boylan’s The Missing Person is in many ways a beautiful and heartbreaking tale of a girl who everyone else sees and treats as a boy.  Unfortunately, it also uses the misfortune that befalls a Taiwanese exchange student as a metaphor for the main character’s own struggles, rather than as an experience belonging to the exchange student herself, and as a source of common ground.

The stories are not all disappointing, however.  Jacqueline Woodson’s Trev is elegant and full of sorrow, determination, and hope.  Margo Lanagan’s A Dark Red Love Knot is twisted and cruel and beautiful.  Emma Donoghue’s Dear Lang, a testament to the meaning of family, left me in tears.  And lastly, Gregory Maguire’s The Silk Road Runs Through Tupperneck, N.H. contemplates paths not taken and shows us the costs of hiding in closets.

cover image for Lucy the GiantLucy the Giant by Sherri L. Smith

Fifteen year old Lucy Oswego has always towered over her classmates.  Not that she needs to in order for people to remember her, Sitka is the kind of small town where everyone knows everyone else – and their business.  Which is how all the bar owners know to call her when her dad gets so drunk he can’t even stumble home on his own.  So it’s no surprise that Lucy wonders what it would be like to blend in, to fit in – to be someone other than Lucy the Giant.  And when a crabbing boat crew mistakes her for an adult, and invites her to sign on, Lucy finds her chance to do just that.

Have I mentioned how much I love Smith’s books? Lucy the Giant is no exception.  Smith has a gift for finding the extraordinary in the everyday, and for centering the kinds of characters that tend to exist on the fringes of most mainstream narratives.  Lucy the Giant is a deceptively simple story; more complicated and subtle than it appears at first, and one that packs a punch despite it’s short length.

cover image for Mommy, Mama, and MeMommy, Mama, and Me by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Carol Thompson

I’ve been known to complain about the quality of books like Heather Has Two Mommies in the past.  While the diversity they bring and respect they show are both much needed, their quality in terms of craft isn’t always up to par.  Not so with this lovely book.

Newman’s text is full of catchy rhymes that keep the pages turning and the illustrations are expressive, clear, and skillful.  While Thompson’s style doesn’t quite match my personal taste, there is no denying that her work is well done and engaging. Together they present scenes that are familiar to all families, and yet depict a type of family that is under represented in quality children’s books.

More like this, please!

cover image for Rapunzel's RevengeRapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by Nathan Hale

For as long as she can remember, Rapunzel has lived in comfort in Mother Gothel’s villa, never knowing what lay beyond.  Until the day she scales the walls and finally begins to understand what the woman she was taught to call mother is really capable of.  Now her curiosity has become a question for the truth, and Rapunzel won’t stop until she, and everyone else, is safe from Mother Gothel.

I so very much wanted to love this book, and there was, indeed, much that I liked about the characters and plot. Unfortunately, the illustration style never grew on me and so ended up being distracting rather than adding to my enjoyment of the story.

cover image for Close to FamousClose to Famous by Joan Bauer

Sonny Kroll dreams of being a baker, a world famous chef with her own television show.  Right now though, she’s sitting in the car with her mom, all their belongings tossed hastily into the trunk and backseat, on their way to a new town, a new place to live, and a new school.  Complete with a new principal that Sonny needs to keep from finding out that she can’t read.

I’ve heard good things about Bauer’s work, but this was another book that wasn’t awful, yet didn’t really impress me either.  It’s the type of book I’d try including in a large library collection, but wouldn’t necessarily recommend.

cover image for Lock and KeyLock & Key by Sarah Dessen

Ruby’s mother has never been reliable, sometimes even disappearing for days, but the two of them have always muddled along somehow, and she always come back. Until now. Ruby figures if she can just keep it together and make it through high school without anyone finding out, then things will be alright. And for two months, she manages…well, mostly.  But when her neighbor contacts child services, Ruby is suddenly sent to live with the older sister she hasn’t seen in over a decade.

The relationship between Ruby and her older sister, Cora, is definitely the best part of Lock and Key.  It’s not simple, and it isn’t fixed easily or quickly or with simple heartfelt conversations.  Which is no surprise, as relationships are what Dessen is best at, and this is a very classic Dessen novel.  While it lacks the shop/restaurant/etc. with a quirky cast of characters, it still has lots of interesting people with serious but everyday problems.  It made me both laugh and cry, as any Dessen novel should.

cover image for SaltationSaltation by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Following the discovery of her aptitude for, and enjoyment of, flying Theo Waitley has made preparations to attend flight school rather than continuing on to a more scholarly pursuit, as is expected of students on the Safe World of Delgado.  Raised in a very different environment than most of her new classmates Theo, is behind in not just mathematics, but social skills as well. She’s also arriving mid year, making it impossible for her to try to blend in.  But Theo has always stood out.  The only question is, will Anlingdin Piloting Academy remember her for her skills, her lack of them, or for being a troublemaker?

I’m not sure if it’s Lee and Miller’s voice, or Theo’s analytical way of approaching life, (or me) but sometimes it feels as though events that ought to have emotional resonance lack the full punch.  That said, I am enjoying these books, and this one was particularly fun because it included getting to see Theo being competent and enjoying herself.

cover image for My Basmati Bat MitzvahMy Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman

Some days, Tara Feinstein feels like she has just too much to juggle.  As if regular school work wasn’t enough, now she’s been partnered with the class clown for her robotics project.  Her best friend, Ben-o, is starting to act strangely, and her other best friend, Rebecca, has been spending time with her least favorite person, Sheila Rosenberg. When she decides to go through with her bat mitzvah, Tara knows it will mean extra studying.  What she doesn’t expect is her parent’s reaction, or having to argue with Sheila about whether she is Indian or Jewish – can’t she both?

This was a lovely and engaging story, full of realistic problems and middle graders acting in believable ways.  Tara’s family is supportive, but also unique and imperfect, as all families are.  Nothing is solved easily or neatly, and not every problem is even solved completely – some things take time.  Yet the ending still presents readers with healthy options and a better understanding of others, and hopefully themselves.  It should also be noted that Freedman is definitely drawing on personal experience, she herself is Jewish and her husband’s heritage is Indian, making her family much like Tara’s.

My one major complaint concerns the fact that it was made clear that neither side of Tara’s family talks about which of her elders she looks like. It had Tara herself, in fact, talking about her own looks as if she looked like no one else in her family.  And it attributed this to her mixed heritage, and talked about Tara feeling like she belonged to no one because of it.  While I don’t doubt that children like Tara often feel that way, and that there are families who do react this way to biracial children, in my experience the latter is extremely rare.  (I could be wrong! but that has been my experience.) The book, however, framed it as typical.  While this was a small part of the book, my reaction was anything but small, and not favorable or impersonal, and I fear I’m not the only reader who might react this way.

cover image for BelowBelow by Meg McKinlay

“On the day Cassie was born, they drowned her town.”

(Sorry, the opening for this book is just so perfect, I had to steal it.)

Twelve year old Cassie has lived her entire life in New Lower Grange.  But before she was born, before the damn was built, her family’s house was in Old Lower Grange.  Then, with the flip of a switch, an entire town was buried in water, leaving Cassie wondering what secrets may lie hidden beneath the waves.

Intriguing and full of wonderfully written lines (see above, also: “When I got home, Dad had a finger in someone’s eye and another in their ear.” and “Liam was clever yesterday. While I was worried about being prosecuted, he was counting his strokes.”) Below is one of those novels that I wish had gotten more attention.  While not without flaws (McKinlay’s opening lines aren’t quite matched by the rest of her writing) it’s both different and yet not, in all the ways a middle grade book should be: unique in concept, but familiar when it comes to themes and relationships.

cover image for Zebrea ForestZebra Forest by Adina Rishe-Gewitz

Annie and her brother live with their grandmother, the father dead and their mother having abandoned them.  With Gran’s brooding spells getting worse, Annie has her hands full keeping up at school and keeping the social workers of their backs.  She and Rew find their own solace in stories they make up about the father they never knew.  Until a stranger arrives and holds them hostage, and Annie and Rew learn the truth of their father’s death.

I ranted about this book earlier this year.  The short version being that my problem wasn’t so much that Annie was quick to forgive her father, but that the book did an inadequate job of exploring why, and why this might not be the safest choice for her to make.  Also, the backstory about their parents is disturbing in ways that the narrative seems dangerously oblivious to.

cover image for DreamlandDreamland by Sarah Dessen

When Cassie ran away, Caitlin lost more than a sister.  Her parents shock and grief absorbs all their energy, leaving Caitlin without anyone to turn to.  Then Rogerson Biscoe walks into Caitlin’s life and suddenly she once again has someone who listens.  But who will Caitlin turn to when Rogerson turns out to be more dangerous than she suspected?

While abuse in romantic relationships is a topic that deserves a lot more attention than it gets (in YA literature and out of it) this is, unfortunately, not the most engaging problem novel ever.  Possibly because it is so clearly a problem novel rather than a typical Dessen story about interesting characters dealing with various interpersonal issues.  Although Dreamland is far from an after school special, neither is it quite what it could have been.

cover image for The Madness UnderneathThe Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

After the events of The Name of the Star [redacted for spoilers], Rory’s parents have been understandably overprotective.  Neither they, nor her new therapist, believe her when she tells them that she’s more than ready to go back to school. It doesn’t help, of course, that she can’t tell any of them what really happened, or why she so desperately wants to return to Wexford.

I definitely did not expect this book to end up going in the direction it did.  So while it suffered from the typical middle book lulls at certain points, it still managed to push the story along in interesting ways. And yes, it made me cry.  And no, I wasn’t expecting that either.

cover image for The Garden of My ImaanThe Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia

Aliya worries about getting her homework done. Avoiding bullies at school. When she’ll finally wear a bra like her friends.  If the holidays will be still be any fun now that her disapproving great aunt is coming to visit.  Now, on top of everything else, her Sunday school friends are asking if she’ll fast for Ramadan this year; Aliya doesn’t feel ready – but she doesn’t want to be a baby either.  And when a new muslim girl arrives at her elementary school, suddenly Aliya’s Glen Meadow classmates are full of questions about why Marwa wears a hijab and only eats halal, and why Aliya doesn’t.

The Garden of My Imaan is a typical middle grade story about friends and family and navigating one’s place in the world.  Except for all the ways in which it’s very much not your typical middle grade school story.  That is to say, except for the fact that it’s about a muslim girl whose household contains four generations of Indian Americans, rather than yet another Ramona Quimbly, Junie B. Jones, or Judy Moody.  What makes this story truly unique (although it shouldn’t be as unique as it is, alas) isn’t just the parts that make Aliya different from her literary peers, but the way that Zia keeps the story focused on Aliya and her dilemmas, rather than letting it become a Very Special Lesson for everyone else.

By the by – can we please stop saying things like “Aliya…may be a young Muslim girl of Indian descent, but her story is one that will resonate with readers of many backgrounds” when reviewing books that feature characters we rarely see in (Western) fiction?  That’s just insulting all around.  Why wouldn’t her story “resonate” with all kinds of readers?

I’ve read few books that have made me as angry as Rishe-Gewirtz’s debut novel, Zebra Forest, has.

[Caution: Serious spoilers ahead!] Read the rest of this entry »