Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘contemporary

cover image for Life With LilyLife With Lily by Mary Ann Kinsinger and Suzanne Woods Fisher

Five year old Lily Lapp lives with her parents and younger brother on a farm in upstate New York. She loves helping her mother with chores around the house and looks forward to starting school. But even more changes are in store for Lily than just kindergarten, and Lily has lots to learn at home as well!

Just like the third book, A Big Year for Lily (which I read first), this is a rather sweet story about a little girl from an Amish family; it offers an interesting and different perspective from more typical contemporary children’s fiction, while also clearly drawing on the tradition of stories like Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie.

The reading level and Lily’s age are more mismatched in this book than the are in the third book, but it should still work well as a read aloud or for children that don’t mind reading about kids a bit younger than them.  As with A Big Year for Lily, there are a few parts that made me go “wait, what?” and had me raising an eyebrow or two.*  The gender segregation was thankfully much less noticeable in this book however, likely owing to Lily’s age, and none of the parts that caused raised eyebrows involve being disrespectful to other people. Overall, it was pleasant and intriguing read and I’d recommend it for library collections.

* I should clarify: my eyebrows were raised not at Amish customs, but more how the authors chose to present them. For example, recently on twitter someone noted that the Amish were usually nicer to her than most white people are, and that her parents had pointed out that this was because they don’t have televisions (and therefore don’t get daily installments of racism via mainstream shows).  Kinsinger and Fisher instead frame it as because the Amish (or, at least, Lily’s family) are simply kinder than some people. Which may or may not be true, but that’s not really how racism works.  And it’s harmful to teach children that it is.  (That said, this is hardly an unusual way of talking about racism, so it’s also not a fault unique to these authors.)

cover image for The Juvie ThreeThe Juvie Three by Gordon Korman

Gecko, Arjay and Terence have all been given a second chance.  Pulled from juvenile detention, an adult prison, and a reform school in the middle of farm country, the three boys have been selected to instead live with the idealistic Douglas Healey in New York City as part of a special probationary program.  While Gecko and Arjay are determined to do whatever it takes to make sure they aren’t sent back, Terence is only concerned with making money (illegally, if needed) no matter the consequences.  When Terence tries to sneak out one night, Arjay and Gecko go to stop him, and Healey comes in during the chaos and is knocked unconscious, and sent to the hospital as a John Doe, in the process.   Prompting all three boys to make a pact and work together to keep their school and social worker from finding out that anything has gone wrong.

Yeah, that look on your face right now? Is probably the same one I had while reading this book. The Juvie Three is a good example of the narrative supporting bad decisions, versus bad decisions simply being something that people do.  It’s not that the boys make a mistake that ends up hurting someone, but rather that the boys never even discuss how their continuing actions may harm Healey.  The book acknowledges the mistakes they make, but it never acknowledges the reasons why they were bad decisions.  This lack of nuance, ironically, actually makes the boys decisions harder to understand, as it makes the whole story feel shallow and lacking in internal logic.

(This is also where I feel like Young Adult books do have a responsibility to bring up issues that younger readers may not think of themselves: leaving Healey as a John Doe not only leaves Healey without support, it deprives the medical professionals of the information they need to treat him properly. Healey isn’t merely a broken lamp that can be hidden in the closet; the boys continuing silence places him in danger every moment they stay silent. I was extremely disappointed that none of the adults brought this up once the truth came out.)

Korman’s jocular and irreverent style, which I loved in Son of the Mob, does not work well here it all. It is possible to write funny books about serious and dark subjects, but that isn’t what Korman has done in The Juvie Three. Instead, he has taken a serious subject and watered it down, and the book inevitably suffers for it.

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 Keeping You A SecretKeeping You A Secret by Julie Anne Peters

As her senior year draws to a close, it looks as though Holland Jaeger has everything going for her.  Good grades, best friends, the perfect boyfriend, a job she loves, and a sometimes trying blended family that she nevertheless loves.  (Well, Holland loves her Mom and baby sister anyway – her stepdad is tolerable and her stepsister lives elsewhere, mostly.)  Then gorgeous, brilliant, and completely Out and Proud Cece shows at school up one morning and Holland begins to question everything she thought she knew about herself.

Peters writing is rather rough here, and while the rawness fits the subject matter there’s not enough depth to transform this from a Problem Novel into something more enduring.  It’s not so much the talk of Goths and CDs that date the book as it is the assumption that high school will always be a place where only the Brave are Out, and the accompanying lack of introspection that might help teens, a decade later, better understand Holland’s experience – and better recognize what much hasn’t changed.

cover image for Chasing ShadowsChasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi, illustrated by Craig Phillips

Savitri’s acceptance into Princeton should be good news, not a secret she’s afraid to share.    But attending Princeton means leaving Holly and Corey behind in Chicago.  It means a long distance relationship with Corey, no more hanging out with Holly, and an end to the time the three spend exploring the city as freerunners.  Yet before Sav can make her choice, Corey is taken from them in a random act of violence.  Now Holly’s the one with an impossible choice, and Sav may be the only person who can help her.

I stumbled a bit getting into this book; a trio of friends who do parkour seems to be an increasingly common trope, and while it’s one I would normally enjoy, the previous two books I read with this setup were less than stellar, so I cringed at bit at first to see it again.  Thankfully, this isn’t them.

Chasing Shadows is a book about grief and loyalty, friendship and betrayal.  It tackles often complicated topics: from survivor guilt to cultural appropriation, and it deals with all of them with grace and honesty.  There are no simple answers here, no easy way to make the pain go away.  Instead we get complicated relationships and heartbreaking decisions wrapped up in a deceptively simple story.  Highly recommended.

cover image for Marie Antoinette, Serial KillerMarie Antoinette, Serial Killer by Katie Alender

A class trip to Paris is just the opportunity Colette Iselin needs.  A chance to meet new people, to get away from home, to escape her mother, to hang out with the popular girls, and to explore a new, fabulous city – and her family’s past.   But a serial killer is on the loose in Paris, murdering young men and women about the same age as Colette.  And Colette herself has been seeing strange things – including what may be the ghost of Marie Antoinette.

Needless to say, this particular novel requires a decent suspension of disbelief.  Not so much because of the ghosts, but rather because of the way it plays loose with history.  Still, while not quite as good as the other book by Alender that I’ve read, Bad Girls Don’t Die, this new novel is entertaining enough.

cover image for The Rule of ThirdsThe Rule of Thirds by Chantel Guertin

Preparing for Vantage Point, the photography competition for high school students that Pippa hopes will launch her career, is stressful enough by itself.  But now Pippa also has to deal with rocky friendships, cute boys, and rivals out to sabotage the entry she’s been working on for months.  And because that’s not enough to deal with, Pippa also been assigned to work at the hospital for her community service requirement.  The same hospital where she used to go to visit her Dad, and where she promised herself she’d never have to go to again.

The Rule of Thirds isn’t the type of book to make top ten lists, but it’s a nice, solid, entertaining novel with a good balance of humor and heartbreak and just enough surprises to keep you guessing.  I very much enjoyed reading it, and thought Guertin did a great job explaining the artistic process (when the subject came up) which isn’t something that’s always handled well in books like these.  I very much look forward to reading the sequels.

cover image for The Running DreamThe Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

At night, Jessica dreams of running.  She can feel herself taking her regular morning jog, or racing in another competition, always fast and strong and sure of every step.  But by day, Jessica can no longer walk. The accident that left a teammate dead also left Jessica missing the lower half of one leg.  She doesn’t mind the pain so much – there are drugs for that.  What she’s really afraid to face is the fact that she no longer knows where she’s going, or how she’s going to get there.

I was a little afraid that this book, based on the premise, was going to be maudlin and trite, full of Life Lessons and Inspiration From Unlikely Places.  Fortunately, this book is by the same author who gave us Flipped, so while the story does indeed end on a hopeful and triumphant note, there are no easy solutions here, no universal truths.  Just how one teen girl copes with a dramatic change in both mobility and identity.  Van Draanen does a wonderful job of crafting a nuanced story, and of not only showing us how Jessica changes, but also of letting the tone and mood of the book change along with Jessica.

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 UntoldUntold by Sarah Rees Brennan

Kami Glass no longer has to keep what she knows about her town, Sorry-in-the-Vale, a secret.  Now practically everyone in town is aware that magic is the town’s legacy, and of the power that the Lynburn family once held over everyone else.  But the person Kami most wants to talk to is no longer speaking to her. Which poses a danger to more than just her heart, for Kami is going to need all the help she can get to stop Rob Lynburn from turning Sorry-in-the-Vale back into the Lynbrun’s own private kingdom.

This books starts with killer scarecrows and kisses in the dark and mistaken identities – and just keeps going from there.  SO MUCH WACKY DRAMA. (in a good way.)  I appreciate that Brennan didn’t undo everything that happened at the end of the last book, and that Kami and Jared (and others) instead have to live with and deal with the choices they made and the things they said.  Best of all, Brennan is really great at the overwhelming angst and other emotions that is typical of young adult novels, but without resorting to the kind of situations where everything would be solved if people would just talk.  And when people aren’t talking, it makes sense.

When does the next book come out again?

cover image for The Adoration of Jenna FoxThe Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

A seventeen year old girl wakes up without any memories of who she is.  All she knows is what she’s been told. Her name (Jenna Fox), where she is (in her parent’s house), and why she doesn’t remember anything (accident, then coma).  Her parents give her videos to watch, images of a past she doesn’t remember, in the hopes that they will help heal her.  Instead they simply prompt more questions, questions that no one seems willing to answer.

I think what I love most about this book is that it’s the kind of story that’s best told with a teenaged protagonist.  Not that I’m against young adult genre novels where the teens take on more adult roles, however unlikely that may be.  But I really do love when authors come up with scenarios that not only make more sense with teens as the center of the story, but that demonstrate how certain questions are best asked in that context.  It’s an easy read, but thought provoking nonetheless.

cover image for Mister Max: The Book of Lost ThingsMister Max – The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt

Max knew he wasn’t late to the pier, but the ship that was supposed to take him and his family to India was no where to be seen.  And neither were his parents.  Now Max’s grandmother is insisting he move in with her until his parents return, but all Max wants are answers and some independence.  Suddenly presented with a pile of problems and mysteries, Max decides that his only option to be the person who finds the solutions.

I kept feeling like I ought to like this book, but instead it left me feeling like I was merely trudging through in order to be done with it.  I suspect it will hold more appeal for it’s middle grade target audience, but not nearly as much as it could have.

cover image for The Infinite Moment of UsThe Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle

I am going to skip the synopsis this time around because I CAN’T with this book.  It’s  a badly needed update of Judy Blume’s Forever (at least, that was my impression, and I’m clearly not the only one) and while I’d recommend it over that any day, and I’m so very glad both books exist, I was still frowning through most of this novel.

To be fair, this is in part because, in trying to show that it’s normal and ok and healthy for teens to have sex – as long as they are responsible – one ends up presenting that specific relationship as a model for how to Do Things Right, rather than exploring these characters in particular.  And this book really could have done better when it came to exploring the characters.

It’s the caveat (the “as long as they’re responsible” part) that’s the kicker.  Everyone should be responsible, not just teens, and putting that condition on teens’, and only teens’, right to take pleasure in their own bodies is bound to imply that only certain people have the right, and those certain people are usually going to be the ones that adhere to the status quo.  This may not have been was Myracle was going for, but it is the impression I got, particularly because of the way Wrenn and Charlie’s relationship was compared to Charlie and Starrla’s.  I suspect Myracle was simply trying to acknowledge that not all sex is healthy, but it came across as more: not all sex is healthy for teens.

And on that score, this book does have much to recommend it: teens having sex, girls in particular finding pleasure in sex, and all without either of the two main characters being punished for it!  Still, I am rolling my eyes so hard the way the book ends and absolutely everything involving Starrla – the sexually promiscuous and not very nice girl who acts as a foil to Wren’s innocence.