The Sun is Also a Star ~ Nicola Yoon

“We’re undocumented immigrants, and we’re being deported tonight. Today is my last chance to try to convince someone – or fate – to help me find a way to stay in America. To be clear: I don’t believe in fate. But I’m desperate.” ~ Natasha

“There’s a Japanese phrase that I like: koi no yokan. It doesn’t mean love at first sight. It’s closer to love at second sight. It’s the feeling when you meet someone that you’re going to fall in love with them. […] I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m experiencing right now. The only slight (possibly insurmountable) problem is that I’m pretty sure that Natasha is not.” ~ Daniel

Natasha is an undocumented immigrant whose family moved to New York from Jamaica when she was eight. Her life is here, in the US, but today is her last day before she gets deported. Instead of packing or saying goodbye to the only place she calls home, Natasha departs on an adventure to try and stop her family’s deportation.

Daniel is the second son of Korean immigrants, their second chance at having a son graduate from “second-best school,” Yale. Today is his Yale interview; the first step towards becoming a doctor, a career Daniel has zero interest in. On his way uptown, Daniel notices a cute, African-American girl dancing her way down the street. He’s hooked.

Once they meet, Daniel and Natasha spend the day together exploring New York City, falling in love, and most importantly, trying to stop Natasha’s deportation. Along the way, they learn about each other’s families, their dreams, and themselves. In her novel, Yoon presents two contrasting yet honest portrayals of children of immigrants in the United States and their search to find out who they are and who they want to become.

The novel is made all the more interesting because each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character, focusing mainly on Natasha and Daniel, while also providing the perspectives of other minor characters – or the universe – on the events of the day. Because of this, Yoon is able to show how a variety of characters in the same city – even family – can experience the world so differently. Somehow, these characters’ stories are all interconnected though, implying that fate might actually exist, no matter how little Natasha believes in it.

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History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

rehost2016913a5c7dcc9-6afd-4a16-b6eb-3b98632b12c7What happens to us when the love of our life dies unexpectedly? How do we process our grief knowing that we will never be able to speak to them directly or hear them respond? And, what happens if this love was dating someone else when they died?

These are the provocative central questions at the heart of Adam Silvera’s History Is All You Left Me. Written from the perspective of seventeen year-old high school senior, Griffin, the novel oscillates back and forth between the present in the aftermath of the passing of Griffin’s first love and the past history of their relationship, from their first date through the accident that separated them forever. Griffin, an introverted teenager who struggles to manage his overwhelming obsessive compulsive disorder, is enthralled by the charismatic and outgoing Theo, and when the two of them decide to take the next step from being friends to boyfriends, they find a love within each other that is kind, supportive, and everlasting. That is, until Theo moves away from their home in New York to California to start college and begins dating Jackson, thrusting Griffin into the role of supportive best friend – a role he had agreed to play, yet struggles with as he envisions his path and Theo’s eventually realigning. When Theo drowns while at the beach, Griffin and Jackson’s lives are thrust together back in New York in the wake of his funeral. Can two people who loved the same boy be friends as they navigate their shared grief, or will their separate and competing histories tear them apart? Griffin, who speaks directly to Theo during the moments of the novel that are set in the present, grapples with his unwanted relationship with Jackson, but learns that there may be some benefit in spending time with the only other person who understands what he is going through.

For anyone who has ever lost someone, this is a challenging, gut-wrenching, cathartic, beautiful tale of how viscerally powerful grief is. There are moments in the text where Griffin’s loss is so real that it is hard to continue reading, and in that way Silvera has brilliantly realized the theme of grief through his writing. As a young person navigating the murky waters of belonging, mental illness, and loss, Griffin is a well-rendered character through whom many adolescent readers, male and female, queer and straight, can see parts of their selves and their struggles reflected through. For those who feel alone and who feel like they have nothing left, Silvera reminds us that even in the wake of sadness and isolation, the essential tools to rebuild our lives, though they may not change our circumstances, lie within us. When everything in our lives seems uncertain, we are reminded, as Griffin learns, that we are our own “compass arrow[s], trying to find [our] true north, (233).

By: Josh Quinones

Silvera, Adam. History Is All You Left Me. Soho Teen, 2017.

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

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“I stare up at this house. It’s my father’s home too. It’s my home, they tell me. But right now, all I can see is a large cinder box that traps me inside.”

Naila is about to graduate high school in Florida and start a prestigious combined medical program at a University a few hours away from home with her best friend, Carla and boyfriend, Saif. Her ultra-conservative, Pakistani parents don’t know about that second part though. Naila is not allowed to have a boyfriend, let alone hang out with boys. Her parents will choose her future husband. Naila has been lying to her parents for a year about Saif, but when she sneaks out to Prom, her parents catch them together.

Livid, Naila’s parents decide to leave for a last minute, month-long family trip to Pakistan days before her graduation. Once there, Naila finally meets her aunts, uncles, cousins, and actually finds herself enjoying her time in Pakistan. However, unbeknownst to Naila, her parents have decided to arrange her marriage within the next few weeks and don’t intend for her to return to Florida with them. Naila struggles to fight against her parents’ wishes as she comes to terms with the fact that her core values and beliefs conflict with those of her parents.

This is the story about the dissonance between immigrant parents and their children’s values. Saeed shows how far parents will go in order to do what they think is best for their children, as well as the difficulties children of immigrants face in making sense of their different identities. This novel plays with themes of immigrant families, coming home, arranged marriage, and resilience within the poignant and emotional story of a teenager learning to stand up for herself. Naila’s story is one that is unfortunately more common than we realize, but Saeed’s take on it offers a unique and more accessible perspective.

Trigger Warning: instances of rape and physical abuse.

Saeed, Aisha. Written in the Stars. New York: Speak, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2016. Print.

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

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I’ll make a confession: As I began reading Symptoms of Being Human, I didn’t think I’d learn a lot from the book. After all, it’s about a gender fluid teen — but my sister, many of my friends, and I all identify as LGBTQ+, and I’ve done a good amount of reading and thinking about gender identity. But my assumption was very wrong. Not only did this book draw me in with an engaging story and characters, it also highlighted for me just how deep my assumptions about gender identity and expression run.

Symptoms of Being Human follows the story of Riley, a high schooler who starts an anonymous blog about the experience of being gender fluid — which, in Riley’s case, means sometimes feeling more like a girl, sometimes more like a boy, and sometimes neither. Riley is not out at home or at school, but when the blog goes viral, a malicious classmate discovers who is behind it and begins threatening Riley. Riley must navigate the situation at school while simultaneously finding friends, a girlfriend, and a place in the LGBTQ+ community.

Although the plot itself is predictable sometimes, that was much less important to me than the remarkably pointed way in which Garvin challenges readers’ preconceptions. That point was driven home when Riley attends a gender and sexuality support group, and assumes that a transgender man is a woman based on his appearance. Riley says, “This is the second time in as many weeks that I’ve misjudged someone else’s gender identity. I feel a pang of shame; like everyone else, my instinct is to put people in a category” (154). In that moment, I realized that I was doing exactly the same thing: mentally assigning a male/female identity to Riley, trying to categorize every action and thought as “masculine” or “feminine” — even though Riley’s gender fluidity is made clear from page 1. Symptoms of Being Human is filled with striking examples of this kind of judgement and its effects on Riley and other characters. This does mean that Garvin addresses bullying, suicide, sexual assault, and other difficult topics. However, the representation of these issues in the books does not feel gratuitous; rather, it gives readers an important opportunity to learn about both themselves and the concrete issues that Garvin tackles.

Finally, one of the main ideas of the book is that Riley has many identities and traits beyond gender fluidity, including an interest in music and a talent for writing. Indeed, Garvin uses Symptoms of Being Human to emphasize the similarities shared even by outwardly different people. This makes the story an engaging choice for anyone regardless of gender identity, and especially for teens who are trying to find community and identity. Also, it reinforces the importance of acceptance, respect, and trying to understand people with identities other than our own — a message that feels extraordinarily significant in today’s world.

By: Anja Hendrikse Liu

Garvin, Jeff. Symptoms of Being Human. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2016. Print.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

rehost2016913a5c7dcc9-6afd-4a16-b6eb-3b98632b12c7“Nothing before you counts,” he said. “And I can’t even imagine an after.”

She shook her head. “Don’t.

“What?”

“Don’t talk about after.”

“I just meant that… I want to be the last person who ever kisses you, too…. That sounds bad, like a death threat or something. What I’m trying to say is, you’re it. This is it for me.”

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is a tale of young love that is a dynamic and heart-warming read.  Using witty, candid, and thoughtful language, Rowell explores the unique love that exists in the confines of high school while also exploring the impact of family and personal history.  Following the typical chain of events of a real high school relationship, Park and Eleanor meet on the school bus, have English class together, and struggle through the same school bullies and woes of gym class.

Although a high school love story may seem like a fairly typical premise of a young adult novel, Rowell defies the high school sweetheart archetype by creating complex protagonists with personalities and histories full of nuance and mystery.

Eleanor and Park’s family backgrounds at first appear insignificant to the relationship, but prove to be the most important component to understanding their future as a couple. Eleanor grew up in a broken and dysfunctional family. Stricken with poverty and harmed by abuse, Eleanor was never exposed to healthy love. Park however, grew up in a stable and supportive household with parents who love each other and care for their family. With two wildly different homes, the love that Eleanor and Park develop gains nuance and surprise. Getting to know the real Eleanor and the authentic Park builds a plot that keeps the reader constantly discovering new things about the characters’ identities and how each learns to love.

The intense backgrounds, and the effects it has on Eleanor in particular is atypical to many high school love stories, but it is precisely what makes this book so successful. The inclusion and acknowledgement of the effects of family dynamics adds a dimension to the narrative that is often missing in young adult novels, but that is crucial in creating a more complex and relatable character.

With a universally relatable theme of adolescence and love, the book is fitting for all ages. For older readers, the story provokes a sense of nostalgia for youth while enhancing the reader’s own appreciation for young love, even imbuing the reader with a sense of hope.  For younger readers, the experiences are relatable for most and will evoke empathy in all. In sum, Eleanor and Park is a must-read for anyone who has ever been in love, who is still looking to find the one, or has the real belief that personal background is important to acknowledge and explore.

By: Anna Fireman

Rowell, Rainbow. Eleanor & Park. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016. Print.

The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

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Before we begin the review of The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, I’d like to point out that the novel is titled Severed Heads, Broken Hearts in the UK. This version, while slightly gorier, gives readers a more accurate idea of the story they are about to delve into.

Ezra Faulkner believes “everyone’s life, no matter how unremarkable, has a singular tragic encounter after which everything that really matters will happen.” At the end of his junior year of high school, it seems Ezra has evaded his own theory. As class president, star of the varsity tennis team, and leader of the most popular clique in school, Ezra is the stereotypical golden boy. That is, until his personal tragedy catches up to him one night before prom, and his life is changed forever. With his girlfriend, popularity, and illustrious tennis career yanked right out from underneath him, it seems like Ezra is doomed to suffer through senior year in misery. Enter Cassidy Thorpe, an eccentric new student with a mysterious past who catches Ezra’s eye right away. It’s clear early on that Cassidy is a textbook Manic Pixie Dream Girl, making The Beginning of Everything feel a bit like a second-rate Looking for Alaska, but for those who haven’t read John Green and/or those who aren’t put off by the trope, Schneider’s novel could be a feel-good novel about finding oneself after falling from grace.

Readers around Ezra’s age are most likely to enjoy The Beginning of Everything. Mentions of alcohol use and sexual encounters are sprinkled throughout the novel, but members of the target audience won’t be put off by Ezra’s experiences or commentary as they have probably engaged in similar escapades.

If read before any of John Green’s novels (specifically Looking for Alaska), The Beginning of Everything will seem like a twist on the tired story of a jock falling for the quirky new girl, but when compared to Green’s works (as is done by a review on the back cover), Schneider’s story falls a little flat. The Beginning of Everything could be the book you reread to highlight the snappy quotes, but only if you aren’t already familiar with what happens when a witty “different than all the other girls” girl is involved.

By: Tess DeMeyer

Schneider, Robyn. The Beginning of Everything. New York: Katherine Tegen, 2013. Print.

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

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“You can have anything…once you admit you deserve it” (180).

This idea runs throughout Meredith Russo’s novel, If I Was Your Girl. Protagonist Amanda Hardy has recently moved to a small town in Tennessee to live with her father and graduate high school. She must navigate a new school, make friends, get a boyfriend, and reconnect with a father she hasn’t spoken to in six years. But Amanda’s biggest struggle and secret in her new town? She’s transgender.

 If I Was Your Girl is powerful because it deals with this topic head-on. The novel has frequent flashbacks to Amanda’s past, dealing with the dissolution of her parents’ marriage (which she feels is partially her fault), early stories of realizing she would rather be female, her depression and suicide attempt, her transition towards taking estrogen and getting surgery, going to therapy, and getting bullied and viciously beaten. Russo doesn’t skim over details: instead, she strives to explain why Amanda felt the way she did, the effects a critical community can have, and even the painful process of dilation in order to create a vagina.

The author, Meredith Russo, shares a lot of similarities with Amanda: She is also transgender, was born in Tennessee, and was beaten for being trans. This adds a lot of credibility to the novel and makes it more compelling. Today, there’s a lot of debate about transgender individuals, especially in regards to bathroom usage and whether being transgender is a mental disorder. If I Was Your Girl is a great way to learn more about the transgender community—and although you may feel uncomfortable at times, that uncomfortableness is important.

In addition to everyone who wants to learn more about being transgender or who is transgender, If I Was Your Girl is, at its heart, a love story, and will appeal to all fans of romance. Amanda falls in love with football player Grant, who has his own secrets to hide. She has never been in a relationship before, and the reader gets to see her progression towards being more confident as well as the progression of her and Grant’s relationship. But it’s not just a love story in terms of romance: If I Was Your Girl is also the story of how Amanda and her father learn to love each other again after Amanda begins to live as female, how Amanda’s friends learn to love her regardless of what Amanda’s birth sex is, and how Amanda, ultimately, learns to love herself.

Amanda’s story is complex. She deals with intersection of being transgender and living in the South, religion, and parental acceptance. Amanda’s friend explains to her, “people in the South are addicted to the closet…Everybody’s too afraid of going to hell or getting made fun of…so they can’t even really admit what they want to themselves” (164). Amanda herself deals with trying to maintain her faith. And Amanda’s mother, while accepting, still struggles with what she sees as the death of her son; when Amanda argues, “I’m still me,” her mother responds that “It ain’t that simple” and “I know I’m supposed to say it is, but it ain’t” (186-187). I found these aspects to be thought-provoking; Russo shows that nothing is as simple as it seems, and the novel contains many twists and complications, which keep the novel from falling into tropes or stereotypes.

This novel is powerful and important for transgender youth, above all. Russo said she wanted to “help transgender youth who feel alone and not accepted in any community by giving them a relatable heroine who is fun, interesting, and empowered” (Edwards). I think she certainly achieved her goal, and that the story of Amanda will grab you and leave you thinking long after the last pages.

By: Grace Layer

Edwards, Lynda. “Chattanooga transgender woman lands $100,000 book deal.” Times Free Press 27 January 2015. Web. 17 April 2017.

Russo, Meredith. If I Was Your Girl. New York: Alloy Entertainment, 2016. Print.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

“We fold our immigrant selves into this veneer of what we think is African American girlhood. The result is more jagged than smooth.”

-Ibi Zoboi, Author’s Note

American Street by Ibi Zoboi–a Haitian immigrant author–begins with opportunity and heartbreak as Fabiola Toussaint finally makes it from Haiti to America while her mother is set to be deported back.

Fabiola soon discovers that her aunt and cousins who sent for them have absconded their Haitian heritage to become fully “Americanized.” As the sole representative of her culture, Fabiola becomes “Fabulous,” a brave teen who approaches the challenges of inner city Detroit with the magical realism of her Haitian Vodou culture. Her desire to bring her mother back sees her navigate love, loyalties, and problems in her community.

Zoboi’s first novel is brilliantly written, vividly transcribed in the magic of Fabiola’s culture. That being said, it also very quickly degenerates into some disappointingly obtuse stereotypes of black American girls–including superficiality, perpetual female in-fighting, using drug dealing as the only legitimate source of income, and cyclic (almost valorized) domestic abuse. As honest as this may be to many personal experiences, including perhaps Zoboi’s, I found the text too often offensive and problematic for young people looking for a window into the black and immigrant narrative. It was offensive not at the inclusion of these themes, but in its treatment.

As the son of a Jamaican immigrant woman, I was looking for a mirror to validate some of my own family’s experiences between Canada and America. This book did not provide that; Fabiola valued family loyalty and selfish personal relationships over justice in explicit and problematic ways. Young people looking for a window into immigrant culture will entirely miss the narrative of hard-working Caribbean men and women that was the story of my family and my first generation peers’ families. There must also be more done in a novel like this to explicitly take issue with the horrific domestic abuse in teen relationships seen in the story.

I wish this text could intentionally and consistently problematize these stereotypes more, as Gene Lang did in American Born Chinese. Alas, the text was a bit too ambitious with other themes–like romance, culture shock, family loyalty, and (somewhat) police brutality–to significantly question these facets.

I recommend this book for young people looking for accounts of diverse experiences and magical realism narratives, but I cannot in good conscience recommend it for an accurate or healthy portrayal of immigrant (or black American) subcultures.

By Kashmeel McKoena

Zoboi, Ibi. American Street. New York, NY: Balzer Bray, an Imprint of HarperCollins, 2017. Print.

Thirteen Reasons Why

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Have you ever gotten a package in the mail that you didn’t expect? Did you feel excited? Curious about what someone might have sent you unprompted? Well that is exactly what happened to Clay Jensen. Returning home from school one day he finds a package addressed to him with no return label on his front porch. Upon opening it he finds thirteen cassette tapes with recordings from Hannah Baker, a girl at school he has loved from afar for years. There is just one catch – Hannah Baker killed herself a few weeks earlier. And the first tape says Clay is responsible.

This novel follows Clay over the course of a day as he listens to all thirteen tapes, desperate to understand his role in this tragedy. Hannah leads him through her time at high school, starting as the “new girl” when she moved to town up to the day before she committed suicide. Each tape tells a story dedicated to someone she holds responsible for her decision – both classmates and teachers. The stories depict moments, seemingly insignificant to outsiders but which hold great weight to Hannah. Clay walks the neighborhood, tracing Hannah’s footsteps to locations associated with each tape. A local ice cream parlor, the English classroom they shared, the house of an infamous party. As the sky gets darker so do the tapes until all Clay wants is to forget what he has heard. The secrets run deep and are raw with emotion, Clay will never look at his fellow classmates the same way.

The novel reads quickly with each chapter associated with one tape that ultimately weaves together to form the final story of Hannah Baker. As the reader become invested in Clay Jensen’s story the suspense to uncover his role in all this keeps the pages turning. Clay learns not only secrets from these tapes but also the power of rumors and individuals have on the lives of those around us.

By Grace Molino

Citation

Asher, Jay. Thirteen Reasons Why. New York: Penguin Group, 2007.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

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“My fellow underage Frenchy’s pilgrim runs up to me and says, ‘Who are you?’

            I stand up then and say, ‘Um, I’m Will Grayson.’

            ‘W-I-L-L G-R-A-Y-S-O-N?’ he says, spelling impossibly fast.

            ‘Uh, yeah,’ I say. ‘Why do you ask?’

            The kid looks at me for a second, his head turned like he thinks I might be putting him on, and then finally he says, ‘Because I am also Will Grayson.’”

Co-authored by YA powerhouses John Green and David Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson chronicles the collision of two Will Graysons as they meet by coincidence and find their lives intertwining in unexpected ways. Green writes capital-letters Will Grayson, an Evanston high schooler whose high school career is defined by his policy of not caring, while Levithan takes on lowercase will grayson, who deals with depression by instant messaging his online crush Isaac. When the two meet in a Chicago porn shop, their lives intersect and culminate in the musical stylings of Tiny Cooper, Will Grayson’s “world’s largest person who is really, really gay” friend. Will Grayson, Will Grayson is witty, strange, and unexpected.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson features multiple gay characters, including lowercase will grayson, and the larger-than-life Tiny Cooper, though I found their portrayal to be slightly lacking. I could appreciate that neither Green nor Levithan made coming out a central facet of Will Graysons’ narratives, but I felt as though the gay relationships within Will Grayson, Will Grayson were not expressed in healthy ways. Tiny Cooper’s million boyfriends—and subsequent million breakups—were often a comedic point in Will Grayson’s chapters, but they portrayed Tiny as impulsive and lusty. As Gary of the Gay Straight Alliance jokes throughout, this depiction of gayness isn’t necessarily “good for the cause.” will grayson’s romances, too, fall short of a happy ending. Without giving too much away, straight prospects survive in Will Grayson, Will Grayson, gay prospects less so.

Still, the YA novel does some great work in discussing the importance of friendship. The novel starts with the adage, “You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you cannot pick your friend’s nose,” and circles around this notion of whether you actually pick your friends, or whether you just end up with them. I really appreciated the emphasis on platonic friendship, and its value, in the text. Green’s chapters centralize this theme as Will and Tiny push and pull against each other, often in hilarious ways. While romance emerges in the text, the friendships—between Will and Tiny, and between will and maura—occupy the foreground of the plot.

While often funny and upbeat, Will Grayson, Will Grayson approaches difficult topics like socioeconomic class, mental illness, and learning when to stand up for oneself and one’s friends. Some of its content can be difficult in its weight; will grayson’s reflections on depression are often crass and painful, expressing the sorts of fatalist attitudes which might get a student recommended for counseling. Yet, many of the themes discussed in the novel are important, and providing a darker voice for one of its characters might allow certain students to connect with the text. Will Grayson, Will Grayson is worth questioning in terms of its representation, but it also presents important issues students might be facing while still being a humorous, engaging read.

By Laura Kenney

Green, John, and David Levithan. Will Grayson, Will Grayson. London: Penguin , 2014. Print.