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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Heartless by Marissa Meyer

Overall Rating: 90%

Relatable Characters?

Meh.

Cute?

Yes!

Funny?

Sometimes!

Moving?

Could be?

Sad?

A little

Lemon trees from one’s dream materialize overnight in one’s room. Cuckoo clocks house talking cuckoo birds that fall asleep and forget the time. Croquet is played with flamingos as mallets and hedgehogs as balls. The world of Marissa Meyer’s Heartless is full of fantastic, impossible things. Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Heartless tells the backstory of the Queen of Hearts, featuring Meyer’s take on why the character becomes the “blind and aimless Fury” that Carroll portrays (Meyer 4).

rehost2016913a5c7dcc9-6afd-4a16-b6eb-3b98632b12c7Heartless follows Catherine Pinkerton whose passion for baking sustains her dream of opening a bakery with her best friend and maid Mary Ann. In the Kingdom of Hearts, however, women have no place in the world of business because societal rules and norms are modeled after Victorian England’s, and baking is not considered a suitable job for Cath, the daughter of the Marquess of Rock Turtle Cove. Cath nonetheless endeavors to realize her dream, all-the-while grappling with her parent’s wishes for her to marry the King of Hearts and become queen.

Exploring the impact societal norms and parental expectations can have on one’s life, Heartless also illustrates issues of privilege and class divide and raises questions about what actions are just, what love justifies, and if some events are not certain individuals’ faults but fate’s.

Heartless’ rich world-building and colorful cast of characters make for a very immersive read that both those familiar and unfamiliar with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will enjoy. In addition to reimagining staples like the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, and the Mad Hatter, Meyer incorporates elements of other works like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” into Heartless and introduces original characters like the charming, funny, considerably swoon-worthy new court joker of Hearts, Jest.

However, not everyone may appreciate the substantial role romance plays in the novel, and I personally found it hard to like Cath. I didn’t always agree with how she handled situations, and her behavior and inner monologue, while authentic given the societal context, was off-putting at times—reflecting classist notions.

Nevertheless, my entrancement with the novel’s world and desire to learn what causes Cath’s transformation from aspiring bakery owner to heartless queen compensated for the few issues I had with Cath’s character and certain plot points in the story. Overall, I found Heartless to be a worthwhile read.

By Celina Sun

Meyer, Marissa. Heartless. EPUB ed., Pan Macmillan, 2016.

 

 

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.

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.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

true story

“I used to think the world was broken down by tribes…By Black and White. By Indian and White. But I know this isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are assholes and the people who are not.”

~~

Arnold “Junior” Spirit barely walks through the entrance of his local high school, located in the Spokane Indian Reservation, before his geometry teachers convinces him to transfer to the wealthy Reardan High. At school, Junior struggles to fit in as an impoverished Indian in a predominantly white classroom. At home, members of his tribe, including his long-time buddy, Rowdy, call him a traitor for leaving the Spokane Reservation. In this hostile environment, Junior must discover, decide, and (at times) change his mind about who are “assholes” and who will bring love into his life.

From the opening line of the book, Junior’s voice is engaging, welcoming, and powerful. As a reader, I really felt like Junior was a close friend, directly talking to me. The book is peppered with silly cartoons that help pace the novel, and the resulting mix of words and drawings would be especially compelling for a reader that is easily bored by long paragraphs.

What I appreciate the most about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is that it doesn’t hesitate to address a myriad of “taboo” personal issues—alcoholism, abuse, racial discrimination, poverty, eating disorders, mental illness, and more. Books will often address only one (if any) of these topics, ignoring the fact that many of Juinor’s struggles go hand-in-hand. While the book highlights the systemic injustices that American Indians face, it never employs a self-pitying tone. Instead, Junior’s love of basketball, cartoons, and his classmate Penelope keeps the narrative humorous and meaningful.

For teens that relate to any aspect of Junior’s multi-faceted identity, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is supportive and inspiring. For teens that don’t relate, Junior’s experience provides an essential window into the semi-autobiographical life of an American Indian teenager.

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Little, Brown and Co., 2007. Print.

By Sally

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

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Grab your hosiery and push up bras, girls. Beauty pageants have never been this hard core.

When their plane crash lands on a deserted island, the competitors for Miss Teen Dream Queen must fight for survival while still keeping their bodies and minds in perfect pageant shape. Among them include Adina (Miss New Hampshire), who is only here because she tried to infiltrate the pageant for a news article; Shanti (Miss California), who is worried about competition from the other Beauty-Queen-of-Color, Nicole (Miss Colorado); and the one and only Taylor Renee Hawkins (Miss Texas), who takes it upon herself to lead these poor girls through this time of trial and tribulation. It’s edgy. It’s intense. And the ratings will skyrocket as the body count grows and these girls battle it out for the crown of Miss Teen Dream!

Beauty Queens is, at its core, a satire of reality TV, consumerism, and pageant culture; however, it’s also about growing up and realizing you’ve spent your whole life trying to be someone you’re not. The eight to ten girls who make up the core of the story each has their moment of revelation associated with their feelings surrounding their body image, their sexuality, their culture, and their role as a pageant performer. Sometimes these revelations change them, and sometimes they just reaffirm what the girls already knew about themselves but just kept silenced to appease the judges.

Bray’s ability to work with such a wide, diverse cast is applaudable, as almost every young girl can find their mirror in the cast while also seeing windows into others’ lives. There are lesbians, bisexuals, a transgender girl, two women of color, big girls, small girls, promiscuous girls, chaste girls, girls from single parent homes, girls from all ranges of experiences and cultures. While older girls will probably understand a lot more of the references and satirical humor within the book, I think all girls middle school and up would be able to appreciate the message inherent in the book because of such believable characters to cling to. I do worry about boys’ ability to enjoy this book – not because it’s girly, but because it is very focused on women and womens’ issues. Regardless, it’s a wild ride with some beautiful lessons, from beginning to end, inside and out.

Bray, Libba.  Beauty queens. New York: Scholastic Press, 2011

By Mary

Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz

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When Kivali–better known as Lizard–was little, her guardian, Sheila, told her that the lizard people dropped her on Earth as a baby to one day meet a great destiny. Lizard doesn’t know if that’s true or not, but she has always felt different from other kids; in the world of Pat Schmatz’s Lizard Radio, Lizard is what’s known as a “bender,” a person whose assigned gender is different from their actual experience of their gender: a trans person, in our world. Even though she uses she/her/hers as her pronouns, Lizard has never felt like a girl, and sometimes that makes her feel like she’s not even human. Her identity is a total mystery to her. Everything gets even more confusing when Sheila drops her off at a place called CropCamp, a government-run summer camp for teenagers, where she’s supposed to learn how to farm and become a good citizen. Sheila hates the government, though, and has always told Lizard to stand up to authority, so why would she send her here?

This book is awesome and magical in a lot of ways, including the weird, wonderful language of the narration, the complexity of the friendships that Lizard makes, the characters themselves, the nuances and secrets of the society they live in, and the fact that the narrator is so often confused; it’s a treasure trove for anyone who loves stories of summer camps and/or dystopian worlds, and it’s intensely relatable for folks of LGBTQ+ identities.

Lizard’s confusion–about who she is, what she wants, who she’s supposed to be, etc.–is one of my favorite things about Lizard Radio. For many LGBTQ+ people in our world, coming out is a scary and potentially dangerous process in which the risks are so great that it’s safer to pretend to be something we’re not, or to try to actually become that thing; we worry all the time that the people around us might catch on to our real selves. We can’t afford to be confused or even look like we’re confused, because that could lead to us getting bullied, harassed, thrown out of our homes, physically attacked, arrested, or killed. The fact that Lizard is allowed to be confused about herself throughout the book is invaluable for young LGBTQ+ readers who feel the same way about themselves, and it’s one of many things that make Lizard a compelling character and narrator.

My other favorite part of this book is how the characters are the main focus. It’s not trying to be A Book About LGBTQ+ Issues–it’s a book about kids. They all feel real; nobody is all good or all bad, and it’s hard to fully love or hate anyone. Lots of strange and interesting things happen, and there are new terms to learn and ideas to grapple with, but at the end of the day, Lizard Radio shows its heart in its characters, and that’s what makes it so good and so fun to read.

Schmatz, Pat. Lizard Radio. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2015. Print.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

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Theodore Finch struggles with depression. Violet Markey is grieving the loss of her sister Eleanor. The two meet when they each attempt to end their lives by jumping off their high school’s bell tower. Finch snaps out of his stupor when he sees his popular classmate Violet and quickly saves her from jumping. Finch leads everyone to believe that Violet, in an act of heroism, had come to the tower that morning to save him from jumping. From then on, bonded by their secret, the two become fast friends working to keep each other from the darkness and focus on the good moments in life.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, is a fairly accurate depiction of depression. It is well-written and includes vivid imagery that tethers reader to character journey. Niven’s writing gives reader stake in Violet and Finch’s adventure. Niven’s Finch is a witty, charismatic lead who seems to emanate an inner self confidence and critical awareness. His voice prompts the reader to consider things they might otherwise not. In Finch is darkness dipped in humor. His monologue is light enough as not to make a reader too uncomfortable but grave enough to make the reader at least curious and invested in his journey and emotional well-being.

Niven captures the adolescent voice so well. Her characters are not ignorant but are hypervigilant and cynical, yet pragmatic. Many adolescents silently absorb their surroundings and with these characters a voice is given to this internal monologue.

Violet feels she is being ignored and is unseen, calling out for someone to notice but no one digs deeper than below shallow pleasantries. The character reflects a common trait of those struggling with depression. This book gives hope to those afraid of opening up but desperately wish for someone to notices and help them.

This book charges students to look after one another. It shows them they have power in these situations.

However, even with depth of characters, they are sometimes shallow; for example, Violet spends much of the book worrying about her bangs, believing them to be a punishment. These moments are out of place in an otherwise insightful book. Niven also plays into high school clichés: the popular girl falling for the outcast is an overplayed plotline.

Something teachers should also be cautious of is the fact that, in this book, adults oblivious, ineffective and often just don’t understand. This might emphasize fears some student’s may have that they can’t turn to an authority figure. If teaching this book, instructors should take a moment to unpack this, and show students they have someone to which they can turn. Possible essential questions could ask students to consider moments when they felt unheard or ignored and brainstorm solutions to combat these issues.

One of the characters in the book does commit suicide, so teachers should be cautious before assigning it. While I truly believe students will benefit from reading this book, it is not for every classroom, and teachers should approach the subject matter in this book carefully. Mental health and suicide and grief are difficult topics. Whether they’ve directly experienced it or they are just made uncomfortable by the fact that it could happen and do not like thinking about it, students will have a hard time reading and discussing this book. Ultimately, Niven’s book encourages readers to find the beautiful moments in life and focus on the good days. This book is necessary especially in the wake of Thirteen Reasons Why. All the Bright Places depicts suicide in all its forms, not glamorous, not beautiful, not as justice, but dark and frightening and baffling.

By: Naana Obeng-Marnu

Niven, Jennifer. All the Bright Places. Ember, 2015.

Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson

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“And this makes me wonder if a black girl’s life is only about being stitched together and coming undone, being stitched together and coming undone.

I wonder if there’s ever a way for a girl like me to feel whole.”

Jade Butler is an artist. She transforms mundane pieces of newspapers and magazines into colorful and striking collages. But everyday, Jade takes the bus to her school that is far away from home, far away from her family and friends and far away from the community of Northern Portland where she lives. At St. Francis High School, Jade is one of few black kids amongst the most wealthy and white students. Even though her family struggles to make ends meet, Jade works hard to get the best grades so she can one day go to college and travel the world. However, her life changes when she joins a female mentoring program in hopes of getting a college scholarship. Jade’s new friendship with her mentor Maxine is not always easy, but it helps Jade learn how to speak up for herself.

Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together is a story about a young woman who learns how to stay true to her despite seemingly impossible odds. This novel will appeal to readers who enjoy classic coming-of-age tales, but Watson takes this classic structure and infuses it with Jade’s much-needed, fresh, observational voice. Piecing Me Together takes on important topics like racism and police brutality, and it should be read by people from all backgrounds. The issues in this novel affect all of us. No matter who you are or where you come from, readers will be inspired by the essential lessons Jade learns about life, friendship and family.

Watson, Renée. Piecing Me Together. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Madeleine Rozanski