Archives for posts with tag: YA


Did you have a chance to read Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys? If not, please do so immediately. That way you can then enjoy the second installment: The Dream Thieves (Scholastic, $18.99, out today). The Dream Thieves is written like a dream. I found myself moving out of this state of unearthliness, trying to figure out what what was real and what wasn’t. In the context of the book, magic exists. And the characters and the setting are so realistic, I become convinced that their reality is my reality and that magic must exist in this world, too. The Dream Thieves is slightly darker than The Raven Boys, but darker in a way that is entirely appropriate. Even happy dreams are bizarre and twisted. Dreams turn you up-side-down and in-side-out. They mess with you in delightfully terrifying ways. How many times have you woken up with the thought, ‘thank god, it was just a dream’, but then later you can’t remember — was it a dream or wasn’t it? Stiefvater’s second volume of the Raven Cycle brings up all of these confusing emotions. And it is brilliant. Like dreams, I can’t quite explain the book either. I know that if I start to describe it, that the description won’t do the book justice. Or I’ll get caught up trying to clarify a point that isn’t really important. I’ll just say that this book focuses more on Ronan and Adam. Like dreams, it all makes sense when you’re reading the book. But yes, it is absolutely vital that you read The Raven Boys first. In fact, I wish I had read it again right before I read the second book. I’m looking forward to when all the volumes are out and I can read them all in one go.
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We look back and identify ground breaking books: Alice in Wonderland, Where the Wild Things Are, Snowy Day. Do we know they are groundbreaking when they first come out? In some ways, yes. The immediate audience was aware that these books did something different; they changed something in publishing. To me, David Levithan’s newest book, Two Boys Kissing (Knopf, $18.99, out today), feels groundbreaking. The book is about two boys kissing. The title is Two Boys Kissing, and even the cover image shows two boys kissing. This book does not blink. It does not compromise. Don’t like it? Avert your eyes, because this book is. And it’s phenomenal. Like the books listed above, Two Boys Kissing is groundbreaking not because it has an agenda. Not because it’s trying to prove something or change anything. But because it is so well written and is an amazing story. Inspired by true events, the story centers on two boys who are trying to set a new record for the longest kiss — upwards of 32 hours. But there are several other stories woven throughout and they all deal with boys at various stages of their relationships. The novel is narrated by a Greek chorus of gay men who died from AIDS in the 1980s and this is where things really start to get interesting.

The boys are blissfully unaware of this chorus in the same way that gay kids today are often unaware of the struggles of previous generations. At the risk of saying “kids today!”, that’s exactly what’s happening here, but it is entirely appropriate. Kids, all kids, don’t always know the past. Why should they? They’re kids. As frustrating as it might be for the chorus to see that they boys don’t really know their stories, that is the way it works. Each generation fights to make things better for the next one and that next generation reaps the benefit without ever knowing there was a fight.

As for the chorus, their nostalgia for their own lost youths, their admiration for the freedom within the gay community today, and their resentment that they never had the chance to experience that freedom is heartbreaking. Levithan elicits empathy and love from the reader for both generations.

As I’ve said before, he is a masterful writer. This book, like his others, is differently amazing. I finally had the chance to meet him for about 45 seconds and was able to say the one thing that I’ve always wanted to tell him, “I wish your books had been around when I was a teenager.”

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Having lived abroad, I get so tchetchy about books (and movies) about people who go abroad and suddenly everything is different and life is amazing. I sound bitter, I know. But living abroad isn’t magical. You still have to go to the grocery store. I don’t think you find yourself abroad; I think that when you step away from everything and everyone that you know, suddenly you are forced to see yourself and depend on yourself in a way that you never have before. And you realize that the world around you might be different, but you’re still you. This isn’t a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. I think traveling can change your perspective. It can open you up to amazing things. It can force you to look closely at your own culture. It can introduce you to new people. It can illuminate trends and patterns. It can push you outside your comfort zone. It can make you marvel at how big the world is, while you simultaneously start to appreciate how small it is. I love traveling. I love moving around. I love discovering things and places that I didn’t even know existed. But one of the things I’ve noticed, is that I’m always still me. I think that’s one of the reasons, I appreciated Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes (HarperTeen, $8.99). Ginny Blackstone’s aunt sends her on a trip. Ginny has to follow the directions left to her, one envelope at a time. Ginny has adventures across Europe. She meets interesting people. And yes there is a bit of romance. But she doesn’t suddenly become a different person. There is a lot of space in this book. A lot of silence. It took me a while to figure out that Ginny doesn’t say very much. She seems to be soaking in the views around her. Watching more than participating. I really appreciated that. I liked that she goes on a grand adventure, but fundamentally stays the same person all the way through. It’s the steadiness in this book, as opposed to all the books about Amazing Things That Happen When You Leave The Country, that make 13 Little Blue Envelopes stand out.

 

On that note, I’m heading to Scotland for a few days. More posts to follow, because there are some amazing new books out. I’ve been remiss lately and look forward to catching up.

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9780062217134Robyn Schneider’s Severed Heads, Broken Hearts (Katherine Teagen Books, $17.99, out today) contains some really horrific and traumatic experiences. The title says it all. There is indeed a severed head, and a multitude of broken hearts. How a book that starts with a decapitation and ends with the death of a dog (via coyote) manages to not be the most depressing books ever is kind of miraculous. Yet the story is a rather light, romantic, and universal quest about how to break away from the facade you’ve somehow created to become the person you really are.

Ezra is a varsity tennis player, slated to become Prom King, with the stereotypical perfect girlfriend. Then the girlfriend cheats on him and he gets hit by a car (see horrific and traumatic). Ezra starts senior year with a cane and a tremendous amount of uncertainty about where he belongs, now that he’s no longer the tennis player/prom king, with a hot girlfriend. Ezra is an interesting character; he’s smarter than anyone (including himself) seems to have realized, he’s witty, he’s more of a leader than he understands, and he’s a defender of children’s playgrounds. He’s a little naive, but that’s where Toby and Cassidy come in. They show him a world beyond the security of his neighborhood and push him outside of his comfort zone. Cassidy is the unique, beautiful girl, who is just out of reach and Toby is the best friend that somewhere in middle school Ezra forgot to be friends with. Ezra sees them as taking him on a new journey. What he doesn’t learn until later is that they are the journey, one he started after the accident with his own first steps.

*** Since the above review was written back in March, the name and cover of this book have changed. I’m of two minds. I liked the title. I can see why it might not be so ‘marketable’, but it was distinctive and true to the story. The new title, The Beginning of Everything, sounds like too many other YA novels. But this title, too, is true to the story. This book isn’t about finding yourself in high school, it’s about figuring out that you need to find yourself. Or discovering that who you’ve been is not necessarily who you are. Or who you will be. And it’s a story about the journey that leads to that journey. I’ve decided to keep the old image in, though along with my original impressions. If nothing else, for a glimpse into the publishing industry, which I find enormously fascinating. But if you walk into your local bookstore and request Robyn Schneider’s new book, be sure to ask for The Beginning of Everything. It still starts with a severed head and it still ends with a dead dog. And there are broken hearts. But that is just the beginning.

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Note: I should have read the marketing materials better! The Beginning of Everything is now due out in September.

In Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (Arthur A. Levine Books, $17.99, out in June), Rafe is tired of being ‘the gay kid’. He lives in a supportive home with parents who are activists on his behalf and for community in general. His school has protected him, and he regularly speaks at organizations about diversity and education. But he needs a break. He needs a change. He needs to feel like he can be himself without constantly working for ‘the cause’. Rafe applies to a boarding school out East and figures that going there will be his chance to not exactly go back into the closet, but maybe not be so publicly out of it. This isn’t the first YA book to deal with an openly gay teenager, who tries to put on a mantle of not being an openly gay teenager. Pink, by  Lili Wilkinson (winner of a Stonewall ALA honor award), tells a similar story about a girl who changes schools for similar reasons. Ava, however, spends more time questioning her sexuality and the ending leaves her story somewhat ambiguous. In Openly Straight, Rafe never doubts that he is gay. It’s not his sexuality that’s in question, it’s his identity. This story will appeal to anyone who has experienced feeling reduced to one facet of themselves, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ : ‘the honor student’, ‘the athlete’, ‘the Asian girl’, ‘the popular one’, ‘the band geek’, ‘the fat guy’, ‘the new kid’, ‘the singer’, ‘the . . .’. We are all complex individuals. But as much as Rafe wants to be more than a label, he slowly realizes that denying part of himself turns him in to something else entirely: ‘the liar’.

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When I started this blog, I anticipated more of an overlap between my life at the bookstore and this blog. I envisioned helping customers who make the inevitable “I’m looking for a book . . . ” statement. I thought I would help them find that book and then I could come home and blog about it. Well that’s not exactly how this blog works. For starters I generally only work in the store on the weekends. By the time I come home, I’m exhausted and I don’t really write on the weekends. Also, I sit at my computer a day or two later and cannot ever remember any of the requests that customers made. So I’ve tended to go with common ones that booksellers hear frequently, or, as you might have noticed, create hypothetical requests that would elicit a certain book.


Today, I actually remember some real requests from this weekend. woot! A woman came in on Saturday and said she had “a challenging one”. She wanted to buy a graduation gift for someone who was really interested in biology. She looked at me. I looked at her. And then I went over our Best Sellers section and pulled out Letters to a Young Scientist, which I had just happened to have shelved the day before. She was delighted. I was delighted because I love these moments, the moments when I just *know* the exact perfect book for someone. Saturday was a great day at work, because I had another customer who asked about picture books for her five year old. I showed her a few including Tuesday, Handa’s Surprise, and The Seven Silly Eaters, which I’ve recommended here before. She went with The Seven Silly Eaters and then came back to me and asked, “do you know adult books, too?”. Well, I have a few favorites, but I’m the first to admit that I am not caught up on new releases, so I said, ‘sort of, but I know the back wall better.” The back wall houses our 5th to 7th grade books and our YA section. “Are you interested in a good crossover book?” I asked. To my delight, she said yes, and went home with Grave Mercy

Which brings me to today’s recommendation. Booksellers often recommend books that they haven’t read. I haven’t read Letters to a Young Scientist, but I have read enough of the cover to know that it would be a good fit. Sometimes we get it wrong though, or we misinterpret a customer’s request. We risk a little when we recommend books we don’t know, and often I feel a certain anxiety when I finally do read something I’ve recommended. I know that I’ll know all the times I got it wrong. Today’s request is from a customer who was Christmas shopping for her niece this past December. I had just finished reading The Raven Boys and decided to recommend The Scorpio Races, also by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic, $9.99). I had heard it was good. The Raven Boys was good. I figured it was a solid bet. The customer was reluctant, but I explained what I knew about the story and that Stiefvater was a great writer. She bought the book. I have often wondered over the past few months what that teenage girl, who was active and likes adventure, thought of the book. Did she even read it? Did she like it? Did she love it? I don’t know why that particular interaction has stayed with me, but it has. So I decided it was time to read The Scorpio Races for myself. I’ve been reading a lot of ARCs lately, which is great. But you can’t recommend them to customers, which is frustrating. Telling someone, “Hey, I just read the perfect book, but sorry you can’t read it for another few months” does not go down well. I tried it. That customer is still waiting for Elvis and the Underdogs to come out.


Back to The Scorpio Races. It is a realistic fantasy novel about water horse races that take place on November on a tiny, remote island. Stiefvater is excellent at creating crossover stories that hover between fantasy and realism. The term is magical realism, but that doesn’t quite capture what she does in her novels. Celtic realism, maybe? Stories that hover between the realism of an ancient world and the realism of today’s world? The two first person narratives alternate between Sean Kendrick and Kate Connelly. Both are on the edge of survival. Both have reasons why they need to win the race. And both recognize and admire the fierceness and intensity of the other. Stiefvater writes amazing final sentences of each chapter. Rather than driving the reader through cliffhanger endings, which are effective but often overused, Stiefvater drives the reader by creating deeper and deeper connections with the two characters. I felt compelled to keep reading because I’d learn one thing more about Kate or Sean in the final sentence, which made me want to read further, just so I could get to know them better. Such excellent technique demonstrates Steifvater’s keen writing skills. I’m glad to know that I now feel fully confident in that recommendation. But I think I will always wonder whether that unknown girl, who received The Scorpio Races from her aunt because I recommended it, loved the book as much as I did.

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If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know by now that David Levithan is, hands down, my favorite contemporary YA author. So of course I was delighted when I saw that he had a new book coming out this year. Invisibility is co-written with Andrea Cremer (Philomel, $18.99, out today). Levithan has co-written books with author authors including John Green and Rachel Cohn. I think this format suits him and these books generally offer various interpretations of the same event, which teaches something about perspective. However, Levithan’s books have tended more toward realism and in this way Invisibility is a bit of a departure. As I’ve argued before, though, his books are all differently amazing and he is perpetually pushing the boundaries of YA narrative, so I’m not surprised at this new approach. Furthermore, I don’t know Cremer’s work well enough to know whether she tends to write fantasy. To be fair, Every Day also included some fantastic elements, even while maintaining a sense of realism. Nevertheless, Invisibility contains wizards, curses, and a teenager who is invisible. Now as fantastic as this occurrence might be, it still strikes me as an interesting universal metaphor of the teen experience. I certainly remember feeling invisible. Don’t you? And many, if not all, YA books deal at least tangentially with teenagers who are neither heard, listened to, nor understood. Isn’t that one of the tropes of teenagedom? Feeling like no one ‘hears’ you or ‘sees’ you? Trying you damnedest to see yourself and figure out how to present yourself to the world? Another common trope is the jubilation of meeting someone who finally does see you for who you really are. And this book has an interesting twist on that concept, too. When Elizabeth meets Stephen, she has no idea that he’s invisible, because she can see him. It’s kind of brilliant actually. It’s a poignant reminder that what we see isn’t always seen by others. The fantasy part of this book is good. But it’s the parts that feel the most real, the conundrum of invisibility, that make it an amazing story. And per Leviethan’s style, this book leaves so many unanswered questions that it could easily have a sequel. I expect it won’t though and instead it allows the readers space to write the stories themselves. Stories to be heard. And seen.

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I’m not sure if Tom Leveen’s Party is even still readily available (Random House, $8.99), which is too bad because this book really impressed me. Each of the 11 chapters is narrated by one high school student, who is either going or perhaps avoiding going to an end of the year party. I’ve said this before, but I’m always a fan of these types of merry-go-round narrative books, when they are done well, and Leveen’s is. Reading various perspectives about the same events is a reminder of how differently we see the world, even when we’re standing right next to each other. Despite it’s seemingly innocuous theme, Party deals with a lot of complex issues: Islamaphobia, losing a parent to cancer, race, and depression. I definitely cried several times, especially in the first and last chapters. But don’t think that this book is all depressing either. There are a few funny moment, a bit of romance, and a reminder that best friends are always there for you, even if they haven’t been there lately. Furthermore, Leveen really magnifies the variety and multiplicity of teen voices. I’d love to see this book get more attention.

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9780061728235Walter Dean Myers’s Darius & Twig (HarperCollins, $17.99, out today) packs a lot of big thoughts into a compact book. Darius wants to be a writer, but he’s struggling to understand his story. Twig is a natural runner. The two boys are best friends and fiercely support each other, even when no one else does. This story touches on community, loyalty, family, violence, respect, dreaming big, but it manages to address all of this things with a subtlety that is remarkable. Myers paints a very clear and lucid picture and then steps back quietly, while letting others make observations. He doesn’t set out to teach lessons, or impose anything on his readers. Instead, he tells a deceptively straightforward story about two friends that can be enjoyed on its own. For readers who want to push further into the story, however, the setting is incredibly rich, the secondary characters are interesting and complex, and the representations of class, race, socioeconomics, education, athletics are thought provoking. More than that, however, this story describes how writing forces us to look deeply inside of ourselves. I hope that high schools adopt this book and start using it in their writing classes. The evolution of Darious’s story is phenomenal. There are no easy answers, but what I love are the subtle changes as Darius looks critically at himself and his world. Myers’s reputation proceeds him. There’s a reason.
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9781250002358The Lover’s Dictionary, by David Levithan (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $20) falls in to that ‘New Adult’ category that you may or may not have heard of. The designation is an awkward, to be sure, and is meant to denote books that are more mature than YA. New adults, presumably, are the 18-30 crowd. You can see the issues. Are ‘New Adults’ not actual adults? How does one go from being a ‘young’ adult to a ‘new’ adult? That evolution seems arbitrarily backwards. Anyway. Categories are always random and problematic, which is hardly the point of this post. The point is that all David Levithan books are worth reading. The characters in The Lover’s Dictionary are certainly older than the teenage protagonists in his other novels, hence the clarification that this book perhaps isn’t ‘YA’ in the strictest sense. In terms of content, there is nothing in this book that you can’t find in a YA novel and actually less because the most intimate moments are unwritten. The narrative format is unique and very intriguing. Starting with A “aberrant” through to Z “zenith”, the story emerges from the entries of the dictionary. I was almost skeptical. How could such a dry format yield and interesting story? But it does. Well. The narrator dictionary composer writes in the first person and refers to himself as ‘boyfriend’ repeatedly. We know his gender. His partner, however, remains in the ambiguous second person. I wanted to write a story like this when I was in college. I never did. It wouldn’t have been nearly as good. There is something remarkably satisfying in the snippets of story and a more patient reader would probably spend more time pouring over the word and the entry. The ones I did pay attention to were always clever on a variety of levels. The story and history of the relationship plays out non-sequentially throughout the entries. The entries are short, occasionally only one line, rarely more than a page. And yet, somehow this story is so full. Perhaps because the story is such a familiar one: falling in love, self-doubt, relationship fissures, the threat of break up. I love reading Levithan’s books because they always contain lines that break my heart. Not necessarily because they are sad, but because they are true.

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