Category Archives: young adult

This just isn’t going to end well.

dolssaHeretics. Zealots and inquisitors.  Uppity women and girls in the 13th century.  Recipe for disaster?  Oh boy, yes indeedy.

Dolssa is a young woman whose relationship with Jesus is so intense, he has become real to her.  She can see him, sense him, feel him close to her.  She is a mystic, and not one sanctioned by the church.  She speaks his message to others and quickly lands in trouble with the Church, most particularly with Friar Lucien, an angry and toxic being who believes the only way to end her corrosive influence is to kill her.  She and her mother are sentenced to burn at the stake.

Meanwhile, Botille and her sisters Plazensa and Sazia have finally landed in a town that seems to accept them and their drunk father figure.  They run the tavern, tell fortunes and do a little matchmaking.  They find ways to help out here and there, and they seem to have found a home after many years of instability.

Then these lives intersect.  And really, a happy ending is never all that likely, although there are moments of hope even at the very end.  It’s clear that life for most strong women during the Middle Ages was not easy, because having an opinion or making your own life choices really didn’t fit into the plan the men in charge had for them.  It’s not a quick read, but it’s worth the time it will take you.  There are some really wonderful historical notes at the end of the book which explain the times more fully and provide more resources for anyone interested in learning more.

(As noted in the comments, this book was named a Michael L. Printz  for Excellence in Young Adult Literature Honor book.  The award winner was another favorite, March, Book 3 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell.)

The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry

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Tell me three things

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  1. There will be a secret admirer.
  2. There will be mean girls.
  3. There will be drama.

In some ways, Tell Me Three Things is predictable YA – new girl in town, mysterious boy, struggle, annoying family drama.  It’s what you do with these issues that makes or breaks a book if it’s taking place in the real world and not some fantasy of a royal kingdom or dystopian imagining of the future.  Really, when it comes down to it, good writing is what makes or breaks the fantasies and dystopian fiction, too, right?

And this one works.  I say that as a middle-aged reader who heard about it from her teenaged son.  It reaches out in ways that most of us can relate to – being an outsider, having to start something new, being the target for a bully, hoping for something really special.  It’s not life-changing or anything, but it’s a really wonderful break.  Sometimes, that’s enough.  Sometimes a book stands out through its simplicity.  Give it a try when you’ve had enough and need a maybe happy ending.

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

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2016 – Finally over?

1,165 books later, we’re almost to 2017.  Or was it 1,265?  I lost count and either added or dropped 100 in my count, and that’s sort of how the year seemed to go sometimes.  I don’t feel like going back and re-counting, though.  It was a long year any way you look at it.

I didn’t read all of those – some were for my family, some were books I was taking to show kids at school, some of those items were DVDs, and some just never got read, even if I renewed them a time or two.

Although I mostly write about picture books and middle grade these days, some others for teens and adults also stood out to me.  So here, finally, is the last of my favorites of 2016:

March, Book 3 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy

Snow White: a graphic novel by Matt Phelan

Secrets in the Snow by Michaela McColl

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

Britt-Marie Was Here  by Frederik Backman

 

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Of bullies, witches, and serendipity

Once in a while, without any particular plan, I come across two books which seem to go strangely well with each other, despite being different genres or about completely different characters.  So it is with Samantha Mather and Queen.

A Boy Named Queen is a short middle grade story.  Queen arrives in Evelyn’s fifth grade class with a sense of style that is completely out of the ordinary – brogues, a pink t-shirt, occasionally sparkly clothing.  He’s immediately the target of bullies because of his name and clothing choices, but Evelyn becomes his friend anyway.  She’s not one to take many chances, but there is something about Queen she wants to learn more about.  Evelyn’s transformation makes this book a great discussion starter for kids.

How to Hang a Witch  is a teen fantasy, but at its heart is another kind of bullying – the kind where everyone stands around and lets someone be attacked while doing nothing to stop it.  Samantha Mather is the descendant of someone tied to the Salem Witch Trials, and when she and her stepmother move back to Salem following her dad’s health crisis, Samantha is instantly thrown into the middle of 300-year old curses and intrigues.  You’re not quite sure until the very end who the good guys are – is it the ghost, the crazy neighbor, the mean girls, someone else?  And Cotton Mather in a teen novel?  Who’d have seen that one coming?

Both are worth a look, and if you have time, you might even read them one after the other and see if the connections strike you the same way.  Standing up to bullies is tough, whether you’re an average fifth grader or a savvy New York teenager transplanted to a new community.  Having allies can change the whole dynamic.

How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather

A Boy Named Queen by Sara Cassidy

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Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you

luckyHere’s a list of things you might not be looking for in a book:

  • Spunky orphans, especially girl orphans
  • Historical fiction about people getting by in the Great Depression
  • Teenagers who smoke
  • Gas stations before they become known as “convenience stores”
  • Characters named Earle or Dudley
  • Any mention of the War Between the States
  • Saviors who roll into town (literally) and are described as a bum or a mongrel

So you might not be looking for Lucky Strikes.  But you might want to give it a try anyway.  It’ll grow on you.  The main characters—orphaned kids—just want to figure out a way to keep running the gas station (as they’ve been doing throughout their mother’s illness) and stay together.  There’s a bad guy who wants to take over their station at any cost.   There are all kinds of local color and slightly unbelievable happenings.  People lie.  Things get screwed up.  It’s hard to see how it will all end well, and maybe it won’t.  But the ride is a fun one, and it’s different from almost everything I’ve read lately, which makes for a nice change.

Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard

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Asteroids, the prom and life

learningYuri is really, really good at physics.  He’s so good that when NASA figures out that an asteroid will hit Earth in less than a month, they convince the Russians to let Yuri come to the U.S. to help stop it.  Yuri’s life has always been about school, science, and eventually getting a Nobel Prize.  “Normal” things – girls, relationships, politics—are a bit beyond him.

His story becomes about more than a complicated math problem when he meets Dovie.  She and her family provide him an escape from the situation at the lab, and suddenly he’s doing things he’s never done before – going to prom, sneaking out of his room, talking back to authority figures, and learning to swear in English.   It’s not just about saving the world from an asteroid now.  Yuri realizes that the life he wants to live has fundamentally changed and yet not changed at all.

Yuri’s internal dialogue, his humor, the reality of the daily petty stuff he has to deal with, and his confidence and insecurity carry the story along.  (I know…but it works.  He knows he’s often the smartest guy in the room, but at the same time, he’s enough of a perfectionist to be terrified of ever being wrong about anything at all.)  There are a lot of balls in the air here – the asteroid, his cultural confusion, his feelings for Dovie, his past as a prodigy, the Russians—but they’re juggled effectively, and in the end, he gets the life he isn’t sure he wants but is happy with it.  And he maybe saves the world, too.

Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy

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Women’s History Month + liowabrary = packhorse librarians

cutshin1Some years ago, before I worked at a library or knew about Kathi Appelt’s other awesome books (The Underneath, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, Keeper, etc.), I came across Down Cut Shin Creek: The Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky, which she co-authored with Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer. These days, I am a huge Kathi Appelt fan, which makes it all the stranger that I didn’t realize she wrote this book until it popped up on my radar again last year. It qualifies as an older book now (2001), but it’s still well-worth the read, and is full of interesting stories, pictures and people. You can learn more about the WPA packhorse librarians – women and men who took books to people by horse during the Great Depression and into the early 1940s – by doing a little online research, but this book does the work for you, drawing you in to another place and time.

that book womanOur library also has a copy of That Book Woman, a picture book by Heather Henson about a packhorse librarian. It says a lot about our country and who we were that we valued literacy and reading enough back then to invest in a program that reached out to people with no real access otherwise. It’s something libraries still try to do now, although in much different ways.

Read either one for a women’s and/or library history fix. And if you’ve never read Kathi Appelt’s other work – she writes picture books in addition to her great middle grade novels, for Pete’s sake – get on that right away. You’ll be glad you did.

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Journeys into different lives

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“Apparently the length of a grown-up’s growing up story is determined by the difference between immigration and escape.” Enchanted Air, Margarita Engle.

The narrator of this memoir in verse travels through childhood, accompanied by her family and her dreams of the person she is or might be.  She is Cuban and American and Ukrainian, quiet and bold and scared and daring.  She lives her childhood intensely and colorfully on family trips to Cuba until the Cuban Missile Crisis brings FBI men and questions about loyalty and nasty comments from teachers.

Seeing the impact of global conflict on this one young person’s life brings a whole different level of clarity to current issues, too.  It’s not a big stretch to read this and think of how being a refugee in Sudan or Syria or any number of other places could affect a child.  Whether a refugee, an immigrant, or a child who sees herself as an outsider for other reasons, the world can be –in exactly the same moment — both an awful, humiliating, difficult place and one filled with beauty and song.

Margarita Engle’s story is captivating, because it so beautifully describes the excitement and freedoms of childhood, the joys of traveling to new places, and the challenges of living between different worlds.  It also provides a great way to talk with kids about the history of the Cold War, the impact of politics on individuals, and the path we all travel in growing up and making choices about who we will be.

 

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Different times, different choices

da vinci's tiger

Ginevra de’ Bencia lives in Florence during the time of the Medici family’s power and Leonardo da Vinci’s early days as an artist. She is young, beautiful, and from an important family. She’s been married off to a wool merchant to benefit her family, and her husband seems to have lost interest in everything about her except how she can advance him. The idea of Platonic love, an idealized love, has become popular, so when an ambassador from Venice arrives, she is excited to be the focus of his chaste attentions and even more excited to become the subject of a portrait painted by Leonardo da Vinci.

Women had limited choices then, mostly because men made the choices for them, often with little regard for the women’s opinions. Women’s lives were expected to revolve around family and duty unless they entered a convent. Neither option might seem the most attractive to young women today, so hearing the imagined thoughts of a 16-year-old from several hundred years ago is a step into another’s shoes.

Ginevra finds her own way despite these limitations. Her husband’s indifference means that she has freedom. Her education in a convent gives her knowledge others don’t have and provides a place of refuge. Her relationship with Leonardo da Vinci is one of small rebellions, and in the end, she holds on to the most important pieces of herself.

Ginevra de’ Bencia was a real person, as we learn in the notes following the story.  There’s humor and drama in her friendships and much for young people to relate to even if the setting is unfamiliar. There are moments of action and intrigue, but it’s a relatively quiet book – one well worth reading for the historical fiction fan.

Da Vinci’s Tiger by L.M. Elliott

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It’s going to be a bumpy ride: alternative history meets The Hunger Games

wolf by wolf
Yael is a death camp survivor in a world where Germany and Japan won World War II.   It’s not a nice place. Hitler and Emperor Hirohito are still in charge, women are expected to stay at home and raise racially pure babies, and millions of undesirables in Europe, Africa and Asia have been “removed.”

Before escaping the camp, a researcher had subjected Yael to a series of injections, so she is able to skinshift or change her appearance. After connecting with what’s left of the resistance and training for a few years, she will become Hitler’s assassin, replacing an unusual young woman who managed to win the Axis Tour – a cross-continent motorcycle race. Becoming Adele, Yael will have to fool Adele’s brother, a former boyfriend, and possibly even Hitler. She’ll have to cross deserts, escape kidnappers, and figure out who’s trying to poison her, too.

There’s a light touch on most of the moral issues here. Yael is focused on avenging those she lost in the past and doesn’t spend much time worrying about those she might be injuring in the present. It’s a fast and bumpy ride, splattered with a big “what if?” at every turn. In the right environment, it might provoke some really interesting conversations, but it’s a good read even if that doesn’t happen and one I can see appealing to a lot of teens.

Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin

 

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