Marley has a simple life in a town called Heaven, hanging out with friends and getting letters from her traveling Uncle Jack. Until she learns that her parents aren’t really her parents and she’s set adrift.
Heaven by Angela Johnson is really a simple, quiet story, despite the head-spinning topic. It’s slow building and has a subtle grace.
It’s not the typical urban black youth or witty teen story, and for that alone it’s refreshing.
It’s also the first in a trilogy, though they’re really more three inter-related books that follow connected characters. Each book is self contained and you don’t even need to read them in order. That’s also a refreshing change from the usual YA trilogies.
In A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott a teenage black girl inadvertently travels from modern day to Civil War-era Brooklyn. It’s reminiscent of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, though it’s much slower paced. It’s more character driven, taking time to thoroughly introduce the reader to modern urban poverty and focusing on the racial differences between 1863 and the modern day.
While Kindred really dove into the time travel and let the social commentary speak for itself (more or less), A Wish After Midnight really chews on it. It’s interesting, but it’s not as satisfying or gripping of a read.
While not quite a slave in 1860s Brooklyn, Genna is still trapped with few options. In many ways, her choices and limitations aren’t that far off from modern days. There’s a lot to digest and in some ways that’s where it feels like there’s too much social commentary and not enough action. It’s good commentary, but it doesn’t have the page-turning wonder of Octavia Butler (which is a completely unfair comparison, but there it is).
Terrorism turns to government conspiracy and much, much worse in Adaptation by Malinda Lo. It’s basically a quick-paced teenie-bopper thrill ride.
It explored some interesting concepts (SPOILERS: Birds breaking planes! Genetic testing! Intergalactic hanky-panky!), but in the end the giant conspiracy saga was completely overshadowed by the teen romance. The lesbian teen romance—well, the xenosexual teen romance.
Yes, Adaptation includes a little human-alien romance. It’s not nearly as weird as you think, especially when the aliens look like humans and the human involved had no idea about the alien bit).
But as you can imagine, that part gets really interesting. Especially when the human involved thinks she’s gay. All the while struggling with feelings for her male debate partner. Never mind the lies and betrayal happening with the alien/human lover.
With all that going on it’s a bit anti-climactic when the president fesses up to first contact and Area 51 and all that. Forget the intergalactic conspiracy, I wanted more drama.
And be warned—it’s a trilogy. There’s a fair amount of closure at the end of the first volume, but there are still plenty of questions to be answered.
When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds has the gritty, urban feel of Walter Dean Myers, but feels a little more intentional and unique.
It’s the story of a teenager in the hood, trying to stay on the straight and narrow, while still being a teen. It’s a powerful story of family and loyalty that doesn’t descend into the worst of urban stereotypes where everyone gets shot, does drugs and ruins their lives.
Instead it’s about redemption.
I love the character Needles who turns to knitting to control his Tourette syndrome. It’s a realistic coping mechanism and it’s just so wonderfully out of place for these tough urban characters.
Astrid Jones has never felt safe since moving to a small town. Her mom is image-obsessed, her dad is checked out, her sister is a people pleaser, her best friend lives a double life and, oh yeah, Astrid has a girl friend and hasn’t told anyone she’s gay. Not even herself. Since she can’t confide in anyone, she spends a lot of her time lying on picnic tables, sending her love to random passengers soaring past at 20,000 feet.
In many ways Ask the Passengers by A.S. King is the story of your typical teen finding out who they are, but it’s so well-written and funny and fresh that there’s nothing typical about it. It’s just a beautiful story. I listened to the audiobook and I think that always helps, but it just forged a great connection.
I think that’s the real strength of A.S. King’s writing. Please Ignore Vera Dietz was one of my favorites last year and made my top 10 list (tough competition kept it from going higher). That story had great characters and just pulled you into their real life. Ask the Passengers has the same feel, and it has that great teen wit and wonder.
As you can imagine it explores the many issues raised by coming out and the resulting reaction. Some of that is maddening, but realistic. It also has an interesting take on sexuality, with Astrid’s mother pushing her to have sex but Astrid is looking for love, not just sex. There are some frank and honest discussions about when a teen is ready to have sex. Refreshingly, it’s Astrid doing all the smart thinking, including telling her eager girl friend to back off.
There’s a lot to like about Ask the Passengers and I’ve now added A.S. King to my list of ‘read everything they write’ authors.
Desperate and depressed, Seth commits suicide and wakes up in an abandoned world. He finds himself inexplicably in his childhood home in England, across the world from where he drowned, and the world is dusty, overgrown and empty. Is he in some kind of hell? This one is weird and deep, but really good as you start diving down the rabbit hole.
And you can hardly say much about More Than This by Patrick Ness without dipping into SPOILER territory. So be warned, cuz that’s where I’m going.
I think the beginning starts off a bit weird. It’s really unclear what’s happening. We get this drowning scene and then quickly learn it was suicide. Then he wakes up in this weird space and it’s familiar but not real. It’s very Twilight Zone. We get flashbacks to his life in dream form, telling us how he got to suicide, including how he blames himself for his brother’s abduction and resulting trauma. Then there’s his secret gay romance that is revealed to the world.
Just when this weird empty world is starting to feel like some kind of metaphysical hell, he runs into other people (it’s about 150 pages in, so it takes a while). Now it really starts getting weird. Ultimately it has a Matrix-like quality where his previous life was a simulation and the empty, abandoned world is reality. It’s a trippy post-apocalyptic story, disguised as a guilt-ridden trip to hell.
How it all plays out is just gripping—I had to start covering up the right side page so I wouldn’t skip ahead. The characters he runs into are also fascinating, well-fleshed and very real.
More Than This is really weird, but it’s pretty amazing. It’s early to call it, but I’d expect to see this one in my top 5 for the year.
My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson is the loose story of a group of young teens who are white, Indian and Eskimo gathered at a Catholic boarding school in remote Alaska in the 1960s.
It speaks to the hardships and injustices inflicted on the native people, but also follows them as they come of age, deal with tragedy and struggle to find their own voice.
It’s an interesting historical perspective and study of these characters, but the plot lacks direction and focus. It’s more a snapshot of life than a driving story.
Three compelling ideas stuck with me:
- “Luke knows his I’nupiaq name is full of sounds white people can’t say. He knows he’ll have to leave it behind when he and his brothers are sent to boarding school.” The theme of the title is subtle throughout the book, but the fact that he goes by Luke throughout the entire book is powerful. It’s also powerful (but still subtle) when he finally does use his name.
- Early in the book Luke’s youngest brother, Isaac, is taken away because he’s too young for boarding school. Rather than return to his family, he’s somehow adopted by a family in Texas. While it’s a small part of the story in terms of space (but not theme), it could have been the entire story. It’s unfathomable that something like that could have happened only 50 years ago, but it did.
- Many of the stories and circumstances of this book are based on real stories. In addition to the illegal adoption, there was medical testing on natives, a native hunting protest and Project Chariot—a plan to use nuclear bombs to create an artificial harbor nobody needed (a plan that seems comically stupid by today’s standards).
The book jacket description of Criss Cross by Lynn Rae Perkins doesn’t really tell you anything. There’s a reason for that. This book isn’t about anything.
“She wished something would happen,” it says right on the cover, and that’s about right.
The story follows several teenage characters with intersecting lives and it just hums along through ordinary days. You get slice of life stuff. Hector wants to learn how to play guitar. Debbie and her friend Patty change clothes after leaving the house but before getting to school. Lenny teaches Debbie how to drive stick. Debbie helps an elderly neighbor. Hector wants to ask a girl in his guitar class out, but she’s only got eyes for the football player.
It’s well-written and engaging, so I stuck with it, but there’s really no rising or falling plot. That can be interesting for what it is, but I like to have good writing actually go somewhere.
In Coaltown Jesus by Ron Koertge, a teen struggling with his older brother’s death prays for God’s help and Jesus shows up in the sort-of flesh. Only Walker can see Jesus and he gets advice and insight like a guardian angel, only it’s on the odd matters like what girl likes him and how to score a pair of new sneakers. Or so it seems.
While Coaltown Jesus has the potential to be incredibly hokey, the offbeat, poetic style works. It should be kind of cheeseball and completely insulting. Instead it’s funny and light, while still managing to probe deep, painful questions and offer hope.
It’s also short and sweet, something you can read in one sitting.
Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick is a sparse and somber account of the Cambodian genocide in the late 1970s told from the perspective of a teenage boy, Arn Chorn-Pond.
It’s an immediate and straight-forward account told in his broken English, sometimes detailed and sometimes bare, like you’d expect from a child.
Citizens are rounded up and killed or forced into camps and Arn is forced into music and realizes it’s a way to survive. He’s eventually forced into service as a child soldier and later escapes to a refugee camp in Thailand. It’s brutal and the tactics seems non-sensical, which is about all I can make out after reading about the aims of the Khmer Rouge: Set up an agrarian-based society, keep out anything foreign, kill anyone with any form of education, knowledge or skill.
Their agricultural reform led to widespread famine.
Nevermind the genocide that killed anywhere from 1 to 3 million people, many found in more than 20,000 mass graves.
As brutal as the first half of the book is, it becomes a story of survival for Arn Chorn-Pond as he goes from camp prisoner to musician to child soldier to refugee to American adoptee. He had little or no help as he transitioned to American culture, something that’s hard enough for teenage adoptees today with all the counseling and preparation available, and without the horrors of genocide and guilt of being forced to kill as a child solider.
But it’s not all horror. Arn Chorn-Pond has gone on to become a humanitarian, founding multiple organizations and helping to preserve traditional Cambodian music and promote forgiveness and reconciliation.