REVIEW: ABIGAIL THE WHALE by by Davide Cali

Where’s the fat kids in picture books?

Well, you might guess the answer. They don’t really exist. Or they’re lumpy, somewhat grotesque bullies.  Or maybe you can find a few rotund hedgehogs or something but hey they’re really more adorable than anything else.

You know what fat people look like in picture books? Like this:

(this is from President Taft is Stuck in the Bath and I’ll be talking about this garbage fire shit soon.)

And yet picture books are the perfect place to start the talk with kids about loving and accepting your body.  Think of the picture books about accepting differences, about being OK with who you are.  Think how important those can be to kids, how when they are done well they are so affirming and so important.

Fat kids deserve mirrors too, is what I’m saying.  And they just don’t exist in picture books.

So yeah, I winced when I saw the title Abigail the Whale and saw a round fat girl in a bathing suit on the cover of a book.  I winced with everything I was expecting from this book.

And then I cried when it was nothing – nothing – like I was expecting.

The plot is quite simple. Abigail hates swimming in school. She hates it because when she jumps in the pool she makes “an enormous wave.” The other kids laugh.  They point.  And you know what they shout.  They shout “Abigail is a whale!”

The illustrations give us a lot here. They gives us Abigail slumping to the pool. They give us a huge wave from Abigail jumping in.  They even give us her heartbroken face as she bobs in the pool and her classmates tease her.

After swimming she sits by the pool with her swimming teacher.  And I braced for it.  I braced for the well meaning grown-up telling her that if she tried hard enough, if she worked hard enough at swimming, she could lose a little weight.  Oh, it wouldn’t be phrased like that, no dog whistles never are, it’d be something like: be stronger, feel better, be healthy, be more confident.  See, LOSING WEIGHT is always goal #1 of what they want us fat people to do, fat kids included, but they make sure to phrase it in a way where it seems like they care about us. So, I braced myself for it, for the gentle swim coach who encourages our fat little Abigail to work for her health.

And … instead …

“What’s wrong, Abigail? Don’t you like swimming? You’re a good swimmer, you know.”
“No, I’m too big and heavy.”
“That’s not true.  That’s just what you think.

Whoa! Whoa! Did an adult in a story just give a fat kid a compliment on her skills?  Did he just say that she’s good at something and then implicitly state that she is NOT too big and heavy.

I honestly gasped when I read this.  It seems so fucking small, I know.  I know it does.  But it’s not.  It’s not the kind of message fat people get.  We just don’t.

The book then gets into the main plot, which is the swimming teacher sharing his philosophy with Abigail, which will change Abigail’s life and power the narrative.

“We are what we think,” her teacher said. “If you want to swim well, you have to think light.” … “So if you want to feel light, think light.

Look…OK.  I know this is some surface level philosophy.  I know that it only scratches the very surface of what we need to understand and teach kids about bodies and how they interact with the world (and how the world interacts with them.) I totally agree. I also know there is a great amount of privilege in the suggestion you just “think” your way out of situations.

But I really think the swim coach’s advice is what makes Abigail the Whale work, because it is something that’s fundamental to fat positivity. One of the most important things you learn in fat positivity is that you can work to change people’s preconceptions but in the end you must accept your body and you are the most important voice when a thousand people are screaming at you about what a whale you are. It is your thoughts that change the world. You’re not suddenly thin.  It isn’t suddenly easier to find clothes that fit. But YOU can think about yourself differently and, in fact, that’s one of the first steps of fat positivity: what if I thought I was enough? 

And that’s really the core of what Abigail’s coach is telling her here: think of who you want to be and don’t let the world tell you otherwise or change your thoughts.

Abigail decides it can’t hurt and starts practicing it in ALL situations, not just swimming and not just when she’s worried about making a splash. In bed she thinks hedgehog curled up in a burrow and falls right asleep.  Abigail tries it all week! She thinks kangaroo and jumps high in gym. She thinks rabbit and eats all her carrots at lunch. She even, be still my heart, thinks shining sun and GUESS WHAT that boy she likes smiles at her.

YES, FAT KIDS!!! YOU CAN BE THE SHINING GOD DAMN SUN!!!!!!!!!!!!

And, at last, we come back to gym class and the pool.  And Abigail gets in line and thinks …. rocket. And she enters the water without a splash. And then and then she thinks of every kind of ocean fish and she swims beautifully, flawlessly. She thinks kayak, surfboard, submarine, speedboat and swims every stroke!

“Way to go, Abigail!”
All the kids in class we watching.
This time, no one shouted “Abigail is a whale!”

THE FAT KID IS TRIUMPHANT!! 

But of course there is still one kid who must tease. She dares Abigail to jump from the high diving board. Abigail climbs right up, though. And she thinks.  She thinks very hard.  And you know what she thinks of? In this moment after she has been victorious over her fears and shown off her skills and silenced the taunts Abigail thinks …

She thought very hard:
whale.
No, even better…
SUPER WHALE!

And she splashes all over that kid. With joy.

Let’s take a look at some of the illustrations from Sonja Bougaeva, because they’re really important and just wonderful.

Here, the illustrations give us the gravity of Abigail’s feelings. It sucks to be teased.  It hurts and it has a real impact.  It’s not “just fun” for Abigail.  Validating for fat kids to see!

Abigail is fat.  She is round.  She has a belly. This is a book about a fat kid and she is illustrated accordingly.  She’s fat.  This makes her body real and it is an actual mirror for actual fat bodies. Again, this seems like a detail, but it’s not.  Look at her in comparison with the other kids.

That’s a fat kid. That’s Abigail.

And you know what?  Abigail gets joy. Abigail gets to be GOOD AT SOMETHING.  Look at Abigail swimming, look at how she is HAPPY.

Oh, and note that she’s still fat. Look at her belly!

JOY JOY JOY LOOK AT THAT FAT KID’S TRIUMPHANT JOY JOY JOY!!!

I really did cry when I read Abigail the Whale for the first time.  So many moments when it could have went horribly, horribly wrong.  So many moments when it chose happiness for Abigail, when it gave her moments to preserve and, yes, persist.

Here are some amazing things for fat kids in this text:

  • her swim coach is fat too (see him in that first picture) so we know other fat people exist and DO STUFF in this universe and can even help each other out!
  • Abigail learns to sustain and bolster HERSELF. Using her coach’s technique she finds something in herself that motivates and inspires her.  She doesn’t rely on someone liking/befriending her or someone seeing something “other than her fat”. Within HERSELF and for herself she finds strength, resolve, and courage with WHO SHE IS and HOW SHE IS. This is some serious stuff that fat activists struggle with. To have it portrayed for kids in such a positive way … just … it means so much.
  • Abigail is allowed to feel stress and the impacts of the teasing. And, by that same token, she is allowed to feel joy and pride at her successes.
  • When she is up there at the top of the high dive, ready to jump in and show her bravery, Abigail does not imagine herself a rocket. She does not imagine she is light as air. She does not imagine herself as an arrow or even a cannonball. The text gives her that word back – the word the children have tried to turn against her. ABIGAIL IS A SUPER WHALE and that is empowering.  Many fat people will tell you of their joy of taking the word fat back for themselves and that’s what Cali gives Abigail in this moment.  I am here, at the top of this high dive, and I AM A WHALE and you won’t make me feel bad or hide from it. I WILL HAVE JOY. I WILL BE THAT THING YOU SAY I SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF. I WILL MAKE A SPLASH!

And does she ever.

Abigail the Whale is unlike anything I’ve ever read in picture books and, to be honest, it’s really quite unique in children’s AND YA lit. Because it gives us Abigail and her belly and her splash and it makes no apologies.  Indeed, it celebrates. This is a powerful message for kids, especially fat ones, and for the grown-ups who take care of them and are passing on messages about bodies and body image they might not even be aware of.

This is a translation of an Italian work and we’re so lucky to have it! If anyone speaks Italian or knows Davide Cali, please send him my biggest love and thanks! Abigail the Whale was published in the US by Owlkids Books. You can find out more about it here.  Of course, I am highly recommending it as a first purchase for all libraries and for anyone who wants to start sharing fat positivity with kids. You can pick up a copy at your favorite local indie bookstore or online. You can also check out a copy from your local library. If they don’t have one, suggest they purchase it.

Most major reviewing sources found it to be pleasantly innocuous or standard fare.  Trust me as a fat person and reviewer and lover of kid’s books: it’s anything but. Kirkus thought the swim teacher should have done more to stop the bullying – but this isn’t a book about THE OTHER KIDS, you see.  It’s a book about Abigail. And it’s about damn time she gets her own book.

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BONE GAP by Laura Ruby

bgThere’s a slogan in London regarding their mass transit system that has become something of a rallying cry for various causes: Mind the Gap.  In London’s Underground this means make sure you pay attention when you’re disembarking.  It is this slogan that kept running through my mind when reading Laura Ruby’s masterful young adult novel Bone Gap. It wasn’t just the title that made me think of this slogan, it was the idea that at any time, this book could sweep me away.  That is the kind of book Bone Gap is: full of evocative imagery, innovative characters, and big questions.  I was always minding the craft Laura Ruby put into Bone Gap because it is my favorite kind of narrative: the more attention I paid to it, the more the story revealed.

Bone Gap tells several stories at once.  It is the story of a place – Bone Gap – where everyone knows each other but it doesn’t always mean they like each other.  It is also, on the surface, the story of how Finn sees his brother’s girlfriend Roza being kidnapped by a man he can’t quite describe and thus no one can quite believe him.  But, deeper than that, Bone Gap Roza’s story – between the gaps of here and there – of how she is learning to stand up for herself and not let the world define her.  Bone Gap is Finn’s story of growing up and falling into an intense, slow-burn romance with a girl named Petey.  Finn also has a disability – to say more would be to spoil some of the wonderful reveals of the story – and how this informs his character is also a small marvel of storytelling. Bone Gap is also Petey’s story and, just like everyone else in Bone Gap, Petey must figure out who she is outside of who everyone keeps TELLING her she is.

This is one of Bone Gap’s biggest strengths, and one of the things I think will draw teen readers to it the most: this is a story about defining yourself and not letting other people define you.  In a way, this is the ultimate struggle of adolescence and Ruby weaves this theme throughout every story.  Will you let people know you only as the ugly girl, the awkward weirdo?  Will you define yourself as the little brother who gets picked on, does everything wrong, and can’t take action?  Will you be only pretty, a beautiful girl who is only your face?  Or will you – can you – be more than those things?  Bone Gap asks the question I think almost all teens are asking in one form or another: who I am I really?

Bone Gap does that trickiest of all things: it is both literary fiction and has, I think, very high teen appeal.  As to the literary fiction part: Ruby’s writing is a punch in the gut.  It is perfectly crafted and well-calibrated for deliberate effect.  But I want to emphasize both the literary quality and the teen appeal because many reviews of Bone Gap might make it seem like it is the kind of thing only your high achieving non reluctant readers will pick up.  Now, while those readers will certainly love the craft and the writing in Bone Gap, I also think emergent readers will be drawn to the mystery of the story, the intense romance between Petey and Finn, and the undeniably creepy and downright scary horror world Roza is trapped in by a character who is pure evil. These things keep the pages turning even as you’re marveling at the way Ruby brought them all together. I’ve been telling people this is a horror story meets John Green and it just FITS.  Petey and Finn are a great YA couple – pulled together even when everyone says they have nothing in common and then thrown into the mix is the through-the-looking glass horror that traps Roza.  What a combo!

Bone Gap is also all about the male gaze.  It’s about how people think of Finn for being dreamy and different – how their assumptions of what masculinity are trap him in ways he can’t fully comprehend until he decides to disregard other’s opinions.  It’s about how what traps Roza (and even Petey) the most are men’s ideas of what she should look like and think like and be.  The biggest monster in this story is the patriarchy and oh, oh, the moment Roza decides to fight back!

I long for awards chatter to start over Bone Gap. It should, because this is a lyrical, haunting, meticulously crafted book.  That also means there will soon be chatter of “I just didn’t get it.” and “Teens won’t read this.”  While I can’t speak to the former – not every book is for every reader, after all – I think I can speak to the latter.  Teens WILL be drawn to this story and we, as educators and librarians, can promote and advocate for it, for everything original and exciting about it, by speaking about all the mysteries and wonder in this book.

Bone Gap is highly recommended for high school readers and as a first purchase for all libraries.  It is challenging and compelling and isn’t afraid to tackle head on hard issues of bodily autonomy, feminism, and self-perception.  Bone Gap is about seeing yourself as more than a face, more than what people say you are.  It’s empowering and exciting for teen readers and, y’all, there was a moment that literally made me punch my fist in the air with glee.  Bone Gap is also a great introduction to magical realism –as the worlds of plausible and impossible bleed into each other – this is the perfect way to introduce teens to a new genre. Though I am a public librarian, I think this would be an amazing book to do with a class or in a book group.  It is teachable and has lots of material to analyze.

Bone Gap is my choice for the 2016 Printz Award.  It is masterfully constructed and crafted and with off-the charts  literary merit that holds up on a re-read.  (And another re-read, just to be sure.)  My Printz pick last year was Grasshopper Jungle and there is plenty in Bone Gap that reminds me of that book – particularly the way they skirt the edge of real and not real and ask teen readers to really sit with how the world looks at them and what they can do about that.

Bone Gap is out now. You can pick up a copy at your favorite local indie bookstore or online. You can also check out a copy from your local library. If they don’t have one, suggest they purchase it.

You won’t soon forget your visit to Bone Gap and the people you meet there.  Their journeys and growth will stick with you. Like me, I think you’ll find yourself “minding the gap” long after you have turned the last page.

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LOCK & MORI by Heather W. Petty

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Yes.  Yes, it’s exactly what you’re thinking right now.  Yes.  It’s a broody, brilliant teenage Sherlock Holmes solving mysteries and sharing kisses alongside the troubled teenage genius Miss James “Mori” Moriarty.  I am guessing that your reaction is probably similar to mine the first time I heard about this book and then saw the delightful cover –

I must agree.  I tore through this book when I got my hands on the ARC and it fulfilled all my Sherlock/mystery/messed up YA romance needs.  I think teens are going to LOVE this book. When I was asked to be part of the book tour, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. SO this week I will be bringing you all the reasons you should pre-order this book (it comes out on September 15) and NEXT week I’m hosting an interview with author Heather W. Petty and Simon & Schuster is hosting a giveaway for one lucky reader.  Whooo-hooo!  So what’s so special about Lock & Mori? Let me count the ways …

THE MYSTERY

I am always glad to find a new mystery for my teen readers that is not historical or paranormal.  Not that there’s anything wrong with mixing up genres like that – but I have some teen readers that ONLY want contemporary action/thriller/mysteries and there’s NEVER enough for them.  More often than not, they’re also reading from the adult section because…well, there’s just not enough YA with contemporary, hard-edge mysteries with NO magic just clever, contemporary mystery solving with some ass-kicking and dangerous twists. Lock and Mori totally fills that gap – yes there’s romance, there’s personal/family trauma and drama, but at heart, it’s a crackerjack mystery with real villains and real stakes.

THE CANON

Yo – are your teens as into BBC’s Sherlock as mine are?  Yeah, I thought so. My teens won’t stop talking about Sherlock.  Is part of this due to Benedict Cumberbatch’s cheekbones?  WELL SURE.  But another part is that the BBC’s Sherlock does a great job making Sherlock of the here and now.  Lock & Mori has that same vibe.  Sherlock is still his same old disdainful, unbearably clever self … but he’s also very much a teenage boy in London in the here and now.  It does a great job, just like the BBC show, of weaving in the same old story with something very contemporary.  I think teens will be drawn to that mix and find it a good match with the show.  And, like the show, Lock & Mori isn’t afraid to invent new ideas and new interpretations of Sherlock and the world he lives in – another thing teens who eat up fanfic and AUs will be surely drawn to.

MORI!

Yes, this story is narrated by Mori, not Lock and it’s fantastic to see him develop as a character through the eyes of someone other than John Watson.  BUT EVEN WITHOUT ALL THAT, THERE IS MORI.  She is fierce, smart, sad, dangerous, and on the precipice of … of … something very dark and alluring indeed.  It makes it nerve-wracking to read about her and her voice keeps the pages turning. (did I mention I tore through this book?) Lock and Mori have a steamy, passionate connection which adds some dimension to the mystery and makes everyone who knows how canon says their story will end wiggle their toes with anticipation.  It’s a smart move on Petty’s part as a writer, because it gives Mori some fallibility that still has you rooting for her and it gives the reader a delicious frisson of angst and suspense in a story that’s hundreds of years old and told over and over.

Mori is an absolute delight as a narrator and a YA treasure of a character.  She is female heroine who the text foreshadows will become an anti-heroine, oh my goodness what’s not to love!

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I think teens are going to love this book!  I’ve already started telling my most passionate fandom teens about it and they nod their heads with vigorous approval and anticipation.  I think you’ll be doing the same thing! I recommend Lock & Mori as a first purchase for libraries where mysteries, books with slightly amoral protagonists, and fandom followings are big draws.

And make sure you come back next week for my interview with Heather W. Petty and a GIVEAWAY!!

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The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate – review & a SIGNED giveaway!

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What a lovely marvel this book is.

This is a picture book biography of John Roy Lynch, who was freed from slavery at 16 and within ten years was elected to the United States Congress.  The book doesn’t try to cover Lynch’s entire life (though there’s great back matter including a timeline, suggestions for further reading, and detailed author and illustrator notes) but instead traces his childhood, early life, and the period he becomes involved in politics and a passionate promoter of the Civil Rights Act of 1865. It puts all of these events in Lynch’s life in the larger context of Reconstruction in America. And two key questions that come up when considering this book are: why Reconstruction and why John Roy Lynch?

I believe because this is a story from over 140 years ago that is still relevant in all the things that are happening around us every day. This is a story that will challenge young readers to think about America and opportunity and history in new ways. This is not an easy read – but it’s engaging, compelling, and perfect for starting discussions with kids. Not only do I believe children can handle tough discussions, I believe we owe it to them to teach them to think critically about hard issues. What I love about The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is that it shows children a hard period in American history and doesn’t flinch away from it.  More than that, it asks the reader to think about how these systems of inequality impact the world we live in today.

Lots of this is due to Barton’s clear-headed and even-handed writing.  John Roy Lynch is not held up as a perfect person, instead he comes across as someone hungry to learn and honest at all costs.  He seems real.  We meet him as a young boy, enslaved and already clued in to the racket of slavery.  We follow him through his time growing up and gaining freedom in many senses of the word.  And as the reader learns about Lynch’s life, Barton also shows us what reconstruction was like – the great strides in freedom and equality that came for many African-Americans is shown alongside the fierce retaliation from white Americans.  This is no easy biography – by choosing to put Lynch’s life in context, Barton not only shows how truly amazing his life’s journey was but how brutal the backlash to Reconstruction was. (and slavery is also shown as a brutal institution perpetuated by white people, specifically in Lynch’s case his master’s wife, who hid behind Christian dogma. Again, this is a clear-headed choice which makes the narrative stand out and ring true.) This is a book that elicits discussion with kid readers:  what could have John Roy Lynch’s life and career looked like without the backlash against Reconstruction?

The other stand-out element in this book are Don Tate’s illustrations which, like Barton’s text, are clear-headed and sharp-focused.  Tate’s illustrations are beautiful, there’s that.  There are a few scenes-  Lynch standing on a hill in the silhouette of a sunset, Lynch orating to a crowd of mostly African-American men that are just beautiful and inspiring in the purest sense of the word.  But Tate’s illustrations are also very smart and, let’s be honest, brave. It’s brave to show the KKK in full terror mode on the ride in a children’s book, it’s brave to show black men being whipped and threatened during slavery and afterwards.  Brave because there are going to be many people who say, “That doesn’t belong in a children’s book!” and brave because there are going to be people who say, “Yes, racism was bad but there’s no reason to be so GRAPHIC about it.”  But Tate knows that’s a lie.  There IS a reason to show these things – because children deserve the truth, because John Roy Lynch’s story isn’t complete without this, because these are the things John Roy Lynch and his contemporaries lived through and it informs their struggles and their triumphs and kid readers should know and think about that.

Let’s take a look at some of my favorite illustrations.

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This is a two-page spread looking at the reaction in Mississippi to the days after freedom.  I love how Tate has chosen to show the whole landscape here – the fury on the face of the white people, the sorrow on the face of the African-Americans.  There is a lot happening here, it’s not all easy to see, but it’s important. And again, this is a picture that shows the reader the depth and stakes of a story.  Great stuff.

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I think this is one of the smartest pictures in the book – a class of white children learn in a public school … and in the background, we see a small window of John Roy Lynch listening and learning.  Tate lets readers see how Lynch was excluded from so-called public institutions but how his curiosity and hunger to learn were unstoppable.

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Another favorite: Barton’s text talks about John Roy’s rise in both politics and his personal life.  This description of John Roy’s determination is perfectly illustrated by Tate, who gets across the charisma and force of presence John Roy would have certainly had to have.  And oh my goodness how fabulous is THIS image of African-Americans – an almost entirely African-American crowd is enthralled by John Roy – showing the reader a lot about the strides happening for African-Americans in the era, with John Roy Lynch leading the way.

Everything about The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is special.  It’s a book that asks children to think big thoughts and ask hard questions about eras of history that are too often glossed over and about the era we live in now.  It’s ambitious, interesting, original and very beautiful.  It’s meant to be shared and discussed with kids and I recommend it as a first purchase for public libraries looking to enrich their children’s non-fiction collection and especially for elementary school librarians and classroom teachers working with 3rd-6th grades. It’s a great supplement for history lessons and will hopefully make young learners even more curious about our country’s history, all the parts of it – the amazing and hard ones.

AND I’M GIVING A COPY AWAY!
Not just a copy but a copy signed by both Chris Barton and Don Tate.

To enter, all you need to do is leave a comment on this blog by Friday, June 5th. 

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The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is out now and if you can’t buy a copy, check one out from your library. If they don’t own one, request they add it!

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10 Books You Can’t Miss in 2015

Where does the time go?  Can it possibly already be the twilight of 2014?  I have lots of posts planned – and even some started – but the chaos of December sneaked up on me while my back was turned.  BUT I promised myself I would try to post at least once a month no matter what and if I managed to keep that promise during SUMMER READING I sure couldn’t break it now.  Frantic for an interesting idea I could put together in not a ton of time, my lovely and dear friend Amy suggested a post of titles I’m looking forward to in 2015. Now, since I love talking about what I’m reading and lately I’m reading SO MANY upcoming titles I realized this was a perfect idea to get OTHERS reading them, talking about them, and getting them on their own radars. As Hans Landa would say: THAT’S A BINGO!

One (happy) disclaimer: you’ll notice there are no titles on the list that contain queer themes.  This is because in January, I will begin serving a 2 year term on the Stonewall Book Awards Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children & Young Adult’s Book Award Committee.  This has seriously been one of my life-long librarian goals and I am so excited to begin this work!  But it also means I can’t publicly discuss eligible material.

These will all (well, OK fine with one exception) be titles I have already read and loved.  Almost all of them I downloaded as digital galleys thanks to NetGalley or Edelweiss, which means YOU can go there and request them too!  Which you should!  Immediately! (thanks to all publishers who put electronic galleys up on these sites – it makes reading/reviewing so much easier.  Please continue to do this, especially making it available for us to read on an eReader device!) These aren’t full reviews, just a few sentences about why I think you should have this book on your TBR pile.  Mostly YA with a handful of other titles mixed in.  And, of course, I still have SO MUCH to read. (and I’m always up for suggestions, of course.)

So: with grateful, joyous thanks to anyone who read this blog during 2014 and a promise that I will keep sharing and writing in 2015 – onward to the list of titles you need to get on your 2015 radar NOW!

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Bone Gap
by Laura Ruby (out 3/15) I don’t even know where to begin with this one other than I have never read another YA book like this.  It is a dark, lyrical magical realism story about how women, in particular, learn that they are more than their faces.  It’s atmospheric, brilliantly structured, scary, romantic, and empowering.  I think teens are going to be drawn to everything different about this one. A tour de force.

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All the Rage by Courtney Summers (out 4/15) With no hyperbole: this book is going to become this generation’s Speak.  This is going to be the book that gets passed around from girl to girl, that gets pressed into hands with a whispered, “I know what this means.”  I’m not going to tell you this is an easy read, I’m not going to tell you it’s for everyone.  I am going to tell you that for some teens – this book will save their life.  And I mean it.

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Anna, Banana and the Friendship Split by Anica Mrose Rissi (out 5/15) Rissi begins a wonderful new early readers series in this story about two third grade best friends and their fight.  Transitional chapter book readers are one of the genres we get asked for the most at my library and everything about this book is going to be a hit with the kids: Anna’s warm, vulnerable, relatable voice, the small details that turn your third grade world, and even the sadness and anger that grown-ups often ignore in this age group.  And did I mention there’s a delightful multi-cultural cast?

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The Cost of All Things by Maggie Lehrman (out 5/15) I HATE fictional worlds where there is no consequence to magic.  And that’s part of the reason I love this book so much: there are spells here, that will do big and huge things but they come at a very steep cost for everyone in involved.  How much would you exchange for the chance to forget pain?  To keep your friends close? What would you think about the person who could do this magic?  Fantastic world-building and amazing character voice make this one stand out.  One of the best read-alikes for The Curseworkers I’ve found – magic isn’t easy because life isn’t easy.

roller girl

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson (out 3/15) It’s finally here!  The book you’ll give to your readers after they’ve read all your Raina Telgemeier books so many times they have them memorized and they NEED something new. A beautiful, funny, empowering middle grade look at finding your path and the inner strength to be your own weird self  with awesome, athletic girls and women everywhere … I mean, what’s not to love? This will NEVER be on the shelves. (PS: my boyfriend the roller derby ref read this in one sitting, laughing with the delight the whole way.  Two thumbs up from him!)

0714AR2The Whisper by Aaron Starmer (out 3/15) I promised myself I wasn’t going to include ANY sequels on this list because that’d be a whole other list. BUT Y’ALL.  This book is the sequel to The Riverman and if you haven’t read that you should immediately stop reading this and go get The Riverman, start reading, and let it give you wild dreams. These two books exemplify one of my favorite things: high middle grade. And, better still, they are the kind of books that feel just right for how weird and scary and ever-changing it is to be a kid … and then you read them as an adult and see they’re scary as HELL.  Seriously.  Go.  Get it now. (best read-alike I’ve ever found for Coraline.)

written

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed (out 3/15) Another totally original voice and an experience unlike any I’ve ever had in YA.  THIS is what I’m talking about, people.  I loved that everyone in this book is a complicated character who doesn’t exist in shades of black and white, I love that another culture is given such breath, depth, and caring. I love that this is a book that will ask teens to look deeply into BIG questions. This book was wrenching and heart-fulling to read.  Nalia is the YA heroine we’ve been missing and I’m so glad the whole world will get to meet her soon.

twinkie

The Truth About Twinkie Pie by Kat Yeh (out 1/15) Such original, funny, sweet middle grade that the narrative complexity of the text and the emotional growth of the characters sort of sneaks up on you.  I LOVE this kind of writing, this kind of depth, and I think it’s the kind that really engages middle grade readers and starts getting them ready for YA.  Just wonderful.  And I LOVE the way Yeh handles and addresses class issues and non-traditional family structure, two more things we need to see LOTS more of.

painted sky

Under A Painted Sky by Stacey Lee (out 3/15) Everything I never knew I always wanted – that’s a lie, I always knew I wanted this.  I always knew that YA historical fiction was missing more complicated, exciting adventures for people of color and TA-DAH, Stacey Lee has given us just that.  This is another one that I think does a great job mixing readability (it’s a page turner) with literary merit. I yearned and dreamed and fought with these characters and I missed them when the book was over.  This is a fantastic debut that has SO MUCH going on – but it never feels like too much, Lee is THAT good.

And … the one I haven’t read yet but I am SO excited for that I think might actually pass out …

shadow

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older (out 6/15) Magical powers in a city!  A female lead who makes art, fights evil, and wields ancient powers. EVIL GENTRIFYING ANTHROPOLOGISTS WHO CO-OPT CULTURES! Was this book made just for me?! I mean for the love of God, look at the cover.  Also, I love-love-love Older’s adult short fiction so I can’t wait to see what he has in store for YA.

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What fun!  I still had more books to talk about …. so you know that means I’ve just gotta do another one!  Now you tell me: which 2015 books should I put on my radar now?  Leave me a comment or talk to me on Twitter

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Far From You by Tess Sharpe – a review & giveaways!

far fromA few weeks ago there was a longform article in the New York Times about scientific studies being done with the goal of proving that bisexuality exists.  I suppose it was interesting enough, reading about the motivations of the researchers, hearing about the history behind studies like this.  And yet.  And yet at the same time … it also felt brutally dehumanizing.

How demeaning – how beyond demeaning – to have your identity up for “scientific debate” like this.  Studies like this?  Real, academic studies and articles about them in a paper as significant as the NY Times?  They are the embodiment of WHY REPRESENTATION MATTERS.

When you see portraits of yourself – your life, your feelings, your struggles – when you see those in the world around you, in popular culture, in mass media: that matters.  It tells you that you are not alone, that you have a right to exist, that people before you have felt this very same thing.

Those of us who work with books for children and teens – we can NEVER forget this.  We can never get tired of sounding like a broken record, of buying and promoting and discussing these books and demanding more. Never, ever, ever.  Because they bring the truth to light.

The truth in Tess Sharp’s masterful debut Far From You is a slippery thing and that is part of what makes this story so very compelling.  What’s true is that Sophie, our main character, used to be an addict.  She got hooked on pain pills after a bad accident and has only recently been clean.  What’s true is that Sophie’s life-long best friend Mina was gunned down right in front of her in shattering, traumatic event.  What’s true is that everyone, even Sophie’s own mother, believes Mina was killed during a drug deal gone bad when she went with Sophie to score. What’s true is that Sophie has just returned home after Mina’s murder and after another stint in rehab.

But everything else, well, that’s not as clear.  Sophie knows the truth is that she was clean and she and Mina were following up on a lead in a story Mina was writing for the paper, which means that Mina was the target not the collateral. But Sophie doesn’t know who attacked them and doesn’t know the lead Mina was chasing And Sophie also knows that, no matter the cost, she is going to get to the bottom of what happened to Mina, no matter what anyone else believes.

One of the things I love the very best about this book (and I love so much about it) is that while there are multiple threads happening at once, it never feels overstuffed or distracted.  Instead, everything comes together to tell the singular story of Sophie finding her own path in the world.  Of course, this is a classic YA narrative and that’s part of what makes Far From You so satisfying – it is familiar and yet very fresh.

Far From You is a mystery: what happened to Mina and why?  How is all connected to the story Mina was digging into?  Sophie knows the scariest thing of all: whoever committed the crime is from their town and knows their stories because they planted drugs on her to throw the investigation off. Far From You is a story of recovery and addiction.  Sophie became addicted to painkillers after she was in a terrible accident that left her in agonizing pain and left her disabled.  How she copes with this and how it changes the person she was is fundamental to the larger elements of the story and her character development.

And I truly believe that beyond all that – Far From You is a love story. It’s a love story about the deep love between friends, between someone you have known for a long time and who has held your hand through the worst of your life.  Definitely.  And it’s also a love story between two teenage girls who have been friends for a long time but are on the cusp of finding themselves drawn to each other in a whole new way.  Yes, Far From You is a bisexual teen romance – one that is tender, tragic, a little swoony in parts, and, yes, very, very real.

I had to literally set the book down to blink back my tears at the moment Sharpe makes it clear that Sophie is bisexual. She doesn’t just like girls and she doesn’t just like boys.  She doesn’t like “only Mina” but then totally boys!  She is drawn to, romantically and physically, both sexes.  This realization is not dismissed, not disbelieved, not over-explained.  It just is.  It’s just part of who Sophie is.  And while it’s an important part of who Sophie is, it’s not the only defining one.  Just as important is the fact she’s a recovering addict, a girl who wrestles with chronic pain, a person mourning loss and trying to get to the bottom of a mystery.  I know it seems like so little but that moment, the moment when it all clears in Sophie’s head that she likes boy and she likes girls – she just doesn’t like this one particular boy … it just took my heart with all it meant. Being bisexual doesn’t mean you’re attracted to everyone.  Being bisexual doesn’t meant you’re attracted to just anyone.  It just means you’re attracted to members of both sexes.  In Far From You it is that simple and that simplicity is beyond. powerful. 

I think teen readers will LOVE Far From You.  The timelines shift between the “now” of Sophie’s life and investigation and the “then” of everything that brought her and Mina to their fateful final night, which creates natural cliff-hangers that keep you turning the pages.  And Sophie is a great lead character: her faults make her feel real and her determination to chart her own course makes her both sympathetic and someone you root for. It’s also the just right mix of sad and mysterious and romantic, with no one element overshadowing the others, giving it wide appeal across readers.

But more than that – I think teen readers NEED Far From You.  It’s a book we’ve been asking for. It’s a book that brings the truth to light, that gives faces and hearts and loves and losses and real damn life to bisexual girls and lesbians.  These are portrayals teens need.  This is a book that matters.

Far From You is out today!  You can pick up a copy at your favorite local indie bookstore or online. You can also check out a copy from your local library.  If they don’t have one, suggest they purchase it. Far From You is highly recommended as a first purchase for public libraries and high school libraries.  It’s a book that should be widely shared and widely known. And that’s why I’m giving two away.

How To Win A Copy of Far From You

I know not all library budgets might have the cash in them they deserve.  So since I want YOUR library to have this book on the shelves, I’m giving one away JUST FOR LIBRARIES.  To enter THIS drawing you must be working in a library and you must make sure your copy ends up on your library’s shelves for circulation.  Far From You should be in as many teen hands as possible and the goal of this drawing is to make sure it ends up in your library.

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE!  I’m giving away another copy … that’s signed by Tess Sharpe!  Tess has awesomely agreed to sign a copy for my other winner.  You can keep this one, share it with a lucky teen, give it away as a drawing prize, whatever you’d like.  THIS drawing is open to everyone.

All you have to do is comment on this post (with a working way to contact you) and mention which drawing you are entering.  I’ll choose two random winners on Tuesday, April 14, so make sure you’ve entered by then..  Sorry, no international entries.

I am so glad I had the experience of Far From You.  It was an amazing read that was also a humanizing moment of recognition.  Far From You is the truth and, more than that, it’s the way into the light.


Also worth your reading time: this awesome interview with Tess on Diversity in YA

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Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy – artwork reveal and SIGNED book give away!

Where to begin?  Where even to begin with a book this finely crafted, this breathtakingly realized, this clever, this full of love and aches and metaphors and, yes, magic? (but not the magic you’re thinking of – not the easy kind, not the kind that comes without consequences.)

The Real Boy is the story of Oscar, a shop’s boy for a magician in a land where magic and charms are bought by the very rich for their every little whim.  Oscar is no apprentice, mind you, he’s a boy who doesn’t know how to interact with people – who stays in the shadows and quiet to feel safe.  The “real” world, the world outside his plants and his companionship with his cats, is sometimes so scary and overwhelming to him that Oscar sometimes wonders if there’s something wrong with him.  But he doesn’t have to think of this much, not as long as he stays safe and tucked away, not as long as the magic works and the kingdom where he lives, the lovely Aletheia, stays protected and blessed by this magic.  It’s only when things start going wrong, very wrong, with the magic, with Aletheia, with everyone around Oscar that he is tasked with finding out the truth about the world he has taken for granted and the truth about what makes him so different. 

The best stories, the ones we tell over and over again, the ones we hug close, the ones that connect with something deep inside us, the best stories weave magic without ever once showing you where the seams are.  To be more precise and less florid about it – the best stories never show you their tricks and they never make their metaphors obvious.  This is what I love about Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy and *this* is what makes it one of the best stories: she takes what is such a thudding obvious metaphor (a boy who feels “wrong” and “not real” learns that he is in charge of his own identity and even destiny) and uses the magic of craft – rich language, fully-rounded characters, a well-paced, well-realized plot, to never once let you see it showing.  Instead, when all the pieces of The Real Boy click into place, you suddenly understand what story you’ve been hearing all along, and in that moment it all hits in the right places.

I’ve read The Real Boy three times since I received my first advance copy from the publisher months ago.  Every time, I have found some new detail in the way the story is put together.  Every time, I have found another passage of simple, clear, evocative writing. And every time I have admired the way it all clicks: the coming of age elements, the subtle jabs at using “magic” to escape the hard work of living, the way lies so often go unspoken by those in power because they make it easier to live with selfish actions and retain their control.

Since my first read of The Real Boy I was in love with the geographic reality of Aletheia.  Great fantasies have great fictional worlds and that’s what Ursu creates here.  Aletheia has magic forests, a vast terrain of mountains and rivers, blighted Plaguelands, and a city ringed with magic.  After much begging, the kind people at Walden Pond Press agreed to let me be part of the artwork reveal for The Real Boy.  In an instant, I asked if I could feature the map of Aletheia because, to me, it’s the perfect invitation to the wonder of this world. They agreed!  So, today, I am so happy to be able to bring you a glimpse at Aletheia.

Aletheia

All artwork copyright © 2013 by Erin McGuire

The Real Boy is a not always a nice, safe story.  Characters, characters central to the story, are killed.  Adults do terrible, selfish things and let children down.  In fact, in many ways this story reminded me of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series – where children are used and disguarded by the powerful adults in their universe; specifically by adults who are grasping at some kind of ephemeral magic.  And The Real Boy is scary in other ways too; ways about how frightening it is to know there’s something different about you, ways about how hard it is to step out of the safety of your childhood and into the wide, often harsh world.  These are themes that will resonate with children even if they aren’t fully conscious of why and how.

Really, there are so many elements of The Real Boy that are resonant with childhood’s struggles and triumphs: that’s one of the reasons I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for months and months.  The Real Boy asks children BIG questions: how do we know who we are?  How do we “fit in” if we’re different?  What price would you pay for the simplicity of magic … and would you still pay it if you discovered that simplicity wasn’t so simple and cost more than you’d ever imagined?  There are no easy answers to these questions and this book doesn’t pretend to offer them.  To do so would betray the very things Ursu works so hard to create in this narrative.

What power there is in this story, what painful beauty. As Oscar unravels the very unpleasant secrets that live in the very soil of his country, of the shining city on a hill that he thinks he understands, he comes, through learning, challenging himself, and creating a support network, to discover the best of truths:

it is being different that makes us real.

The Real Boy is one of my favorite books of 2013 – heck, one of my favorite books of ever.  It’s currently longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and it is my dearest wish that it’s in serious discussion for the Newbery.  It’s out now and you can buy it!  If you can’t buy it, check it out from your local library.  If they don’t have it, request they purchase it.

AND because Walden Pond Press is so completely amazing, they not only let me share some art from the book but they’re giving away a signed copy to one blog reader.  All you have to do is leave a comment on this post before October 18th.

The Real Boy is highly recommended for readers aged 7-12 who like fairy tales with deep thoughts, heroes and heroines who step up and stand up, and, well, for any children you know who are different.  It will help them to know that their life, their real life, is theirs to experience on their own terms.

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Banned Books Week: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

It all starts with a buzz that high school student Piddy shrugs off – “Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass!” She doesn’t even know Yaqui so why would she want to fight with Piddy?  It’s probably a case of mistaken identity or no big deal.  And, anyway, what’s the worst this total stranger could do?

This is the start of Meg Medina’s powerful Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass, one of my favorite YA books of 2013.  I’ve been in love with this book since it was first released back in March.  It’s received four starred reviews. I’ve booktalked it to my teens, featured it in my displays, and promoted it on our library’s teen Facebook page because I think it’s truly special.  Why?  Before anything else, what a delight to see a diverse cast of characters dealing with a universal story – this is always such a treat in YA.

Next is the way Medina structures the escalation of bullying.  Rarely, if ever, have I read a book that so accurately portrays the intensity and the slow build and burn of high school bullying.  I want to pull my hair out when I read stories about teenagers who are bullied and see school administration responding with “Well, but does it happen on campus?”  As if the insidiousness of bullying doesn’t follow teens; sink into every moment of their life, as if saying that gets administrators off the hook for not helping teens. Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass is flat-out brilliant at showing how bullying isn’t the kind of thing teenagers can just walk away from, even when they try.  Medina knows that bullying is a campaign of harassment that builds and builds – that’s what happens to Piddy.  She thinks things with Yaqui are silly or, at least, can be ignored.  But they can’t – Yaqui isn’t going away, if anything she is escalating her behavior against Piddy.

This escalation, and this understanding of bullying behavior, gives Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass not just a claustrophobic sense of reality but also makes it a page-turner.  As Piddy looks for a way out, Medina uses this as a way to let us into Piddy’s whole world; her interactions with her mother, her burgeoning relationship with a boy, and the way this bullying blows apart her well-ordered life. You’re rooting for Piddy but you, like her, are also not sure what the “right” solution is.  Again, what a beautiful lifeline in literature Medina has created here: she doesn’t lie to the young readers of this book, she doesn’t make it seem as simple as “Piddy should just tell!” That would only be the beginning of a whole new set of problems – Piddy knows that and so will teens.  Understanding this, unraveling this pain, is more than that and this book doesn’t shy away from that truth.  It’s what makes it work and it’s what makes it unique.

This is a very good book, a special book, and, yes, in some spots a very hard book to read.  But it’s also the kind of book I think can matter in teen’s lives – help them actually see the shockwaves of bullying, help them know they aren’t the only person who has felt their whole life spin out over something they can’t control, maybe even help them feel not just a little empathy but a little less alone in a dark time.

Yaqui_frontcoverfull (1)

This is also a book that, you may notice, has the word ASS in the title.  Which, ostensibly, is what got Meg Medina uninvited from speaking at a middle school in Virginia.  I say ostensibly because, while I am sure the word ASS was part of it?  I also know that it was something deeper – it was the way books like Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass make adults uncomfortable – the way it makes them confront the dark realities of life as an adolescent.  Those are scary things for adults to have to face and those are the kind of things that pull books off shelves and out of children’s hands.

It’s words like ass and it’s worlds where girls you don’t even know can determine to make your life a living nightmare while adults in your world stand powerless that make books disappear from public and school library shelves. A challenge here, an uninvited author there, a concerned parent with a letter to a principal, a board – these things not just erode the intellectual freedom of children and teens but take something life-saving, life-changing from them – books, stories, words, a hand in the dark.

THIS is why we, librarians, educators, teachers, writers, fight challenges and raise awareness about them.  It’s why we want to get people talking about them and being outraged about them and fighting them.  That’s why we have BANNED BOOKS WEEK.

We do not, make no mistake, celebrate Banned Books Week.  Throw that out the window.  We celebrate a commitment to defending intellectual freedom, we celebrate the fight, we celebrate everyone who does not go quietly.  We do this because we want you, the general public, we want you to know this is happening all over this country and it MATTERS.

I wanted to boost the signal on what happened to Meg Medina and what it reveals to us about how easily books are pulled away from the very readers who might need them the most.  I wanted this year’s Banned Books Week to be a time for all of us, from those of us active in this field to the friends you have on Facebook who shared that video of the cat librarian in Russia, to let people know that challenges like this are happening all across this country and we do not agree and we will not be silent.

This Banned Books Week: Stand up for Yaqui Delgado.  

How?

Take this pledge with me:

We will talk about challenges, about climates that discourage intellectual freedom.  We will share it.  We will be outraged about it, we will encourage others to be outraged about it.  We will tell the story of how books matter, about what they can do for teens. Moreover: we will tell teens about these books. We will BUY THE BOOKS.  We will ask the libraries in our communities, the public libraries and the school libraries, to BUY THE BOOKS for our communities. We will not let all the readers who see their story in Piddy’s story be silenced and made invisible.  We will insist their voices count.

To further boost the signal, I also reached out to Meg to see if she would do an interview with me about what happened and what she’s learned from it.  She graciously agreed and then gave me some amazing, insightful answers.  Tomorrow, to continue this campaign to stand up for Yaqui, I will not only post the interview, but everyone who comments will have a chance to win a hardcover copy of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass AND a signed copy of Meg’s novel The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind.

Let’s boost the signal.  Let’s raise our voices.

Let’s kick some ass.

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Rogue by Lyn Miller-Lachmann: a review and a GIVEAWAY!

Quick: how many books have you read where the main character has autism or autism spectrum disorder?

Now: how many of those books were written by an author who openly speaks about their own autism spectrum disorder?

For me, I realized that while I could come up with a few titles answering the former question, I couldn’t think of one answering the latter.  Then I was lucky enough to read the essay Lyn Miller-Lachmann wrote for Young Adult Review Network (YARN) talking about the origins of her book Rogue and her own experiences having Asperger’s Syndrome.  This is an amazing piece that helps really personalize what it feels like to have Asperger’s and looks at Miller-Lachmann’s decision to write a book featuring a character that also has this disorder.

rogueThat character is the unforgettable Kiara Thorton-Delgado, an eighth grader with Asperger’s who yearns for people to understand her and genuinely tries to connect with them. Rogue opens with Kiara determined that her new next door neighbor Chad, unlike all the other new kids who quickly reject her, will become and remain her friend.  But Chad is from a seriously troubled home, so her focus on becoming part of his world leads to more complicated situations that she originally bet on.  But Kiara is convinced this is her chance to have a friend and to belong.  Now, however, she’ll have to figure out what “being a friend” actually means and if she really is prepared for it.

This sounds like a trite premise, I know, but Miller-Lachmann takes the story to a thousand interesting and new places because of her deep understanding of Kiara.  Here’s the thing: I have just described to you a universal premise, a familiar story.  But when the character in this familiar story has Asperger’s, suddenly we are hearing a voice we have never heard before and seeing things we have not seen before.  It does not make this story less universal; instead, it turns Kiara’s struggles, complete with her Asperger’s, into something universal.  There’s something both epic and accessible about this, something that can’t be discounted.  This is why good writing about disability matters, this is why diversity in our characters counts – when the writing is as good as Miller-Lachmann’s is here it reminds us (and helps younger readers see) that characters with disability are part of universal stories too.

Kiara’s universal story is the heart and soul of Rogue.  Rogue wasn’t just a book I genuinely loved and enthusiastically recommend for advanced middle grade readers it was also a book I felt like (and this part is really important to me) I’d never read before.  It felt new, fresh, and challenging.

I adore the way Kiara learns to shine using her own set of strengths and abilities.  Kiara is often toting around a camera and filming things: she uses this as a way to cope with her Asperger’s but also discovers it can be a way to share her vision with people.  Rogue is the story of how Kiara tries to fit in and, more than that, it’s the story of how she figures out what “fitting in” really means and is really worth.  I love this.  I love that this is a story about finding “your people” by finding yourself and I love that this is also a story about accepting that “fitting in” might not be possible for everyone, not just because of disability, but because of their own personalities and beliefs.  This is BIG THOUGHT stuff for middle grade, which as most of you know, is the exact thing I think middle grade should be tackling.

Now for a bit about the title: Rogue, of course, has multiple meanings.  One of the main ones, however, is Kiara’s love for the superhero Rogue, a member of the X-Men.  Rogue, of course, is the mutant who cannot touch people because she saps their powers with contact.  Kiara finds real resonance in Rogue’s literal inability to connect and another thing I love about this book is that Miller-Lachmann takes this seriously.  I LOVE books that treat fandom as an important and maybe even life-saving element of people’s existence.  Yes – that’s what it can be like.  Not nerds, not haha how socially inept, but the joy of finding connection and recognition in a fictional world … Miller-Lachmann completely nails how that’s special, how that can mean so much.  Kiara knows it, knows the way she feels about Rogue, knows what it means to see herself in her.

Though Kiara is an eighth grader, Rogue is definitely on the higher end of middle-grade and actually acts as a good bridge read to young adult fiction.  I highly recommend it for grades 6-9  and particularly for readers who are drawn to stories of outsiders.  There are some really intense topics covered in the book (Kiara’s fractured family and, especially, Chad’s familial situation) and Miller-Lachmann is honest and frank about Kiara’s anger and her struggles, complete with setbacks and outbursts.  Kiara isn’t always the most likable character and yet you, as a reader, are still drawn to her.  You want to know more about her story and, well, you’re rooting for her.  You feel the universality in Kiara’s story and yet you know her personally.  That’s what makes her story fly and that’s what makes her story stick.

Thanks to Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s awesome kindness, you have a chance to win an autographed copy of Rogue! All you have to do is leave a comment on this post by Tuesday, July 2 and I’ll choose a random winner.  If you don’t win, Rogue is on sale now. If you can’t buy a copy, check one out from your local library.  If they don’t have it, request they add it to their collection.

(NOTE: I reviewed this title from an ARC Lyn sent me and I volunteered to host this giveaway on my site because I loved it so much.  A few years ago, I was lucky enough to meet Lyn at ALA at a super-cool YALSA event for small publishers.  She was there promoting her amazing book Gringolandia, which is STILL on my Best Books for High School Readers list.  Talk about an original, daring, and insightful young adult titles – Gringolandia is all that and more. If you haven’t read it, go get it right now!)

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The Center of Everything by Linda Urban Tween Tuesday

center of everything“The hole is what lets it change.”

What a moment it is – the moment of recognition, the moment when you feel like someone has seen you.  For me, this moment of connection sends an almost physical jolt through me.  One of the things I loved the most about Linda Urban’s artfully crafted, painfully beautiful book The Center of Everything is how accurately it captures that moment of recognition and belonging. There is a moment when our main character, the unforgettable Ruby Pepperdine, is surrounded on both sides both physically and mentally by the love and support of two friends and you, as the reader, feel as embraced as Ruby.  You are able to stop and listen even as you are reading.  I felt that jolt of recognition in this text in this wonderful moment and, maybe even better, I felt a jolt of pleasure too.

Why I Love This Book

Craft.  Craft.  Craft.  Craft.  This is, without a doubt, one of the most well-crafted children’s novels I’ve ever read.  Yes, but what does that mean?  For me, that means that everything in The Center of Everything is deliberate; that great thought and careful work has gone into weaving the story together so that it forms a unified, powerful  narrative, a story where all the threads come together in a way that is subtle and moving on several levels at once.  Craft, to me, means that this is a story that moves you without pushing you.  Craft is the way this story uses circles, math, and physics as a narrative device about learning and healing and the way the story simultaneously uses the simple, physical shape of a doughnut – the shape of, you guessed it, a circle – to represent connection and unity.  Craft is the way none of this SHOUTS at the reader, the way, instead, it just all fits together, works together, and makes each other element richer and more resonant.  Craft is the structure of sentences, the use of point of view, both of which are stylistically advanced.  And craft is the very artful way Urban chooses to make the chapters short and move the action in them between the present and recent past, thus making the reader feel the sting of pain and the breathless yet hopeful confusion that Ruby herself feels.   This is a well-crafted story and it shows on every page.  Young readers might not pick up on every one of these subtleties but that’s part of the  beauty of this craft – young readers don’t have to analyze it, they’ll just enjoy it and be completely enchanted by it.

The Center of Everything is very much Ruby Pepperdine’s story: the story of how she is dealing with grief in the wake of her grandmother’s death, the story of how she is navigating new and old friendships, and the story of how she’s trying to figure out what she believes in and why.  BUT The Center of Everything is *also* the story of a place, a very specific place, a small-town in New Hampshire called Bunning.  Bunning is a place where everyone knows your name, where there are acapella groups, amateur stargazing groups, and yearly essay contests about the town’s founder for schoolchildren.  Bunning is the type of town where you can have friends for your whole life and things like parades are whole-town-wide shebangs. Because of all this, Bunning is as much as character in this story as Ruby and the lessons she learns about loving and understanding your place are essential to her healing AND her sense of identity.  I live in a place like Bunning, so this was ESPECIALLY special to me (“That’s my town,” I wanted to shout over and over,) but I think you could live anywhere and still connect to Bunning and recognize it as as a fundamental element of this story’s success.

The Center of Everything is on sale now.  If you can’t buy a copy, check one out from your local library.  If they don’t have it, request they buy a copy.  I think The Center of Everything skews a little bit younger than some middle-grade books (Ruby has just turned 12) but I think it still has lots of appeal to more sophisticated readers because it is so well-written.  It reminded me of Gary Schmidt’s work: thoughtful and really emotionally moving.  I highly recommend this for readers aged 9-12 and, particularly, the readers you have (oh, you know the ones) who hunger for books that are more – the readers who want books that will jolt them with moments of recognition.

The Center of Everything made me cry.  It also made my heart flutter with happiness as I saw all the pieces of it come together with such deliberate plotting and, yes, such love.  The Center of Everything is a lovely piece of art for many reasons but perhaps most of all because it’s a book about how the hole, the thing you think is missing, can be the thing that not just turns your life inside out but also shows you everything strong, good, and kind in your world.

And in you.

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