Wise Young Fool by Sean Beaudoin – review & a SIGNED GIVEAWAY!

“Give me some genuine emotion. Challenge yourself to be honest instead of merely clever.”

Wise-Young-FoolI read Wise Young Fool for the first time months and months ago.  I have read many and many books since now and then.  And yet.  And yet Wise Young Fool has stuck with me through all that. And yet Wise Young Fool is a book I can’t get away from when I start thinking about not just my “favorites” of 2013 but the books I read in 2013 that I admired, deeply, on a craft level and was, to no small degree, awed by.  Wise Young Fool is a work of art – no really – that is about the power of art, it’s a book that is profoundly sarcastic and mean but also deeply moving.  All these months and months later I am still thinking about how all the pieces of it fit together. THAT is the kind of book Wise Young Fool is.

In a simple summary: Wise Young Fool is the story of how Ritchie Sudden ended up serving 90 days in a juvenile detention facility and, more specifically, the 90 entries in the “diary” he is forced to keep inside said facility, detailing how it is he ended up there.  So, it’s a frame story: the frame of the juvenile detention facility journal revealing the larger story of Ritchie’s life leading up to it.  It is also a frame story about how the completed journal has, ostensibly, ended up at Little, Brown and is now being published.  I know, that feels gimmicky, but Wise Young Fool is really about performances, both the deliberate observed on a stage kind and the deeper, sadder kind we sometimes do to keep people at a distance, and so this second frame story – the idea that Ritchie’s journal, not Sean Beaudoin’s novel, is now being published by Little, Brown – is actually essential to the story Beaudoin is telling about art and performance.  I do not at all think that Beaudoin believes he is “tricking” his teen readers into believing this is “all true” – that’s lazy.  I think, instead, he is asking something bigger of them; he is asking them to observe a story about performance as performance and to believe in the legends we tell.  And he is asking them to step outside the story and consider it as story.  This is ambitious and clever and it really works because it makes you, the reader, believe in Ritchie Sudden as a whisper and a possibility; a kid you might know and a song you might be humming.

Wise Young Fool, then, is a frame story inside a frame story – the journal from the juvenile detention facility framing the story of the year that got Ritchie there and then the larger frame of the manuscript making it to Little, Brown.  I love this kind of daring, I love this kind of craft. Beaudoin’s intricacy and care with the narrative is one of the things I admire most about the book.  But, oh, there are many others.

For instance: I love that this book is all about relationships … but not in the way you think.  This is a book about an extraordinarily close friendship between two slightly off-kilter guys, Ritchie and his bandmate and best friend El Hella. (Elliot to you) I love a friendship in YA done right: not perfect, but about how a real friend is there through all the mess of your life.  This is a book about the relationship Ritchie has with Looper, the woman who is his mother’s new girlfriend. (Looper showed up when Ritchie’s dad left.) Looper doesn’t cut Ritchie any shit and, better still, she talks to him not like an adult but like an adult talks to a teenager that they respect and care for.  It’s a really fully realized relationship and a great example of an adult who is present and there in a teen’s life – can never get enough of that in YA, after all.

And of all the great relationships in this book, best of all, this is also a book about the relationships between Ritchie and two girls: Ravenna and Lacey. Ravenna is the girl Ritchie has always loved from afar and Lacey is the girl that likes him more than he likes her.  And in a lesser book these girls would be lesser characters.  Yet in Wise Young Fool, Ritchie learns how wrong he was about both Ravenna and Lacey and, more than that, they are completely realized characters with their own agency and with their own selfish wants.  Ravenna isn’t just the luscious, sex-bomb dreamgirl Ritchie has lusted over.   Lacey isn’t just the complacent nice girl who pines for Ritchie.  They have their own wants and they make their own mistakes – they connect with Ritchie and even change him in some ways but they do not revolve around him. He is not their whole story and, by that same token, they are not his whole story either.  Ravenna and Lacey are fully realized characters who make the narrator richer and more complicated and they just happen to be girls that he is involved with, drawn to, and compelled to know. Ain’t that a kick in the head?!

Wise Young Fool is exceptionally clever and exceedingly funny.  Ritchie has a smart mouth that never quits and Beaudoin has a particular gift for the kind of high school boy shenanigans that make you wince and grin at the same time.  There are genuine laugh out loud moments laced through a book that is also about serious pain and loss. Ritchie’s loss and pain are great and not so easily escaped.  When Ritchie finds himself in the juvenile detention facility, he thinks that all he needs to do is keep his head down but the brilliance of Wise Young Fool is that it’s really a book about finally taking action in your life and finally confronting the grief and pain you’ve just been trying to keep your head down about.  Ritchie’s journal, his time in the juvenile detention facility; that’s all part of his song and all part of the way Ritchie learns it’s time for him to become active in his life again, to start healing and start coping and, yeah, start living.

There is darkness, grief, and loss in Wise Young Fool but also such damn resilience. It’s a book about how we survive and how we tell our stories through art and creation. And maybe more than anything, Wise Young Fool is a book about finding the right sounds for YOUR life and YOUR family and friends and YOUR story.

Without a doubt, it’s one of my favorite books of 2013.  All these months and months later and I am still thinking about it.  And I feel sure that if you give it a try, you will be too. It’s highly recommended as a first purchase for public libraries and as the exactly perfect book to suggest for your teens that love music, art, sad stories, funny stories, and something so real and true it aches. It’s on sale now and if you can’t buy a copy, go check one out from your local library.  If they don’t have copy, suggest they purchase it.

BUT ALSO!  Because he is the best (and possibly because one night I fangirl’ed over him so hard I scared him a little?)

the awesome and amazing Sean Beaudoin has agreed to give away A SIGNED COPY of Wise Young Fool to one lucky reader.

All you have to do to be entered is leave a comment and I’ll select a random winner. (Recent winners include Lauren of The Raucous Librarian, who won the Meg Medina books and  Karen from Yorkville, IL, who won the Anne Ursu book.  You could be next!)

Wise Young Fool and Ritchie Sudden – the way he gets lost in his pain but pulled back into the world through the strength of the people who believe in him and the power of the music he hears and strums out – they are the song.  I know, if you hear it, you’ll sing along.

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Banned Books Week: an interview with Meg Medina and a GIVEAWAY!

“What kids need and deserve is to feel respected – not just by their classmates, but also by teachers and school leaders who ought to have faith in young people’s ability to read, think, and decide.” – Meg Medina

Yesterday, I wrote a short review of Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass and talked about a situation involving Meg  being uninvited from a middle school speaking engagement in Virginia because of the word ASS in the book’s title.  I wanted to know more about the situation, so I reached out to Meg.

I was so happy when Meg Medina agreed to answer a few questions about not only her work and her motivation, but her recent experience with being in the spotlight.

And then she sent back her incredible, thoughtful answers and I was beyond happy!

Below, you’ll find out a little bit more about Meg and her work, particularly the motivation for writing the wonderful Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass.  There’s also more information about the situation in Virginia and some really insightful commentary.

Meg Medina

Meg Medina is a Cuban American author who writes picture books, middle grade, and YA fiction. Her work examines how cultures intersect through the eyes of young people, and she brings to audiences stories that speak to both what is unique in Latino culture and to the qualities that are universal. Her favorite protagonists are strong girls. Her books are Milagros: Girl from Away; The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind; Tia Isa Wants a Car; and Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. She is the 2012 winner of the Ezra Jack Keats New Writers Award. When she is not writing, Meg works on community projects that support girls, Latino youth and/or literacy. She lives with her extended family in Richmond, Virginia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Where does it end? When we only allow kids to read books that offend absolutely no one and that offer up nothing that makes them reflect on the uncomfortable realities of their lives?  – Meg Medina

Tell us a little bit about YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS.  What was the genesis of the book?

Meg Medina: YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS is the story of 16-year-old Piddy Sanchez who finds herself the target of a school bully at her new high school. Bullying is the main event in the novel but we cross lots of terrain, like cultural identity, relationships between mothers and daughters, sexual relationships, relationships between students and teachers. I based the novel on a shard of truth from my experience with a school bully in junior high school. The impact of that experience was long lasting and awful. I lost my trust of others. My grades dropped, as I cut class and skipped school. And for a time, I experimented with risky people. It took years for me to feel better and get back on track.

At the National Coalition Against Censorship blog, they mentioned that you had been told that your book seemed to “address the inner city“.  I think many people can see this as a thinly veiled racist dog whistle.  What was your reaction to this element of the administration’s response?

MM: It was actually a quote to a reporter who covered the story. Neither the superintendent nor the principal spoke to me at all. http://www.richmondmagazine.com/blogs.php?blogID=3fa19738ea6e1cb340bfc8ee7b35d280

But, in any case, it was a stunner coming from a school superintendent.

Even if she were trying to point out that the novel was set in Queens, New York, it would be a silly reason to dismiss a book. The idea that a reader has nothing to learn from characters that are in different circumstances is ridiculous.

As for the alarming overtones: Kids aren’t bullies because they’re Latino or because they live in a city. Kids who dress in Northface jackets and drive nice cars — or who live in Cumberland County — can be just as awful.

Have there been any updates on the situation in Virginia?  What has happened since the story has become more widely known?  How has it impacted you?

MM: Well, my Facebook and Twitter feeds exploded with much-appreciated support. This included a post from Judy Blume who has been fighting censorship for decades now.

I’ve received invitations to places as far away as Alaska – and I’ll be part of an anti-bullying community event in Washington, DC next month where I will definitely say the title of my book. Also, I’m proud to say that Richmond City Library, Main Branch, is starting a teen book club this coming spring. YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS is one of their first titles on the list.

The biggest impact, though, has been on my willingness to speak up. As a rule, I’m not a person who seeks out conflict. However, I’m now past just shaking my head and quietly “working around” people who feel justified in censoring books for young people – mine or anyone else’s. Where does it end? When we only allow kids to read books that offend absolutely no one and that offer up nothing that makes them reflect on the uncomfortable realities of their lives?

One of the things I love about YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS is how effectively you get across that bullying can start over seemingly nothing (Piddy doesn’t even know Yaqui) and then escalate into something that takes over the victim’s whole life.  Can you talk about the process of making the bullying feel so accurate intense? 

MM: Definitely, you can be bullied for the most ridiculous reason. In fact, bullying has very little to do with the victim. It’s mostly about power and about what the bully is trying to work out. The sad part, though, is that kids who get bullied often believe that there is something wrong with them, something that marks them as a loser. That’s where the hopelessness and shame begin.

When I drew Piddy as a character, I drew a normal kid with brains and average looks and people who loved her. She could be anybody. There’s nothing about Piddy that’s “wrong.”

Yaqui was tricky; you could write an entire novel about a girl like that, couldn’t you? But I wanted to tell Piddy’s story, not Yaqui’s. So, as I fleshed out Yaqui, I worked on revealing her only through Piddy’s experience and perceptions. Yaqui started out as a sentence, something that didn’t worry Piddy very much at all. But as each chapter unfolded and as Piddy’s self-confidence eroded, the idea of Yaqui seeped into every part of Piddy’s being until it was all consuming. That overpowering dread felt the most realistic to me.

What lessons about bullying do YOU want young readers, be they bullied, bullies, or bystanders, to take from this YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS? What about the messages for adults who work with or are involved with teenagers?

MM: Researchers will tell you that the reasons for bullying are varied and complicated, and they may be right. But at the core, I think kids savage each other mostly because they want to ease their own insecurities, rage and despair – and because no one has stopped them from doing so.

I don’t know that I have lessons in mind, and I certainly don’t offer easy solutions. What I do have is a story that might help a reader feel less lonely and one that might open honest dialogue in a classroom, a library or at a kitchen table.

I wish adults would stop wringing their hands about the wrong things – like whether it’s okay to say, “ass” in front of 14 year olds. Conversations like that miss the point and cement adults’ reputation as being out of touch. What kids need and deserve is to feel respected – not just by their classmates, but also by teachers and school leaders who ought to have faith in young people’s ability to read, think, and decide.

I love your GIRLS OF SUMMER project as well as how all of your work apologetically concentrates strong female characters!  Why do you think this is so important in books for children and young adults? 

MM: Thanks. I love that project, too. Gigi Amateau and I pick 18 books for strong girls every year and then we spend the summer chatting with the authors of those books on our blog.  We include picture book all the way to YA to reflect the long and challenging journey of growing up a strong girl.

There are other fantastic lists (the Amelia Bloomer Prize, for one), but Girls of Summer reflects our personal favorites, the books we recommended to our own daughters and the newer titles we mention to the wonderful girls we meet every day. We’re picky about finding books about unconventional girls who choose their own path, girls who reflect on themselves and who learn to take charge of their fate.

Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on next?

MM: I have a picture book due out in 2015 called LORO MANGO (Candlewick Press).  And I’m just lifting off on a Young Adult manuscript for Candlewick Press. It’s also set in Queens, but this time we travel to 1977.  Oh, and heads up. I’m pretty sure someone will say “ass” in that one, too.

Thanks so much to Meg!  Not only did she agree to this interview, but Meg is giving away a signed paperback copy of her last YA novel The Girl Who Could Silence the Winda lovely, ethereal story about (you guessed it!) a strong girl finding her place in the world to one lucky reader.  And since I want to keep my pledge to stand up for Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by getting it in as many hands as possible, I’m giving away a copy of that!  

Want to be entered to win these awesome books?  Leave a comment on this blog and I’ll choose a random winner! And since the point of  these blogs is to share this story and Meg’s experience as widely as possible?  You can earn an extra entry by sharing this on Twitter or Facebook.  Just link to your share in your comment and you’ll be entered twice

Let’s honor the battles of Banned Books Week by STILL talking about this; by saying it was wrong and, as Meg points out, symptomatic of a larger problem teens face.  Let’s have faith.  And let’s fight for it.

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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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See You At Harry’s by Jo Knowles

What, exactly, is the ever-elusive “middle-grade” novel?

Oh sure, that seems like an easy question, doesn’t it?  It’s a novel written for middle-school audiences.  But middle-school isn’t even the same everywhere.  In my community, middle-school is seventh and eighth grade only.  This is a great example of the larger question: where does “middle grade” fiction begin anyhow?  Where’s the bright-line?

Is it a book where the main characters are 12?  If they’re 13 is it automatically a young adult book?  Is it a book where the main characters are in middle school?  If they are still in fifth grade is automatically children’s fiction?

This, of course, ends us back up at the most basic question, the one that’s really at the heart of it all.  Why are we using “middle grade” anyhow?  Isn’t it basically either a young adult novel or children’s fiction?

Yes, these are the questions we librarians and teachers struggle with all the time, as we attempt to hold on to our readers crossing out of children’s fiction but not quite ready for the young adult world.

“We have something for you,” we want to shout to them as they drift away, “don’t go!   We have a whole genre of books not quite this one thing and not quite the other but they’re exactly perfect for you – just for you!”

To me, that’s what middle-grade should be, what middle-grade can be.  Middle-grade, the best middle-grade, should be a story that takes just the right parts of children’s fiction and young adult fiction and creates from them something that spans that gap – that reaches out to hungry readers looking for a story that is about the complications and challenges of their life as it changes.

To me, that’s why we keep promoting middle-grade, why we keep talking about it, why we keep asking for more and more of it.  Because when we find the right one, when we find a truly special one, that’s what it does.

See You At Harry’s by Jo Knowles is that unicorn, that rarest of creatures: truly great middle-grade fiction.

What I Love About This Book 

See You At Harry’s is one of my favorite books of 2012.  It’s well-written, tightly constructed, and doesn’t waste a single word.  It sneaks up on you and hits you with an emotional wallop that you won’t soon forget.  It’s enormously moving without being maudlin and it’s deep while also still being accessible.  I wouldn’t be one bit surprised to see this book come up in Newbery discussion, in fact, it will be a shame if it doesn’t.

Knowles’s command of craft is superb: she mixes the mundane and profound with grace and clarity.  This is a book where the way you feel about going to your first middle school dance and dealing with the embarrasment of your parents is treated with the same gravity and insight as the biggest tragedies and losses life can throw at you.  There’s something brave about that and, moreover, there’s something honest about it too.  That’s what life is actually like when you’re in middle school, when you’re figuring out the middle ground of who you were as a kid and who you are going to be as an adolescent and, even farther than that, who you’re going to be as an actual grown-up and how both those experiences (childhood, adolesence) shaped you.

 See You At Harry’s is a book unafraid to throw big concepts and big thoughts at middle-grade readers. If there is one thing I know about that elusive middle-grade novel it is THAT’S the most important element of all: middle-grade, maybe even more than young adult fiction, should contain the challenge, and the promise, of more.  It’s THE time, after all, for these readers to start wrestling with those concepts and for fiction to start tackling it in an honest way.  See You At Harry’s not only does that, it does that with an amazing amount of heart.  This is a book you feel in the deepest and truest sense: it’s a book that wrings out the reader’s own sorrows and losses while also reminding the reader of the deepest and truest loves in their lives.

See You At Harry’s is a story about Fern.  It’s a story about her family and her family’s business.  It’s a story about how embarrassing her father can be, how awkward it can be to be the daughter of someone who owns a well-known business in a smaller town.  It’s a story about Fran starting middle school, sorting out her new feelings for her close friend Ran and what that will mean for all her friendships.  It’s a story about all the aches and pains of being 12 and everything that goes along with that.

But, most of all, I think See You At Harry’s is a story about siblings.  It’s the story of how Fern aches along with her older brother Holden, who is bullied at school and trying to figure out his own changing life.  It’s the story of how Fern resents and is puzzled by how her older sister Sarah seems to be drifting away from the family as she gets older.  And it’s the story of Charlie, the youngest sibling, the surprise, a two year old who sticks his fingers up his nose, clings, whines, pesters, and is frequently dirty and sticky in that way only two year olds can be.  Charlie is a realistic child, a realistic toddler, in the way that so rarely exists in fiction written for older readers: he’s that  little kid readers will recognize as their younger sibling, cousin, neighbor, the toddler that 9-12 year old readers find themselves wanting to shout at as patience wears thin.  Knowles’ perfectly captures that believable frustration: the way Charlie wears Fern down simply by being Charlie, by being her younger brother who loves her so.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the details of the plot because one of the pleasures of See You At Harry’s   is Knowles’ pacing.  Just like in real life things happen in See You At Harry’s that you can’t be prepared for.  I won’t ruin those surprises, because part of Knowles’ real gift in this work is the plotting.  It’s hard to stop reading See You At Harry’s because it feels to readers like real life, immediate and unpredictable.

See You At Harry’s is a work of astonishing grace, a heartbreaker and tear-jerker that’s also full of hope.  It’s a story about the resilience of love and the gifts of family and memory.  This book is highly recommended as a first purchase for public and school libraries.  You should buy a copy or go check it out from your local library today.  If your library doesn’t have a copy, request they add it.

This is a perfect middle grade novel, a novel that bridges that gap, reminds us as librarians why fiction for this age group exists and what it can do better than any other.  Thoughtful readers, middle grade readers, will be immediately drawn to the realism, the emotional wallop, and the strong writing in See You At Harry’s.  It’s a story that will stay with you a long, long time.  And you’ll be grateful for the visit.

(reviewed from an ARC generously provided by the publisher.)
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“Movies really can make it better.” Dani Noir by Nova Ren Suma

Welcome to 2012!!  The blog lives!  Sorry for the absence – I just went through one of those periods when I couldn’t quite get a blog to come out the way I wanted.  I was still reading and tweeting away, but blog just wasn’t happening.  One of the things I love the most about my site is that I never feel pressure to write anything but what I want when I want.  If it’s not right, it’s not right.  I hope there’s still a few people around and reading though!  🙂  I do hope all of you will bear with me through these periods.  And you can follow me on twitter: @misskubelik, where you can always finding me throwing out opinions and reviews.  Anyhow, I’m back and ready to rock 2012 with lots of blogs I’ve had in mind:  reviews of all sorts of stuff I’ve loved, some programming info, basically just things to get me motivated and writing again.

I also have a few announcements!  I want to start by thanking everyone for entering my last two contests and let you know who the randomly selected winners were.  Jasmine, who blogs at A Room With Books, won the copy of Daughter of Smoke and Bone generously provided by Little, Brown.  (have you read Daughter of Smoke and Bone yet??  What are you waiting on?!) and Jennifer won a copy of Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist.  YAY…and thanks to all for commenting and entering.  I like spreading the word about awesome books with people.  Share the good news forward, peeps!

Aaaand … I won something too!  I am super-excited to share that I won the Diversity in YA reading/blogging challenge.  Whooo!  The Diversity in YA challenge was a true challenge for me.  I learned a lot from having the chance to really reflect on what books can do and why they matter.  I was happy just to participate and grateful to Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo for hosting the challenge and consistently promoting Diversity in YA.  WINNING the challenge was even more amazing and exciting.  Thanks to all the publishers and authors for donating their books – the ones that my library doesn’t already own will go right on our shelves and the ones we have will find good homes, either with other librarians or my teen patrons.

Now onto the actual blog being alive part!

Movies can do that: make people forget everything that’s bad about their lives, and bad about the world, even make them ignore the fact that they’ve already run out of popcorn. All that matters is what’s on-screen, that world in black-and-white or bright color, the story that’s got its hold on you.  Movies really can make it better.

I read Nova Ren Suma’s middle grade masterpiece Dani Noir a few months ago, but only recently has the true resonance and loveliness of it hit me.  Dani Noir is lots of things.  It’s a story about a teenager dealing with pain and repercussions stemming from the messy breakup of her parents’ marriage.  It’s a story about that awkward summer when a friend has moved away, everything is changing, and you’re not quite sure what your life is going to be like.  It’s a story about a girl growing up and making mistakes and learning that you can survive your own mistakes, even when they are thoughtless and hurtful.  It’s all that.  And all that is lovely and smart and sharp and well-written.  But Dani Noir is something else too.

Dani Noir is a book about how loving art can not just enrich your life but make it easier too.  More than that though: Dani Noir is a book about being a fan, a book about how being a fan can be an important, productive identity in your life.

Now how cool is that?

Dani is a cinephile.  In fact, this is central to the plot of the novel and her character.  Dani loves film, particularly old films, particularly films starring Rita Hayworth, and particularly the genre of film noir.  (see title.)  During her confusing, lonely summer Dani will find comfort and solace in film.  She will see her story in film, though not always in the most positive way, and she will try to use film to make sense of her life.  This is what we cinephiles do, you see, this is what we look to the big screen for.  In this summer of growth and pain, Dani will come to understand that film, that art, can be a tether to what’s good in life and a way to find like-minded friends and conspirators, people who speak your language and want in on the conversation.

I can’t remember the last time I read a YA/MG novel that was so sharply accurate about the power of that connection.  Maybe, frankly, never.  I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: for an overwrought scene where someone shouts at Dani that “LIFE ISN’T LIKE THE MOVIES, WAKE UP ALREADY!” In this scene, the character would completely misunderstand what it means to take refuge in art, what it means to let movies take you into another world.  Dani would eventually come to see how wrong she was about everything, how real life is so much more satisfying than anything you could ever see on some old screen!  And yet that scene never came.  No, not at all.

In fact, the opposite happened.  Dani came to understand that her mistakes, her thoughtlessness and single-minded fixations, were her own.   Dani learned that life was not a film noir movie that she could act as director of regardless of anyone else’s feelings.  And yet she retained her love for film, her ability to see her life in it, her true kinship and connection with the medium. And that’s part of what makes Suma’s characterization of Dani so rich and true: here is a character who changes and grows, makes mistakes and pushes people away, yet retains her passions and interests, is the same character we met at the beginning but a more realized, more mature character at the end.

Even if I didn’t already love everything else about Dani Noir, from the unflinchingly honest way it looks at the emotional impact of divorce and remarriage to the feather-light but still consequential mystery at the core of Dani’s puzzle-solving, I would love this book for one simple reason.  Dani doesn’t have to “give up” film, because film is part of who Dani is.  In fact, Dani gets to share film with the people her world has now expanded to include.  She gets to try new films, new actresses, maybe even new genres.  This love opens her life up, helps her share her fandom and start conversations.  That is what it means to be a fan, the very best, most true parts of it.  Dani Noir and Nova Ren Suma get that and that makes this book truly unique and truly special.

Dani Noir is highly recommended for all middle-grade audiences, it’s particularly suited for middle grade readers who are looking for something truly different and worth their time. The novel takes place over the summer before Dani’s eighth grade year, but there’s definitely lots of early teen appeal here – ages 11-15 are the sweet spot for this book, especially if you know any curious, bright, passionate kids who are fans and fans-in-the-making.  You should buy a copy or go check it out from your local library today.  If your library doesn’t have a copy, request they add it.

Dani is so right: in those moments when you feel alone, on those days when you just need to escape, movies really can make it better.  And so can books as good as Dani Noir.

(Dani Noir will be re-released as Fade Out in June, 2012.  Personally, I’m not exactly crazy about the new title or cover but if it gets more people reading the book – hooray!)

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Diversify Your Reading challenge/Middle Grade Roundup

First things first! The Las Conchas fire is 50% contained and the evacuation has been lifted, meaning I’m back at home and the library is back to business as usual.   They lifted the evacuation two Saturdays ago and we re-opened with normal hours and programs on Tuesday the 5th.  It was a truly crazy and lovely time seeing patrons again and doing programs and even catching up on paperwork.  There are still spot-fires in the mountains so we have a good bit of smoke still, which sucks in the early morning.  But overall it’s so good to be back I barely notice!  Last week at our baby dance program I did Laurie Berkner’s Airplane Song which ends with “come sit down in your own hometown” and you know, I got a little choked up as I sang it to this group of 55 toddlers.   It felt profound.

So, I want to THANK ALL OF YOU SO MUCH – all of you who sent messages, who tweeted me, who let me know you were thinking of me, who read my blog about the situation – words cannot do justice to what it meant to me, how great it was to know there was a whole net of people out there concerned about what was happening here.  Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Now onto the fun stuff!

I’m super excited to be participating in the Summer 2011 Diversify Your Reading Challenge.  This challenge is part of the amazing Diversity in YA, a movement created by the awesome YA authors Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon to help encourage diversity (of all kinds!) in fiction for YA and children.

The challenge is easy.  YOU (yes, you) should be participating.   You don’t even need to be a blogger, the challenge is open to librarians who create displays highlighting diversity in their collections.   You could win an amazing collection of FIFTY THREE BOOKS!! Want to participate?  It’s super easy.  If you’re participating as a librarian, you just need to incorporate diversity into your summer reading program.  It can be through a booklist, a display, an event, anything highlighting for your patrons the awesome diversity of your collection.  If you’re a blogger, you just have to read diverse titles throughout the summer and then write a blog of at least 500 words about your experience.  The challenge is open through September 1, so start reading and creating today!  You can read more about it, including more details and suggestions for diverse titles, on the Diversity in YA blog (one of my favorite blogs!)  I’m so excited to be doing this challenge, I’ve already started my reading!  I love stretching and finding new titles and, even more,  I love encouraging more diversity in YA publishing with challenges like this.  The more people using these titles and talking about them and sharing them with patrons and highlighting them in their library the more evidence for publishers that diverse titles can be meaningful AND they can sell!

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!  You can earn a chance to win FABULOUS PRIZES (eight ARCs!!!) just for blogging about this challenge and spreading the word.  All you have to do to enter is blog about the challenge and link back to the challenge page by July 31.

C’mon, it’s going to be great!  Who else is going to participate with me??

I was excited when I found out Malinda and Cindy had organized a summer diversity challenge (y’all are the best!)  but I was EVEN MORE EXCITED when I realized every single title in my middle grade round-up featured diverse characters!  It was simply meant to be.    So, with that in mind – here are three recent middle grade titles I read and truly loved.  All of these titles, different as they are from each other, are unique, powerful, well-written, hard-to-put down, and destined for success with your middle grade readers.

Where to even begin with The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang?!  This might be the perfect middle grade novel: it has a sharp, clear, original voice, the quintessential middle grade struggle to figure out who you are going to be as an adolescent, and the school and family situations that define a middle grade novel.  Let me particularly stress the family part.  Yes, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu is a “typical” middle grade novel about a girl who has problems with a mean popular girl at school, crushes on a boy she’s not sure likes her back, and worries about coming across as too nerdy.  But it’s so much more than that – because it’s also very much the story of Lucy accepting and embracing her cultural heritage as a Chinese-American girl.

Lucy thinks she has the perfect 6th grade year all planned out…until she realizes she has to share her room with Yi Po, her great aunt from China and she has to attend Chinese school on Saturdays.  Lucy, of course, resists, because she’s American, darn-it, and all that Chinese stuff isn’t for her.

There’s something genuinely moving about Lucy’s path to figuring out that being American doesn’t mean she can’t also speak Chinese and love Chinese noodles or that being good at basketball doesn’t mean she’s not Chinese.  Shang gets these messages across without being didactic (the worst!) but through a gradual and natural progression of events and realizations on Lucy’s part.  There are very few books that show multiculturalism as naturally as this one does and I think the key to success here is that this is a story of one girl realizing that “multiculturalism” isn’t some monolith or useless buzzword but is, instead, a way to fully express and describe everything that makes her strong and special and, well, great.

The book is full of likable characters, chief among them Yi Po, who is fierce and wise and there for Lucy in a way that changes everything for her.  I also loved Talent Chang, the good girl from Chinese school Lucy doesn’t want to be friends with.  The book has lots of Chinese phrases and words throughout the text, but Lucy is struggling with the language herself, so it’s not overwhelming.  This is a really great book, funny and well-paced, and full of things middle grade readers are looking for.  I serve a huge Asian population, so this book is a book I’ve long dreamed of, but even if you don’t, you should have The Great Wall of Lucy Wu on your library shelves because it’s a genuinely fantastic middle grade novel.  (my only complaint is I’d love to see an actual Asian face on the cover.  Maybe for the paperback??)

Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney takes place in 1937, when America was in the middle of the depression and in love with a boxer by the name of Joe Louis.  Louis, the first African-American heavyweight champion, was an American sensation of the era. Bird in a Box is the story of three children, Otis, Willie, and Hibernia, who have one thing in common: they love Joe Louis.  By following his fights, the three become allies and eventually best friends as they learn to deal with the significant challenges in their respective lives.

What makes Bird in a Box work is how little I knew about boxing.  How’s that?  Bird in a Box works because I know very little about boxing but, like Otis, Willie, and Hibernia, I was hanging on every move and every word of the fight scenes.  Pinkney, using actual radio commentary from Louis’s fights, does a fantastic job showing just how much Louis and his fights meant to not just America, not just the African-American community, but to these three characters in particular.  As you read Bird in a Box, you’re not JUST cheering for Joe Louis or holding your breath wondering what the next punch is going to bring, you’re caring and investing that much in Otis, Willie, and Hibernia too.

This is top-notch historical fiction which uses the details of daily life in that era to really create a believable setting.  The way Pinkney uses the radio broadcast of Louis’s fights, even the way she establishes the radio as an essential part of daily life in the 1930s,  not only shows you what it means to the characters, but helps you feel what it must have been like to hear the world coming through your radio speakers.

This book skews to a little younger middle grade audience, but I think it’s going to be a huge hit with your fans of historical fiction or sports stories – Joe Louis and his dazzling fights are an essential part of the story.  Pinkney never makes the metaphor of “being knocked around by life” overly explicit, but it’s woven, skillfully into the story.  Otis, Willie, and Hibernia have had some hard knocks but they keep going – there’s something that’s inherently appealing about that in books for the middle grade audience and readers, I think, are going to be drawn to that.

Where to even begin with Karen Schwabach?!  The Storm Before Atlanta is her third historical fiction title and it, like the other two A Pickpocket’s Tale and The Hope Chest, is just simply marvelous.  There’s no other word to describe how skillfully, how richly, Schwabach crafts each novel.  The Hope Chest, which is the story of an eleven year old who joins her older sister on the frontline of the suffragette movement is, hands-down, one of my favorite historical novels of all time.  The Storm Before Atlanta doesn’t disappoint.

It tells the brutal, realistic, unblinking truth about war – as learned by 10 year old Jeremy, who runs away to die on the Union field of glory.  Of course, on his way to what he assumes will be his glorious demise, Jeremy not only has time to see what war is really like he also makes two friends: Dulcie, a runaway slave and Charlie, a Confederate soldier who doesn’t seem so darn hostile or out for blood.

Of course, you will have guessed that dying on a field of glory isn’t all that Jeremy thinks it might be, that war is hell, etc. etc.  What makes The Storm Before Atlanta so special is that Schwabach knows that even the youngest readers can grasp these obvious truths – she’s more interested in the truths behind those.   War is hell but so is slavery, the experiences of Dulcie make that perfectly clear.  What are wars fought about?  Is there such a thing as a worthy cause?  If there is, doesn’t that mean one side has to be only right and one side has to be only wrong?  If Confederates are the “bad guys” then can a Confederate solider still be a good person?  Now THOSE are  BIG questions, questions about who you are and what you believe  – they’re exactly the kind of questions that middle grade fiction should be asking.

The Storm Before Atlanta not only poses those questions to readers but does it in an exciting, well-crafted, vivid style.  As our characters approach Atlanta, there is plenty of action, bloodshed, and and adventure to go along with all the deep thoughts.  (this book does have intense and accurate descriptions of warfare and wartime medicine of the era, just so you’re prepared.)  This is a rich, rewarding, and totally absorbing read.  It’s highly recommend for all middle grade collections and is sure to be popular with readers who like action, historical fiction, and, yes, even for fans of war stories – because they’ll come away asking hard questions.

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“Bitter End” by Jennifer Brown

Cole is a nice guy.  And Alex is lucky to have him for a boyfriend.  He’s a sports star and charming and likable; he encourages Alex’s poetry and thinks she’s special and he’s not afraid to pursue her or embarrassed to let her know how much he likes being with her.  Loves being with her, actually, wants to be with her all the time.  It’s flattering, really, how much Cole likes Alex.  That’s the way love is supposed to be, after all, and that shows how much Cole likes her, how really into her Cole is.

Isn’t this what every girl wants?

TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains an excerpt from Jennifer Brown’s Bitter End, a book about a teenage girl in a physically abusive relationship.  The excerpt, like the book, depicts graphic domestic abuse.  Due to the potentially triggery nature,  the rest of this post is under a cut.

That would never be me.

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[Read more…]

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Fiction As A Lifeline -“The Piper’s Son” by Melina Marchetta

I use fiction as a way to interpret my life and survive my hurts

I was going to try to get to that, like, eventually.  I was going to make a bunch of big grand allusions and metaphors and then, ta-dah, I would reveal it all cryptic-like.  Ooooh, everyone would marvel I see what she did there!  So clever! But really, what’s the point?  Let’s just go ahead and say it: I use fiction as a way to see myself and my life.   I think the best fiction not only does that, not only helps us see ourselves, but helps us see beyond that, see more than ourselves.

And this is maybe what I love the most:  when I connect with a piece of fiction I connect with the world.

I was reading Melina Marchetta’s new novel The Piper’s Son in a restaurant and when the waitress came over to my table to ask if I needed a refill she was startled when I looked up and had tears rolling down my face.  I wanted to tell her, “Hey, it’s OK, don’t worry, I’m just here with my friend Tom and he’s going through a hard time and I really relate and -”

Because Tom Mackee, the main character in The Piper’s Son feels like a friend to me.  More than a friend, he is so real to me as a character that he is not a character any more – he’s just a guy I know.

Except now he doesn’t know what kind of family they are.  What word would define them?  What would they call his family in the textbooks?  Broken?  He comes from a broken home.  The Mackees can’t be put back together again.  There are too many pieces of them missing.

To be succinct: The Piper’s Son is a story about a family dealing with grief.  That’s that.  Someone died unexpectedly and it tore a hole in their family and no one quite knows how to recover.  And, of course, anyone reading that sentence knows how that might sound simple but real grief is the opposite of simple and thus so is this text.  Real grief sneaks up on you, grabs you around the throat when you’re least expecting it, real grief finds you on sunny days in the middle of joy, real grief rearranges everything good in your life and makes you feel stranded.

Tom’s uncle died and his close-knit family couldn’t quite bear the strain of it.  His parents became estranged, his father fell into a bottle, and his extended family, including his aunt Georgie, came unglued too.  Where the story gets particularly interesting, especially for teen readers, is that Tom himself unravels everything good in his life.

Tom had a great group of friends, a band he played with, a girl he was absolutely crazy about and finally going to be with.  But grief, bone deep grief, has pulled Tom away from all that.  (Tom doesn’t know it but his grief, as grief sometimes does, has made him think he’s not worthy of anything good, anything joyful.  Marchetta is such a skillful writer that she never expressly states this, she just lets the reader feel how wrong Tom is –  feel that and want, so madly, for him to realize how wrong he is.)  He shuts out his friends, quits the  band, drives away the girl.  He is alone in a sea of hurt and loss and anger because, of course, this is a book smart enough to know that grief makes you so damn angry sometimes.

This is a book about grief, yes, and how grief blows your life apart.  But this is also a book about how you pick up the pieces from that, how the tidal wave of grief can knock you over but how we find our way back to life again.  At the end of the book one of the characters realizes “I need happiness.  I deserve it.” This seemingly simple statement is, instead, a profound declaration

We begin with everything in Tom’s life in shambles.  The Piper’s Son isn’t the story about how all of this fixes itself and Tom stops feeling bad and he gets the girl.   It is the story of how life goes on, about how your best friends will always come for you and never give up on you, about how grief doesn’t stop but it can lessen enough to let joy in, about how when you love the right girl and she loves you back, well, that can get you through a lot of shit.

I feel like … no matter what I do, I’m not doing this story justice.  Because besides all these ~BIG PLOT POINTS WITH EMOTIONAL LESSONS~ this is just a book that grabs you and doesn’t let go.  It’s funny (Tom is sarcastic and smart and mean and charming too) and real and romantic and passionate.  People in this book  care so much and Marchetta makes you care too.  There’s not a single wasted line in this book, it’s all brilliantly constructed, from the metaphor of Tom losing his interest in creating music to the very subtle and strongly drawn story about fathers and sons that runs through the entire narrative.  Tom’s father, a gregarious fellow everyone loved, lost himself in his grief and we learn the story of his family, how his father went off to fight in Vietnam and never came home and he was raised by his father’s best friend, the man who became his step-father.  All of this becomes part of Tom’s family legend, the grandfather whose body never made it back from war, and it haunts Tom’s relationship with his father.

This is very much a story about family – about how our families shape us and hold us up and even, sometimes, let us down when we think we can’t bear it.  Tom is taken in by his aunt Georgie, who narrates some parts of the book.  I know there might be some concern that teen readers won’t find themselves as interested in Georgie’s story as Tom’s, but I think that the two are inseparable.  It’s important to Marchetta’s larger story about grief to show how it’s an equal opportunity monster: adults, like Georgie, don’t have magical coping skills that make them more able to handle bad things.  And not just grief, Marchetta uses this Georgie’s story to let teens in on the great secret.  We adults don’t have all the answers, you know. We fuck up too.  This is an important point for teens and it’s resonant – we’re all figuring this out, we’re all doing the best we can and making mistakes and trying to go on with it.

This is also a love story.  A big, romantic, heart-stopping love story.  First, it’s a love story between a group of friends who won’t give up on each other, even when things are hard, a group of friends who stick together.  (I think teens are going to love that element.)  But it’s also the love story of Tom and Tara Finke, the girl he pushed away as he slipped into sorrow, the girl he can’t forget.  Tom and Tara are inexorably drawn to each other, through the hurts, through the miles that now separate them.  They reconnect through electronic communications and their stumbling, often acerbic reconnection is awkward and sharp and sweet all at once.  Tom loved Tara Finke but even before grief laid him low he was afraid of his feelings for her – because they were BIG and scary and new.  Now he has to decide what to do with all those feelings, if it’s too late to face up to what they mean to him, to what she means to him.  And Tara, because she is a fully-realized character all on her own, has to see if she can find a way to forgive how badly Tom has hurt her.  Of course, I don’t want to spoil it but I will say the scene between the two of them in the airport is one of the most breathtakingly true and heartachingly awesome things I’ve simply ever read.

Who is the target audience for this book?  Tom and his friends are high school graduates, in their early 20s.  Some parts of the story are narrated by 42 year old Georgie.  Adults could easily read (and enjoy) this title.  So is this a YA book?  Absolutely, without a doubt.  This is a story with lots of teen appeal: a story about figuring out your parents aren’t perfect but you can love them anyway, a story about friends that like you even when they see the worst in you, a story about how being an adult doesn’t mean you have all the answers, it just means you get to get an equal chance at trying to figure it all out.  This is a quintessential YA novel, an exemplary example of what the genre can do when it really tries.

The Piper’s Son is a highly recommended first purchase for all public and high school libraries.  You should go purchase one for yourself today.  And if your library doesn’t have a copy, request they buy one.

Maybe strangers enter your heart first and then you spend the rest of your life searching for them.

Tom Mackee was a stranger to me at first.  But by the end of the book, I’d found him and, better still – he’d found me.  He connected me to the world, he let me cry out some deep hurts, and he reminded me that sadness isn’t the end of the story.  The best fiction shows you the truth of the world and The Piper’s Son is that kind of story.

[must read: Liz’s review of The Piper’s Son.
Reviewed from a copy generously provided by the publisher]

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A Chance to Win Flash Burnout & Love for L.K. Madigan

Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan won the 2010 Morris Award.  As most of you reading this blog probably already know, the Morris Award is, and always will be, dearly close to my heart, as I just finished my first ever selection committee work on the 2011 Morris Award Committee.  I heard, first-hand, the way the Morris Award, which is given to a debut novel, changes authors lives.  This year’s Morris reception was immensely moving to me, seeing our three authors in attendance (winner Blythe Wolstoon and honorees Lish McBride and Barbara Stuber) and hearing them talk about what writing meant in their lives and knowing that they the Morris Award recognition was going to make their publishing even a little bit easier, well, it was significant to me.

Knowing that Flash Burnout is in that company, that author L.K. Madigan had a similar journey with the Morris Award, that makes it special to me too.  I think Morris books will always be in my favorites because, in a way, they represent all the struggle and hope and work that goes into getting a book published that very first time.

But Flash Burnout is also special to me because it’s a truly great novel.  This book has high teen appeal and is a good read-alike for John Green and Maureen Johnson fans. Flash Burnout is highly recommended for teens aged 15 and up interested in realistic fiction and books about the artistic process.

Here are six things that make Flash Burnout special and worth your time:

1. a boy narrator.  Yes, it’s true.  Here’s a book with a funny, smart, realistic male lead character.  Blake is a great lead character, you feel for him and care about his choices.  He’s goofy and easily embarrassed and he likes girls and thinks a lot about sex and is perfect for all those boy readers out there some people don’t think exist.  Blake has a realistic, believable arc in the book, you’re rooting for him even as he messes up.   Blake is authentically BOY.

2. no werewolves/vampires/ghosts in sight.  For all those times you need a breather from the world of the supernatural, where vampires sparkle and ghosts can’t wait to date you.  (Don’t get me wrong, I love this genre.  I love that teens love this genre.)  Sometimes you just feel like a story that feels so possible… sometimes stories like that can  really connect with your first-hand experience and mean something in your life.  This is an outstanding example of contemporary, realistic YA fiction.

3. art.  Another outstanding element of the story is the use of photography throughout.  Not only does it provide a thoughtful metaphor for the story of Blake figuring out how he “frames” himself in the world, it also incorporates a lot of photography technique and terminology seamlessly into the plot.  Blake is serious about photography as an art and a craft and it’s really good to see that passion and curiosity for creation and art in a YA novel.  This is perfect for teens that are looking for stories about artists and any that might be interested in photography in general.

4. the tone.  This book has a really unique tone that mixes serious stuff (Blake’s friend Marissa’s desperate search for her meth addicted mother) with funny stuff (Blake’s near constant thoughts about sex and girls) very well and very realistically.  It makes for a really compelling read and the way Madigan masterfully balances the tone keeps you reading.

5. the not a triangle-triangle. Another huge thread in the book is how Blake feels torn between his romantic relationship with a girl named Shannon and his close friendship with Marissa.  In lesser books, this would be some kind of very obvious triangle, with Shannon as a controlling bitch or Marissa as clearly not right for him, but Madigan goes past that – into a deeper more realistic place.  Who hasn’t been in an awkward situation like that?  Who hasn’t wondered if they’re with the right person, if a friend could be something more? This makes Blake’s feelings, his indecision and his confusion, so much more significant, so much more believable.  It’s harder but it’s more true and, in my opinion, that’s something all YA novels should strive for, plot-wise.

6. the family ties.  Yes, this is a book about a girl who is searching for her estranged, drug addicted mother.  But wait, don’t despair that you’re reading yet another dysfunctional family YA novel.  This is also the story of Blake’s family – Blake’s funny and loving and kind of weird and very supportive family.  Blake’s parents trust him and support him and talk with him and want to help him but also believe he can make the right choices.  IT’S KIND OF A MIRACLE OF AWESOME, basically.

Sounds pretty great doesn’t it?  I hope you’re bumping it to the top of your to-be-read list.  I hope you’re reserving a copy at your local library right now.  Do you want a copy of your own?  Then today is your lucky day!  All you have to do is comment on this entry for a chance to win a paperback copy of L.K. Madigan’s Flash Burnout! (The lucky winner will be chosen at random.)

So why the sudden love for Flash Burnout, you might be asking?  Sadly, last week L.K. Madigan announced that she was recently diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer.  This is a devastating blow to the YA fiction community.  A group of librarian-blogger friends decided we’d all post something about Lisa’s work and offer giveaways of her books on our sites.  Some of us (me included) are also making donations to the American Cancer Society in her name. You can visit these other posts and contests at GreenBeanTeenQueen, GalleySmith, YA Librarian Tales, and Stacked.

We thought this would be a good way to let Lisa know what her work has meant to us as teen librarians and lovers of YA lit.  We also thought it would be a chance to get her books in more hands so more people could share the beauty and power of her words and work.

One of the goals of the Morris Committee is to help debut authors receive more recognition.  I’m not sure I would have ever read Flash Burnout if it hadn’t been for the Morris.  I am so glad I did.   I hope you give Flash Burnout (or her second book The Mermaid’s Mirror, a delicious fantasy) a read so that you can share in the power of her work.  For L.K. Madigan, I think (I hope) that this is the best way to spread some the blessings and gifts of her life – through getting her writing out far and wide.

Our thoughts are with you, Lisa, and we’re so grateful for your gifts.

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The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) by Kody Keplinger

The DUFF: the designated ugly fat friend.  The one girl in a group that’s just not “as pretty” as the others.  DUFF: it’s a “real” thing, you know.  You can look it up on Urban Dictionary, where it’s been an entry since 2003.  The DUFF, the girl in any group who’s just not as pretty, not as skinny, not as noticeable, not as special as the friends she’s with. And, regardless of the group, regardless of the situation, you already (and always) know who the DUFF is…don’t you?  She’s you.

“For a girl with such a fat ass, I felt pretty invisible.”

FINALLY, you are saying to yourself SHE’S GOING TO WRITE ABOUT A FAT BOOK (AS PROMISED) AT HER FAT BLOG.  IT’S ABOUT TIME!

Well, about that . . .

But!  But!  It says “fat” right there, in the title!  Yet one of the things that works about The DUFF is that we don’t really know if our protagonist, Bianca, is “actually” fat.  And one of the things that doesn’t just work but that makes The DUFF brilliant is that it still manages to be about the complicated and often painful politics of body image.  Bianca might be fat.  She might not be.  The DUFF challenges readers to ask: what does fat look like and what does fat mean anyway?

The DUFF starts one night out when Bianca is out with her friends.  She is approached by Wesley, school hottie and well-known player, who attempts to chat her up so her friends will like him.  Why would that work?  Because, as Wesley explains, Bianca is The Duff among her friends.  She knows it and they know it, he assures her.   If they see him talking to her, why, they’ll think he’s sensitive and kind for deigning to talk to her and probably make out with him.  Bianca, naturally insulted, throws her Cherry Coke in his face and stalks off.

Of course, you can probably guess where this is headed.

One of the things that works the best about this book is that though many plot developments seem inevitable and predictable (Bianca and Wesley’s hostility is also chemistry?  You don’t say!) Kiplinger still manages to give them an extra dimension, something just a little different than what you thought you guessed.

Like I said, we don’t know “how fat” Bianca is, but we do get to hear some of her thoughts on how fat she feels.  She refers to herself as having “big thighs” (p. 12), as being “chubby” (p.39),  and as having a “fat ass” (p. 139). But, again, Kiplinger knows that everyone feels that way sometimes, that feeling like that doesn’t always describe how we actually look.  Is this a book about a fat girl?  Kinda.  But it’s also a book about how society sometimes makes you feel like “a fat girl” by making you feel like “fat” is the worst of who you are.

Another nice touch: Bianca’s best friends, Casey and Jessica, also have insecurities about their looks.  Though Wesley opens by telling Bianca she’s the DUFF, Casey and Jessica are only human.  At one point, Casey protests SHE’S the DUFF.  Casey thinks she’s “Sasquatch” (p. 44) … but tall girls are all models, right?  They never have anything to worry about! Kiplinger knows that’s not true, and she knows that’s the heart of the DUFF.  One particularly nice, subtle moment comes when Bianca says something dismissive to Casey about the girls on the cheerleading squad, a squad Casey happens to be a member of:

“…He wouldn’t even date a girl on the Skinny Squad–“

“I really hate it when you call us that.” (p. 190)

Such a nice touch!  Slamming of the other cheerleaders who have “skinny” bodies doesn’t pass without comment.  Casey lets Bianca know that makes her uncomfortable, that the language is reductive and hurtful.  In less than 20 words and without beating you over the head with it, Kiplinger gets the point across, loud and clear.

So, Bianca finds herself pulled into a quickly escalating physical relationship with Wesley in an attempt to get through some rough personal times. (again, an refreshingly honest detail: sometimes, we use physical and sexual intimacy in a way that’s not always healthy or fair.  But it feels good and it makes us feel connected.)  They banter, bicker, have sex, and start to scratch each other’s surfaces.  But can they ever be more than just “enemies-with-benefits?”

(This is one of the book’s less believable parts: it’s so honest about sex that when the plot starts to veer off to “and the guy you have random hook-ups with could totally turn into awesome boyfriend material if you just stick it out and give him a shot!!!” it feels a little unrealistic.  Yeah, that happens, but, in my experience, not that often.  But this is, in many ways, a romance novel so it’s not entirely jarring or unexpected within the genre.)

The relationship between Bianca and Wesley is good, don’t get me wrong.  For one thing: their sexual relationship is sizzling and integral to their relationship as a whole. (This is one of very few YA book I can think of that discusses cunnilingus.  [maybe the only non-lesbian one?] And discusses it in a way that seems totally believable and real to a teenage girl’s mind.) No hand-holding here, Edward Cullen!  The way the book deals with sex is definitely for mature readers but it’s also good to see YA fiction moving beyond the billowing curtains.  And Bianca and Wesley’s banter is good too: natural, unforced, and kind of mean in all the best ways.  So are the moments when they start to really connect.  She stands up to him, calls him on bullshit, and doesn’t let him treat her like crap.  He likes her more because of that.  That’s believable, that works.

But, for me, what makes The DUFF really work is Bianca’s relationship with her girlfriends, some other girls at school, and herself.  This is a feminist book.  It’s a book about owning your identity, about not feeling bad for feeling good about sex, a book about rejecting “sexist” labels and words that tear girls down.  (yes, Kiplinger uses the word sexist!  HURRAH!)

Reading The DUFF and not knowing how ugly or fat Bianca “really” is doesn’t just show how subjective and individual measures like that are.  Keplinger knows it helps readers understand that everyone feels like the DUFF sometimes.  Perhaps that seems a little simplistic, but I think it’s a message teen readers NEED to hear.

Hell, I think it’s a message we ALL need to hear.

Recommended for: Language and sexual situations make this one for older teens only.  I recommend this as a first purchase for public libraries and for teens in grades 10-12.  I think this has the potential to be one of those books teen girls pass around from friend to friend.

A NOTE ABOUT THE COVER!

You’ll note that my post features two covers.  The one of the left is a picture I took the ARC cover.  The one one the right is the one that’s shown on Amazon, Kiplinger’s site, etc.  I IMPLORE YOU, POPPY, PLEASE USE THE ONE ON THE LEFT.  Not because the girl on the left is “fat” (maybe she is, maybe she isn’t…which fits the text!) but because the cover on the right seems all wrong for the book.  Funky eyeshadow?  Blowing a bubble with bubblegum? What does that have to do with anything?  It seems almost tween-ish.  AND THIS IS NOT A TWEEN BOOK.  That model looks almost flippant and uninterested.  The girl on the left is looking right at you: up close and unblinking.  I can practically see the smirk on her lips.  She’s Bianca.

Comment for a Chance to WIN A COPY OF THIS BOOK!

I hope you can’t wait to read this book!  It doesn’t come out until September 7, but after ALA I ended up with two advance reading copies.  (thanks to Little & Brown!)  I knew that meant I had to give one away!  So, as I did with Some Girls Are, I’m going to use random.org to select a random winner from the comments.  It could be you!

All you have to do is leave a comment with your thoughts about the word DUFF and you’re entered. (details: contest is open until August 12, US entries only please, don’t forget to use an e-mail address when you comment so I can contact you.) And if you don’t win,  don’t forget to go into your local library and request they buy a copy.

In the meantime, I suggest everyone take a moment to embrace their inner DUFF, the first step in working towards letting go of any power a word like that might have over you.

We *are* all The DUFF.

And that’s OK.

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