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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Tween Tuesday: Doll Bones by Holly Black

dollbonesWhat’s the scariest thing you can think of?  A thing that is almost universally feared?  Spiders?  Clowns?  Public speaking?  What about … creepy dolls?  You know the kind, the kind that have heads that seem to sit uncomfortably on their cloth shoulders, the ones with porcelain arms and legs that bend in unnatural ways, the ones with too big smiles for their soft fabric faces, the ones with shiny eyes that blink slowly closed when you lay them down yet somehow still seem to be watching you?  Oooh, did you feel that little shudder?

Yup, that’s scary.  You know what’s scarier though?  What’s the scariest thing I can think of?  Middle school.

Many years ago during a high school assignment, my English class was given a piece of paper and told to draw pictures about our impressions of our life through four stages: before entering school, during elementary school, during middle school, and during high school.  We worked in solitude and then compared pictures.  Everyone had different drawings for before school and elementary school, though most of the “before school” pictures were just colors or flowers and hearts.  Our high school sections, naturally, had the most detail and even writing but they were all different too.  Only one thing was the same: our middle school sections.  Independently the whole class, from the most popular kids to the most nerdy, had colored their middle school section with black marks, scribbles, red Xs, scrawls and jumbles of the angriest, darkest, ugliest colors.  We laughed about it at the time but I never forgot that – for all of us middle school was a jumble of darkness, a scrawl of deep unhappiness.  All these years later this is still so revealing to me.

Is there a worse horror than middle school?  In Doll Bones, one of the most resonant and truly creepy middle grade novels I’ve ever read, Holly Black expertly uses the conventions of ghost stories and horror stories to argue that no, no there’s really nothing scarier than middle school.  Not even the ghost of a girl trapped in the body of a very, very creepy doll. But don’t get me wrong – that’s pretty scary too.  And thus so is Doll Bones, an ingenious and heartbreaking middle grade book about the powers of story and the pressures of growing up.

Doll Bones is the story of three friends, Zach, Alice, and Poppy.  They’ve grown up together playing “the game” – an elaborate make-believe game that uses their dolls and action figures to tell an extensive adventure story.  But now they’re in middle school, about to be teenagers, and Zach calls off the game.  It feels over … until Poppy tells Zach that the eerie, bone-china doll who ruled over the game as the Great Queen is really possessed by the ghost of a dead girl and the Poppy, Zach, and Alice must bring the game to an end with one last adventure: burying the Great Queen.   The three of them set off on a quest and an adventure that will change everything.

So, I think what you’ll hear about Doll Bones in reviews is that it’s scary and atmospheric.  That’s absolutely true, it’s creepy in the best way, the kind  you can’t shake, the kind that crawls up your skin and gives you gooseflesh.  I think you’ll also hear a lot about how Doll Bones is about the power of storytelling.  This is also absolutely true, it’s a narrative that, in the best ways, tells readers that imagination and play are important, can change your life, and have real value.

But what *I* want to tell you about Doll Bones isn’t just all that – it’s that this is a story about the rigid boxes of gender expectations our society tries to force us into and how the scariest part of adolescence can be trying to break out of those boxes.

You see, Zach doesn’t just call off the game – he calls of the game because his father throws away Zach’s players in the game.  His … well, his dolls.  Even though Zach is a popular basketball star, his father thinks he’s too old to be playing with dolls.  12 year old boys, after all, well they shouldn’t.  Without the dolls, the action figures, Zach can’t play.  And here’s a really nice touch: Zach is too ashamed to even admit this to his friends.  He’s been twice-shamed – for playing the game and caring deeply about it and for having to admit that his father thinks doing this makes him less.  And it’s more than just the dolls – it’s clear that what Zach’s father is also really talking about it PLAY.  The clear implication is that Zach, that boys, shouldn’t be playing make-believe and telling stories, which is exactly the kind of play and pastime encouraged by dolls and action figures.   That’s feminine which makes it weak and thus bad.  It’s these gender binaries and their associated societal punishments that will really grind your bones to dust and give you nightmares.  They are the scariest things of all.

I know!  This is some transgressive, brave, and quite frankly brilliant storytelling and plotting.

Doll Bones is an incredibly rich novel because of this and it’s also a lifeline to all the middle-schoolers, boys and girls, who are struggling with trying to fit into the boxes society creates for us about “girls do this” and “boys don’t this” and “this is the right way to talk to boys” and “this is the right way to be friends with girls.” Without ever being didactic and sentimental about it, Doll Bones says “It doesn’t have to be just one way.  It can be any way you want – it can be any story you want to tell.”

Doll Bones is out today!  You can purchase it from your favorite local indie bookseller or check out a copy from your library.  If your library doesn’t own a copy, suggest they purchase one.  Of course, it is highly recommended as first purchase for middle school and public libraries and is the perfect book to booktalk to 6-8 grades in the lead-up to summer reading!   Also, I hope this is going to be in serious Newbery discussions this year.  It’s so finely crafted it really deserves to be.

Doll Bones isn’t just one of my favorite novels of 2013 – it’s one of my favorite middle-grade novels ever.  It makes the most of the potential of this genre; the way middle grade should use this confusing and overwhelming time of life to tell a story that young readers who connect with will keep with them always.   Doll Bones is that kind of adventure and that kind of story.

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