Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

where things come back“When I asked him the meaning of life, Dr. Webb got very quiet and then told me that life has no one meaning, it only has whatever meaning each of us puts on our own life.  I’ll tell you now that I still don’t know the meaning of mine.  And Lucas Cader, with all his brains and talent, doesn’t know the meaning of his either.  But I’ll tell you the meaning of all this.  The meaning of some bird showing up and some boy disappearing and you knowing all about it.  The meaning of this was not to save you, but to warn you instead. To warn you of confusion and delusion and assumption.  To warn you of psychics and zombies and ghosts of your lost brother.  To warn you of Ada Taylor and her sympathy and mothers who wake you up with vacuums.  To warn you of two-foot-tall birds that say they can help, but never do.”

The woodpecker showed up  just about the time that Cullen Witter’s little brother disappeared.  The small Arkansas town sees the return of the long-thought-extinct woodpecker as the gift of salvation, hoping the excitement of the bird’s sighting will draw people in and revitalize the local economy.  Cullen is sick of the bird already, and wishes everyone would stop being so awkward around him since his brother’s disappearance.  He also wishes his mom would stop crying and listening to his brother’s old music and reading his books.  This summer, Cullen negotiates relationships with others, tries his best to take care of his grieving family, and searches for meaning in it all.

First of all, I love books that take teenagers seriously: the ones that validate young people by including them in the  exploration of beliefs and the full spectrum of emotions and experiences.  Grief?  Of course. Love?  Absolutely.  Fear of the unknown?  Everyone is afraid, I promise.  It is just that nobody talks about it openly, except in books like these, which is why they are so great! To me, not only do these books say that young people are fully able to participate in the human search for meaning, but they actually offer the vocabulary for expressing such ideas-tools to be used in real life.   Where Things Come Back is one of those books.

You’ll love it because Cullen is a great narrator: his elaborate daydreams include zombies, soundtracks, and miracles.  You’ll love being able to read all his thoughts, especially because he is such a complex character-portrayals of characters like this do a lot for breaking down stereotypes about young men and women.  And I think you’ll also love it because it makes you think about important things.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website

Whaley, John Corey. Where Things Come Back. Athenum: New York, 2011. 228 p.  Age 15 and up.

If you liked this book, I think you’d really like Looking for Alaska, which has the same setting, tone, and some similar plot elements.  If you liked the summer setting and the elements of religion, Pete Hautman’s Godless might be perfect for you!  If the mystery and small town setting was what grabbed you, try Shine by Lauren Myracle. If you want a book about missing loved ones, check out Please Ignore Vera Dietz.  

And one more! Remember when I talked about using book covers to help you pick books that were alike?  Check out John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.  It’s another meaning-book, with a lot of the same Big Questions.  But careful with that one-it’s heart-wrenching!

Advertisements

The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

replacement“I hadn’t given away my secret because I didn’t even know how to say the secret out loud.  No one did.  Instead, they hung on to the lie that the kids who died were actually their kids and not just convincing replacements.  That way, they never had to ask what happened to the real ones.

That was the code of the town-you didn’t talk about it, you didn’t ask.  But Tate had asked anyway.  She’d had the guts to say what everyone else was thinking-that her true, real sister had been replaced by something eerie and wrong.  Even my own family had never been honest to come right out and say that.”

Mackie is a changeling, a replacement for a stolen baby.  His family, along with the entire town of Gentry, would like to continue acting as though this never happened, as though the town’s children did not sometimes disappear from their cribs, to be replaced with darker and more unnatural beings.  Of course, Mackie wishes he could ignore it, too, and that he could just be normal and play his guitar and never have to worry about how blood and metal make his head spin.  But when his friend (and love interest) loses her baby sister to Gentry’s underworld, he knows it’s time that someone acted.  He knows it’s time to stop keeping secrets.

Oh, I am so weak for paranormal stories, especially when they involve little children.  And young adult fiction is the perfect place for finding these stories, as the gore and shockingly sad endings are usually rare!  This particular book was a dark and interesting diversion, written by a Colorado author.  I’d been wanting to read it for months.  You’ll like the eerie premise:  as the story unfolds, you’ll learn that the town of Gentry is at the mercy of two feuding spirit sisters, and that townspeople have mutely accepted the child-switching as a price to pay for their relative good fortune.  It’s quite creepy, a bit gruesome (but blood makes me dizzy, anyway), and an original take on the changeling story.  Readers looking for romance will find it, readers looking to ignore it will find that possible, too.

I have a single small issue with the book.  Ordinarily, I wouldn’t bring it up, but I found it quite jarring.  At two points in the text, young women are referred to as “tart” and “hookers”, and you know what?  It is absolutely not ok. This is the kind of language that perpetuates violence against women, and it was a great disappointment to see it used unnecessarily in the story.

Aside from that, this is a ghoulish and creative tale of a cursed town and the dark forces at play beneath it.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://brennayovanoff.com/

Yovanoff, Brenna. The Replacement. Razor Bill, New York, 2010.  343 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, you should check out Chimeanother paranormal fiction book with a similar premise.  And then Half World, and then there’s Libba Bray’s new book (it looks so good!!) called  The Diviners, which totally looks like it has some good creepiness in it.  Or,  how about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children?  Or any book out there with a dark gray cover and crows, or girls in puffy dresses, or blood on the cover-this is a hugely popular genre right now (lucky for me!) Oh, and there’s Huntress by Malinda Lo; it’s a small part of the plot, but there’s a changeling there, too.

For the younger readers looking for creepy, try A Drowned Maiden’s Hairor (next up on my list) Picture the Dead.

The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier

“‘There it waits.  Beyond my strength.  Promise me,’ pleaded the dragon.  ‘Daughter of men, cast my child upon the winds and into the furnace of the earth.  Call the wind to break open the earth and let out the hidden fire.  You must call the wind, and the wind must become fire.  Do you understand?  Swear it to me!'”

Trei is unusual; a refugee and foreign-born inductee into the kajurai, the flying protectors of the Floating Islands. Even some of his classmates are suspicious of him, thinking him a traitor infiltrating the school to learn the secret of dragon magic. His cousin, Araene, is also a bit different, insisting on being educated as a mage, even if it means she must dress as a boy.  However, their unique experiences prove vital when a neighboring country invades, and when the dragons suddenly and mysteriously leave, taking their powerful magic with them. Though they are barely older than children themselves, Araene and Trei must work together to hatch the last fire dragon’s egg and save their country from destruction.

This detailed and captivating fantasy relates the story of two cousins, both new students, who play key parts in saving their home, the  Floating Islands, from both losing the magic that protects it and from being invaded by a powerful neighboring nation.  The chapters alternate, with one being the perspective of Araene, who took refuge in the mage school after her parents were killed in a plague, and the next being from Trei’s perspective, who is studying to be a kajurai.  Though there is much backstory and many plot twists, they are handled masterfully, and it makes this quite an interesting fantasy (after the first three chapters of setup).  This original story had the feel of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and it was a delightful diversion from final projects. Fire dragons? Floating islands?  Girls who dress like boys in order to go to mage school?  What’s not to love? (Also, isn’t that cover art beautiful?)

Happy Reading!

Neumeier, Rachel. The Floating Islands. Bluefire Books: New York, 2011. 387 pp.  Ages 14 and up.

If you liked this book and you haven’t read A Wizard of Earthseathat would be a great place to start! If you loved the dragon element, another great classic is Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series.  I promise, you’ll love them!

Author’s website: http://www.rachelneumeier.com/

Chime by Franny Billingsley

“I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged.

Now, if you please.

I don’t mean to be difficult, but I can’t bear to tell my story.  I can’t relive those memories-the touch of the Dead Hand, the smell of eel, the gulp and swallow of the swamp.

How could you possibly think me innocent? Don’t let my face fool you; it tells the worst lies.  A girl can have the face of an angel but have a horrid sort of heart.”

Briony conceals her second sight and forces herself to use her right hand because in Swampsea, witches are hanged, and Briony absolutely, positively, must not die.  Dying, you see, would break her promise: she must always live so she may take care of Rose.  Briony’s life is consumed with care for her identical twin, Rose, in an attempt at penance for a childhood accident that irreparably changed her. However,what is she to do when saving her sister’s life means that Briony must sacrifice her own?

Briony’s scrupulously honest, don’t-pity-me, prickly demeanor does nothing to conceal her vulnerability; she is a multi-dimensional artwork of a narrative persona, relating a chilling tale of secrets, bargains with spirits, and subterfuge. Furthermore, she’s unreliable: readers are unsure exactly what the truth is. Briony hates everything, including herself, and Billingsley’s masterful characterization prevents her from reading as selfish or irritating. You’ll love the distilled gems of bleaks humor like this:  “Skipping meals is terrifically convenient: It gives one lots of time to brood and hate oneself”.

The language itself is another reason to love this story.  In an interview, Franny Billingsley said that she drew inspiration from the wordplay in folk songs and ballads, and definitely adds another layer of appeal to the novel.  Words invert and rhyme, creating an interesting textual parallel for the reader’s changing perceptions of the characters and the story as layer after layer of deception is excoriated.  Adding to the literary complexity of the work is the story’s structure! It’s not difficult to follow, but hearing the tale backwards, from the moment we know Briony is to die, brings a sense of urgency to the story. Finally, even though we begin the story knowing the ending already, Billingsley manages to keep us wondering and worrying about it.

This creepy and enthralling novel was a finalist for the National Book Award last year, amid some controversy.  I found it a combination of delightful elements that are so often honored by the award, including high literary merit.  Furthermore, the romance (yes, there’s romance, but I promise it isn’t offensively saccharine!) is based on equality and mutual respect and tenderness, which is delightful to see in these paranormal books, as they often rely on tired stereotypes of straight relationships.  The one concern I have is one the author herself has also acknowledged, that of the “beauty barrier”.  Books about non-beautiful young women are disappointingly scarce, and this is no different.  Billingsley missed a perfect opportunity to give us a complex and appealing heroine while also affirming the importance of other values besides traditional beauty.

That said, if you love witches and swamps and the feeling you get when you read Jane Eyre, this one’s for you.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.frannybillingsley.com

Billingsley, Franny. Chime. New York, Speak, 2011. 361 pp. Ages 14 and up.

If you liked this one, you can rejoice: the author claims she has two related novels she is working on!  While you are waiting, you can check out books like Beauty and Ash and  Castle Waiting (for the feminist graphic-novel antidote to the stereotypical beautiful heroine) and Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyrefor the classic take on creepiness.

Happyface by Stephen Emond

“I’m supposed to be Happyface.  I’m supposed to smile and laugh and talk and get things going because people are attracted to that, they want to follow the happy person.  They want that happiness to rub off on them.”

Happyface’s life fell apart, and he and his mother moved to a different town.  There, he decided to shed his old identity and transform into Happyface, the life of any party and source of flippant jokes and sarcasm. However, maintaining his carefree persona requires a tremendous amount of effort, and prevents him from getting close to others.  Worse, his secret past catches up with him in his new home-a history that evokes pity in others, and he doesn’t want to be the guy everyone feels sorry for.  How can he make others want to be his friend if he can’t be Happyface all the time?

Happyface is an artist, and spends most of his time sketching cartoon characters, classmates, and the world around him.  The format of the book reflects this: pages are filled with drawings and notes, which makes it very interesting to look at.  Furthermore, the premise of the story is excellent: a young person realizes that sincerely expressing one’s feelings is the only way to be close to others, and that making friends necessitates being honest.  So, some elements that usually lend themselves to a great read are present, but this book seems to be in the throes of an identity crisis.  I found Happyface to be (please forgive me) a jerk. However, there are many fantastic books written in the voice of an unpleasant character, right?  But Happyface’s one-dimensional self-centeredness, I felt, does young people a double disservice: first, by offering an unrealistically negative portrayal of teenagers, and second, by overshadowing the more appealing elements of the book.  The text’s indecision extended to the plot, as well: a love triangle is played against a larger tragedy, when perhaps the book could have benefitted from only focusing on one of these narrative threads.  In short, the book attempts too much, and the result is somewhat confusing.

In its defense, this is Stephen Emond’s first novel, as he has worked primarily on comic strips in the past.  His artistic talent is displayed in the book, and I really enjoyed the different sketches and fonts in the story.  However, if you are looking for a visually unique story, you might want to try Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  If you like the diary format, I have to recommend the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.  They are wildly popular for a reason, folks; they’re hilarious and interesting to look at, as well as being from the perspective of the underdog, which is similar to Happyface, though much, much funnier.  Finally, if you’re looking for books about how teenagers endure tragedies, I recommend John Green’s Looking for Alaska or Please Ignore Vera Dietz, by A.S. King.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.stephenemond.com/

Emond, Stephen.  Happyface. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010. 307 pp.  Ages 15-18.

Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. by Medeia Sharif

“Sometimes I feel that I don’t fit in.  Years ago, during a sleepover at a friend’s house, some girl I barely knew asked questions about my ethnicity.  I was wearing pink nail polish and she asked me, ‘Your parents allow you to wear nail polish?’ As if Muslim girls can’t wear something harmless like nail polish.  Those ignorant comments come only once in a while, because my real friends know that I do fit in.  People who know very little about me think my mom will come to school wearing a veil or sari, and they’re wowed by how hot she is (the only time her hotness makes me look good). Or they think Dad will have a long terrorist beard and bland clothes, but he always comes to school in a suit, looking all suave and charming.  I don’t mind if my classmates see my parents, but it’s best that they don’t.  Like most people my age, I pretend that my home life and my school life are on different planes of existence.”

During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, believers are not supposed to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset.  For the first time ever, fifteen-year-old Almira is fasting with her family, and it’s hard work!  Combined with learning to drive, her first crush, getting braces, and some drama with the new girl, Almira has her hands full.  How can she get Peter to notice her at school? How can she get her grandfather to understand that she’s just a normal American teenage girl, and not trying to be disrespectful or rebellious?  And why is the new girl so mean?

I have a special interest in books featuring minorities for young adults, and was so pleased to see a book about a Muslim teen on the shelves at my library, especially one that focuses on issues beyond cultural differences (for example, Almira’s crush, an understandable preoccupation for a teen, is a main plot element). While there is some discussion of religious beliefs, Almira’s family is portrayed neither as exactly like everyone else in the novel, nor as religious extremists with an oppressive belief system.  In short, they’re normal, and there’s no need to dwell on it for pages.  Young lovers of chick-lit will be delighted with Almira’s authentic voice and her interactions with her friends, as well as the teenage traumas of braces and driving lessons, while I, for one, am thrilled to see representations of the Muslim teen in the YA lit world.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.medeiasharif.com

Sharif, Medeia.  Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. Flux Books: Woodbury, MN, 2011. 298 pp.  Ages 13-16.

If you’d like to read more like this, Does My Head Look Big in This? is a good place to start!

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

“All these years, it wasn’t really necessary for you to go to Paterson.  You don’t really belong there.  I know you realize this yourself.  There’s nothing wrong with you.  You just move at a different speed than other kids your age.  But in order for you to grow and not get stuck, you need to be in a normal environment.  It is time.  Here is what I propose: If you work at the law firm this summer, then at the end of the summer, you decide whether you want to spend your senior year at Paterson or at Oak Ridge High…

‘There’s just one thing.’ I see him pick up his glass of wine and raise it to his lips.  This time his words come out very slow. ‘You can do what you want in the fall…’ He waits for my eyes to meet his eyes and then he continues. ‘But this summer you must follow all the rules of the…real world.'”

Seventeen-year-old Marcelo goes to a private school for young people with disabilities.  There, he learns academic skills and practical life skills, such as making small talk and interpreting other people’s facial expressions.  At Paterson, he is safe and supported.  He does not get lost or overwhelmed, or worried that he cannot finish tasks fast enough.  However, his father believes that he needs to be challenged.  Instead of tending the therapeutic horses at Paterson, Marcelo is to work at his father’s law firm for the summer.  If he does well, his father will allow him to go back to Paterson for his final year of high school.  If he doesn’t follow the so-called “real-world” rules, he will be placed in a public high school.

Marcelo is often confused and dismayed by the competition, brutality, and insensitivity he encounters in the firm.  When he finds a discarded photo of a young woman scarred by broken glass, he is confronted with an ethical dilemma for which he has had no preparation.  The evidence he uncovers can potentially destroy his father’s firm, and if Marcelo tells anyone, it would be breaking his promise to his father about following the rules.   Marcelo must sort out his feelings about justice and loyalty before he can decide what to do.

Oh, this book! This incredible book!  It is a special one, for many reasons.  First, Marcelo’s disorder is never named, and we learn of his minority status halfway through the novel.  This allows us to meet the real Marcelo, without getting distracted by his ethnicity or disability.  Yes, he has an autism-spectrum disorder, but to the readers, it is clear that he is a human first.  Secondly, his voice is disarming.  He is precise, though not emotionless, and often naive, but never sentimentally so.  Finally, the story deals with the Big Issues: suffering, ethics, and family, without being didactic or reductive.  It is part legal thriller, part the-most-understated-romance-you’ll-ever-read, and part coming-of-age story.

Please, read this.  I know you’ll love Marcelo.  Francisco Stork, in an afterword, describes his experiences working with individuals with disabilities, and he said that this book is a small thank you for all of their gifts.  It’s an award-winner, too! It’s a YALSA Best Book, but was also a recipient of the Schneider Family Book Award, which honors an outstanding depiction of a child’s or adolescent’s experience with disability.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.franciscostork.co

Stork, Francisco X.  Marcelo in the Real World. Arthur A. Levine: New York, 2009. 312 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this, you might like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-timeabout a young man with Asperger’s and a mystery. It’s one that I love!  I also think you might also like The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd.

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

“I was born into all that, all that mess, the over-crowded swamp and the over-crowded semetary and the not-crowded-enough town, so I don’t remember nothing, don’t remember a world without Noise.  My pa died of sickness before I was born and then my ma died, of course, no surprises there.  Ben and Cillian took me in, raised me.  Ben says my ma was the last of the women but everyone says that about everyone’s ma.  Ben may not be lying, he believes it’s true, but who knows?”

Todd is the youngest male in the settlement of Prentisstown, a town with no women left and ravaged by a disease called Noise.  Not only does Noise broadcast everyone’s thoughts out loud, it also caused all the women to sicken and die.  Todd was taught that Noise was caused by a germ carried by native inhabitants of the New World, a race called the Spackle.  However, right before his birthday, his adoptive parents hand him a notebook written years before by his mother-a notebook that tells an entirely different story about Noise and warns against the sinister preachings of Mayor Prentiss.

The problem with Noise, of course, is that no one has any secrets.  As soon as he sees the notebook, Todd must strike out through the swamps and across the countryside, in the hopes that he will be able to outrun the other men of the town.  He knows they will come after him as soon as they hear his Noise and know he is trying to escape.  During his flight, he meets a young woman named Viola, whose parents’ ship had crashed in the swamp.  Viola had been trying to survive on her own in the hostile environment.  Todd is fascinated (he has never seen a girl before!), but also terrified that he might infect her with the Noise germ.  Companionship wins, and the two proceed across the New World, trying to reach the town of Haven that Todd’s mother mentioned in her notebook.  They are in a desperate scramble to outrun the militia of Prentisstown men, who are convinced that Todd, as the last male in the village, is a vital part of their salvation plan.  When Todd learns the truth about Noise, what happened to the women, and what the men of Prentisstown expect him to do, he will face an ethical dilemma that nothing could have prepared him for.

This is a fast-paced, post-apocalyptic story that reads like a cross between Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and M. T. Anderson’s Feed.  The book explores colonization, racism, religious extremism, and the idea that just knowing about something ethically wrong, but not acting to right it, makes one complicit in the crime.  Does that sound too philosophical?  Don’t worry-I promise you won’t want to put this book down.  Not only is it a compelling story,  it is also a graphically interesting book.  The Noise of different villagers is depicted with distinct fonts, and the spelling of Todd’s words and thoughts is quite phonetic, rather than conventional.  Plus, if you really loved it, there are already two more out in the series, which is called Chaos Walking. The second installment is The Ask and the Answer and the final book is Monsters of Men.

This book was short-listed for the Carnegie award and was also recognized by Booklist, among others.  I found it a nice change from the technology-heavy dystopian novels out there, and loved the creative presentation of the Noise.  I hope you like it!

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.patrickness.com

Ness, Patrick. The Knife of Never Letting Go. Candlewick Press: Somerville, MA, 2008. 479 pp. Ages 14 and up.

If you liked the conspiracy theory part of this book, you would probably like M. T. Anderson’s Feed.  For a suspenseful futuristic escape story that also explores issues of racism and colonialism, try Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion. It’s amazing!

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

“The air was thick and tasted of metal.  I was deafened by the roar of a hundred Singer sewing machines.  Dark heads were bent over each one.  No one looked up; they only fed reams of cloth through the machines, racing from piece to piece without pausing to cut off the connecting thread.  Almost all the seamstresses had their hair up, although some strands had escaped and were plastered to the sides of their necks and cheeks by the sweat.  They wore air filters over their mouths.  There was a film of dirty red dust on the filters, the color of meat exposed to air for too long.”

Kimberly and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when Kim is only eleven.  Her mother takes a position at a sweatshop, working for relatives who helped with her immigration papers.  In order to make payments on the debt they owe for the immigration assistance and still have enough money for food, even Kimberly must work in the factory after school.

For years, they live in squalor, squatting illegally in an unheated, roach-infested building.   Because of the nature of their work (they are paid-illegally-for each skirt they finish, rather than an hourly wage), Kimberly and her mother calculate the prices of all their purchases in skirts.  A dress for graduation is 1,500 skirts. A gift for a friend is 133.  Determined to improve their living conditions, Kimberly works hard at school, gradually learning English and soaring to the top of her class.  Her scholastic abilities earns her an unprecedented full scholarship to a prestigious private school, where she struggles to keep up with the classwork while concealing her poverty from her classmates.

This story is an Alex award winner! Alex awards are given to books that aren’t necessarily written for young adults, but may be especially appealing to them.  I’ve always been partial to Alex winners, and I was hoping this one had been nominated, too.  I’m glad to see it won!  The story is compelling; expect chilling descriptions of a workplace injury and page after page of a poverty so extreme that it is hard to imagine. I was genuinely sickened when I read about Kimberly’s apartment, and how she would sleep on the side of the bed nearest the wall, because she was less afraid of mice than her mother was, and wanted to give her the small gift of a more restful sleep by taking the spot nearer the mice .    There were many tender moments between Kimberly and her mother; I loved the portrayal of their relationship.  They were genuinely protective of each other and clung together in a threatening and confusing world.

Not only does this book explore issues that are often misunderstood or not discussed, like sweatshop labor, illegal immigration, and extreme poverty, but it is also very well-written.  The characters are realistically portrayed, and Kimberly’s storytelling changes and matures as she ages.  I picked it up and was reading it even while I followed my sister around at the grocery store; I just didn’t want to stop.  Even better: the author, Jean Kwok, was born in Hong Kong, immigrated to Brooklyn, and worked with her family in a sweatshop as a child.  While this book is fiction, it was inspired by her real-life experiences.  If you’d like to know which parts of the story really happened, you can check out the FAQs on her website.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://jeankwok.net/index.shtml

Kwok, Jean. Girl in Translation. Riverhead Books: New York, 2010. 303 pp. Ages 14 and up.

If you liked the description of Kimberly’s experiences living in a new country, and you are an older reader, you might like Shanghai Girls by Lisa See.  Younger readers who are interested in the experiences of Chinese-Americans could try the amazing graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese.  For another portrayal of the grueling work immigrants often do, younger readers might like Esperanza RisingThis is one of my favorite genres to read, and if you’d like more recommendations (or if you have some yourself), please let me know!

Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

“Every fairy tale, it seems, concludes with the bland phrase ‘happily ever after’. Yet every couple I’ve ever known would agree that nothing about marriage is forever happy.  There are moments of bliss, to be sure, and lengthy spans of satisfied companionship.  Yet these come at no small effort, and the girl who reads such fiction dreaming her troubles will end ere she departs the altar is well advised to seek at once a rational woman to set her straight.”

Ben’s parents were assassinated and she ends up as a charge of Queen Sophia, who is determined to shape Ben into the image of proper royalty.  This means diets, dancing, needlework, and genteel conversation, and Ben wants none of it.  As a result of her truculence, Ben is relegated to a locked tower.  Rather than give in to despair or decide to comply meekly,  she begins teaching herself magic.  At night, she practices her craft, trying to gain enough skill to escape.  Her secret lessons are put into use when the kingdom is threatened by a neighboring country, and the fate of the nation rests on her knowledge and skills.

I am constantly searching for fairy tale retellings that do not favor beauty over character, and uphold marriage as the ultimate goal for young women, and I’ve finally found one!  Ben is overweight, though the descriptions of her body are neutral, rather than shaming, and her body never approaches the stereotypical ideal throughout the course of the novel.  (I am always heartbroken when authors begin with a character who is not traditionally beautiful, but she transforms during the story, leaving us with the ultimate message that being conventionally pretty is still necessary for a happy life.)  Even though Ben is taken captive and spends two months as a prisoner of war on a starvation diet, she never becomes slender; I like this nod to the idea of a set weight point for each body, and the acknowledgment that diets do not work.  (Did you know that only five percent of all dieters are able to keep the weight off permanently?  But if businesses can use advertisements to make women feel ashamed of their bodies, they will still spend lots of money on diet products, even if 95 percent of them will not be able to lose weight long-term.)

Furthermore, Ben discusses her marriage with the most straightforward feminist speech that I’ve ever read in a young adult book, and I am so grateful to the author for it!  This book is a treasure: it strikes the right balance of magical fairy tale elements, well-rounded characters, and creative plotting, and the message it sends about beauty and self-reliance is refreshing.  Look for dragons, political intrigue, a hilarious commentary on the odiferous nature of adventures, and a reversal of the kiss-the-unconscious-princess-and-love-will-wake-her-up trope. Though Ben does seem overwhelmingly, unilaterally grumpy and spoiled in the first sections of the book, she develops into a multifaceted, realistic character in the second half of the book, and it’s worth pushing through the crankiness.  Final awesome thing?  The full title of the book: Princess Ben: Being a Wholly Truthful Account of her Various Discoveries and Misadventures, Recounted to the Best of her Recollection, in Four Parts.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.catherinemurdock.com/cm/home.html

Murdock, Catherine Gilbert. Princess Ben. Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 2008. 344 pp. Ages 14-18.

If you liked this book, I think you’d love the graphic novel Castle Waiting, for the strong feminist message.  If graphic novels aren’t your thing, though, you would probably like Beauty, Fairest, Everor Ella Enchanted. There are so many good books out there for readers who love fairy tales, but are disheartened by the beauty myth present in so often in them!