Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

Jasper-Jones“‘It’s through here,’ he says.

‘What? What is?’

‘You’ll see it, Charlie.  Shit.  You’ll’ve wished you dint, but you’ll see it.  it’s not too late but.  Are you sure you’re gonna help me?’

‘Can’t you just tell me? What is it? What’s through there?’

‘I can’t.  I can’t, mate. But I can trust you, Charlie.  I reckon I can trust you.’

It isn’t a question, but it seems like one.

And I believe if I were anyone else, I would choose to step back and turn away right now…I would never look past Jasper Jones to reveal  his secret.”

Jasper Jones is Corrigan’s Troubled Boy: alternately beaten and neglected by his alcoholic father, notorious for petty theft and truancy.  Charlie is bright, uncoordinated, and not-so-popular; he and Jasper occupy opposite ends of the social universe. So when Jasper shows up at Charlie’s window in the middle of the night, Charlie is stunned enough to follow him into the woods without question.  Jasper needs Charlie’s help, and what he shows him  in the forest will change everything. In that hot summer, right in the middle of the Vietnam War, Jasper’s secret becomes Charlie’s secret.Jasper Jones

 As the summer progresses, the two try to conceal what they know as the town reels in shock.  The tragedy exposes Corrigan’s ugly underbelly; racial tension reaches a fever pitch and paranoia reigns.  Charlie tries to quell his rising panic, avoid angering his volatile mother, and awkwardly manage his first love.  It’s a summer of change, of lies exposed, and painful truths realized.

This Australian novel is a riveting combination of mystery, excellent writing, and Big Questions; it’s no wonder it was a 2012 Printz honor book.  The Vietnam War setting offers the perfect backdrop to explore matters of race and prejudice, and the tragedy exposes a multitude of ugly secrets in a town where everything looks nice on the surface.  Jasper’s philosophizing on human nature, evil, and fear is well-crafted and sticks with you long after you finish the story.  This is one of those rare books that pulls you in with a thriller and leaves you thinking about life and death.  Also, enjoy the literary references and sentence-crafting; Silvey’s masterful writing makes this so much more than just a plot-driven mystery novel.

Happy Reading!

Silvey, Craig. Jasper Jones. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2009. 312 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, you might like these:

Everybody Sees the Ants

Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4

Nothing (this is one of my favorites!)

Paper Covers Rock

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Shine by Lauren Myracle

“I closed the crawl space door.  I got to my feet and brushed myself off.  My chest was tight, but I looked at the blue sky, clear and pale above the tree line, and said out loud, ‘Fine, I’ll do it.’ I would speak for Patrick.  I’d look straight into the ugliness and find out who hurt him, and when I did, I’d yell it from the mountaintop.”

Patrick Truman was brutalized: beaten with a baseball bat, tied up, and abandoned with the nozzle of a gas pump in his mouth.  He lies unconscious in a North Carolina hospital, and police are treating his case as a hate crime, due in part to the slurs left scrawled on his chest in blood.  When it looks like the blame is going to be pinned on a drunken truckload of out-of-towners, Cat takes matters into her own hands.  She, for one, isn’t so sure; she suspects one of the local “redneck posse” is behind the crime.    Either way, she is determined to bring justice to her friend, and begins probing the town of Black Creek for its secrets.

It isn’t very often that I find a book that makes me cry on the subway, but this one certainly did it.  Lauren Myracle gives us a southern small town simmering with tension, secrets, and fierce family loyalties.  There is poverty; meth and alcoholism contribute to the futureless drifting of the town’s youth, but there are also deep wells of grace and redemption.  Furthermore, it’s a darn good mystery, something that I think is all too rare in the young adult literary world.  Better still, Myracle does not (this is not really a spoiler, I promise) just end the book with “oh, it was the drunk rednecks who did it”.  She could have, of course, but it would be doing something similar to anyone who has ever attributed the actions of an individual to that of a broader group.  In short, she doesn’t bend to prejudice.

So we have sixteen-year-old Cat, a broken, bleeding Patrick, and a mess of lies and a whole town of people who are short on hope, in the hands of a very gifted storyteller.  This is my final conference book, and I chose it because 1) It is a mystery and 2) Patrick has been out for ages, and there are those who accept and love him, and those who do not.  That’s pretty much how it goes down when a person comes out.  I have to say, this book was one of the hardest I’ve ever read, but also one of the ones that I feel needs to be read, not just by queer teens, but by everyone.

Happy Reading!  (All right, so there are parts in it that will probably make you happy, but also some parts that might make you want to throw up, but I promise, it’s worth it.)

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

Myracle, Lauren.  Shine. New York: Abrams, 2011. 359 pp.  Ages 16 and up.  (If you’re using this for a classroom, be prepared to defend this book; the language is pretty rough and there’s drug abuse, violence, and a brief instance of sexual abuse.  That said, I think it is absolutely worth the attempt.)

If you liked this book, you might want to try Sprout by Dale Peck, or The Christopher Killer by Alane Ferguson.

Also, you might have noticed I listed this book as a National Book Award finalist; and it was, for two days.  The awards committee messed up royally, offered Myracle the award, and then said they made a mistake.  She handled the fiasco with grace, and I’m including the tag as a sign of respect.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

“Because with Charlie, nothing was ever easy. Everything was windswept and octagonal and finger-combed.  Everything was difficult and odd, and the theme songs all had minor chords.”

Vera’s former best friend Charlie is dead.  It’s hard enough when your best friend dies, she thinks, but when he stabs you in the back and then dies, it makes things infinitely worse.  Worse still, when he comes back to haunt you, with his ghostly form showing up in the car when you’re kissing another guy, or in the bathroom at school, it is the absolute pits.

Vera is eighteen, living with her father (you will love him, I think.  He’s pretty much the Best. Dad. Ever!), an accountant and recovering alcoholic who invests his whole heart in making sure she has the best future possible.  She works full time at a pizza place, and spends the rest of her time drinking to forget Charlie and the secret she is determined not to tell.  Of course, it’s not as easy as all that-Charlie’s ghost keeps showing up at inopportune times, a silent, shaming reminder urging Vera to tell what she knows and clear his name.

The best part of this book?  The format!  See, the story is told in a creative way-all first person, addressed right to you, and by different speakers.  I think readers will love Ken Dietz, Vera’s dad.  He chimes in during the story, in chapters titled things like “A Brief Word from Ken Dietz (Vera’s Frustrated Dad)” and with flow charts, like “Ken Dietz’s Face Your Shit Flow Chart”.  I kid you not, I actually made a copy of that flowchart and pasted it up on my bulletin board.  And besides Ken and Vera (and even Charlie, who pipes up every few chapters), there is the Pagoda.  That’s right, a building.  The Pagoda is a park building with special significance to Ken and his ex-wife (she left them when Vera was 12), and it gets a few chapters of its own. Trust me, the Pagoda is hilarious-I think it’s the best and funniest part of the novel.

This book combines creative elements (a haunting, a mystery, a talking Pagoda) with a great format (many voices, FLOW CHARTS!), and very common social problems of young people.  I think you’re going to love it! (And others did, too-this is a Printz Honor book, and a nominee for the Edgar Allen Poe mystery award!)

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.as-king.com/ (The website is really funny-the giant header describes her as “a corn lover” and “wearer of magical writing pants”. Awesome!)

All right, folks, since I’m in library school now, I think I’ll change the way I give the book information.  If you hate it, please let me know, and I’ll change it back!

ISBN 9780375865862
0375865861
Personal Author King, A. S.1970-
Title Please ignore Vera Dietz /A.S. King.
Edition 1st ed.
Publication info New York : Alfred A. Knopf, c2010.
Physical descrip 326 p. ; 22 cm.

Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn

“I wanted to talk, wanted to tell Tom everything, things I’d never told him or anyone.  Not only about my father, but about me and Cat, that sometimes I felt so out of control with her.  But about my father too, how afraid I was of becoming like him.”

Nick is a wealthy teenager, with the cars and clothes to match, and a life that seems pretty perfect on the outside.  But now, he’s in court, slapped with a restraining order and mandatory anger management classes.  He’s there because he beat his girlfriend.  He blackened her eye and bloodied her nose.  Before that, he hurled insults, manipulated her emotions and demanded her compliance.  He made her afraid.  Now, he’s telling the story in a series of journal entries required by his anger management counselor.

It’s an all-too-common refrain: Nick learned violence at the feet of his father, who, in turn, learned it from his.  To his own grief, Nick cannot seem to control his anger, and takes it out on his lovely girlfriend, Caitlin.   The book explores his complicated emotions: he is terrified of losing her, wracked with inadequacies, hates himself for hurting her, and feels compelled to keep her close by attempting to control who she sees, what she wears, and where she goes.  On top of all that, he is trying to hide his own father’s abuse from his friends and teachers.

Oh, friends! This was a tremendously wrenching read for me! Nick’s honesty is raw, and his recounting of the abuse is brutal.  I was up at midnight last night, crying over some of the horrible things he said to poor Caitlin, and then crying even more because you can’t just write him off as a horrible person and hate him.  That’s the genius of this book:  Alex Flinn reveals Nick’s inner thoughts and motivations for his behavior. He’s multi-dimensional, rather than just abusing his girlfriend because he gets pleasure from her pain.  He’s not a straight-up monster.  That’s not how it works.  He is an abused teenager who does not know how to stop the cycle.  It’s heart-breaking.  It’s realistic.  And it is so, so painful.

This is not a long book, but the intensity of the voice was so hard for me to take that I spent a few days reading it.  This book falls into one of those categories like Laurie Halse Anderson’s books Wintergirls or Speak: they are hard to read because of the trauma and the grief they call up in the reader.  That’s powerful writing!  And because of that, Breathing Underwater won the ALA Best Books and Quick Pick awards, and about a huge list of other honors, too.  It’s not easy (emotionally) to read, but it’s worth it, and we should all be grateful there are authors willing to tackle difficult subjects from every perspective.

Alex Flinn has written a sequel, Diva, from Caitlin’s perspective.  It (and every other book she has written!) is on my to-read list.   I’ll let you know!  And if you have copies of any of them, please send them my way!

Happy Reading!

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

Flinn, Alex. Breathing Underwater. New York: HarperTeens, 2001. 279 pp.  Ages 14 and up.

Impulse by Ellen Hopkins

“Pray

you could somehow stop

the uncertainty, somehow

stop the loathing,

somehow stop the pain.

Act

on your impulse

swallow the bottle,

cut a little deeper,

put the gun to your chest.”

Before you panic about that quote, I’ll explain:  it’s a description of past events, even though in the excerpt I realized it can come off as an order.  Don’t worry! It’s not as bad as you think.

Well, it’s pretty bad.  The novel takes place in Aspen Springs, a psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents.  Vanessa, Connor, and Tony have all attempted suicide, and meet in the ward.  Vanessa has bipolar disorder, like her mother, and cuts herself when she cannot cope with her emotions.  Connor, even though he looks like the perfect, all-American star student, feels isolated in his own family, as though he were an object instead of a son.  And Tony has spiraled into the depths of despair after his mentor dies of AIDS.   In the hospital, the three begin the lengthy process of sorting through years of pain and fear, searching for the combination of medication and therapy that will help them emerge into the sunlight again.

The three main characters take turns relating their own experiences in the novel: the speaker is identified at the beginning of each chapter, or whenever the speaker changes.  Since the characters are all so fragile and desperately unhappy, it is (like Hopkins’ other works) a raw, harrowing novel.  I had to take frequent breaks when reading it.  The voices are so gripping that you feel them reach out of the book and suck you in.  I actually found it to be so intense as to be overwhelming.

That said, this is Ellen Hopkins.  That’s her style: she wields her words like a surgeon’s knife, slicing away at any extraneous padding in a story.  There’s no sugar-coating here, that’s for sure.  It’s an undeniably grueling read, but even as I was sickened and horrified about the experiences, feelings, and memories of the characters, there was a part of me that was able to stand back from the story and recognize the skill of the writer.

The three-voice-narrative was especially genius, I think.  Because of the emotionally intense, introspective nature of a person going through a life-threatening emotional crisis, a single narrator could telescope the story in on itself, and make the entire novel too centered around tortured ruminations of the sad mind.  But with three different characters telling the story, Hopkins anchors the story, and keeps it from being an unbroken personal manifesto of misery.

Oh, what can I say here?  The topics are rough: sexual abuse, drugs, self-injury, abortion, and suicide, all described in graphic, but poetic language.  However, Hopkins takes this dark side of the self and humanizes it, makes it understandable.  She also refuses to tie up the story with a neat “happily ever after” bow, too, which is something I really appreciate.  One gets the feeling that, to Hopkins, her audience is street-smart enough not to swallow a syrupy ending.  There’s this underlying feeling of respect for her readers: she speaks to them as though they were adults.  I think this one is definitely worth a read.  (And the ALA thinks so, too: this book is an ALA Best Book winner!)

Happy Reading!

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

Hopkins, Ellen. Impulse.  New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007. 666 pp.  Ages 16 and up.  And while your 16-year-old is reading it, stick around for the tough questions that may come up.

A Small Free Kiss in the Dark by Glenda Millard

“Once, when I lived with my dad, some boys asked me to play with them at school.  They were playing war and asked me whose side I wanted to go on: the Americans or the Enemy.  I said I wanted to go on the other side.

‘Whaddya mean?’ they asked. ‘There’s only two sides: the Americans or the Enemy.’

‘My dad says there’s three sides.’

“Who’s on the third side?’

‘All the people who don’t believe in war.  Dad says there’s more on the third side than the other two sides put together, but the ones on the third side don’t have weapons.'”

Skip is an abused 12-year-old, a runaway trying to escape the beatings at his foster home.  He’s an artist, too, creating chalk  drawings that make other people stop and gape in astonishment.   He dreams of having a place to plant a garden, with a lily pond like Monet used to look at.  But his biggest wish is for a family, some stability, something to hold on to.  He’s got Billy, an arthritic homeless man who looks after him.  They share food and stories and try to find a shelter that will let them stay together.  But Skip’s never sure if he will wake up and Billy will be gone, just like his own father disappeared long ago.

When war breaks out, Billy and Skip try to shelter in the public library.  Under a table, clinging to a notebook, they find Max, a terrified six-year-old.  He heard someone talking about “weapons of max destruction” and thought they were coming to get him.  He can’t find his mother, either, and won’t leave the library: she promised she would come back for him.

Eventually, the three make the way out of the worst part of the war-torn region, and take shelter in an abandoned amusement park three hours away.  They try to get by on things they get from stores, but they also don’t want to hoard things, because Billy says it’s important not to be selfish, and to only take what they need.  Soon they’re joined by Tia, a teenage ballerina with a tiny baby.  Together, they try to create an escape plan; Max remembers a house in the country where his grandfather used to live, and if they can make it there, they’ll all be safe.

The best part of this story is Skip’s voice.  He’s sensitive, perceptive, and describes his world with the eye of an artist.  The setting, an abandoned amusement park, and the interesting characters make this book a little treasure.  At once, it’s a story about war, family, and human resilience.

Happy Reading!

This isn’t the author’s website, but it’s her thoughts on writing the book:

http://www.allenandunwin.com/default.aspx?page=626

Millard, Glenda. A Small Free Kiss in the Dark. New York: Holiday House, 2009.  180 pp.  Grades 6-9.