Gone, Gone, Gone by Hannah Moskowitz

“He whispers, ‘Want to hear a secret?’

I nod.

‘You’re safe with me anywhere, at all times.’

It turns out, our ‘anywhere’ is the basement, and our ‘at all times’ is the entire day.  We don’t go to school.  We play checkers and make out.  My parents are upstairs watching the news.  And even though it feels like the entire world is freaking out, and even though the entire world is really just our area, and no one else anywhere gives a shit, and they definitely don’t give a shit that there are two boys making out in a basement, that’s what we are, we keep doing it, and there is something sort of beautiful about the fact that we keep doing that even now that we know it’s not what the world is about.

If I could take all the machine guns in the world and bend them into hearts, I totally totally would, even if I got grazed by bullets in the process, which knowing me I probably would, because I’m a little bit of a klutz, but Lio thinks I’m cute.”

A year after 9/11, a sniper is targeting inhabitants of the D.C. area.  Parents are keeping children home from school, and people hurry to their cars after leaving the grocery store or bank.  Everyone is uneasy, hunkered down and hoping for the threat to pass and leave loved one unharmed.  In the midst of it all, Craig and Lio find each other.  Craig’s exuberant nature and generosity help Lio forget about his dead twin, the specter of cancer that still haunts him, and his estranged mother.  Reflective, calm Lio patiently searches the entire city for Craig’s lost menagerie, a motley collection of pets that escaped during a break-in earlier in the year.  However, both boys are frightened and have suffered great losses in their past; being vulnerable is a true challenge for the pair, especially during such frightening times.

This is a story about untidy, realistic love in an unpredictable world.  In that aspect, I feel like it is an incarnation of Every Story Ever Told, and I love Hannah Moskowitz for it.  The text is full of sad-sweet details that instantly disarm the reader, such as Lio’s patchwork-dyed, multicolored hair.  Instead of maintaining such an off-putting hairstyle out of rebellion, Lio does it because he does not want to look like his twin, who died of cancer.  Craig’s big brother still lives at home, quietly working the night shift at a suicide hotline and looking after the family.  Details like that give the story depth, without feeling manipulative or precious.  As Lio and Craig negotiate their various issues against a backdrop of a world that seems to have lost all sense, a quiet optimism emerges in the text.  Yes, the book seems to say, the world is awful sometimes, and our families and loved ones aren’t always what we hope. But somehow it is going to be ok.

I loved this book for several important reasons, but the primary one is the author’s treatment of ethnicity and queerness.  This is a post-race, post-queer book, in which there is no need for coming out, and the characters’ ethnicities are mentioned only briefly and in passing.  This is not a story about an African-American character falling in love with a Caucasian character, nor a story about a gay boy who falls in love with another gay boy.  Instead, it’s just about love.  Furthermore, the book acknowledges something that adults often find uncomfortable: the  depth and intensity of feelings young people experience.  The story affords young readers dignity, validating their relationships and emotions, and I like that very much.

Oh, please read this! It’s such a beautiful and tender story. I really think you’ll like it!

Happy reading!

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

Moskowitz, Hannah. Gone, Gone, Gone. Simon Pulse: New York, 2012. 251 pp. Ages 15 and up.

You might also want to try Brooklyn, Burning, With or Without You or The Perks of Being a WallflowerThey have queer content and also the same “feel” to them!

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A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I do not often come walking, boy, the monster said, only for matters of life and death. I expect to be listened to.

The monster loosened its grip, and Conor could breathe again. ‘So what do you want with me?’ Conor asked.

The monster gave an evil grin. The wind died down and a quiet fell. At last, said the monster. To the matter at hand. The reason I have come walking.

Conor tensed, suddenly dreading what was coming.

Here is what will happen, Conor O’Malley, the monster continued, I will come to you again on further nights.

Conor felt his stomach clench, like he was preparing for a blow.

And I will tell you three stories.  Three tales from when I walked before.

At 12:07 every night since Conor’s mother took a turn for the worse, the monster comes to visit.  Looking like an enormous yew tree, and leaving trails of spiky leaves on Conor’s bedroom floor, he demands something of the young man.  In trade for three of his stories, Conor must tell his own.

But he cannot do it.  Even though the ancient monster is terrifying, full of magic older than time, even though Conor is not even sure he has a choice, he is too afraid.  He is more frightened of revealing his own nightmare than of anything the monster could do.  However, when he begins to believe that telling the truth will somehow heal his mother, from the cancer ravaging her body, he musters up the courage to share the truth of his worst nightmare with the monster.

Just like The Book of Lost Things, this is a story about sickness, the isolating nature of grief and fear, and the place of stories in our lives.  The book was inspired by an idea from the award-winning author, Siobhan Dowd, who passed away before the story could be written.  Patrick Ness, the author of The Knife of Never Letting Go picked up her torch and, with illustrator Jim Kay, created a book that you won’t soon forget.  The story is messy, in much the same way that life is.  Sometimes, our loved ones do not heal, despite the hope we have.  We make harmful choices.  Our friends betray us, and we do the same to them.  However, that is the appeal of the story:  I loved this book not only for its haunting illustrations, but also for its honesty.

Happy Reading!

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

Ness, Patrick. A Monster Calls. Candlewick: Somerville, 2011. 205 pp. Ages 12 and up.

If you are a younger reader and trying to find books about loved ones with serious illnesses, Notes from the Dog is a good place to start.  If you are older, you might want to try The Fault in Our Stars.  If the story-telling part was what you loved about this book (and you’re a younger reader) The Neverending Story is a classic book about the importance of stories.  If you’re older, and some gruesome bits do not upset you, The Book of Lost Things is my very, very favorite.

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

“My sister, Lynn, taught me my first word: kira-kira. I pronounced it ka-a-ahhh, but she knew what I meant. Kira-kira means “glittering” in Japanese.  Lynn told me that when I was a baby, she used to take me onto our empty road at night, where we would lie on our backs and look at the stars while she said over and over, ‘Katie, say ‘kira-kira, kira-kira.‘ I loved that word!”

Katie is convinced that her sister Lynn is both a genius and the kindest girl in the world. Lynn’s world is kira-kira, from her dreams of living by the California sea, to her practice of making both “selfish” and “unselfish” wishes at night. When they move from a small Japanese enclave in the Midwest to racially-homogenous Georgia, Lynn teaches Katie about the reasons why people sometimes stare at them, or make them use different doors or hotel rooms reserved for “Colored Only”.  Rather than disheartening the sisters, racism and hardships only strengthen the bond between them.  However, when Lynn becomes seriously ill, her family is shattered, beyond broken-hearted.  Katie must draw from Lynn’s lessons about hope and hard work in order to help keep her family going.

This book is a Newbery Medal winner for a reason.  I’m starting to notice some important elements that appear in outstanding books.  The big award winners seem to have these in common: 1. They deal with the Big Issues: ethics, death/suffering, human nature, and love-universal human experiences. 2.  The characters are complex, with both flaws and positive traits. Their actions seem to make sense in context; that is, you can understand their motivations. 3. The book has another Special Bit about it-maybe a stunningly creative plot, or perhaps a story told from a character whose voice has not been represented before in the literary world.  Now, that’s just my informal assessment, but it certainly does apply in this case.

Kira-Kira‘s simple language belies its complexity.  The story is one exploring racism, poverty, and serious illness.  Lynn’s sickness, when juxtaposed against the backdrop of her parents’ brutal factory labor and the family’s poverty, could sink the entire book into a tragic mire and we would all cry ourselves sick.  While it is heartbreaking, of course, the story is lightened with humorous stories and Lynn’s gentle optimism; that’s what makes it so special.  It’s no Pollyanna-readers can smell that business a mile away-but it manages to address the horrors of disease at an age-appropriate, un-sugar-coated level.  It is like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars: it slaps you in the heart with scary things, and then teaches you how some people have handled it.  It’s part guidebook, part story-and what a lovely story! The sisters give up their weekly candy in order to help secretly save money for a house.  They are sent to school in pin curls, the likes of which no one in Georgia has ever seen.  Lynn is a chess genius, beating her uncle repeatedly in a book-long series of games.  There is chicken-sexing (yes, it’s a real job), unionizing, and rice balls! And for the educators out there, the book includes one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful reader’s guides I’ve come across yet.

Happy Reading!

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

Kadohata, Cynthia. Kira-Kira. Simon and Schuster: New York, 2004.244 pp. Ages 10-14.

If you liked this book because of the experiences of of minority characters in the past, you might like one of my absolute favorite books: In the Year of the Boar and Jackie RobinsonIt was published in 1986, so I know it might be a little dated, but does that matter when it is set in a previous time period, anyway?  Plus, it’s incredible. Also, you should check out Cynthia Kadohata’s other books-I can’t wait to read them! If you are looking for books that deal with serious illness (and journaling-something Lynn loves to do!) , you might try Notes from the Dog by Gary Paulsen.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

“‘There will come a time,’ I said, ‘when all of us are dead.  All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything.  There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you.  Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this’-I gestured encompassingly-‘will have been for naught.  Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever.  There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after.  And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it.  God knows that’s what everyone else does.'”

Hazel Grace is sixteen years old and terminally ill.  Not in the for-literary-convenience-and-there-will-be-a-miraculous-cure-before-the-book-ends sort of way, either.  She is in love with Gus, another teenager whose body has been ravaged by cancer.  They met at the Cancer Kid Support Group-the one they both attend in order to placate their parents. But that’s really not the important part of this story.

The important part is this:  Hazel’s favorite book is An Imperial Affliction, written by an author who has secluded himself  since the novel’s publication.  However, it has a hanging ending, and Hazel needs to know what happens.  She and Gus plan a trip to Amsterdam, where the author lives, in order to find out the rest of the story.

Honestly, though: that’s not the important part, either.  The reason this book is so special is because it talks to you as though you are a human being, mature enough to handle the (terrifying) prospect of contemplating the big questions: death, injustice, the purpose of being a human.  There is a lot of philosophy in this novel, but it’s not pretentious, and definitely not boring.  John Green, the author, respects you enough to believe that you are capable of thinking about big and scary things.  There are diagrams, too! I love when authors do that.

This book is like a Guide for Being a Person.  It will break your heart, but you’ll be glad you read it.  (Also, please don’t assume it is one of those sappy dying-romantics story.  It’s all right if that’s your  thing, but this book is definitely not like that.)

Happy Reading!

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

Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. New York: Dutton, 2012. 318 pp.  Ages 16 and up.

Here’s what I told a friend about the awesomeness that is this book:

“In the book I’m reading: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Shakespeare, Kirkegaard [don’t panic, friends-I can never remember his theories and had to look them up yet again],  Heidegger, ‘I don’t think defeatism is honest…I refuse to accept that’, the concept of pure forms, the battle between positivists and humanists, and this amazing narrative parallel between a book with a hanging ending (in the story) and what I am wondering will be an actual hanging ending.
And it’s for teenagers.
I never, ever want to hear that YA lit isn’t real reading.”

So, if this book crawls into your brain and won’t leave you alone, I think you’ll like A. S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz.  There are charts! And ghosts! And this is another book that doesn’t talk down to you.  Also, you could try Looking for Alaska, an earlier book by John Green that is just as deep and wonderful.

I can’t wait to see what awards this book wins.  It’s already on a billion bestseller lists.

Punkzilla by Adam Rapp

“Man my stomach feels twisted in knots.  I just hope I get to Memphis ok so I can see you P. My hand is mad killing me too so I’m going to end this letter.

I just heard an announcement that we’re getting close to some place in Idaho where we’ll get like a half hour to walk around and get something to eat.

Maybe that lady with the shower cap will give me another cigarette if I’m nice to her? Maybe I should tell her my name is Shirley?

Love,

Jamie

P.S. I can’t believe you’re dying.  Please don’t die.”

Jamie, or Punkzilla, as his friends call him, has to get to Memphis.  His older brother, Peter, is dying of cancer.  Peter wrote and sent him enough money for a Greyhound ticket to visit.  So Jamie leaves the streets of Portland, and sets out across the country, trying to make it to Memphis before Peter’s death.  Jamie writes Peter throughout the journey, carefully documenting the entire trip for him, in a series of unmailed letters crammed in a fat notebook.

It’s quite a trip, too: stories of being jumped in the bus station bathroom, being mistaken for a girl repeatedly, losing his virginity, musings on his history of petty crime, God, and the nature of the world, and wrenching descriptions of hunger and loneliness fill the epistles.  The tales are frequently seamy (Peter admonishes Jamie to be honest, and not hold anything back in the letters), and the sheer danger of the situation is apparent.  Jamie has some chilling run-ins with child predators, and puts himself at risk of harm repeatedly.

That said, there is a distinct buoyancy to the letters:  Punkzilla’s disarming tone evokes Charlie’s voice in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  In fact, there are a lot of similarities between the two works: the epistolary form, the intimacy that first person narrative creates, the outcasted speakers, the brutal honesty of the letters.  I instantly adored Jamie (just like I felt about Charlie!), and I love the way Rapp uses filler words and little punctuation and creative grammar to craft Jamie’s voice.  It’s really great, and creates this perfect image of a skinny kid, trying to be street smart, gone AWOL from military school and on the way to visit his dying brother.

This book is a Printz honor book!  Please check it out! I read it in two hours, as my mom and I were driving through the blazing white heat of New Mexico, as she moved me back home to wait for my Canadian visa to come through.  I was alternately crying over leaving my friends and panicking over the future, but the experience of reading such a great road trip book while I was actually on a road trip was incredible.  Come on, guys! Get in your cars (or on your bicycles/llamas/covered wagons/flying batboats) and let’s go on a trip-and take this awesome book with you!

Happy Reading!

Rapp, Adam.  Punkzilla. Candlewick Books: Somerville, 2009. 244 pp.  Ages 15 and up.  Drugs, sex (including abuses of power by adults), violence, and general mischief.