True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff

True Believer“Well, my plan from before

looks so scrimpy now.

It looked so big when I was a littler girl.

It was I was going to go to college

and get a job, get out of here

and not live with garbage and stink on my street

and nasty criminals in the neighborhood,

shooting.”

LaVaughn is fifteen years old and lives with her mother in a dangerous, dilapidated apartment complex.  Sometimes gunshots wake them in the night, and shootings happen at her school, too.  LaVaughn’s got a plan, though: she knows the only way to a safer, happier life is her education.  However, her plan is really the only non-confusing thing in her life.  Her  best friends have changed, putting all their belief into a life that LaVaughn doesn’t want for herself. Her mother is dating a new man, all these years after her father died.  Also,  LaVaughn’s handsome neighbor Jody is back again, and she needs to sort out just how she feels about it all.

This novel is written in free verse, and you won’t believe it’s written by a grown-up.  Virginia Euwer Wolff portrays the uncertainty and anxiety of being a teenager with stream-of-consciousness poetry, which reads just like you are listening to LaVaughn’s thoughts.  Even though this is the second novel of a trilogy, the story is complete on its own and you won’t have any trouble following what is going on.  Now, there are several special things about this book.  First, I am often suspicious of stories like this, about inner-city teenagers trying to succeed against seemingly-insurmountable odds.  I find that stories like this often seem to gloss over the obstacles in place, and suggest that anything can be achieved through sheer willpower.  That seems unrealistic to me, and also didactic, as though it is telling us the magical formula for success, and implying that everyone who doesn’t succeed has simply not tried hard enough.  But LaVaughn’s story isn’t like this at all; it doesn’t talk down to you or minimize the oppressive situation.  Furthermore, Wolff’s portrayal of LaVaughn’s friends is compassionate, no matter what their situation.  Also great:  Jody.  I can’t spoil anything, but Jody’s situation and the way it is treated is really outstanding, and definitely National Book Award-worthy. You’ll love this one!

Happy Reading!

Wolff, Virginia Euwer. True Believer. Simon Pulse: New York, 2001.264 pp. Ages 14-18.

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

This book is the second in the Make Lemonade trilogy, though it is perfectly okay to read it on its own.  If you want to read the first one, it’s called Make LemonadeThe third one is This Full House.  If you’d like to read other stories about young people struggling to finish school against the odds, you will probably like Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok.  Home of the Brave is another verse novel, and is about a young refugee going to school in Minnesota, so while the plot is slightly different, the format is similar.

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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!