Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King

Image“I try to keep my mouth shut because the ants are telling me: Stay safe, Lucky Linderman.  Keep your mouth shut. But I talk anyway.  ‘My mother is a squid, so we have to come here because Dave and Jodi have a pool, and my mother has to swim several hours a day or else, as a squid, she will die.  My father has to stay in Pennsylvania because he is a turtle and can’t face anything other than boneless chicken breasts and organic vegetables.

My ninja is smiling at me. ‘You mom is a squid?’

‘Psychologically, yes.’

‘And your dad is a turtle.’

‘Right.’

‘What does that make you?’ she asks.

‘I don’t know yet.’

Lucky Linderman has masterminded a survival plan: Operation Don’t Smile Ever.  It started after his survey project, in which he asked his classmates how they would kill themselves if they could.  The thing is, everyone freaked out and now the school officials think he’s “troubled”.  Combined with a dad who is always working at his restaurant, a mom who would rather swim than engage with humans, and Nader’s incessant bullying, Lucky’s not so sure he has much to smile about anyway.  Oh, and the ants: he also sees an ever-present line of ants who like to comment on everything he does.  As if a squid mom and turtle dad aren’t weird enough.

And that’s without the nightmares.  See, his grandfather is a POW/MIA, a prisoner of war, missing in action.  He went to Vietnam and even his body didn’t come back.  Lucky’s grandma died while pleading for Lucky to find out what happened to him.  But Lucky kind of knows already.  See, he has dreams of Harry, his grandfather.  They’re nightmares, really.  They make traps together, talk about life, and even play Twister.  And from each dream, Lucky carries a memento into real life: a banana sticker, a black headband.  He feels like the dreams have a purpose; he will stop having them when they find his grandfather.

This is a very special book, one that doesn’t ignore the horrific realities of war and the agony of bullying, the feelings of worthlessness and despair that accompany adolescence, or the frustration inherent in being a member of a dysfunctional family unit.  There is no minimization of trauma here, but King shows us a way around the challenges.   Lucky’s story champions the subtle bravery of not throwing in the towel.  It is a novel about what it means to grow up.

We are in the hands of a master storyteller, friends.  We’ve all read books on bullying, on war, on dysfunctional families.  But, I ask you, how many of those books had a line of ants, or dreams that might be real, or a Vagina Monologues ninja in them?  And it’s not just these delightful creative elements that will grab you and suck you in, either.  It is Lucky’s natural voice.  While you’re reading this book, it’s like sitting inside his head.  You’ll look around and say, “Hey! I know this place!” And after you finish this book, I hope you see the ants, too. I hope they’re cheering for you.

A. S. King won the Printz Honor for Please Ignore Vera Dietz, and this book has already gotten starred reviews and the attention of the American Library Association-all for good reason.  I especially love that this book will appeal to reluctant readers (although I do so hate that phrase, because it assumes that people don’t want to read.  No, they just haven’t found the right books yet, I say).  So here, readers-who-might-be-having-a-bit-of-trouble-liking-reading:  this one’s gonna blow your mind.

Happy reading!

Author’s website: http://www.as-king.com

King, A. S. Everybody Sees the Ants. New York: Little, Brown, 2011. 279 pp.  Ages 14 and up.

If you liked this book, I think you’ll love A. S. King’s earlier book, Please Ignore Vera Dietz. Also, you might want to check out Matthew Quick’s Sorta Like A Rock Star and Fat Kid Rules the World by K. L. Going.  They aren’t so much about war or bullying, but they have the same feeling to them.

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Inexcusable by Chris Lynch

“Sometimes you get caught.  Caught up in moments, in the whirlwind of events.  Caught unawares.  It’s just not you but wrong place, wrong time, wrong company can really easily add up to giving people the wrong idea about yourself.  And yet again the way things look drift away from the way things really are.”

Kier is a high school senior, a football player, and what he liked to consider as a “good boy”.  But he’s done something terribly, awfully wrong-something that can’t be undone.  He raped a friend.  He committed date rape on the night of his graduation.

In this short, tense book, Kier sets out to reconcile what he thought of himself-just a good kid, a polite guy, maybe sometimes drinks a little too much, but nothing serious-with what has actually happened.  He might have mixed drugs and alcohol.  He might have followed the example of his father, who’s been drinking since Kier’s mom died.  He might even be spoiled, as one of his sisters says.  However, blaming his actions on drinking and friends is too simplistic, and that’s just what this book explores.  There are even other contributing factors: Kier has rarely heard the word “no” before.  He was emotionally distressed at the time.  He had been able to rationalize previous misbehaviors as “just playing around”. But the title says it all-it’s inexcusable.

Kier’s reasoning is unnerving; the intimate view of his thoughts reveals just how easy it is to believe a story you tell yourself, especially when the truth has the potential to ruin your life.  For almost the entirety of the book, he insists he hasn’t done anything wrong.  While he’s denying everything, he tells us the story. The effect of his self-deception is chilling.

A review on the inside cover of the text suggests reading this book as a companion piece to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a story of rape from a young woman’s perspective.  I think it would be a very good pairing for a high school classroom.  Definitely not fun, but an important topic to address.  Both books force readers to think, rather than automatically categorize actions as either good or bad.  Lynch demonstrates that someone with only the best of motives can still do irreparable harm.  “Furthermore, both books are highly-regarded award-winners; Inexcusable was a National Book Award finalist, as well as an ALA “Best Book”.

Happy Reading!

Lynch, Chris. Inexcusable. Simon & Schuster: New York, 2005. 165 pp.

If you’d like to read another book like this, try Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.  For books about teens who’ve committed grave errors and are now ruminating about them, try Monster by Walter Dean Myers, or After by Amy Efaw.

Getting It by Alex Sanchez

“‘On three conditions,’ Sal continued. ‘First…’ He held up his index finger.  ‘You tell your creep friends here not to give me shit-ever again.’

Carlos felt his throat going dry.  Didn’t Sal realize this was supposed to be a secret?

‘Second…’Sal added another finger.  ‘It’ll cost you six bucks an hour plus expenses.  Believe me, I’m letting you off cheap.  Start by bringing twenty bucks tomorrow.  And most important’-Sal flicked out a third finger-’you help start our school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.’

With the word ‘gay’ all eyes turned to Carlos. He cringed, wanting to crawl beneath the lunch table.

‘Now for your first lesson.’ Sal dabbed a finger across the corner of his own lips. ‘When you’re eating, wipe your mouth.’

Carlos is ashamed that he’s fifteen and still a virgin.  In fact, he’s never even kissed a girl.  To make matters worse, it seems like all his friends are hooking up, and he can’t even get super-hot Roxy to look at him.  What is it?  Is it his broken-out skin, or maybe his over-sized nose or undersized muscles?  While channel-surfing when he can’t sleep, he flips to a show he’s never seen before: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a show where gay men give a sloppy straight man a makeover.  And that’s when his master plan is born:  all he needs to do is convince Sal, a classmate that everyone says is gay, to give him a makeover so he can win Roxy’s heart.  However, Sal drives a hard bargain:  in exchange for the help, Carlos has to agree to help start the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.  In order to do so, Carlos has to face his own prejudices and stand up for his new friend, which isn’t easy when you’re just a teenager trying to fit in.

This is my third book for the Colorado Teen Lit conference at the end of March, and it’s fantastic!  Honestly, this is the book that got me excited enough to overcome my terror about having to stand up in front of my future colleagues and speak for an hour; it’s just so exciting and has such a good message that it’s an honor to present on it.  I chose it because it, like the other conference books, isn’t focused on coming-out.  In this story, Sal is out and supported by his family and close friends, and enjoys a healthy relationship with his boyfriend.  In fact, Sal and his sweetheart are nearly the only example of a functional and loving relationship in the story.  To make matters even more awesome, this book features minority characters, like Into the Beautiful North.  I think both of them point to trends in publishing: more books about queer characters that aren’t only about coming-out, and more books featuring characters belonging to minority groups.  It feels like the literature is opening its arms to teens of all kinds, and it’s pretty beautiful.

You will love this book because it’s very real: Carlos is angry, confused, struggles with his self-esteem and identity.  His biggest worry is finding a girlfriend.  Sometimes he’s an amazing friend, and at other times, he lets his friends down.  In short, he’s written as though he were an actual teenage guy.  Adding to the book’s appeal are the other realistic characters: Carlos’ pa, who sometimes comes off as hyper-masculine and insensitive, and Carlos’ friends, who are all mainly concerned with image and hooking up with girls.  Also, in Sanchez’s world, there are gay characters, straight characters, and those who are in-between or even just not sure yet.  It seems to me like all of the different relationships in the book explore different aspects of love and identity.  Plus, it’s a fast, funny story that doesn’t get mired in cliches. I think you’re going to love it!

Alex Sanchez is a Lambda Literary award winner who has written several other well-received books, such as So Hard to Say, Rainbow Road and Boyfriends with Girlfriends.  Getting It won the Meyer’s Outstanding Book Award, 2nd place in the Latino Book awards, and actually caused a public uproar when it was removed from the New York Public Library’s summer reading list.  Patrons staged protests and succeeded in getting the book put back on the reading list.  Awesome, right?  I’m pretty sure Carlos would approve.

Happy Reading!

Sanchez, Alex. Getting It. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. 210 pp.  Ages 15-18.

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

If you liked this book, you might want to try Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea, or Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John

 

 

 

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga

“There are three things in this world that I want more than anything. I’ll tell you the first two, but I’ll never tell you the third.”

Super-smart Donnie is very serious about the things he wants: the first is a copy of Giant-Size X-Men #1, the only comic book that his father doesn’t have in his collection.  The second is a computer, so he can work on his own graphic novel project, Schemata. As for the third, you’ll have to sort that out on your own!

Donnie is 15, living in the basement in the house he shares with his pregnant mother and so-called step-fascist, the man she left Donnie’s father for.  School is a battlefield: he’s bullied constantly, and has only one friend, Cal.  Cal’s on the lacrosse team and hangs out with the jocks, so sometimes he has to pretend that he’s not really Donnie’s friend.  All he really has to keep him going is his graphic novel and what he calls “The List”: a mental catalog of everyone who has ever hurt him, so that he can seek revenge someday. (Just to be clear, here, he may fantasize about hurting those who have hurt him, but he affirms that “the best revenge is living well”, and is determined to make it big someday, rather than act out in violence).

He’s being beaten (again) in gym when Kyra shows up.  She’s pale, dressed in black, with piercings and an attitude that proclaims, ” I hate you all”.  Soon the duo become unlikely friends, driving around in a series of (possibly) stolen cars, talking about suicide, school, comic books, and how they’ve been let down by the adults in their lives. She teaches him how to stand up to people, and when Kyra needs help, Donnie uses what he learned to save her life.

High school isn’t an easy place for many people, and this book explores how painful social isolation can be.  Donnie’s voice is believable, and readers will be instantly sympathetic to him.  Kyra’s set-up can be a little awkward in places, such as the unexplored thread about the stolen cars, and I felt the exchanges with the principal were not terribly realistic.  But, you know what?  This is fiction, after all.  It’s a story.  It’s ok to have some elements that may or may not happen in real life.  That’s part of storytelling!

Fans of comic books, graphic novels (though don’t get confused, this isn’t a graphic novel, it is just about them), and anyone who has ever felt like an outsider will appreciate this book, I think.  My very favorite parts were where the author, Barry Lyga, would slip into using this unique imagery.  It was almost poetic, and I was so surprised and pleased to see it included.  For example: “And now the laughter takes on a slightly dark tinge, a bad flavor, as if dipped in a solution containing the slightest percentage of vinegar.”  Nice, right?

It really reminded me of Fat Kid Rules the World by K. L. Going, so if you liked that one, I think you will like this one, too!  There’s also a sequel, Goth Girl Rising, but do you know what I would really like to see?  I want to see the real-life version of the graphic novel that Donnie is working on in the book.  It sounds great!

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://barrylyga.com/new

Book website: http://fanboyandgothgirl.com (Look, there’s even a discussion forum where you can talk about what Donnie’s mysterious “third thing” is!)

Lyga, Barry. The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl. Houghton Mifflin: New York, 2006. 311 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

Hey, can I say one more thing that I loved about this book?  I’m pretty happy to see several characters in it that don’t drink.  For example, Cal tells Donnie how to spill his beer a little into the plant at the party, because neither of them really want to drink.  Thanks for that!

Also, watch out for my next post on Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King.  Since I started library school, I’ve been really nervous and a little homesick, and reading and blogging help me feel better! Soooo, it should be up soon!

 

 

 

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

“’Hannah, where was I last night?’ I whispered.

‘What are you talking about, you idiot?’

‘Just help me out. What was I doing last night?’

‘You tried to pay me to IM Bethany and convince her to go out with you. And then you took a shower that was so long you emptied the hot water tank.’

Oh. That.

‘Thank you,’ I said.

I couldn’t have done it.  It wasn’t me. Good. Sometimes I scared myself, because once you’ve thought long and hard enough about doing something that is colossally stupid, you feel like you’ve actually done it, and then you’re never quite sure where your limits are.”

Tyler is on probation for his Foul Deed: defacing school property.  That might not be so bad, but when combined with a rocky relationship with his Corporate Tool Father, the social trials of high school, and his mad crush for the beautiful Bethany, Ty’s struggling.  Worse still, when Bethany drinks too much at a party, and pictures of her get plastered on the internet, Ty is the logical suspect: after all, they were sort-of dating, and he already did something stupid and ended up on probation.

He didn’t do it, but nobody believes him. He gets beaten up, placed on an informal in-school suspension, and ostracized.  The police take his computer.  His father sends away applications for military school.  And Tyler?  Well, he ends up in his dad’s bedroom, with a handgun in his mouth and little to keep him from taking his life.

Just like the stamp on the first page says, “This is not a book for children.”  But I think it’s a book everyone should read: not only because of the very relevant topics (bullying, suicide, internet privacy), but also because of the skillful writing.  Laurie Halse Anderson is a genius with voice.  Perhaps anyone could put together a book about bullying and how much it sucks to be a teenager sometimes, but not many writers can craft such believable, sympathetic characters.  Ty is angsty, hormonal, tender, brave, and terrified by turns.  He’s also wickedly funny, and that’s the best part of this book.  That’s where I think Anderson’s strength lies: she creates great characters, and the first-person perspective allows readers to really get to know them through their thoughts.  Ah, I love it!

This book is a great combination of traditional coming-of-age elements, family drama, and an interesting, believable storyline.  I think you’re going to really love it.  If you’re fans of other realistic teenage problem books like Anderson’s novel Speak, or Matt De La Pena’s Mexican White Boy, this is one you shouldn’t pass up.  Also, it won the ALA Best Book for Young Adults, as well as being chosen as an ALA Quick Pick.

Happy Reading!

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

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Twisted. Viking: New York, 2007. Ages 15 and up. 250 pp.

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.

Trapped by Michael Northrop

“How long could we be stuck here? That was the question now.  How long, like, conceivably? We had no power, no lights, and the heat was already leaking out of the building through a thousand cracks and seams and windows.”

Scotty and a handful of his classmates are the last students left at school when the catastrophic nor’easter blows in and classes are canceled.  No big deal, they think, surely someone will be by to pick them up soon.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case: the students fatally underestimated the storm and end up trapped at school.

What they assume is going to be a single night spent adventure-style in their high school stretches nearly a week, as the snow simply does not let up.  Now they have more to worry about than just being cold:  the weight of the snow threatens to collapse the roof.  One of the boys makes a heroic decision, but I won’t spoil the ending for you.

This is a very fast read, a true escapist book.  I finished it in a few hours, speeding along, caught up in the adventure.  There are some interesting conflicts between the characters, and the state of emergency feel to the book is captivating. Highlights of the story include a character who turns out to be an adept lock-picker, breaking into the school cafeteria for the others, and the students building a fire in one of the classrooms.   It’s a good book to read when you’re nice and warm inside.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: www.michaelnorthrop.net

Northrop, Michael.  Trapped.  New York: Scholastic Press, 2011. 232 pp.  Ages 13-16.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

“She laughed when there was no joke.  She danced when there was no music.  She had no friends, yet she was the friendliest person in school.  In her answers in class, she often spoke of sea horses and stars, but she did not know what a football was.”

Stargirl is the new student at Mica High.  She was formerly homeschooled, and when she begins classes at the high school, no one is quite sure what to make of her.  “She has no ego”, Leo, the narrator of this story, says, and it’s true.  Stargirl notices everything: your new haircut, the fact that you made the honor roll, or that your cat ran away from home.  She’s there, with a handmade card and words of encouragement.

She plays her ukulele at lunchtime, carries her rat, Cinnamon, around in her bag, and dresses in far-out combinations of colors and fabrics.  Like I said, Stargirl is special.  However, high schoolers can be cruel.  When she cheers for the wrong team at a basketball game, she is shunned.  No one speaks to her, or even looks at her.  Eventually, that shunning spreads to Leo, who has fallen in love with the effervescent Stargirl.

I won’t tell you what happens in the end, because that would spoil things.  I will tell you that I was just so nervous throughout the whole story! I was afraid Stargirl would cry, or be hurt, or give up her sparkly uniqueness, just to fit in.  None of that happens, though, and the ending makes you realize how the little things make a difference, and being kind goes a long way.  We’re all on the same team, as Stargirl would say.

Happy Reading!

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

Spinelli, Jerry. Stargirl. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2000.  186 pp.  Grades 8-11.