InWhat I Like About Me, sixteen-year-old Maisie Martin’s teacher requires students to keep a journal jotting down three things they discover about themselves each day of winter break and provide evidence. Maisie’s first entry is easy: her teacher is evil, the evidence is the dreaded journal. After Mum catches Maisie writing “blah blah blah” to fill the daily allotment, Maisie settles down, nicknames her journal “DJ,” and more heartfelt confessions begin.
Maisie frets her parents are divorcing because, for the first time, Maisie’s dad hasn’t accompanied them on their annual vacation retreat. To make up for his absence, Mum lets Maisie bring her along BFF. Anna is everything you want in a girlfriend plus she’s gorgeous—a fact Maisie’s years-long crush, Sebastian, soon notices. He’s brought his annoying pal, Beamer, again. The four teens hang together at the beach, except Maisie’s too body-conscious to wear a bathing suit or get in the ocean. It comes as a surprise to everyone (even Maisie) when Maisie decides to face her fears and enter the local beauty pageant following in the footsteps of a beautifully slim mother and older sister. Figuring she won’t be selected because of her weight, she’s amazed when they not only accept her entry but also want to feature her in an interview. But all is not as it seems.
I like how this book goes beyond typical beach fun delving into complications such as when your BFF and love of your life seem destined to get together, how to deal with being stuck with an annoying sidekick, and the reality of people being unable to see past your size. Maisie vents in her journal: “Imagine having a body you’re always uncomfortable in. Always. That moves when you want it to be still, and makes you want to be still even when you long to move.”
Such heartbreaking moments are offset with heaps of humor. Jenna Guillaume kept me laughing from the book’s first lines. When a bunch of boys go skinny-dipping, Maisie muses, “soon the pool was a veritable sausage soup.” The chapters open with Maisie’s “discoveries” running a gamut of emotions, many of them hilarious. Eventually, journaling leads to self-reflection and Maisie catalogues things she likes about herself.
Books are about characters and Maisie is awesome. I’d gladly follow her on to another book or two. Guillaume has a gift for capturing our fears and seeing a way past them. Family, romance, and friendship all play out in their levels of complexity. Learning how to accept and love yourself are the book’s most powerful messages. Get this YA debut for the teen in your life or for yourself. It’ll make you laugh, but I hope it also makes you pause a moment to consider at least one thing you like about yourself.
Find Jenna Guillaume on Facebook here. Get a discussion guide here. Click herefor an excerpt. Read a Q+A with Jenna Guillaume here.
CURSED by Karol Ruth Silverstein (Charlesbridge Teen; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)
I loved Cursed, the debut YA novel by Karol Ruth Silverstein, even before I read it because the cover spoke to me, and was perfect. Now, having finished the book, I can confirm how well this cover works. Its dual-meaning title presented in a bold red printer’s-block-style lettering, the warning on the bottom, along with the emojis capture the entire essence of the story. I think you’ll agree once you’ve read Cursed, too.
When I attended the book launch and heard Karol read from the opening chapter I couldn’t wait to find a chunk of time to finally read the novel undisturbed. In so many ways this is Karol’s story, an #ownvoices novel not only in that Karol authored it, but she has also lived with the chronic illness she writes about honestly and creatively using spot on “sarcasm, and bouts of profanity” that you will sorely miss when the novel ends. To give you an idea of what to expect, Karol recently tweeted this:
“Hi, I’m Karol. My book, #Cursed from @CharlesbridgeYA is about 14 year-old Erica (aka Ricky), who’s newly diagnosed with a painful chronic illness and seriously pissed off about it. It’s funny, frank and full of f-bombs.”
With that in mind, join me in Rickyville where the journey of Erica (aka Ricky and annoyingly Ricky Raccoon to her dad) Bloom is presented in 62 brief chapters with teasing titles that will add to your reading pleasure. I know that may sound semi-snarky but it’s so Ricky-like and snarkiness is one of her secret weapons, well not so secret. Six months prior to the story’s beginning, Ricky was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an illness of the joints, although she doesn’t immediately share that information with readers. She simply describes the excruciating pain and major inconveniences she has to deal with on a daily basis and that’s a big part of what’s fueling her f-bombs.
The cursing is also what gets Ricky into trouble at school, when she eventually goes. Early on in the novel, written in first person-present tense, Ricky explains how she’s actually been cutting school while hiding it primarily from her father, Dr. Dad (a dentist-doctor), and mother and sister. There’s tons of stuff she can’t deal with at glorious Grant Middle School, one being that as a ninth grader she has to attend a middle school and not a high school. Another reason is that it’s a new school because she’s moved into her divorced dad’s Batch Pad—Ricky gives everything neat nick names including The-Disaster-Formerly-Known-as-my-Parents—in a different part of Philadelphia from her family home. Add to that how difficult it is getting to school and then having to navigate the building when any part of her body can hurt at any given moment with the dagger-like or burning pain usually in her knees, feet and ankles. It doesn’t help matters that when she finally does return to Grant she feels humiliated by the things typical girls her age do “when their biggest worry is looking their best all day.”
There’s a strong cinematic sense conveyed in Cursed because Karol not only hails from Philly where the story is based, but she also has a screenwriting background. It’s easy to picture every place described in the novel. From the city itself and Dr. Bloom’s Batch Pad, the school with its grueling long corridors to the nurse’s office where she spends a lot of time and becomes friends with Oliver. From the waiting room outside the principal’s office, her speech teacher, Mr. Jenkins’ classroom, to the music room where her crush Julio practices, and the doctor’s office where she gets her intravenous medication. Add these strong visuals to the already compelling, engrossing and downright funny storytelling and at once you are totally in Ricky’s head as she tries to cope emotionally and physically with her disability as she approaches age 15.
Once Ricky’s Charade (skipping school) is discovered, she’s got to work her butt off to graduate with her class or risk being held back aka Operation Catch-Up-So-I-Can-Get-The-Hell-Out-of-This-Crap-Ass-School. Helping her accomplish this is the friendship she’s cautiously allowing to blossom with Oliver, a childhood cancer survivor who has such a can-do attitude that some of it has to rub off on Ricky, right? I felt hopeful when Ricky met Oliver. At her old school after having been diagnosed with Juvenile Arthritis and telling her friends “… they all abandoned me. I can’t risk that again.” Oliver is not the abandoning type. But is Ricky?
Some of my favorite scenes in Cursed are the ones where Ricky’s vulnerabilities and strengths are exposed like when I learned how much she dislikes her current arthritis specialist, Dr. Blickstein (aka Dr. Blech-stein) because he never speaks to her and treats her like she’s invisible, choosing instead to relay info to her mom. When she finally decides to change doctors and finds one who’s caring and truly interested in her feelings, I wanted to cheer out loud. Another time, when she comes to the aid of a girl who’s part of a clique, I felt her compassion. She may try hiding that side of herself, but as a reader I knew she had a lot of it just by her observations about the people around her. And wait until her final project, the speech in Mr. Jenkins’ class. That’s all I’ll say or I may start sobbing.
Watching Ricky grow from being a teen who feels cursed, “Like you did something horrible in a past life,” and unable to be comfortable in her own skin to one who is more willing to come to terms with her illness and more open to letting people get close to her is what kept me turning the pages. I mean that’s in addition to the dynamite dialogue, witty asides and meaningful insights into living with arthritis. It was a privilege to get to know Ricky. The changes in her arrive slowly and are sometimes subtle, but they do happen making it all the more worthwhile to be on her team. Stick with Ricky and you’ll be rewarded with this read.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Click here to read an interview with Karol by author Lee Wind on The Official SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Blog.
Click here to read more on “How Stories about Disability Help Create Empathy” at We Need Diverse Books.
In WHERE I END AND YOU BEGIN by Preston Norton, seventeen year-old Ezra Slevin desperately wants to take Imogene Klutz to the prom. The only problem is he’s a neurotic, insomniac who is too shy to even talk to her, and Imogene’s best friend hates him, but has a crush on his best friend who hates her. Ezra’s best friend has inside information where Imogene will be at the time of the solar eclipse, the most important event in their town. The unimaginable takes place during the eclipse – Ezra and Imogene’s best friend, Wynonna, body swap, unleashing a series of humorous circumstances.
Ezra and Wynonna are exact opposites but both suffer from self-loathing. Ezra says, “I didn’t feel masculine. I didn’t feel like a fucking human being.” His self-loathing results in his never standing up for himself. Wynonna is aggressive, angry, and dyslexic.
The author thoroughly explores every angle of sexual identity against the background of Hamlet’s Twelfth Night, “exploring the line between love and suffering, the ambiguity of gender, and the folly of ambition.” Norton states, “The important thing isn’t the word or the label. The important thing is you.”
I often found myself laughing, and loved Norton’s imagery. “Slowly, Imogene’s eyes widened like a pair of flowers blooming in a fast-motion time lapse.”
This is a humorous story about male and female body swapping which deals with serious topics of self-loathing, anger, forgiveness, sexual identity, and friendship, which leaves the reader with a sense of hope and possibility of transcendence.
Readers who enjoy books like EVERY DAY by David Levithan should definitely add WHERE I END AND YOU BEGIN to their TBR list.
Reviewed by Guest Blogger, Joanne Rode e About the reviewer: Joanne Rode is a retired librarian living in Los Angeles, California. Twenty years ago she started working as a children’s librarian while living on Maui. The births of her grandchildren drew her back to the mainland, where she continued her career as a librarian in Orange County, then later in Los Angeles. She now enjoys using her free time to write. Contact Joanne at joanneorode.com
ENTER TITLE HERE Written by Rahul Kanakia (Hyperion; $17.99, Ages 14 and up)
Just in time for back-to-school comes ENTER TITLE HERE from Hyperion. Rahul Kanakia’s debut YA novel examines the fierce competition for college admissions in a fresh, surprising, and funny package, with a bonus meta element for those of us readers who are also writing our own novels. The main character is Reshma Kapoor, a Silicon Valley high school senior who employs unhealthy and unsavory means to achieve her all-consuming end: admission to Stanford.
Reshma is convinced that her application — with its stellar grades but average-after-several-tries SAT scores — needs a hook in order to stand out in the admissions slush pile. She thinks she’s found her “in” when an essay she published in the Huffington Post earns her an email from a literary agent: “If you were to someday write a novel, I’d love to read it.” Boom, goal-oriented Reshma has a new aim: secure a contract with this agent, and write a novel to be under submission (or maybe even sold) in time for Stanford’s Early Action deadline.
And that novel is ENTER TITLE HERE. Or is it? I enjoyed the argument in my head as I read: is this really happening, or is this just for the novel? Reshma the narrator certainly encourages the confusion. She scopes out a brief synopsis in her head, epiphany and all, and then writes a “SEPTEMBER TO-DO LIST” of the experiences she needs to have to write the novel convincingly: make a friend, go on a date, attend a party, get a boyfriend, have sex. In the pages that follow, she sets about checking off each item. Oh, and this isn’t on her list, but no way is she going to loosen her grasp on her school’s valedictorian spot. She won it by hook and by crook, and keeping it is as essential to her plans (and her self-image) as writing the novel is.
You may have guessed by now that Reshma is not a very likable person. When she writes, for school assignments, newspaper articles, or her novel, she maintains two versions: an honest one and a pretty one. But when she meets people face-to-face, “…they start to hate me. That’s because when I speak, I find it hard to create a pretty version.” But even as we dislike much of what Reshma thinks, says, and does, we keep reading. Why?
For one thing, I was curious to find out which of her many enemies deserved the title. There’s her mother, who thinks Reshma should lower her sights from Stanford. There’s her “perfect” classmate Chelsea, who couldn’t possibly be as nice as she pretends to be. And then there’s Alex, Reshma’s Adderall supplier. Reshma blackmails Alex into being her friend (item number one on the TO-DO LIST) and then wonders if she can trust Alex to have her back. Meanwhile, will Reshma ever notice that George, whom her parents allow to live in the basement so he can go to a good school, consistently behaves like a real friend?
Kanakia keeps us rooting for Reshma, in spite of all her faults. We want her to figure out how to stop the train before the wreck. Her mother tries to help her, sending her to a therapist. As a writer, I found some of the funniest moments of the book occurring in Dr. Wasserman’s office. He’s not just a therapist; he’s also an unpublished novelist, and his line of questioning is familiar to any fellow striver: “…you’ve mentioned your agent…Who is she, if you don’t mind me…?” He has lots of advice for Reshma, but it’s never clear. Are the ideas for the novel, or for her life? Does Reshma imagine Dr. Wasserman’s decline into obsession with her plot line and character arcs? Or is he a horrible therapist but a pretty good editor?
I enjoyed ENTER TITLE HERE and recommend it as a work of evil genius that will be especially appreciated by students currently competing in the college admissions rat race. Their parents will like the novel too — though it may send some of them searching their kids’ backpacks for stray Adderalls.
THE NORMAL NORMAN BLOG TOUR including A Guest Post from Author Tara Lazar & Giveaway
NORMAL NORMAN Written by Tara Lazar Illustrated by S. Britt (Sterling Children’s Books; $14.95, Ages 4 and up)
Normal NormanbyTara Lazarwith illustrations by S. Britt, is an ode to individuality, and a wonderfully wild and wacky way to reinforce the message to children that there’s no such thing as normal. Good Reads With Ronna asked author Tara Lazar to speak to this topic, wondering how she embraces her own unique brand of non-normality in her every day life. Oh, and since I haven’t said it yet, I recommend you unicycle, not run to your nearest bookstore to get a copy of Normal Norman AND enter our giveaway, too! 🍌
GUEST POST BY TARA LAZAR:
I am not normal.
I unexpectedly launch into foreign accents while talking. Think a “cawfee tawk” Linda Richman, morphing into a good ol’ cajun creole, followed by a dashing foray in the King’s English. (I’ve been brushing up on Nana’s Irish brogue, but it’s not quite there yet.)
I don’t dress like a 40-something, either. I know that What-Not-to-Wear show cautions against mini-skirts, Mickey Mouse sweatshirts and combat boots—especially all at the same time—but I don’t care.
Since I don’t walk very well, I’ve got a mobility scooter. I painted flames on it. Its max speed is 5mph, so the flames make me feel as close to being Danica Patrick as I’m gonna get.
I hate coffee, and I’m a writer. How weird is that? And, what’s even worse, I don’t care for chocolate. If you offered me a dish of ice cream or a plate of cheese, I’d cut the cheese every time.
Yes, I just made a fart joke. And I think it’s hysterical.
I told you, I’m not normal. And that’s precisely the way I like it.
Being normal is overrated. But when you’re a kid? Being normal is EVERYTHING! The slightest cowlick and you’re branded a nerd, a weirdo, a wackadoo. Wear glasses? Geek! Don’t even get me started on being pegged as the teacher’s pet! That was me all through my school years. I was taunted and teased, and one girl bullied me from 2nd grade all the way to senior year in high school. I didn’t dress normally enough or act normally enough for her.
I’ve tried to figure out why kids want everyone around them to conform. Maybe things are more predictable and safe that way. There’s nothing to be frightened about. Nothing will jump out suddenly, like a jack-in-the-box. You stay in your corner and I’ll remain in mine and we’ll get through this just fine.
I get it. Life is scary.
But my mission in life is to make everything fun. If that means stopping in the name of love to snap a photo with mannequins at the mall, so be it. And if it embarrasses my 12-year-old, let her turn red. Let her see that things shouldn’t be so serious all the time. Let her learn to find joy in the most miniscule things–or a medley of 6-foot plaster mannequins.
When I wrote Normal Norman, I didn’t necessarily set out to write some grand statement about all this. I just wanted Norman to be funny and to have fun. What emerged was a character who did just as he pleased and loved every minute of it. What emerged, I suppose, is me—in purple orangutan form!
The message to children, buried beneath the hilarity, is that there’s really no such thing as “normal”. With all of us being so different, how could there be only one “normal” expectation to live up to? The real normalness is being your true, normal self, in all its wonderful wackiness. Just like Norman…and me!
If you’re a YA reader and haven’t read Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith yet (in trade paperback as of February 2015, Speak; $10.99) — in spite of all the buzz, like a 2015 Michael L. Printz honor and news of an Edgar Wright movie adaptation — get to it! Maybe you don’t like science fiction. No problem; the six-foot tall man-eating praying mantises come off as campy rather than horrific. Maybe you don’t like troubled narrators who use expletives every other word. Well, if Holden Caulfield didn’t help you get over that, maybe Austin Szerba will do it for you. Austin’s horny all the time, smokes most of the time, and often breaks rules just for the heck of it. But in spite of the trouble he gets into and the bad decisions he makes, he’s likable and sincere, and his adolescent mistakes provide a thought-provoking contrast to the nightmares the full-grown adults in his world engender — in their personal lives, in politics, and in ethics-impaired science.
Austin’s story takes place in small-town Ealing, Iowa in the early twenty-first century U.S. His brother is fighting in Afghanistan, and the economy is failing. The Ealing Mall, along with the neighboring field that Austin and his best friend Robby named Grasshopper Jungle when they played there as younger kids, has turned mostly into a junkyard. When Austin and Robby sneak into a locked office in one of the few remaining stores, they discover specimens from a 1960’s era Department of Defense research project. The specimens, accidentally unleashed by Austin (or, one could argue, by the bullies who steal the specimens after Austin finds them), develop into Unstoppable Soldiers, the aforementioned monstrous bugs that do indeed look more like praying mantises than grasshoppers, in spite of their provenance in Grasshopper Jungle.
Keeping notebooks with drawings and text about everything he experiences, Austin defines himself as a historian. His voice is fresh and humorous but also full of pain and sadness for his own hurts and those of generations past. Although he frequently uses an Anglo-Saxon term for “excrement” and drops a few f-bombs, Austin enjoys speaking eruditely and notices when anyone else uses even slightly elevated language, too. “She used words like moment,” he says about his girlfriend Shann. “The way she talked made me horny.”
That’s Austin in a nutshell. Almost everything makes him horny, but the way he reports this feels natural, not uncomfortable. Austin doesn’t consciously focus on sex. It’s just there, all the time, whether it’s convenient for him to be thinking about it or not. And he’s dealing with the fact that he’s overflowing with sexual feelings not just for Shann, but also for Robby, who is gay. Austin is confused, “…wondering how it was possible to be sexually attracted and in love with my best friend, a boy, and my other best friend, a girl…. There had to be something wrong with me. I envied Shann and Robby both so much for being confident in who they were and what they felt.”
Readers who identify with Austin’s confusion — whether over sexuality or one of the many other dilemmas he deals with — will enjoy this book. Readers who love the outrageous visuals of low-budget sci-fi horror will relish the scenes with huge bugs hatching out of human beings and feasting on what’s left of them, alongside destroyed cop cars and exploding bridges; there’s also a really cool underground bunker. Readers looking for a philosophical take-away will think about science, and responsibility, and history.
Author Andrew Smith is a social studies teacher, and for me the biggest growth in Austin and the biggest takeaway from Grasshopper Jungle is a developing understanding about the purpose of recording history. Austin tells us history has “to be an abbreviation. Even those first men…who painted on cave walls in Lascaux and Altamira, only put the important details down. We killed this big hairy thing and that big hairy thing. And that was our day. You know what I mean.” The novel circles back to this idea again and again, asking the questions: which details are the important ones? And what should we do about them if we ever figure that out? These are important questions, and Smith’s book is a satisfying way to explore them.