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.
- Reviewed by Mary Malhotra
THE NORMAL NORMAN BLOG TOUR
A Guest Post from Author Tara Lazar & Giveaway
Written by Tara Lazar
Illustrated by S. Britt
(Sterling Children’s Books; $14.95, Ages 4 and up)
Normal Norman by Tara Lazar with 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.
Normal Norman author Tara Lazar alongside the personable, purple orangutan. Photo courtesy of Autumn Lazar ©2016.
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.
Tara Lazar doing her best mannequin-style Stop In The Name of Love.
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!
Reprinted with permission from Normal Norman © 2016 by Tara Lazar, Sterling Children’s Books, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. Illustrations © 2016 by Stephan Britt.
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!
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✭Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews
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.
– Reviewed by Mary Malhotra