Kate Pentecost’s YA novel has the wonderfully ironic title, Elysium Girls. There’s nothing paradisal about Elysium, Oklahoma, during the 1930s Dust Bowl. One moment it’s a regular town, the next, the goddesses Life and Death use it to play a decade-long game: from next to nothing, the citizens must build a city and a society which is good and responsible, setting aside one-third of all crops as a Sacrifice. If the Elysiums do this, at the end of ten years, their society will continue; if not, everyone perishes. Dust Sickness soon begins to claim lives.
Seventeen-year-old Sal Wilkerson loses her mother and doesn’t fit in, overcome by unfulfilled predictions. As the game’s conclusion draws near, the town’s self-declared witchy leader, Mother Morevna, chooses Sal as the Successor. Finally, it seems Sal’s time has come, but an outsider named Asa arrives and unintentionally upsets things. For me, Asa stole the show as much for his charming personality as for the fact that, even though a nonhuman character, he’s so very relatable. Over the course of the book, his life changes dramatically as he deals with one unknown after another.
Outside the Elysium walls, a band of kick-butt girls survives fire coyotes and other wicked things by using their ingenuity. The different realities are fascinating: inside the walls, outside, above, and blips from the real Depression-era world. In addition, there are many appealing character elements including friendship, girl power, and family. Romance isn’t limited to boy and girl, or human and human. Put it all together and you’ll see why Elysium Girls is as hard to shake as a dusty Oklahoma day.
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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.
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons BYR; $17.99 HC, available in Ebook, Audio, Ages 12+)
★Starred Reviews – Horn Book, School Library Journal
Sherri L. Smith’sYA book,The Blossom and the Firefly, depicts an interesting slice of Japanese World War II history. Hana, assigned fieldwork is, one day, buried alive during an air attack. After she is dug out, Hana feels a part of her died in that bombing. Adding to her despair, she is reassigned as a Nadeshiko Tai girl—a handmaiden to the dead—serving tokkō, the special attack pilots also known as kamikaze. When each group readies to leaves, she must smile and wave as they take their last flight hoping to honorably body-crash into enemy battleships.
I appreciate the unique story structure, based on the Eastern style of storytelling called kishōtenketsu. Instead of a plot with conflict, kishōtenketsu revolves around contrast or juxtaposition. In The Blossom and the Firefly, Hana’s first-person chapters are in the “now,” while Taro’s (her love interest) third-person chapters begin in 1928 during his childhood. About halfway in, the narratives synchronize. Utilizing these time lines, we are shown Taro’s backstory without relying on flashbacks.
The story questions whether it’s possible to live and love during wartime. Hana keeps coolly distant until stumbling upon a special connection with Taro. After the war ends, rebuilding entails mending emotionally and moving forward to embrace what’s left. Readers will feel what it was like to be a teen caught in a war-torn land, where it’s not whether you have lost a loved one, but, rather, how many. This young adult novel about a little known aspect of the war is both heartbreaking and uplifting.
LOVELY WAR Written by Julie Berry (Viking BYR; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)
Julie Berry’s epic older-YA/new-adult book,Lovely War, cleverly employs a trial orchestrated by Hephaestus after he catches his wife, Aphrodite, with her lover—his brother, Ares. From there, the gods Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, and Hades narrate the tale of four mortals during World Wars I and II. Eighteen-year-old Hazel Windicott and nineteen-year-old James Alderidge meet at a parish dance in 1917 London—with a little push from Aphrodite. Alas, James leaves to report for duty in France and fears the reserved British girl, an accomplished pianist, has stolen his heart. Much to her parents’ mortification Hazel throws caution to the wind; determined to go where there is need (and be closer to James), Hazel submits an application to be an entertainment secretary in a YMCA relief hut in France.
Aphrodite also imbibes Colette Fournier, a Belgian girl whose childhood ended at age sixteen when everything and everyone she knew were destroyed. Colette gets by as a YMCA volunteer in the south of France, until, four years later, she ends up at the same camp as twenty-one-year-old musician extraordinaire, Aubrey Edwards. There she awakens emotionally. The passion and pain of love ensues within their war-stricken world resounding with the harsh reality of prejudice that Aubrey and his troop of black servicemen must endure.
Lovely War is a monumental, layered accomplishment pared down to a comprehensible size. This 480-page tome looks daunting but has short, fast-paced chapters with changing viewpoints. The outer framework of the gods felt as realistic as the stories of the four mortals that they reflect upon. I’d recommend this book to older teens, young adults, and adults who enjoy historical fiction, romance, or mythology. I’ll want to read it again someday because I appreciated the craft Berry employs while still maintaining sincere characters. Her historical end notes further explain how the Great War shifted the roles of women and affected the plight of the black servicemen.
Lovely War has received seven starred reviews and is an indie bestseller. Learn more about award-winning author Julie Berry here. Read another YA romance novel review by 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 the YA book, The Lovely and the Lost, teen Kira was found alone in the woods years ago by Cady (the woman who is now her stepmom). Since then Kira has been training with Cady’s elite search-and-rescue dogs. When a young girl goes missing in the immense Sierra Glades National Park, they are called in to the search. Kira needs to help this girl but becomes entangled with flashbacks of who she once was; regression into suppressed memories begins to overwhelm her.
Cady’s easygoing biological son, Jude, and their wild neighbor, Free, comprise a group the three teens call The Miscreants. Eclectic and passionate, they love one another and their dogs fiercely. When asked to put their tracking skills to use, they’re in.
With The Lovely and the Lost, Barnes has written a page-turner just perfect for summer or anytime reading. Short chapters race forward through layers of mysteries. Finding the lost girl is just as important as self-discovery. The flawed characters have dark pasts, yet find hope in one another. Even the dogs have well-developed personalities.
This story about family, secrets, and canine companions will tug at your heart and raise your pulse as you feel the clock ticking in the 750,000-acre wilderness area where the search takes place. Once you get to the end, you’ll want to read this clever book again to see what you missed the first time through. I like that some tangents are left open for interpretation or, possibly, a sequel.
The Curseshas an undoubtedly awesome first line: “Wolf had been back from the dead for almost three weeks when we had our first midnight picnic of the year.” Best-selling author Laure Eve’s second book picks up smoothly from where The Graces left off, changing the narrator from River (the new girl in town with enigmatic magical powers) to Summer (her on-again-off-again BFF from the Grace family of witches).
This sequel expands the world of the Graces while keeping favorite characters close. The Graces are beautiful, rich, and alluring—and they have cool names. Complicated relationships advance between the people who love the Graces, hate them, or want to be them. High school drama is heightened as the teens try to master their supernatural powers.
Truth-seeker and air witch Summer questions the dreaded curse on the Grace family (they cannot marry for love). After some sleuthing, dangerous mysteries unfold and Summer struggles with how she’s inexplicably drawn to River, wondering whether to stay away or bring her into their coven.
The main story line revolves around Wolf and the problems accompanying his resurrection. Throughout, the characters grow and learn to navigate the complicated aspects of friendship, family, and love. Appearances can be deceptive and easy answers may not be the right ones but there’s surely magic in the world, if you’re open to it.