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.
Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks!
Laura Lee Gulledge’s YA graphic novel, The Dark Matter of Mona Starr, opens with Mona Starr’s best friend, Nash, moving to Hawaii. Mona must now tackle high school alone and, though her family cares about her, she feels like the “creative oddball” in their midst. Mona struggles with depression, calling it the “Matter.” Through the help of a therapist and a new girl, Hailey, Mona begins to notice what starts her spiraling downward and how to catch herself before it becomes all-consuming. Chapter titles such as “Notice Your Patterns,” “Break Your Cycles,” and “Replace What You Can’t Erase” reinforce the steps Mona needs to take to cope.
The book presents depression in a realistic manner, showing the back-and-forth struggle that isn’t solved but, rather, managed. While the insightful text tells a compelling story, Gulledge’s art is a showstopper. In a scene where Mona’s overwhelmed by too many choices, her Matter has a hold of her arms and legs, pulling her to the edges of the page while whispering such things as, “You have nothing to offer” and “You are not good for ANYTHING,” inciting our universal search for meaning in our lives.
I’m blown away by the depth in the images (the art is black and white with hints of yellow) throughout the book. After Nash encourages Mona to write about her confusion, the full-page illustration features Mona as a shadowy outline with little Monas picking away (literally) at her brain, digging deep until she reaches her deepest thoughts. Eventually, with the help of friends, therapy, her art, and writing, Mona finds her way toward a hopeful future.
Make this powerful book an addition to your high school’s library and provide a helping hand to someone battling with their own dark matter. The insightful and heartfelt advice is based in part onGulledge’sown struggles.
Click here to order a copy of The Dark Matter of Mona Starr or visit your local indie bookstore. e Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks!
What an honor to once again be participating in the Sydney Taylor Blog Tour. This year it’s been a delight to interview authorHannah Moskowitz after reading her compelling YA novel (that I could not put down) Sick Kids in Love, an honor award winner in the teen readers category. Find out more about this week of enlightening interviews at theAssociation of Jewish Libraries website and at the official Sydney Taylor site. The full blog tour schedule is posted on the AJL blog and below if you scroll down following the interview.
He’s got a chronic illness Isabel’s never heard of, something she can’t even pronounce. He understands what it means to be sick. He understands her more than her healthy friends. He understands her more than her own father who’s a doctor.
He’s gorgeous, fun, and foul-mouthed. And totally into her.
Isabel has one rule: no dating.
It’s never felt better—
—to consider breaking that rule for him.
AN INTERVIEW WITH HANNAH MOSKOWITZ
Good Reads With Ronna:How does SICK KIDS IN LOVE differ from your previous novels and did anything in particular happen to plant the seed to write this one?
Hannah Moskowitz: SICK KIDS IN LOVE is my first book to feature characters with chronic illnesses, or even really to include characters with chronic illnesses at all, which is ridiculous since it’s such a defining feature of my own life. I really wanted to write something that I felt like was true to the chronic illness experience and that was keeping up with the conversations happening right now in the disability community that I hadn’t really seen reflected in fiction yet. So I wanted to create a positive, realistic, disability-positive love story. It’s a pretty straightforward romance, which was also a first for me. The way I explained it when I started was that I wasn’t reinventing the wheel; I was just giving the wheel to people who hadn’t had it before.
GRWR:February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. Can you please speak to the relevance of this initiative in terms of your YA novel’s main characters, Isabel (Ibby) Garfinkel who has rheumatoid arthritis and her boyfriend, Sasha (Aleksandr) Sverdlov-Deckler, who has a non-fatal type of Gaucher Disease, and where abled society falls short here and with understanding invisible illness?
HM: Invisible illnesses are so common and so poorly respected in our society, and there are several that are more common in the Ashkenazi Jewish community than in the general population, like Sasha’s Gaucher Disease. So having a month specifically for Jewish disability awareness, acceptance and inclusion is definitely a big deal. Invisible illnesses are misdiagnosed and underdiagnosed all the time, and it’s unfortunately really hard to be taken seriously without having a diagnosis with a name that people recognize as serious. If you have something people don’t know about, like Sasha, people think you’re making it up. If you have something that sounds kind of common and benign, like Isabel, people think you’re making a big deal out of nothing. It’s really rough out there.
GRWR:Could you have written this novel without a Jewish protagonist, and if not, why?
HM: I think I could have. Writing Jewish protagonists is just easier for me, so letting myself stay in that space is one less thing I have to deal with when I’m planning out my characters. So writing a non-Jewish protagonist would have been possible, but a lot more work. And for what!
GRWR:Why did you decide to have Ibby’s family and friends deal with her illness so differently than how Sasha’s family deals with his?
HM: Ibby’s family’s discomfort with chronic illness is what’s familiar to me in my own life, and Sasha’s is kind of the fantasy of what I wish people were like. So I wanted to show both the uncomfortable reality and that we should still have this aspirational ideal even if we’ve been left down. It’s okay to expect that much.
GRWR:Why does Isabel have such a difficult time self-advocating? Is this something you wanted to raise readers’ awareness about?
HM: Because I do! And because honestly, it’s hard to stand up for yourself and tell people you’re valid when they’re constantly telling you you’re not. Being told you don’t deserve things that you thought you need sticks with you, and having to fight through that internalized ableism is a huge part of living with chronic illness.
GRWR:As an #OwnVoices author, how much of yourself have you put into the story in regard to both your Jewish faith and your chronic illness?
HM: I put a ton of myself into this particular book, which I think was what made it such a joy to write. The whole process was easy; I wrote this book over the course of a month for NaNoWriMo 2017, and the version you can read now is very, very close to that first draft. Isabel is a Reform Ashkenazi Jew with autoimmune arthritis. Guess what I am! She even lives on the block in Sunnyside that I used to live on. Nothing that happens to Isabel in the course of the story is autobiographical, but her character certainly is. Though personality-wise I would say I’m more like Sasha.
GRWR: I enjoyed Isabel’s personal arc as she fights the pull to get involved with Sasha because of her dysfunctional family history among other things. When she ultimately succumbs to love—being loved and loving back—it’s powerful, positive and oh so beautiful. Do you think her struggle is one many teens can relate to?
HM: Thank you! I think Isabel’s big struggle is her fear of committing herself fully to something uncertain, and I think that’s a worry that a lot of people, teenagers or adults, can relate to.
GRWR:What gave you the idea to make Ibby the“SICK GIRL” weekly advice columnist at her high school newspaper and then share her questions throughout the novel?
HM: I’ve been asked this before and honestly I wish I could remember, but I … don’t. It was part of the book from the first draft, I know that. A long time ago I was trying to write a book where one of the main characters went around asking people what they would do if it was their last night in New York, so I think it might have stemmed from that. But my memory is too terrible.
GRWR:As your sub-heading says, no one dies in your novel yet I cried in several places because I cared about Ibby and Sasha, their relationship, and felt so much was at stake for this young couple. Did any part make you cry as you wrote it?
HM: I’m not much of a crier, and I don’t think I’ve ever cried while writing something! But I do make playlists for the characters, and sometimes I cry a little bit listening to those and thinking about all their feelings.
GRWR:The voice in your novel was great, as was the dialogue and humor. What part of the novel did you enjoy writing the most? What were some of the most difficult parts?
HM: I always prefer writing dialogue to anything else. My favorite things to write are arguments, and Sasha and Isabel have at least one great one. I hate writing descriptions and world building, but at least this time I got to just talk about a place I knew well.
GRWR:SICK KIDS IN LOVE should be required reading in high school curricula. You’ve succeeded in opening readers’ eyes to the disabled community, how they’re perceived and treated and how they’d like to be treated. Do you think you’ve written all you’d like to say on this topic?
HM: Thanks! I think I did put all I have to say at this time about disability and chronic illness into this book. But who knows if I’ll think of more in the future!
GRWR:What can we expect in your next novel?
HM: Right now I don’t know which of several books my next novel will be, but it’s likely either a very untraditional lesbian romance, a story about a teen mom figuring out her sexuality, or a f/f retelling of “Dirty Dancing.” So … expect lesbians.
BLOG TOUR SCHEDULE
The Sydney Taylor Book Award is showcasing its 2020 gold and silver medalists with a Blog Tour, February 9-13, 2020! Interviews with winning authors and illustrators will appear on a variety of Jewish and kidlit blogs. Interviews will appear on the dates below, and will remain available to read at your own convenience.
Below is the schedule for the 2020 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour. Please follow the links to visit the hosting blogs on or after their tour dates, and be sure to leave them plenty of comments!
Jason Reynolds once again nails it with his unique storytelling skills. In Look Both Ways, ten vignettes cover ten blocks of a neighborhood, following what happens to kids on the same day after Latimer Middle School lets out. Stories overlap and intertwine or do their own thing. Kids are captured in their every dimension from exuberance to anxiety. Boogers, bullying, dogs, and disease—yup, it’s all there.
The most poignant story for me was about Canton, whose mother is a crossing guard at his school. One day, she instinctively rushes forward to push a toddler frozen in the path of a bus out of the way, taking a minor hit herself. A week later, she’s back on duty, but her son doesn’t recover. Mortality is a subject we wish our kids didn’t have to grapple with. Reynolds shows how this boy is traumatized by the incident. Canton feels he can keep his mother safe from harm if he’s there on time each day, watching over her as she works.
How many parents have hovered over their sleeping child for no reason other than to ensure that child’s safety? We all know if something were to happen, the odds are slim that we’d be standing there at the right time with the right response. Yet, we do it—just as Canton believes his presence will somehow safeguard his mother. Before he can fall too deeply into this abyss, the school’s custodian (recalling how a dog made his wife feel better after their daughter went off to college) makes Canton a dog from an old broom. Worrying its tattered top enables the boy to quell his panic attacks.
Throughout, Reynolds captures a child’s emotional scope succinctly and accurately. An older reader will appreciate the craft required to weave these pieces with their connections and resets, forming a cohesive narrative arc. A kid will love the book for being funny, honest, and a different kind of reading experience. No matter where you’re coming from, the book will wow.
See more artwork by cover and chapter headings illustrator Alexander Nabaum here.
Have a Little Faith in Me, the YA debut from Sonia Hartl, hooked me with its opening line: “If I hadn’t made such a big deal about my virginity, I might not have spent a valuable portion of my summer checking nosebleed tissues for images of Jesus.” Have a Little Faith in Me is a funny, honest YA romance. Soon-to-be-senior CeCe was recently dumped by Ethan, her nice Christian boyfriend, because he must restore his virginal heart. To bridge the religious gap between them, CeCe secretly signs up for the same three-week Jesus camp, knowing their love will conquer all. Her best friend and next-door neighbor, Paul, thinks otherwise so he accompanies CeCe to this “faraway land, a dark place with no Wi-Fi.”
Though CeCe is out of her element, she finds that questions and uncertainty about sex unite her with the other girls. At the same time, CeCe’s relationships with her ex-boyfriend and her best friend take unexpected turns.
Have a Little Faith in Me is ideal for a teen who wants real-world advice about navigating the sexual and emotional aspects of relationships—a book I’ll set aside for our daughter. While scenarios of intense moments not quite going as planned are humorous, the story seriously examines what consent means. I like that LGBT sex is also addressed as a viable option. Reading this book felt like confiding with close friends who don’t hesitate to share intimacies. The bottom line: figure yourself out before you hookup with someone else.
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.
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
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.
Welcome to day three! As one of the bloggers participating in the Sydney Taylor Book Award 2019 Blog Tour, I’ve had the privilege to interview author Rachel Lynn Solomonabout her terrific debut novel You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, an honor award winner in the teen readers category. Find out more about this week of enlightening interviews at the Association of Jewish Libraries website and at the official Sydney Taylor site. The full blog tour schedule is posted on the AJL blog and below if you scroll down following the interview.
PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY OF YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE Eighteen-year-old twins Adina and Tovah have little in common besides their ambitious nature. Viola prodigy Adina yearns to become a soloist—and to convince her music teacher he wants her the way she wants him. Overachiever Tovah awaits her acceptance to Johns Hopkins, the first step on her path toward med school and a career as a surgeon.
But one thing could wreck their carefully planned futures: a genetic test for Huntington’s, a rare degenerative disease that slowly steals control of the body and mind. It’s turned their Israeli mother into a near stranger and fractured the sisters’ own bond in ways they’ll never admit. While Tovah finds comfort in their Jewish religion, Adina rebels against its rules.
When the results come in, one twin tests negative for Huntington’s. The other tests positive.
These opposite outcomes push them farther apart as they wrestle with guilt, betrayal, and the unexpected thrill of first love. How can they repair their relationship, and is it even worth saving?
From debut author Rachel Lynn Solomon comes a luminous, heartbreaking tale of life, death, and the fragile bond between sisters.
INTERVIEW WITH RACHEL LYNN SOLOMON
Good Reads With Ronna: Please tell us what the source of your inspiration was for writing You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone (Simon Pulse, $17.99 + 12.99, Ages 14+)?
RLS: Thank you for having me on your blog! As a kid, I remember watching a couple TV shows that centered on genetic testing, and the idea of being able to know your fate, to an extent, stuck with me. Years later in early 2014, I was doing some random Internet research, looking for something that might spark a book idea. I landed on a page about Huntington’s disease, which I knew a little about. What stood out to me was the fact that a child of a parent with Huntington’s has a 50/50 chance of inheriting it, and I wondered: what if twin sisters received opposite results?
GRWR: Your bio says you write about ambitious, complicated, sometimes unlikable girls who are trying their best. Can you please expand on that in reference to your main characters, Adina and Tovah, the 18 year-old fraternal twin sisters who do not get along?
RLS: Absolutely! I firmly believe we don’t need to like the characters we read about — we just need to relate to them. Likable characters, in fact, are often quite boring to read about. Rule-following characters who always make the right decisions, who never hurt anyone’s feelings…not realistic, for one, and not as interesting as a reader or writer. Furthermore, in fiction, male characters are often given much more “permission” to be unlikable. Their flaws are more easily forgiven.
In YMMWIG, Adina and Tovah aren’t bad people, but they make mistakes, they hurt each other, and they occasionally sabotage themselves. But they’re trying, and they’re relatable (I hope!), and at the end of the day, those are the kinds of characters I’m always going to gravitate toward.
GRWR: Do you share any qualities with your main characters aside from Adina’s love of Siren red lipstick?
RLS: There’s a bit of myself in all the characters I write. While I don’t play viola like Adina, I grew up playing piano and guitar, and in high school, I was a stereotypical overachiever like Tovah.
GRWR: What are your thoughts about the need for Jewish authors to write about more than just Holocaust stories despite the need for those to continue being told? And what kinds of books would you like to see written?
RLS: My major thought about this is: YES. We need stories about all kinds of Jewish experiences. I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but growing up, I truly believed we only had one story to tell, and that story was the Holocaust. And that’s just devastating, to think your entire culture can be summed up by a tragedy. It’s why it took me so long to write Jewish characters of my own — while YMMWIG was my first published book, it was my fifth completed manuscript since I decided to get serious about writing. It was also my first with Jewish characters.
I would love to see more historical novels featuring Jewish characters that don’t center on the Holocaust. IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF TRUE by Susan Kaplan Carlton, which comes out in April, is a great example of this, and I highly recommend it! I’d also love to see more intersectional Jewish stories like YOU ASKED FOR PERFECT by Laura Silverman, coming out in March, and COLOR ME IN by Natasha Diaz, coming out in August. Aside from that, more contemporary stories about Jewish teens simply living their lives while also being Jewish — whatever “being Jewish” means to them.
GRWR: Do you feel that books featuring Jewish protagonists and teens tackling illness fall under the diverse books heading since they are so underrepresented and often stereotyped?
RLS: This is a weighty topic, and one I’m still grappling with. Judaism occupies an interesting space in diversity discussions. I’m keeping a list of 2019 YA novels by Jewish authors and with Jewish protagonists, and I have only 14 books on that list. It’s so underrepresented in YA, and yet I’ve had a trade review insinuate Judaism isn’t diverse. Jewish friends writing Jewish characters have asked me whether their book “counts” as diverse. Conversely, one review told me I made my characters Jewish “for diversity points.” To me, Jewish books are diverse books, and I plan to continue advocating for them in the book community.
GRWR: Your YA novel tackles a tough topic of a mother slowly succumbing to Huntington’s disease as her teen daughters witness the decline. Also, early on in the story, one of the twins will learn after genetic testing, that she will get the disease, too. Your second novel also deals with a character needing a kidney transplant. What compels you to write about characters coping with illness?
RLS: I’m drawn most to topics that interest me — with YMMWIG, I wanted to learn more about Huntington’s disease and genetic testing, and with OUR YEAR OF MAYBE, which deals with the aftermath of a kidney transplant, I was curious about organ donation. Curiosity is a huge part of my writing process. My background is in journalism, and I love research, and writing is such a magnificent way to learn more about the world.
With regard to illness, specifically, I wanted to write characters who are not defined by their illness. In YMMWIG, Adina and Tovah’s mother is suffering from Huntington’s. It was important to me that Huntington’s was not her sole defining characteristic. She enjoys her job as a teacher, old movie musicals, and knitting, and she has a meet-cute backstory with the twins’ dad. In OUR YEAR OF MAYBE I focus more on the aftermath of the transplant and how it affects the two protagonists’ relationship. I aim to write sensitive portrayals of illness where the illness is a piece of the story but not the entire story.
GRWR: Of the two sisters, Tovah is the practicing Jew who keeps kosher, studies Torah and observes Shabbat along with her parents. It was encouraging to read a YA novel featuring Jewish main characters and their perceptions navigating life in a predominantly non-Jewish school and world. Was this your experience too?
RLS: Thank you! Yes — I was one of only a handful of Jewish kids in my Seattle suburb. I actually don’t remember meeting other Jewish kids outside of temple until middle school. And it wasn’t until college that I found more of a Jewish community — I took a year of modern Hebrew, I joined Hillel, and for a while, I attended services every Friday. These days, I am more secular, but I’m happy to say I have close Jewish friends for the first time in my life, which I’ve realized is so incredibly important, especially in a world that often makes us feel like outsiders.
GRWR: Adina can be cruel, jealous, socially aloof and manipulative, often using her beauty to control guys. Is it easier to write a more likeable character such as Tovah or one who’s not so likeable?
RLS: That’s a great question. I’m not sure what this says about me, but Adina was much easier to write than Tovah! It might be that I’m more similar to Tovah, so writing Adina allowed me to get more creative. To this day, her voice is the clearest of any main character I’ve written.
GRWR: Tovah is a neophyte when it comes to sex while Adina has been sexually active since age 14. Tovah myopically dreams of attending Johns Hopkins to become a surgeon while Adina dreams of playing viola in an orchestra. One incident four years earlier has shattered their tight bond. Sisters yet complete opposites and strangers. What would they or anyone for that matter have to do to become close again and repair the wounds?
RLS: I’ve never experienced a rift quite like theirs, but my sister and I fought constantly growing up. It’s hard to admit you did something wrong, but I think that humility is the only way to at least begin to repair a broken relationship. I’m not sure if it’s something that gets easier as we grow up and grow older, but I know it’s especially difficult as a teen.
GRWR: The twins’ story is told through alternating POV which works so well. What do you like about this approach and what other YA novels using this dual POV have you enjoyed?
RLS: Thank you so much. I felt strongly that this was the only way the book could be told — each sister is a full person but only half the story. It was the same with OUR YEAR OF MAYBE. The book explores the aftermath of a kidney transplant, complicated by the fact that the donor is in love with the recipient. The book doesn’t work unless we have both POVs and understand both characters, whose arcs are so closely entwined. Some other dual POV books I love: I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson, JUST VISITING by Dahlia Adler, HOW TO SAVE A LIFE by Sara Zarr.
GRWR: I found it hard to say good-bye to Adina and Tovah. How do you feel upon completing a book?
RLS: It’s been an adjustment! In the past, my manuscripts felt like living documents — I could open one up and tweak a sentence any time I wanted. But now, the book gets to a point where I have to be done messing with it. It’s hard for me to say goodbye, but it’s heartening to know that the book is done because it’s going out to readers who will be able to experience it for the first time.
For anyone else who’s interested, I wrote a “five years later” short story about Adina and Tovah that originally went out as part of a preorder campaign. It’s available on my website here for anyone to read: https://www.rachelsolomonbooks.com/extras/. There are some sad moments, but I hope it provides a bit of additional closure!
GRWR: What other irons do you have in the fire?
RLS: My second book, OUR YEAR OF MAYBE, came out last month, and I have two more YA novels contracted through Simon Pulse. My third, a romantic comedy, will be out in the summer of 2020. It takes place in 24 hours on the last day of senior year, and follows two rivals who realize, as they reluctantly team up to win a senior class game, that they might be in love with each other. While it’s lighter than my first two books, the two main characters also confront anti-Semitism in a way I haven’t written about before.
GRWR: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to mention or call to readers’ attention?
These questions were wonderful — thank you for again having me!
2019 SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD BLOG TOUR
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2019
Emily Jenkins and Paul Zelinsky, author and illustrator of All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Younger Readers Category At Out of the Box at the Horn Book