Friends, it’s National Poetry Month, so I snagged this tidy collection of fifty autobiographical unrhymed sonnets by acclaimed poet Marilyn Nelson and spent a sublime afternoon in the spring sun absorbing it. I’ve loved Nelson’s work ever since I read A Wreath for Emmett Till, her gorgeous homage to the life and death of a young boy whose callous murder helped spark the Civil Rights movement. This meticulously arranged selection of poems highlight different moments from Nelson’s childhood and adolescence in the 1950′s, each one an intimate little insight into what it was like to be constantly uprooted due to her father’s Air Force enlistment, to be the only black girl in her class or black family on the military base, to wonder and worry when she heard adults mention “The Red Menace” or “hide drajen” bombs. Both a snapshot of a person’s life and an unforgettable time period in American history, How I Discovered Poetry is also tribute to the power of words arranged in lines and stanzas and couplets. The last two poems actually made me gasp aloud, not only because of the thought-provoking content, but with admiration that Nelson could say so much with just a few well-chosen, well-placed words: “I say to the dark:/Give me a message I can give the world./Afraid there’s a poet behind my face,/I beg until I’ve cried myself to sleep.” Get thee to a library and check out Nelson’s work pronto, but if all you’ve got at the moment is an Internet connection and a thirst for beautiful turns of phrase, take a minute to drink in some poetry from this fine selection of websites:
Rose Wallace has been going with her family to their rented cabin at Awago Beach “Ever since…like…forever.” She anticipates this summer will be much like all the others spent swimming, biking and hanging out with her younger friend Windy. But this is the summer that Rose discovers the cheap thrill of horror movies, the ache of an unrequited crush and the weight of adult secrets. She longs to flirt with the gangly teenage clerk at the corner store who rents her and Windy The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but she’s too shy. She wants to shake her withdrawn mother out of her unrelenting sadness over an unspoken tragedy that happened last summer, but she’s too scared. She yearns to understand why she and Windy are growing apart, why the shabby town of Awago is so different from the rental houses by the beach, and why all the girls in horror movies seem to be so, well, stupid. She wants to know why this one summer is the summer when everything that used to be simple suddenly became complicated. This wistful, character driven GN, inked in a cool blue palatte, perfectly captures that transitional moment between chewing gum and trying cigarettes. Rose and Windy are both polar opposites and kindred spirits, clashing as Rose leans into adolescence and Windy leans back into childhood, but coming back together when the confusing world of parents and slasher movies becomes too much. This One Summer should be number one on your summer reading list.
High school freshman Travis Ray Coates is dying from incurable cancer when doctors tell his family there’s one last chance for survival—as long as Travis doesn’t mind having his neck separated from his torso. It seems there’s a new cryogenic technology that will allow Travis’s head to be detached and frozen until doctors can find him a donor body to link it to. There’s only one little glitch—the technology isn’t quite there yet. So Travis goes to sleep before the operation to remove his noggin, not knowing when or even if he will ever wake up. When he does comes to, five years have passed and he has a new body that is in way better shape than his old one. Being alive is obviously better than being dead, but Travis quickly discovers that starting life over is much more complicated than he ever imagined. First of all, he is still technically sixteen and has to finish high school while everyone else he knows has moved on to work or college. Next, his girlfriend and love of his life Cate Conroy now has a fiancée. A fiancée! And if all that wasn’t enough, there’s also the little matter of skinny jeans.
“’These are pretty tight,’ I said, walking out to model a pair of jeans for my mom.
‘It’s the style.’
‘I don’t understand. I can hardly move…are these girl jeans?’
‘No, Travis. I told you. It’s what everyone wears now. Boys and girls.’”
Suddenly, being back isn’t all that great. “I thought if I woke up at all, it would be in a hundred years to a brand-new world full of new people. But instead there I was stuck in this mutated version of my old life where everyone had grown-up just enough to forget about me…I came back from the dead for this? Joke’s on me.” This fresh, funny novel about losing your life in order to find your place is hands down the most original story I’ve read in ages. Travis’ voice is sweet and folky, full of a bewilderment that anyone who’s ever found themselves in a fish-out-of-water situation can relate to. I was an unabashed fan of Corey Whaley’s debut novel, and I’m happy to say that his sophomore effort more than meets my sky-high expectations. There’s something just a little bit genius about using a decapitated head as a symbol for teenage identity formation, and I urge you to sample the genius for yourselves. Heads will roll in a library, bookstore or e-reader near you April 2014.
“Something you should know up front about my family: we believe that Jesus is coming back…I don’t mean metaphorically, like someday in the distant future…I mean literally, like glance out the car window and, ‘Oh hey, there’s Jesus in the sky.’”
Young Aaron Hartzler accepted his parents’ literal belief in the Bible and their strict rules about what pop culture he could consume without question. But when his parents talked about the Rapture, that moment when Jesus would return to Earth and take all the Christians up to Heaven, Aaron couldn’t help but hope that Jesus would hold off until he had a chance to live a little. “There are so many things I want to do before I go to heaven, like drive a car, and act in another play, and go to the movies.” And as Aaron grew older, tasted freedom at summer camp and started to see how other people interpreted the Bible, he began to wonder if he could continue along the path his parents set him on, especially when it came to his future. “The problem is, I don’t want to surrender my talents to God. What if he makes me use them as a missionary or Christian schoolteacher? That isn’t the life I want for myself.” Soon, Aaron is questioning everything, and though he deeply loves his parents, he is beginning to find their narrow view on religion stifling. “There are all sorts of Christians with all sorts of different rules, not to mention other people who believe in other religions. What about all of the people on the other side of the world who believe as strongly in their God as we believe in our God? Are they going to hell because they were unlucky enough to be born in the wrong place?” How Aaron resolves his dual life, comes to terms with his sexual identity and manages his parents’ expectations forms the basis of this simply told true story that rings true whether you believe in the Rapture or not. Aaron Hartzler’s moving memoir about growing up in a conservative Baptist home where Jesus was considered a member of the family hit me hard in the heart muscle. Although the evangelical Christian lifestyle may seem peculiar to some, Hartzler’s physical and psychological struggles to make his family happy while still trying to follow his own dreams are universal and will be completely understood by anyone who’s ever tried to figure out where their family role ends and their individuality begins.
Secrets. We all have ‘em. But at Illington Hall boarding school in Yorkshire England during the Vietnam War, the very air is rife with them. Every student there is concealing something that is at the very least embarrassing, and at the very worst, life threatening. Jenny’s American boyfriend is a solider in Vietnam. Or is he? Oona’s hiding a pretty big secret something from her best friend Sarah, while hunky Nico believes that no one knows about his secret sexy crush on the new teacher. Luke’s private obsession with a local “townie” could potentially put him in the hospital, while Percy’s public obsession with movies and films springs from a private sorrow that is surprisingly close to home. Penelope is always looking for the wrong kind of love and she would rather die than say why, while Brenda’s sneaking out for secret kisses that could lead to the same kind of trouble her sister’s in. It’s not just the bad food at Illington Hall that’s making everyone queasy, but the effort of holding in all those secrets! It’s up to Jenny to take a chance and tell the first truth…if she dares. This spicy, shifting narrative strongly reminded me of the bold, honest Doing It by Melvin Burgess. The ever-changing point of view from one character to the next made this book a rich if occasionally challenging read. I for one definitely needed the names at the beginning of each chapter to keep track of who was who. However, Canadian author Marthe Jocelyn’s briskly paced dialogue is so authentically British that I had to double check and make sure she didn’t grow up in the UK! A perfect read for spring as you shed all your physical and psychological winter layers. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you April 2014.
First, it was Lise, falling from her desk during a quiz, clutching her throat and frothing at the mouth. Then it was Gabby, twisting and jerking in her chair right in the middle of the spring concert, still holding her cello as she crashed to the floor. And finally Kim, who dropped during P.E., screaming and vomiting. Soon, there is an epidemic of seizing girls in Deenie’s small high school, twitching, ticking and muttering. “There was a low rumble everywhere…the thrum of confusion, skidding sneakers, a girl’s lone yelp, a teacher trying to be heard…more than twenty wrapped around the hallway in groups and individually. Drooping against lockers, slumped on the floor, their legs flung out, doll-like, one in the middle of a corridor, spinning like a flower child.” What is causing the strange convulsions that seem to have infected the female teenage population of Deenie’s school? Is it the poison-green algae covered local lake that is off limits but still tempts everyone with its silky, warm water? “They weren’t supposed to go into the lake. No one was. School trips, Girl Scout outings, science class, you might go and look at it, stand behind the orange mesh fences.” Or is it the HPV vaccine that the school system made mandatory for every high school girl? “The first shots were six months ago. HPV vaccines are more effective if administered before sexual debut. That’s what the department of health poster in the nurse’s office said.” No one knows for sure, but the parents in Deenie’s town are getting very anxious, eager to find the person or thing responsible for the plague that seems to be affecting their best and brightest girls. And Deenie is worried that it is only a matter of time before their scrutiny falls on her. Because the one thing the first three afflicted girls have in common is their close connection to her. “’But nothing happened to me,’ [Deenie] said. ‘I’m fine.’ ‘Well,’ Gabby said, looking down as their feet dusted along the glistening grass of the square, ‘some people are just carriers. Maybe that’s what you are.’” Deenie is running scared, desperate to find out the real reason that all friends have fallen ill. But the secret to their mysterious seizures is actually much closer to home than she ever could have imagined. Megan Abbott’s gripping adult-published tale of adolescent lies, lust and power reads like a modern day version of The Crucibleand boldly scrutinizes society’s long standing, Lord of the Flies fear of teenage sexuality and power. Coming to an e-reader, library or bookstore near you June 2014.
“When you’re Gavin and Opal’s gay kid, you always feel like someone is looking at you.” Rafe Goldberg is tired of everyone always looking at him. Ever since he came out in the eighth grade, he’s been “that gay kid.” Which would be fine, except it seems like that’s the only thing people know about him. He also happens to like soccer, “the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and taking photographs of nuns on Segways.” But all people ever seem to care about is who he wants to date. So Rafe convinces his parents to send him to an all-boys boarding school, where he plans to be “openly straight.” Instead of standing out and speaking up, he just wants to lay low and blend in. And it works…at first. But then Rafe starts to get close with Ben. Big sweet Ben who likes to talk both sports and philosophy. Rafe thinks he might be in love. But how can he admit that to Ben when he’s worked so hard to convince everyone how hetero he is? This well-executed leopard-changing-spots story realistically explores what it means to refuse labels, and makes you think extra hard about the folks who don’t have a choice when it comes to hiding part of their identity. Plus it has the sweetest love scene (for me, at least) since I read Forever. If you like this one, be sure to follow it up with Pink by Lili Wilkinson.
There are many memories Hayley would like to forget because they hurt too much: the clicking sound of her grandmother’s knitting needles, the taste of her stepmother’s peanut butter and banana sandwiches, the days and nights spent in the cab of her dad’s truck while he drove and homeschooled her at the same time. But every once in awhile, “A knife ripped through the veil between Now and Then and I fell in…” The knife of memory that brings back the past and makes it even harder for Hayley to live in her impossible present. The present where her father, an Iraq war veteran, copes with his PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) by drinking or smoking it away. A present where she can never concentrate on school because she’s too worried about what her dad might be doing at home–where the guns are. “How many of the girls in my gym class had to clean up gunpowder and barrel oil after school?” A present where she has to be the parent and there isn’t any time for her to just be a girl in love–until Finn comes along. Finn makes her feel safe. Finn makes her feel wanted. Finn makes her want to remember. But how can Hayley give her heart to anyone else when she needs all of it to care for her father? This tough, tender story of pain and redemption will resonate deeply with anyone who ever had to welcome home a loved one who went to war as one person and came back as someone else. Touching and true.
Dear teen reading peeps,
Reading Rants will be giving up Marley’s ghost until January 15th so that I can enjoy the holidaze and work on some other pressing writing projects. Until then, enjoy my 2013 Top Ten list and check out some of these other great end of year booklists, which are in absolutely no particular order.
Pink Me’s 16 Memorable Reads of 2013 (many of which are YA)
It’s Top Ten time, teen reading peeps! Please note that there has been absolutely no attempt to balance this list by age, gender or genre. These are just my “from-the-gut” favorites of the books I read this year. (While I love all my Top Ten books the same, I just might love BOXERS & SAINTS a tiny bit more:) Click on the title to go right to the review.
Black, Holly. Doll Bones.
Dahlquist, Gordon. The Different Girl.
Finneyfrock, Karen. The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door.
Forman, Gayle. Just One Day.
Forman, Gayle. Just One Year.
Kninsley, Lucy. Relish.
Rowell, Rainbow. Eleanor & Park.
Sedgwick, Marcus. Midwinter Blood.
Sepetys, Ruta. Out of the Easy.
Yang, Gene Luen. Boxers & Saints.