Pakistani American teenager Kamala Khan wishes she could just be like everyone else. She’s tired of the kids at school making fun of her culture and her Muslim parents’ strict rules. “Why do I have to bring pakoras to school for lunch? Why am I stuck with the weird holidays? Everyone else gets to be normal. Why can’t I?” But one night, after sneaking out to a party that her parents forbid her to attend, her wish to be someone else comes true in a way she could never have imagined. When Captain Marvel, Iron Man and Captain America appear to her in a sea of fog and ask who she wants to be instead of Kamala Khan from Jersey City, she quickly replies, “Right now? I want to be beautiful and awesome and butt-kicking and less complicated.” In other words, she wants to be like Captain Marvel herself. But when the fog clears and her wish is granted, Kamala discovers that her new shape shifting abilities have made her life more complicated, not less. While she does manage to pull off a pretty heroic rescue, she also accidentally destroys her school locker room when her “embiggen” powers get away from her. “What does it mean to have powers? To be able to look like someone I’m not? What if I don’t fit into my old life anymore? Like it’s a pair of pants I’ve just outgrown? Would I still be Kamala?” As Kamala struggles to answer these questions, she and her friends are drawn into a battle with shady villain known only as “The Inventor.” Does Kalmala have what it takes to bring down the Inventor? Maybe…if she learns to believe in herself as much as she does her beloved Captain Marvel Carol Danvers. “I’m not here to be a watered-down version of some other hero…I’m here to be the best version of Kamala.” This fresh, funny, thought provoking graphic novel featuring a realistic teen who turns the superhero stereotype upside down makes a terrific read alike to Gene Yang’s equally awesome Shadow Hero.
David Smith is a disgraced artist. Once a rising young star in the art world, he said the wrong thing about the wrong critic and suddenly his career was in the toilet. Now he’s washed up at twenty six and about to be evicted from his apartment. But just when he’s resorted to drinking his days away, Death shows up in the form of his former Uncle Harry and presents him with a proposition he can’t refuse: the ability to sculpt any material with his bare hands in exchange for (what else?) his life in 200 days. David has a little under seven months to make his mark on the world before he leaves it forever. But right away he runs into complications. First of all, there’s the little matter of his rent–he’s still jobless and broke. His landlord throws him out and confiscates all his new work. His phone is cut off. Then the very worst possible thing of all happens. David falls in love with an angel named Meg and the endless 200 days suddenly seem a lot shorter. Can David beat Death at his own game by finding a way to live forever through his artwork? Or will he die in obscurity, content that at least he was truly known and loved by one very special person? Since the “making a deal with Death” is a familiar story, you might think you know how this epic graphic novel ends. But you would be dead wrong. Scott McCloud‘s richly rewarding GN, with its timeless themes of life, death, love and art has the feel of an instant classic. The pale blue artwork is restrained, the panels are perfectly placed. The moment I finished it, I knew it would become a literary touchstone that I would return to again and again, like Craig Thompson’s Blankets, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or S.E. Hinton’s Tex. For anyone who’s ever wondered what they would sacrifice to fulfill their dreams or which dreams they would be willing to sacrifice for a beloved someone.
Ever since I read French Milk before taking my first trip to Paris, I have been utterly charmed by Lucy Knisley‘s delightful (and often delicious) graphic memoirs. Her latest effort, which chronicles her travels through Europe while on a book tour, does not disappoint, as it is filled with the quiet humor and delectable food descriptions I have come to expect from this intrepid young artist. In 2011, twenty-something Lucy was enjoying the first flushes of her success as a working cartoonist when she was invited to present at a comic festival in Norway. She decided to tie it into a visit with friends in Sweden and Germany, and then join her mother and her friends for a short vacation in France. Once she is overseas, Lucy is blindsided by an unexpected love affair in Stockholm while trying to decide where the next chapter of her life will lead. She finds herself discombobulated and questioning everything she thought she wanted as she teaches European school kids about comics, drives across France with her mother and samples every local delicacy that comes across her plate.While at a wine tasting, it is a bearded old sommelier who gives a name to the experiences Lucy is having: “L’Age License, as in: License to experience, mess up, license to fail, license to do…whatever, before you’re settled.” Lucy decides then and there she will do less worrying about the future and more enjoying of the present. Peppered with appetizing cuisine pictures and unexpectedly beautiful full color portraits of her friends and family, An Age of License is a lovely story about food and firsts. It is perfect for anyone at the start of their travels who wonders where their road will lead–or for those in the middle of their journey who would enjoy a wistful moment looking back.
When Meg commits suicide, Cody is stunned. “…even though Meg was my best friend and I have told her everything there is to tell about me and I assumed she’d done the same, I’d had no idea. Not a clue.” What could possibly have caused cool, smart, indie-music loving Meg to take her own life? After inheriting Meg’s laptop and reading through all her old email, Cody uncovers a sinister trail of messages that lead straight to an online suicide encouragement group called The Final Solution. She begins to dig deeper into the Internet world of suicide support, with the reluctant help of Meg’s last crush Ben, who ended their relationship shortly before Meg ended her life. As the two of them try to get over their instant dislike of each other and understand Meg’s actions, they discover a different, sadder Meg than the one they knew. They also realize that they just might be falling strangely, awkwardly, bizarrely in love. This heartbreaking, heartfelt ten hankie read combines elements of romance and psychological thriller in a way that is pure Gayle Forman nirvana. Her buttery prose goes down so easy that you don’t realize you’re crying until you see the tears splash across the screen of your e-reader. Cody is a tough, angry outsider that anyone who’s ever lost someone will recognize while Ben is the wounded bad boy you want to kiss and slap across the face at the same time. I can’t stop thinking about them and you won’t be able to either as soon as you beg, borrow or check out a copy from your mom, best friend or local library. (And if you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please check out these suicide prevention resources and then go find a parent, friend or teacher and tell them how you’re feeling. There’s always help, please don’t be afraid to ask.)
After fleeing a murderous sneak attack from a rival tribe, a prehistoric girl stumbles upon a spiral marked on the wall of a forgotten cave. A grieving psychiatrist is deeply moved by a mentally ill poet who fears nothing except the tall spiral staircase that rises in the middle of the sanatorium. After being accused of witchcraft, a medieval cunning woman is thrown into a river where she glimpses a spiral carved into the rocky underwater bank. A lonely astronaut alters his course when his ship discovers signs of intelligent life in the form of a broadcast signal of the number phi, which is also the ratio of the Fibonacci Spiral. Each lyrically wrought quarter of this multi-layered novel, which author Marcus Sedgwick claims can be read in any order, revolves around this mysterious shape that appears over and over in human history, folklore and nature. Figuring out how each story relates to the others is a puzzling treat and I can’t imagine any reader not giving a gasp of delight and satisfaction when reading the very last paragraphs, which cunningly come around full spiral. As cleverly constructed and delightfully complex as Sedgewick’s award-winning Midwinter Blood, I predict Ghosts of Heaven will score just as much critical love in 2015!
Employing a similar technique in nonfiction that Nick Hornby used in fiction, motivational speaker and Paralympic skier Josh Sunquist goes back to question the girls of his youth to discover why no one ever wanted to be his girlfriend. The results are both painfully true and truly funny. When it came to dating, Josh already had a few strikes against him. First of all, he was homeschooled in a strict Christian family that didn’t allow him to even consider dating girls until he was sixteen. Secondly, his mother was a proud thrift store shopper, so Josh only rarely scored some cool threads to impress girls with. And finally, after a horrific bout with childhood cancer, Josh’s left leg had to be amputated, leaving him feeling understandably hesitant when it came to talking to the opposite sex. He also set some pretty tough rules for himself after the amputation: “1. Never be a burden. 2. Never be different.” So under most circumstances, Josh was so busy trying to blend in that he had a hard time standing out. After documenting his failure to establish romantic relationships at the middle school, high school and college level, Josh finally realizes that his problem wasn’t with all the girls who turned him down, it was with the guy in the mirror who, despite all the obstacles he’d overcome, just didn’t believe in himself. And then, Ashley came along…This breezy, humorous memoir reads like a what NOT to do manual on dating. After finishing, readers will learn that honesty is often the best policy, Miss America is probably just as insecure about her body as you are and Close Fast Dancing is actually a thing. Want to read a sample before committing? Click here.
Happy holidays, teen peeps! In the better late than never category, here is my top ten list, delivered like a present to your email, Twitter or Pinterest right on December 25th. 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 I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN a tiny bit more:) Click on the title to go right to the review.
Carroll, Emily. Through the Woods.
Fleming, Candace. The Family Romanov.
King, A.S. Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future.
Lockhart, E. We Were Liars.
Nelson, Jandy. I’ll Give You the Sun.
Nelson, Marilyn. How I Discovered Poetry.
Perkins, Stephanie. Isla and the Happily Ever After.
Tamaki, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki. This One Summer.
Whaley, John Corey. Noggin.
Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming.
Jude and Noah are fraternal twins, and so close that they can practically read each other’s minds. Both are artists (Noah draws, Jude sews and sculpts) and in his mind, Noah knows exactly what their joined spirit looks like: “Jude and me have one soul between us that we have to share: a tree with its leaves on fire.” They know each other’s thoughts, they keep each other safe. “We were keeping each other company when we didn’t have any eyes or hands. Before our soul even got delivered.” They even facetiously divide up the world between them, trading sun, flowers and trees back and forth for favors like they are the only two people on the planet. And then the unthinkable happens. Their beautiful, kind mother, a friend and mentor to both, dies in a car accident. And just like that, according to Jude, “our twin-telepathy is long gone. When Mom died, he hung up on me. And now, because of everything that’s happened, we avoid each other–worse, repel each other.” Now gentle, oddball Noah has become shiny, brittle and popular while bright and sunny Jude has become gray and withdrawn. Then Jude finds an artist mentor with a mysterious connection to her family that just might allow her to finally truly grieve her mother’s death and find her way back to her brother.
Oh, friends, this book! This book! I’ll Give You the Sun is the most delicious, word-juicy tome I have ever read. I underlined so many gorgeous sentences and passages that the pages of my copy are practically phosphorescent with highlighter. You’ll want to squeeze it like an orange in order to get every golden effervescent drop into your brain. The paragraphs sing with marvelous descriptions of the joy of making art and the disappointment of missed connections. Jandy Nelson hasn’t just given lucky readers the sun, but an ENTIRE UNIVERSE in 300+ pages. Read it, weep, and then read it again. A simply spectacular book that you absolutely must not miss for all the sun, stars, oceans and trees in the world!
“Reeve was the most special thing that every happened to me. Now I’m just an apathetic, long-haired girl who doesn’t care about anything but my own grief.” Jam Gallahue loved a boy named Reeve. Now he’s gone and Jam can’t figure out how to live her life without him. So her parents have sent her to the Wooden Barn in Vermont, a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers,” in hopes that a new environment will shake Jam out of her depression. But Jam isn’t very optimistic. “…supposedly a combination of the Vermont air, maple syrup, no psychiatric medication, and no Internet will cure me. But I’m not curable.” Then Jam attends her first Special Topics in English class, an exclusive elective with only five members taught by the mysterious Mrs. Quenell. She learns they are going to study Sylvia Plath, another long haired girl who suffered from depression and wrote a now classic book about her experience called The Bell Jar. She learns that each student is required to keep a special journal that the must turn in to Mrs. Q by the end of the semester. The last thing Jam wants to do is record her misery. But when she opens the pages and begins to write, she finds the process to be transformative…in more ways than one. She discovers her classmates are having the same experience, that the journals have become portals to another world where they can fix the issue that brought them to the Wooden Barn and in that moment, forget their current problems. But one by one, they each painfully come to understand that it is impossible to live in the past if they ever want to move forward. Jam is the last one to learn this lesson, and when she finally faces her fear and loss, the results are both devastating and enlightening. Critically acclaimed adult author Meg Wolitizer has penned a strong, spare, magically real YA novel about the power words and books can have over despair that will no doubt inspire a wave of new interest in the prose and poetry of Sylvia Plath.
“A little more of me, leaking on the floor, on bedsheets, on this table, till I am vacant as an empty house. My roof is caving in.” Michelle is only fourteen years old but she’s losing herself bit by bit as the newest member of Devon’s “family.” After running away from a drug addicted mother who accused her of seducing her boyfriend, Michelle is picked up by Devon, a good looking well-dressed young man who promises her food, clothing and a place to stay–for a price. Michelle, now known as “Peach,” must join Baby and Kat in selling her body for sex in exchange for Devon’s dubious “protection.” At first Michelle is just thankful to be off the street. But soon she sees that what Devon is asking them to do is slowly killing them from the inside out. Baby sleeps all the time to avoid reality, while Kat uses anger to hide her fear. She tells Michelle to give up thinking that anyone cares about them:”‘You only missin’ if somebody looking for you…Understand? We ain’t missin’, Peach. We just gone.'” Does Michelle dare to go outside the “family” for help, or will she become like one of the skinny, addicted women who wander the Coney Island boardwalk just like her mother? According to author Peggy Kern‘s note at the book’s end, “the average age of entry into prostitution is thirteen years old. In the New York City area, an estimated two thousand young girls are being sold for sex.” This frightening statistic comes to heartbreaking life through Michelle, who is by turns confused, sad, angry and hopeful. In other words, a real teen. Her voice is unforgettable, her story a call to action. This devastating read reminded me of the work of one of my all-time favorite writers, E.R. Frank, and I can’t wait to see what Peggy Kern does next. For more stories of teens in crisis, check out E.R Frank’s Life is Funny and America. To read more about teen sex trafficking and what you can do to help (or get help), check out LOVE146 and WomensLaw.org Little Peach is coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you March 2015.