Dinah is a worrywart with a big heart who just wants everyone to get along and everything to be okay. She can’t bear hearing bad news and tries to stay positive even though sometimes she is just so sad about her best friend Skint she can’t take it. Skint is teenage cynic who is angry most of the time about all the bad things that happen to good people, but mostly about the bad thing that has happened to his good family: his smart, generous father is suffering from dementia, and Skint can’t do anything to stop it. When Dinah and Skint befriend a little boy who’s suffering in a way they both recognize all too well, their act of kindness towards him turns out to be a bomb that nearly detonates their friendship. The greatest strength of this character-driven book about real teenagers and real adults with real problems are its long, smart riffs of rich dialogue that just zip off the page, reminding me of some of my favorite titles, like this one, this one and oh, yeah, this one too. The Whole Stupid Way We Are is a sometimes sad, sometimes funny and always moving story about doing the best you can with what you have.
Seventeen-year-old Gloria Fleming is a beautiful young piano prodigy who’s still mourning the death of her mother when she was ten and chafes under her widowed father’s strict rules. Frank Mendoza is the impetuous young artist who moves in next door and sweeps Gloria off her feet with his sensuous drawings, paintings of flowers and romantic mix discs. When Gloria’s father forces her to go on a European concert tour, the two are devastated, and Gloria rebels the only one she knows how–by turning each classic composition into a version of Chopsticks. Gloria and Frank correspond throughout the disastarous tour with IM and postcards, while Gloria’s performances continue to deteriorate. Finally Gloria’s frustrated father is forced to bring her home, and the star crossed pair can’t wait to be reunited. But Gloria’s homecoming isn’t at all what she imagined. Teetering on the edge of madness, Gloria must finally face the fact she hasn’t been entirely truthful to herself about the role Frank has played in her life and his fate in her uncertain future. A romantic mystery told entirely in objects, photos, IM’s and handwritten notes, CHOPSTICKS will remind readers of a certain generation (that would be X) of an awesome little book called Griffin & Sabine, which also chronicles the meandering journey of pair of misbegotten lovers who are kept apart by strange circumstances beyond their control. The gut-wrenching ending will have you flipping back to the front to comb the pages for clues and understanding, and be prepared to argue about what actually happened with your best friend, who you will be giving it to as soon as you’ve finished. Although CHOPSTICKS has an accompanying tumblr & app, this provocative and hugely entertaining mixed media (book? collection? picture narrative?) stands strongly on it’s own four piano legs. (I’m VERY interested in what you teen people think of this one–leave me your thoughts in the comments)
Laurel used to have it all—a top spot on the cheerleading team, a loving father and brother who doted on her and T-Boom, the cute co-captain of the basketball team as her Friday night date. But now Laurel doesn’t care about pom poms, basketball or even her family. Because T-Boom introduced her to a new friend—powdery, chalky meth, which Laurel calls moon. And there’s no room for anything else in Laurel’s life now that she has moon. Even T-Boom has become little more than her dealer. Laurel loves how the moon makes her forget how much she misses her mom and grandmother, who died in a hurricane when she was eleven. Alone and living in the back room of an abandoned hardware store, Laurel gets high and writes poems on paper bags, just marking time until she can get more moon. Then she meets Moses, a gay street artist who specializes in memorial paintings of kids who died young. Moses tries to help Laurel, but the moon’s pull is strong. Will Laurel end up being his next subject? This beautifully rendered tome is vintage Woodson, full of bittersweet images of first love, heartache and what it is like to want a drug more than anything else: “Moon smoke so thick around me, like a blanket, like an arm…and me there on the ground in the bright morning, staring out through it—not knowing anything else anymore but this new thing, this wanting nothing, needing nothing, feeling nothing…but moon.”
“Boys do not have a monopoly on the Staring Business, after all. So I looked him over…and soon it was a staring contest. After a while the boy smiled, and then finally his blue eyes glanced away. When he looked back at me, I flicked my eyebrows up to say, I win.” So begins the tragic comedy of Hazel and Augustus’s love affair. He is seventeen and in remission from osteosarcoma and has a prosthetic to show for it. She is sixteen and terminal, diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer “…three months after I got my first period. Like: Congratulations! You’re a woman. Now die.” They meet sort of cute in a support group, after being introduced by a mutual friend whose cancer will soon render him blind. Though between them they are missing a leg and a great deal of lung capacity, their humor is still intact. Hazel: “I looked down my blouse at my chest. ‘Keep your shit together,’ I whispered to my lungs.” Augustus: “I didn’t cut this fella off for the sheer unadulterated pleasure of it, although it is an excellent weight loss strategy. Legs are heavy!” Though they are very different, they bond over their shared love of cancer perks,(“little things cancer kids get that regular kids don’t: basketballs signed by sports heroes, free passes on late homework, unearned driver’s licenses, etc.”) impromptu picnics and an abruptly ending novel by a crazy private author who lives in Amsterdam. Hazel doesn’t want to be the “grenade” that destroys Augustus’s life when she goes. But his gallows humor, big blue eyes and lanky, one leg frame are impossible to resist. And when Augustus plans a wild trip that will fulfill one of Hazel’s life long dreams, she finally gives in to her feelings. Hazel know that her future is short, and she thinks she’s prepared for what comes next. But it turns out that loving Augustus is more painful than any life-sucking tumor. Friends, I was undone by this novel. I had the pleasure of being on the Printz Committee that chose Looking for Alaska as the best YA title of 2005, and I have a been a raving fan of John Green’s work ever since. He understands how smart teens are, and never condescends to you in his fiction. (I mean, the man actually mentions Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in this book, a concept I wasn’t familiar with until my college freshman Intro. to Psychology class.) But I was not ready for the sweet, simple power of this story that is more about life, love and the pursuit of awesomeness than it is about cancer. I was not ready for the zen, steady eddie-ness that is Hazel or the articulate, video-game obsessed whirlwind that is Augustus. And once having met them, traveled with them and cried with them, I certainly wasn’t ready to let them go. My one regret about this book is that I read it too fast. I can read it again, but it won’t be like the first time. Hazel, despite her acceptance of her fate, “liked being a person. I wanted to keep at it.” Thankfully, she always will within the pages of this exquisitely painful and painfully funny novel. Read it soon–just not too fast.
Pearl aka Bean, has never felt close to her mother Lexie, who had Bean when she was a teenager. Grandpa Gus has always been the one to take her fishing, teach her how to cook and tell her stories about her grandmother, who died before Bean was born. All her mother does is work, argue with Gus, and go to the bar with her best bud Claire, which doesn’t leave much time in her life to be a mom. So Bean depends on her soulmate Henry and his mom Sally for comfort when the fights between Lexie and Gus get to be too much. When Gus dies suddenly, Bean is completely bereft. Strangely, she seems to be the only one. She knows Lexie and Gus didn’t get along, but Lexie seems almost happy that Gus has passed away, drinking and giggling with Claire in the days after the funeral. What is going on? Bean becomes determined to find out the reasons behind Lexie and Gus’s troubled relationship, and her mother’s strange euphoria now that Gus is gone. But when the truth comes out, it’s even more shocking and painful than the most melodramatic storyline on the daytime soaps that Bean and Henry watch with Sally. Though it hurts to fully understand the reality of her family’s past, it also helps Bean finally become the Pearl she was always meant to be. Jo Knowles has deftly taken what could have been a soap opera scenario and instead written a poignant story about the definition of family, the importance of honesty and the power of change. Lovely and spare, it is the perfect antidote to all that dystopian fiction you’ve been reading…
What would you do if you had a fear that was bigger than you were? Run away? Hide? Or would you call for help? Thirteen-year-old Conor is keeping a terrible secret about his mother’s illness, one that is so awful he doesn’t dare speak it aloud. So when a giant monster shows up outside his window one night and threatens him, he isn’t even scared. Because no monster is equal to the rage and sorrow he has locked away inside. But when the monster tells Conor that the reason it’s there is because Conor called it, he doesn’t understand. How could he have brought the monster without knowing? And is the monster there to help or to hurt him? As the monster continues to make its nightly visits and Conor’s mother gets sicker, Conor becomes desperate to put an end to the mystery of the monster’s presence. When the truth is finally revealed, it is both wonderful and terrible. This intriguing modern day fable about the lies we tell ourselves in order to survive tragedy was actually thought up by British author and activist Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could complete it. It was then passed into the hands of her colleague Patrick Ness, who in his own words, “took it and ran with it.” The result is a lyrical, melancholy tale, lushly illustrated with haunting images by debut illustrator Jim Kay, that provides no easy answer to the question of human suffering, but is full of hope nevertheless.
“They took me in my nightgown.” So begins teenage Lina’s horrific journey from her beloved home in Lithuania to the icy land of Siberia, when she and her family are deported by the Soviets who have annexed her country and are systematically ridding it of anyone they consider “anti-Soviet.” Lina, her mother and brother are separated from her father and packed into cattle cars that travel ever farther North to hardscrabble beet and potato farms where deportees are literally worked to death. There are many times along the way that Lina wants to give up. Like when a fellow traveler is shot in the head and dumped from the train for mourning her lost child. Or when her younger brother gets scurvy from months of starvation rations. But through it all, Lina’s beautiful mother Elena keeps the family’s spirits up by constantly telling them that not only will their imprisonment soon end, but they will find their father and all live together again in their own house. Lina just tries to make it through each long hungry day, only made bearable by her mother’s hope, her ability to lose herself by drawing, and her crush on Andrius, a fellow prisoner. Then, another blow. Lina and her family are being sent North again, this time to Siberia where the sun doesn’t rise for six months and the cold can kill. Lina’s despair is complete. How can she keep believing in her mother’s words when she is surrounded on all sides by darkness and death? In Between Shades of Gray, author Ruta Sepetys, herself the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, brings to light a little known period of history that many Americans are unfamiliar with: the systematic deportation of doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, business owners, or anyone considered “counter-revolutionary” from the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia during dictator Josef Stalin’s reign (1922-1953). In her author’s note at the back of the novel, Sepetys states, “It is estimated that Josef Stalin killed more than twenty million people during his reign of terror. The Baltic States…lost more than a third of their population during the Soviet genocide…to this day, many Russians deny they ever deported a single person.” Sepetys’ unflinching portrayal of the work camps and the bravery of the people who survived them will tug at your heart and hurt your head. And I’m not the only one both devastated and uplifted by Lina’s story. Check out these other reviews of Between Shades of Gray, then head to your nearest library, bookstore or ereader to experience the heartbreak for yourself. 4 weepies.
In this heart-breaking verse novel, Annaleah is devastated when she gets the call that her sometime boyfriend Brian collapsed on the basketball court at the park and died. Just like that, Brian is gone. The situation feels surreal and Annaleah is in a state of shock. “It was absurd/that I had dirty laundry/and that Brian/was dead.” She goes to his funeral, even though she’s never met his parents and doesn’t know his friends. Now Annaleah has to manage all the conflicting feelings she had for the boy she only dated for three months and who she was never really sure of. Of course she feels grief at all the things they will never do together: “I will never/take a trip with you./I will never/dance with you at prom./I will never/know if we had a future/beyond this summer./ I will never/know if you would have said,/‘I love you.’” But she also realizes that their short relationship was far from perfect. “I wonder what it would have felt like/to have a relationship with Brian/where I wasn’t always questioning/and worrying/and feeling so alone.” After spending the summer visiting Brian’s grave, nursing her sorrow and avoiding her friends, Annaleah begins to wonder who she is without Brian’s grief to bear. “Feeling sad/has kept me busy–/it’s been my job./And if I come here less,/what will I have?” But then she meets quirky Ethan at the pizza joint where she works and finds out a secret about Brian that casts their brief relationship in a whole new light. Can Annaleah put the past and Brian’s ghost behind her? Or will she allow the memory of her lost love to destroy her ability to make any new ones? Samantha Schutz’s second book is a sad yet interesting look at the phenomenon of grieving over a relationship that never really was. 1 weepie.
Seventeen-year-old Lennie has felt completely lost since her older sister Bailey, aspiring actress and all around amazing gal, died suddenly from a heart arrhythmia right in the middle of play practice. Always in Bailey’s shadow, now shy Lennie doesn’t know how to be in the sun without her big sis. Further complicating matters is the fact that the sisters were raised by Gram and hippie Uncle Big because their mom left town when they were tots and hasn’t been heard from since. Gram is convinced that one day she’ll return, but Bailey dreads ever seeing her now and having to tell her she is abruptly, horribly one daughter short. Then there’s Lennie’s love life, which shouldn’t matter like a time like this, but is absurdly taking center stage. For a girl who’s barely kissed a boy, she suddenly has two ardent beaus on her hands: French songwriter Joe Fontaine whose long eyelashes and composing skills make her heart sing, and skater boy Toby, whose passionate kisses ease the pain of Baily’s passing—because he also happens to have been Bailey’s boyfriend. “I kiss him back and don’t want to stop because in that moment I feel like Toby and I together have somehow…reached across time, and pulled Bailey back.” Yeah. As you can clearly see, it’s a mess. What do you say to a heartbroken boy who whispers, “I just want to be near you. It’s the only time I don’t die missing her.” ? Full of shame, guilt, lust and fear, Lennie juggles both boys, while trying to discover who she really loves and who she really is without Bailey to lead the way. “How can something this momentous be happening to me without her? And what about all the momentous things to come? How will I go through each and every one of them without her?”
What’s so unusual and super interesting about this debut tearjerker is Jandy Nelson’s fearless acknowledgment and exploration of the presence of sexual feelings in the midst of grief, and how these feelings can come on strong as a reaction against death. Lustful longings during a time of mourning are inconvenient and embarrassing to say the least, and Nelson captures that beautifully in Lennie’s shamefaced voice: “I am totally out of control. I do not think this is how normal people mourn.” These feelings, which come up at the most inappropriate times, also show how Lennie is developing as a person separate from her sister. In many ways, grief and her subsequent sexual awakening are making her over into a whole new being: “..what if somewhere inside I prefer this? What if as much as I fear having death as a shadow, I’m beginning to like how it quickens the pulse, not only mine, but the pulse of the whole world.” While I don’t think Sky has knocked Before I Fall out of the top weepy chick lit spot in my heart, it came pretty darn close. There’s some trailing plot threads that didn’t get tied up to my satisfaction, and some characters I would have liked to have seen more of (like mean Rachel, who I imagined looking like a blonde Lea Michele from Glee) But Nelson has a way with words, and certain phrases caught my attention and tugged at my heart, like this poignant expression about why Lennie has to stop hanging out with Toby, no matter how comfortable it is: “We can’t keep wrapping our arms around a ghost.” If you liked the weeptastic Broken Soup or Would You, you’ll definitely want to laugh and sob your way through Sky.
Samantha Kingston is a bitch. She and her three best friends Lindsay, Elody and Ally rule the school with their better-than-you attitudes and sky-high stilettos. Sometimes Sam feels a twinge in what passes for a conscience at the bottom of her small black heart, but she usually manages to squish it. February 12 is a Friday like any other, except on the way home from a party, Sam and her girls end up rolling their car and Sam’s life as she knows it is over. Until the next morning, when she wakes up in her bed. It’s February 12—again. At first Sam thinks maybe this is a coma dream, but soon she realizes that she’s trapped in a weird limbo—and she’s not sure what she’s supposed to do next. “Maybe when you die time folds in on you, and you bounce around inside this little bubble forever.” She feels anger (“I hate both of my parents right now…for letting the thread between us stretch so far and so thin that the moment it was severed for good they didn’t even feel it.”) then hopelessness (“I’m dead, but I can’t stop living.”) and finally resolve, as Sam realizes she can alter events, move people around, and perhaps avoid the inevitable crash that takes her life (“From now on I’m going to do things right. I’m going to be a different person, a good person. I’m going to be the kind of person who would be remembered well, not just remembered.”) But is Sam meant to save herself? Maybe the point of all this is to save someone else…
If Sarah Dessen and Jenny Downham collaborated, it might look a little like this rad reinvention of the mean-girl novel. Full confession? I dreaded reading this book. C’mon, a teen relives the last day of her life over and over? (Have I ever mentioned that Groundhog Day is one of my most hated movies of all time?) And it’s loooonnngg. Like 450+ pages long. But surprise, surprise, Lauren Oliver had me at hello with this elegantly crafted and completely mesmerizing story about a dead girl who learns what it means to live in just seven short days. Unlike Groundhog Day, each February 12 of Sam’s day is different, a whole life lived in 24 short hours as she tries to accept what she has lost and wishing she appreciated it more. The length ended up being important, as Sam goes over every detail of the careless existence she took for granted, causing YOU to consider all the little things in your life that you never think about but would miss terribly if they all went away. Like sunsets, little sisters and sappy movies, just to name a very few. Despite the length, there was a feeling of constant suspense as I wondered how on earth Oliver was going to solve Sam’s existential conundrum. I ended up loving every bit of it: the premise, the way Sam’s character realistically develops over the course of the story, the bittersweet end and yes, even the voluminous page count. This is a heart book. You will have an illogical urge to hug it when you’re done. I found myself racing through it, and sighing with great satisfaction upon finishing the last page. As you will, when this lovely and amazing tome comes to a library or bookstore near you.
“My best friend is dead, and I could have saved her.” Caitlin was devastated when her BFF Ingrid committed suicide. Now she struggles with overwhelming feelings of guilt, wondering if there was anything she could have done to halt Ingrid’s gradual and largely secret descent into depression and pain. When she finds Ingrid’s last journal hidden in her bedroom, she only allows herself to read one entry at a time, hesitant to sever this last link. Slowly, she becomes aware of the other people who have lost Ingrid too: their favorite photography teacher who now can’t look Caitlin in the eye, the boy Ingrid had a huge crush on who never even had a chance to ask her out, Ingrid’s incredibly sad family. Slowly, she becomes aware of the other people who have lost HER while she’s been grieving for Ingrid: her terrified parents, new girl Dylan who just wants to be her friend, popular boy Taylor who has liked her since third grade. For a while, all Caitlin could do was hold still so she didn’t fall a part. As Ingrid’s journal comes to end, Caitlin is faced with an enormous decision: hold tight to her grief or dare to let go and move on. This powerful debut, rich with themes of renewal, hope and redemption, will resonate with anyone who ever survived losing someone. (1 weepie)
Valerie thought she knew her boyfriend Nick. He liked Shakespeare and hated algebra. He was smart and funny and angry and sarcastic, just like Valerie. Even though they were both outcasts at their high school, Nick always made Valerie feel like she belonged. Valerie thought she knew her boyfriend Nick. Until the day he walked into the school Commons and killed six students and one teacher, then turned the gun on himself. Until Valerie threw herself in front of Nick’s gun to stop the carnage and sustained a terrible wound to her leg. That was the moment Valerie realized she didn’t know Nick at all–at least, not this empty-eyed person who calmly gunned down their classmates one by one. Valerie is left with the terrible guilt that she possibly helped cause this catastrophic event with her Hate List, a notebook full of names of all the people who ever tormented her and Nick. “Maybe I thought I didn’t mean for those people to die, but somewhere, I don’t know, subconsciously, I really meant it. And maybe Nick saw it. Maybe he even knew something about me I didn’t even know. Maybe everybody saw it and that’s why they hate me so much—because I’m a poser. I set it all in motion with that stupid list and then let Nick do my dirty work.” Now Valerie has to put the pieces of her shattered life back together, and she’s never felt more alone. With the help of a caring psychiatrist, a crazy craft lady and an unexpected new friend, Valerie will slowly make her way out of the darkness and into a future where nothing is certain except the fact that she’s a survivor. Debut author Jennifer Brown has written a book about a complex and uncomfortable topic that is clear, compassionate and compulsively readable, a book that delves deeply into issues of consequence, survival and forgiveness. And if you want to read more about school shootings and understand how and why they occur, check out Dave Cullen’s detailed and meticulously researched nonfiction, Columbine. 2 weepies
Everything in fifteen-year-old Rowan’s life has felt broken since the death of her older brother Jack two years ago. After Jack’s fatal accident, her father left, her mother sank into a sleeping pill stupor and her little sister Stroma came to depend on Rowan utterly. Now Rowan’s days are an endless round of school, caring for Stroma and pretending that she’s got everything under control. Then gentle drifter Harper comes into her life. Touring around Europe in an old ambulance-turned-RV, Harper meets Rowan when he hands her a photo negative he says she dropped outside a grocery in her London suburb. Rowan’s never seen the negative before, but it seems easier to accept it than argue with a stranger. Then Bee, a pretty, friendly girl a few years ahead of Rowan in school, offers to develop the film–which astonishingly turns out to be a picture of Jack. Grieving Rowan is shocked and confused. Where did the negative come from? And if she didn’t drop it, then who did? Rowan needs answers, and the logical person to ask is Harper. Though he isn’t much help with the photo, their chance encounter begins to blossom into a romance. Meanwhile, Rowan has found a soul mate in Bee, who also has a younger sib and helps Rowan take care of Stroma. Still, the mystery of the photo nags at Rowan and as her new relationships deepen, she uncovers a hidden interconnectedness between herself, Harper, Bee and Jack that gives her hope—just as her life takes another unexpected turn. I love everything about this little gem of a book, from the evocative title and the articulate writing, to the air of romantic mystery and the riveting and incredibly satisfying conclusion. Some of Valentine’s statements about grieving just floored me with their brutal honesty. Like this one about Rowan’s parents: “After Jack died, they protected themselves by refusing to love us, the kids who still had dying to do.” Ouch! And whoa! For as quiet as this book is sometimes, Valentine knows how to get and keep your attention with sentences like that, and with the slow revealing of clues about Jack’s photo that keep you guessing. If you liked Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer or Marthe Jocelyn’s Would You, you’re gonna want to serve yourself an extra big helping of Jenny Valentine’s delicious, devastating Broken Soup. (1 weepie)
Seventeen-year-old Mia has everything: a promising career as a cellist, awesome former-punk parents that really get her and her music, and best of all, an understanding alterna-rock boyfriend who is the yang to her yin. Then one day on a routine drive near their home, her family is involved in a terrible car accident. Mia’s life is nearly lost. Now treading a fuzzy comatose line between life and death, Mia has to decide whether she wants to give up and let go or stay and fight. As the minutes tick by during the the longest day of Mia’s life, she mentally contemplates the consequences of either choice. Friends and relatives move in and out of her hospital room and her memory, each one weighing in on Mia’s decision, whether they know it or not. As the dawn breaks the day after her accident, Mia finally decides what she wants to do. Then one last person speaks, and everything changes once again…you may think you’ve read this story before, but you haven’t. Not the way Gayle Forman tells it, in an unsentimental and sincere way that may remind you of certain other well-crafted weep-tastic reads on this list, but which has a unique style all its own. Best of all are Forman’s characterizations, especially of Mia’s punk rock parents, who remain realistically cool for adults, despite their suburban trappings. You won’t want to miss this evocative tearjerker, which will soon be a movie directed by former Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke. (2 weepies)
“Would you rather have your father sing at the supermarket or your mother fart in the principal’s office?”
“Would you rather lose all your hair or all your teeth?”
“Would you rather know what’s going to happen or not know?”
Natalie and her friends play the “Would you…” game all the time, with the highest marks going to the grossest or grimmest options. In fact, it’s just after they’ve been sitting around shooting the “would you” bull on a perfect summer night when Natalie gets the call that changes everything. Natalie’s older sister Claire has been hit by a car. She’s in a coma and it doesn’t look good. Now all Natalie can do is wait. Her life has slowed down to moments that pass like eons while she waits for Claire to either wake up, or…the alternative is impossible to imagine. “Would you rather die or have everyone else die?” Who is Natalie without Claire? Not only doesn’t Natalie know the answer to that terrible question, she’s sure she doesn’t want to find out. Marthe Jocelyn paints an incredibly intimate portrait of a family responding to a crisis. Grieving turns out to be heartbreaking and sometimes even heartbreakingly funny. The dialogue between Natalie and her posse is so crisp and real it feels like Jocelyn has somehow been party to the conversations that flew around your own rec. room on a slow Saturday night. If you only read one book before you go back to school this fall, I would rather it be this one. (2 weepies)