When Gerald was little, his parents signed his family up to take part in a reality television show called Network Nanny. Instead of helping, the show only exacerbated the issues in Gerald’s home—namely that his oldest sister Tasha was a psychopath who terrorized Gerald and his sister Lisi, and that their mother never did anything to stop it. In retaliation, little Gerald did the only thing he could to get back at his big bad sister: he took televised dumps on her most treasured possessions, earning the charming nickname the Crapper. His parents, unable to face Tasha’s disturbing behavior, blamed Gerald instead and the actress Nanny, the only one who ever called Tasha on her conduct, gave up after Gerald punched her in frustration. Now the Crapper is seventeen years old, and his reputation precedes him everywhere. As a result of his unfortunate television legacy and living under his sister’s reign of evil, he has developed a serious anger management problem that causes him to cut himself off from feeling anything so he doesn’t end up hurting anyone. Because lashing out is the only way he knows how to express himself: “The broken arm in freshman year. And nose. And that time I tried to crush a kid’s neck last year. I memorized the walls of the middle school principal’s office. I memorized every inch of the high school’s in-school suspension room.” But then he meets HER, the one girl who understands how he feels and can maybe even help him turn his life around. But will he ever be able to pull the layers of plastic wrap off his battered heart and learn to trust again? A.S. King’s latest is emotionally exhausting and blisteringly real, unlike the staged shows it’s based on. The story unfolds in a series of little ephiphanies as Gerald slowly comes to realize that he can reclaim his life and even fall in love if he’s brave enough to face down his past and confront his parents. The short chapters and spot-on dialogue make the pages fly. After closing the cover, I felt like I’d been through the psychological wringer—in the best possible way. This is one reality show that tells the truth. For more smart stories of savvy teens who learn to see through adult BS, you’ll want to check out King’s other outstanding titles.
Tina’s tired of everyone constantly asking her what she IS, when she’s still figuring it out herself. It’s annoying that just because she’s Indian, people think she’s going to end up in an arranged marriage meditating on sacred cows with a dot on her forehead. She happens to BE a lot of things, and not all of them have to do with where her family is from. So she’s pretty excited when her English teacher Mr. Moosewood creates an elective called Existential Philosophy, which is all about learning how to BE. And not anything in particular, either–just yourself. Tina thinks she can handle that, especially after her best friend dumps her and she develops a crush on the cutest boy at her private school. Her world is suddenly shifting. If she can learn to answer the big life questions posed by her existential philosopher hero Jean-Paul Sartre, maybe everything will fall back into place. Including her first kiss, which is the big life question Tina is most interested in answering. Forget the meaning of her existence! What actually matters most is if she ever plants a juicy one on skater boy Neil Strumminger, will he kiss her back? And if so, will they be boyfriend/girlfriend? Mari Araki‘s sketchy black and white drawings that look like they would be right at home on the cover of your favorite notebook perfectly compliment Keshni Kashap’s angsty text. This witty graphic novel about a smart, funny Indian girl seeking the meaning of life in high school hallways and family dance parties will ring true for anyone who’s ever tried to peel off society’s slapped on labels.
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.
Since she was a little girl, Laura has been captivated by the colorful and bloody history and literature of Russia. But when she finally gets her chance to spend a college semester abroad in Soviet Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1982, she is disappointed by the dreary weather, bad food and suspicious locals. Then she meets Alyosha, a handsome young artist who adores all things American, including Laura. Soon they are caught up in a passionate love affair that is made all the more romantic by the fact that they must keep it secret because American students are discouraged from fraternizing with anyone outside the university. Alyosha gives Laura the keys to his apartment and she finds herself skipping class and lying to her chaperones in order to spend more time with him. She willfully ignores all the warnings from her friends that native Russians “fall in love” with Americans all the time in order to secure a visa to the United States. But as the semester comes to a close, and Alyosha talks more and more about how much he longs to visit San Francisco, Laura can’t help but wonder if the all the warnings are true. Is Alyosha really in love with her? Or is he just using her as a way to escape the close-minded culture of Soviet Russia? While not as offbeat and funny as the author’s smashing debut, this solidly written and deeply felt love story set in a time and place that will seem totally bizarre to those of you born in the 1990s is made even more fascinating by the fact that it is most likely based on this. This bittersweet romance is the perfect way to end your summer.
This last volume of the splendidly gruesome Monstrumologist series depicts sixteen-year-old Will Henry rebelling against the authoritarian rule of his mentor and sometimes nemesis Dr. Pellinor Warthrop more than ever before. Through the last three books, Will has continued to spiral down, down, down into a personal darkness from which he believes there is no salvation. Now a stone cold teenager, Will Henry has to fight to feel anything at all, except when it comes to his childhood sweetheart Lilly Bates. When they meet again as teens, he is instantly smitten, and not pleased to be distracted from his courting by Dr. Warthrop’s new obsession with yet another believed-to-be-extinct monster. But Will can never forget the secret that has dwelled in his blood since the beginning, which casts a shadow on his current bond with Lilly. Soon he is embroiled in a convoluted scheme that ends up turning all his relationships to ash, including the one that has defined him his entire life: his complicated connection to Warthrop. After breaking apart in the most spectacular manner, Will and Warthrop meet one last time, each uncertain about his life and legacy and if the world is big enough to contain them both. This concluding title of the Monstrumologist epic is disappointingly thinner than it’s predecessors in plot and page numbers. The beginning is a bit confusing, as it shifts forward and back in time from the events that lead to Will and Warthrop’s break to their final meeting. In addition, Warthrop’s attempts to secure his latest biologically aberrant prize initially devolves into a shaggy dog mystery that is sometimes difficult to follow. However, once yet another beloved character is killed off, the plot becomes clearer and Yancey pulls off a neat slight of hand identity trick near the end that left me both impressed and very, very relieved. And while the ending feels a little too neat, it also feels absolutely true. I am deeply sorry to see Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop go, as this is without a doubt one of my favorite book series of all time. To follow their horrific adventures from the beginning, start here, go there and there and end here when The Final Descent comes to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you.
Cath is the shy “Clark Kent” half of Cath and Wren, a pair of twins who used to share everything, including their love of writing and reading fan fiction. But now that they’re headed to college, Wren isn’t as interested in their online stories anymore and wants to go off on her own, while Cath just longs for everything to stay the same. At first Cath is as miserable on campus as she thought she’d be. She desperately misses her twin and worries about her single advertising exec dad, who is prone to fits of extreme mania that leave him exhausted and unstable. The only thing that makes school even bearable is keeping up with her fan fiction about Simon Snow (a very thinly concealed version of Harry Potter). But bit by bit, almost against her will, she is coaxed away from her computer screen by her smart, sarcastic roommate Reagan and new creative writing partner Nick. Then there’s flirty Levi, Reagan’s Starbucks barista boyfriend. No matter how much she tries to ignore him, he just refuses to let Cath slip away into her shell. Cath can’t decide if Levi is charming or annoying, but he’s certainly entertaining. Suddenly college isn’t so awful after all. But then Nick starts acting weird, her dad goes off the deep end and her long lost mom, who deserted Cath and Wren when they were little, decides she wants to be a part of their lives again. And if all that weren’t enough, Cath thinks she might be falling for the worst possible person in the universe, and her sister is too busy with her new life to help her decide what to do. Cath is so overwhelmed that the only thing that helps is immersing herself in all things Simon. But how will she ever learn to solve her real life problems when the first sign of trouble sends her running to the safety of her fictional world? This delightful and poignant story by the beloved author of the beyond amazing Eleanor and Park does not disappoint. Rainbow Rowell uses realistic, absurdly funny dialogue like a BOSS, exploring in spirited conversations between her quirky, flawed characters everything from plagiarism and identity to divorce and mental illness. It’s a book about being an artist, being in love and being true to your self. Just read it and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Fifteen-year-old Colette is “what your English teacher calls an ‘unreliable narrator.’” Or in other words, a big fat liar. Her therapist says she lies because she’s “got a very bad case of Daughter-of-a-Famous-Movie-Star Disorder.” But Colette disagrees, even though the part about having a blockbuster mom is true. “I say I lie because it’s the most fun I can have with my clothes on.” Even though her lying gets her in trouble with her family and friends, Colette finds the exaggerated storytelling too much fun to stop, especially when her elaborate fibs find such an appreciate audience in her little brother Will. Then Colette meets Connor, the boy of her dreams on the set of her mom’s latest movie, and lies about everything from her age to who her mother really is. But this time she regrets not keeping it real, because she finds herself truly falling for Connor. One thing Colette is honest about is how far she wants to go physically with Connor, and when he storms off after she tells him “no” one time too many, Colette regrets not being more honest about why she doesn’t want to go all the way. When Connor finally returns and shares some shocking truths about himself, Colette has decide if she should come clean or keep her flirty fictions intact. This light and frothy verse novel about truth, lies and relationships is the perfect way to end your summer reading. It has been six long years since we’ve seen a sassy title from the singularly talented Sonya Sones, and this one will not disappoint her masses of fans.
There are two sides to every story, and stupendously talented author/artist Gene Luen Yang elevates that saying to a whole new level with Boxers & Saints. In this double volume, graphic novel masterpiece, two teenagers become caught up in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1898 on opposite sides, fighting to retain their identity and hold on to their hard won religious values.
Boxers tells the story of Little Bao, the youngest son in a motherless family of farmers from a poor village. When a Catholic missionary priest smashes the statue of one of his village’s gods in front of him, he is devastated, especially since the opera stories he sees during the spring fairs make him feel as though the ancient gods are his close friends and allies. As he grows into adulthood, he begins training with a kung fu master in order to join the rebellion against these foreigners who have their own army and refuse to respect the native Chinese ways. Soon he is heading up his own small army, each member fueled by the angry spirits of the old gods. But as the “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fist” marches closer and closer to the capital of Peking to “eradicate the foreign devils” once and for all, Little Bao begins to question his rock solid faith as the number of bodies of innocent people build in his violent wake.
Saints tells the story of Four-Girl, a lonely child who is considered a bad luck devil by her family no matter how much she tries to win their approval. The only person who shows her kindness is the village acupuncturist, who is also a Christian. He tells her Bible stories that fire up her imagination, and she begins having recurring visions of Joan of Arc. Soon she decides to become baptized and join the church. She gets a new name, Vibiana, and leaves home to work at a Catholic orphanage, followed by her visions of Joan. When Little Bao’s army comes to her village’s doorstep, Vibiana decides that God is calling on her to be His warrior maiden like Joan of Arc. The tragic, unpredictable result of Little Bao and Vibiana’s final meeting will haunt you long after you close the covers on Saints.
The earthy/monotone palate of both volumes perfectly conveys the rural landscape and hardscrabble life of the peasants, only exploding into vibrant color when Little Bao’s pantheon of Chinese gods arrive on the scene, with their rainbow robes and elaborate masks, or Four-Girl’s golden vision of Joan of Arc shimmers between the trees outside her home. While this exceptional work will no doubt help gazillions of readers understand the complexity behind religious wars and personal freedoms, it can also be appreciated as a swiftly paced adventure peopled with men, women and gods who bring this fascinating period of Chinese history to bloody life. I was blown away by both the richly illustrated package and the timeless message. Read them in the order the title suggests, (first Boxers, then Saints) and then pass them along to everyone you know.
Revenge of the Nerds meets Mean Girls in this high-sterically funny GN drawn by the author of The Adventures of Superhero Girl and Friends with Boys. Charlie is a basketball jock. Nate is a robotics nerd. But somehow they manage to be best friends–until Charlie’s ex-girlfriend Holly proposes using school funds earmarked for the robotics team to instead finance her cheerleading squad’s new uniforms. Furious, Nate decides to try and take over the student council by any means necessary so he can have some say in how the funds are allocated. This incites an all out war between the nerds and the cheerleaders that involves everything from a hijacked scoreboard to copious amounts of weed killer and places Charlie unhappily in the middle. And while it’s not fun being pulled between the two factions, at least it helps distract Charlie from the fact that his divorced parents are making him miserable. But when Nate discovers an original way to solve both funding problems (two words: Robot Rumble) Charlie finds himself in the unlikely role of peacemaker between his best friend and his ex-best girl. Can he find a way to broker peace between his parents as well? This story of high school high jinks crackles with energy fueled by Faith Erin Hicks‘ bold, blocky artwork and Prudence Shen’s chuckle making dialogue. The trash-talking alone at the Robot Rumble had me snorting in my subway seat. You’ll want to throw this in your beach bag pronto. (Want a sneak peek at the panels? Read the webcomic version here.)
Do you remember the first time you realized you were no longer a kid? Maybe it was when your best friend started “going out” with someone and never had time for you anymore. Maybe it was at your middle school “moving up” ceremony when your principal shook your hand instead of hugging you and your parents asked if you would rather get a job instead of going to camp this summer. It’s tricky, that moment. One foot is still on the playground, while the other hovers uncertainly over adulthood. For twelve year old Zach, that moment comes when his father decides the time has come for Zach to retire his “action figures” and throws them away while Zach is at school. Devastated but determined not to show it, Zach tells his two best friends Poppy and Alice that he simply doesn’t have time anymore for the elaborate fantasy game they’ve played for years using dolls and their imaginations. But Poppy can’t let go. She insists that the creepy doll locked in her mom’s china cabinet that has loomed large in their imaginations as the evil Queen of their fantasy land is possessed by the ghost of a girl who needs them to return her to her grave site. Zach and Alice are skeptical until Poppy tells them, “Did you know that bone china has real bones in it?…She’s made from human bones. Little-girl bones.” And the doll does seem to have sack of what looks like ashes inside her. So the three friends go on a quest to return the Queen to her grave, encountering spooky circumstances that may or may not be the result of the dead girl’s ghost. Is there really a ghost, or is this just Poppy’s attempt to keep them believing in magic just a little longer? And what are these new feelings brewing between Alice and Zach? Secrets are revealed between the three that begin to tip the balance from believing that everything is possible to understanding that life isn’t always fair. “I hate that everyone calls it growing up but it feels like dying.” says Poppy passionately, sounding exactly like you, me and any other person who’s been twelve, thirteen, thirty, sixty five or eighty. The feeling that sometimes growing up sucks is universal, and it doesn’t necessarily get any easier as you start hitting the numbers that stop ending in “teen.” Holly Black so gets that in this beautifully melancholy book about endings and beginnings that will speak to readers of all ages. Without a doubt, one of the best books of the year.