A First Time for Everything by Dan Santat

Ahhh, thirteen! It is the best of ages (Finally a teenager! Finally some independence!) and the worst of ages (“What the heck is going on with my body?” “Why are my friends acting so weird?”) Author/illustrator Dan Santat sweetly and hilariously examines the ups and downs of thirteen in this graphic memoir of his first time overseas. Dan is a quiet kid who’s learned that the best way to survive middle school is to keep his mouth shut and his head down. Luckily, as someone who loves to draw and and dream, that’s not too hard. But when his parents decide he needs to broaden his horizons by taking a three week trip to Europe with some of his classmates the summer before high school, Dan is is forced out of his shell in a big way. Confronted by new sights, sounds, smells and feelings, at first Dan is overwhelmed by the sheer size of the world outside his small California town. Then after exploring Paris and climbing the Eiffel Tower, Dan not only finds his people (Braden and Darryl), but he begins to find his footing. When his camera dies, he turns to his sketch book and starts drawing all his first time memories. (Remember friends, in 1989 there weren’t any cell phones!) He even works up the courage to start talking to Amy, a cute girl from another school. But then Dan starts worrying about what will happen when he gets home. Will he still be the same old awkward Dan? Or can he be someone new?

This heartfelt memoir is packed with Santat’s specific middle school memories that will be universally true for anyone who is, or ever was, thirteen: Being embarrassed by parents. Being mercilessly teased by friends about someone you have a crush on. Feeling on top of the world when the person you like likes you back, and devastated when they don’t. In thrall to older kids who seem to know so much more, even though they are only a few years ahead of you. Discovering you’re stronger, cooler, smarter, kinder, braver than you thought. It’s all here, and no current or post adolescent will leave these pages without feeling seen. The author’s note, actual photos and acknowledgements will be especially delightful for Gen-Xers like me, who are Santat’s peers and remember this time very well (I was 16 in 1989. I KNOW. GAWD.) Please make sure to find this wonderful tome at your nearest library or bookstore ASAP! You won’t be sorry.

Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home by Nicole J. Georges

Nicole Georges first met Beija at an animal shelter when she was sixteen. Beija was a Shar-pei/Dachshund mix with “inflatable” ears and a fear of men and toddlers. Nicole was a punk rocker coming out of a feral childhood with a fear of chaos. They fell in love immediately. For the next fifteen years, girl and dog were inseparable. Nicole survived car accidents, navigated a half dozen romantic breakups and makeups, worked at farm sanctuary, and even dabbled as a pet psychic. Through it all, Beija was there, dependably growling at babies, peeing on the carpet, and always being completely, thoroughly herself. Though Nicole sometimes questioned her sexuality and her calling as an artist, the one thing she never questioned was the loyalty of her quirky, protective, big-headed dog. “Forgiving and earnest, heartbreakingly faithful, Beija loved me even when I lapsed in loving myself. Neither of us had ever been chosen, but we chose each other.” This touching graphic memoir is so much more than just another doggy love story. While Beija features prominently, this is really the story of Georges’ young adulthood and transformation into an artist, writer and self-actualized human. Her detailed, intimate artwork poignantly conveys the message that while her experiences may have been specific, Georges’ feelings of fear, confusion and insecurity are universal. FETCH is for anyone who ever found love and acceptance with people after a fur person showed them the way.

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

Sasha was an agender, white, private schooled teenager who loved invented languages, web comics and wearing skirts with vests. Richard was a straight, black, public schooled teenager who loved pulling pranks, hanging out with his friends and working with little kids. One afternoon in November 2013, they were both riding the 57 bus in Oakland, California, complete strangers who had never met before. Sasha had drifted off, and Richard was goofing around with his friends. When he was dared by his friend Jamal to touch a cigarette lighter against the sleeping Sasha’s skirt, Richard was horrified when the fabric he expected to smolder and go out, instead burst into a deadly fireball. Sasha was burned on 22% of their body, and Richard was arrested. What happened next is a fascinating true story of pain, forgiveness, race, gender and socio-economic class that will inspire and enlighten anyone who reads it. Dashka Slater‘s crisp, journalistic prose paints a fully rounded picture of both teens and where they came from, allowing readers to see the incident in a full 360 degree view. Slater took a sensationalistic headline and turned it into an utterly engrossing, deeply human story that will challenge perceptions and change hearts.

Rapture Practice: a true story by Aaron Hartzler

“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.

The Good, the Bad and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us by Tanya Lee Stone

Oh, Barbie. At least HALF of the people reading this post owned one, and probably EVERYONE reading it either played with or destroyed one. (My cousin used to set his sister’s Barbies on fire in the driveway.) People either love Barbie or hate her, as author Tanya Lee Stone discovered when she was writing this fair and balanced book about the biggest doll of all time. “There is not much middle-of-the-road when it comes to Barbie…We all impose our own ideas and perceptions on the world, and Barbie may just be the ultimate scapegoat.” Starting with a forward by chick lit queen Meg Cabot that ends with, “…like Barbie, we could be anything we wanted to be.” (Well, we all know what side SHE’S on:), Stone lays out Barbie’s whole story, from her humble beginnings at Mattel toy company, where she was conceived by co-CEO Ruth Handler, to her rise as a pop culture icon, as captured by Andy Warhol’s “Barbie.” She chronicles Barbie’s uneasy and sometimes controversial changes from a Caucasian doll to an African American doll, and then a Doll of the World. Stone also addresses the whole debate about whether or not Barbie’s unrealistic body proportions are the cause of women’s dissatisfaction with their own measurements. She even humorously explores, through anecdotal interviews she conducted with kids and teens, our apparently universal and totally embarrassing compulsion to strip Barbie and Ken of their designer duds and throw them in a plastic bed together. I especially enjoyed the chapter “Barbie as Art,” where I got a huge kick out of the jewelry made by Margaux Lange. (It’s one of those times when you say to yourself—man, why didn’t I think of that??) Full disclosure? I still have several shoe boxes full of Barbies and her many accessories (including one Ken) in my adult closet that I just can’t bear to throw away. Obviously I’m not a hater, but whether you worship Barbie or loathe her, you’ll find facts that will both support and challenge your point of view in this interesting and entertaining examination of the famous doll we love to hate.

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Columbine. A word that has become synonymous with terror, pain and sadness. So what compelled me to read and review a book about the worst school shooting America has ever known? Well, for much the same reason that most adults who work with teens want to read it: to try and understand WHY. Author Dave Cullen, a journalist who covered the shooting for Slate.com, has been researching the horrific events at Columbine High School for the last ten years. His fascinating findings are detailed in this groundbreaking book, which debunks several of the myths surrounding the shooting and provides a chilling portrait of Eric Harris, who Cullen states was the ringleader in this deadly gang of two. In clear, accessible prose, Cullen takes readers through the terrifying time line of the shooting and the events leading up to it. He presents detailed descriptions of the killers Harris and Klebold, the tragically slain victims & their families, and most poignantly, the injured survivors, some of who persevered against incredibly debilitating injuries. Based on hundreds of interviews with eye-witnesses, families, police and health professionals, Cullen challenges the false media perception of the so-called “Trench Coat Mafia,” the martyrdom of victim Cassie Bernall, and the notion that the two boys who coldly planned this apocalyptic event were themselves loners and targets of bullies. He also suggests that all the evidence points to this incident being less a school shooting than a failed bombing attempt, and should be categorized as such. Particularly absorbing is Cullen’s psychological portrait of Eric Harris, who emerges as a “textbook psychopath” with the ability to lie so well he completely convinced both his parents and his therapist that he was on the road to responsible citizenship after committing a spate of petty crimes. I highly recommend this title for high school students AND their parents. Far from being a titillating tabloid text, this meticulously researched and sensitive tome works to further our understanding of a terrible event and underlines the fact that we are all responsible for each other and for monitoring the warning signs that can lead to such a fatal tragedy as Columbine.

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose

The Unlikely Disciple
When Brown University student Kevin Roose told his parents he wanted to attend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University for a semester, they were obviously shaken. After all, they had raised him to be a good liberal with solid Democratic values—where had they gone wrong?! Then Kevin explained that he wanted to enroll undercover in order to write a book about what it was really like inside the cloistered world of Christian college, and they relaxed…a little. The result of Roose’s anti-secular semester sojourn is this enlightening, balanced and highly entertaining book, where he shares his experiences with dating Liberty girls (“Hand holding and hugging are the only official displays of physical affection allowed at Liberty…and hugging only for a three-second maximum”), taking Liberty science classes (one professor provides physical dimensions for Noah’s ark and explains how the animals were in a state of hibernation so they didn’t need as much food), and checking out Every Man’s Battle meetings, “Liberty’s on-campus support group for pornography addicts and chronic masturbators.” But while some aspects of Christian collage were exactly what he expected, Roose was also surprised by how honest, kind, and funny his dorm mates were, and how much they struggled with the strict rules of Christianity that they professed to completely agree with. Although he was deeply troubled by the rampant homophobia that existed on campus and the anti-evolutionary stance taken by the faculty (some of whom are highly respected and published scientists) he was also deeply touched by the sincerity of these same students and faculty when it came to praying and helping one another through difficult times. Roose also really loved singing in the church choir, waking up on Sunday mornings without a hangover, and the surprisingly lack of pressure when it came to asking out Liberty girls. As someone who graduated from a (slightly) less strict Christian college than Liberty, and who no longer follows that spiritual path but still has friends who do, I really appreciated Roose’s tone, which was always open-minded and respectful and never condescending or patronizing. You can read more about Roose’s evangelical experience on his blog and website.

A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence by Patricia Hersch

A Tribe Apart What if an adult – a normal, mom-type person – asked to follow you and your family for 3 years, watching everything you did and said – even the stuff your parents knew nothing about? That’s exactly what journalist Patricia Hersch did. She wanted to know what made teens tick, so she set out on this huge research journey with six teens that took three years to complete. Hersch’s whole deal is that today’s normal (as in, not super high risk) teens are rebelling more than ever, because between the working parents and neighborhoods that are empty until 6:00 PM, they have no one to turn to except other teens – thus the title. Teens are like a tribe apart from the rest of society, a culture and group unto themselves. It’s a pretty interesting book, because the people she hangs with are just like the people you know, and Hersch herself is totally non-judgmental. When she finds out that one of the kids that she’s working with is having her first sexual experience, and another is dealing drugs, she doesn’t freak, she just records the info and lets the facts tell the story, This is a hefty book (391 pages), but totally worth your while. If and when you read this book, let me know what you think-–it’s sparking a lot of debate among parent, teacher, and librarian tribes…

Sugar in the Raw: Voices of Young Black Girls in America by Rebecca Carroll

sugar in the rawMeet a cross-section of black female teens from across the country and different economic levels. There’s Latisha, who’s two older brothers are in a gang. Nicole from Vermont has a white mother and a black father and hates the term mulatto. No two girls from this book are alike, except in one aspect – all have experienced racism in one form or another. That’s what hurts when reading this slim volume – we like to think that we are past all that, but these young women are telling us what it’s like here and now. These are “voices” you will never forget.

Starting with “I”: Personal Essay by Teenagers by Youth Communication, edited by Andrea Epstein and Philip Kay

starting with i All of these teen essays were originally published in New Youth Connections, a newspaper completely written for and by teenagers in New York City. (get it, they’re both NYC?) These essays are about subjects that are close to teen’s hearts and totally down to earth. Chris K. tells about the trauma of shopping with Mom, while Delia C. writes about how she’s come to deplore designer name brands. On a deeper note, Allen F. tries to figure out what’s up with the “N” word in the chapter on race, and Victoria L. struggles with her decision to become a vegetarian in the chapter on choices. Gotten yourself grounded? This is the perfect book to take to your room, ‘cause when you flip open the pages, it’s just like your friends talking to ya.

In My Room: Teenagers in their Bedrooms by Adrienne Salinger

in my room This is a great book for the closeted peeping toms among you, because you get the voyeuristic thrill of seeing another person’s most intimate space – their bedroom. In this collection of forty photo essays, you’ll see and read some of the most personal details of these very different teenagers’ lives. My only beef with this book is that it doesn’t give specific info about the picture itself. For example, Anne I. has a very plain room except for a HUGE wall hanging of Jim Morrison (whom I love, I’m a big Doors fan), but her essay is about being grounded all the time. I’d rather read about her obvious Morrison obsession, but maybe that’s what makes this book so good – by looking at the stuff in people’s bedrooms, it tells you everything about that person without them having to say a word.

The Shared Heart: Portraits and Stories celebrating lesbian, gay and bisexual young people by Photographs by Adam Mastoon

shared heartThis is a beautiful book, not just because of how it is presented, but also because its content. Next to 40 stunning black and white photographs appear painful and sometimes funny feelings, stories, and coming out experiences of teens who are not afraid to show who they are. The captions to each picture contain text that is written in the teen’s own handwriting, which makes each of their stories that much more personal and touching. Chris writes about how hard it is to be a closeted gay in a close-knit, Irish Catholic community, while Mollie poses with her obviously loving parents whom she came out to long ago. The book’s title comes from the fact that no matter how different we all are ethnically or sexually, we all share the same heart. I totally agree. With escalating violence against gays in the news, this book promotes tolerance and peace. It’s a keeper.

“A Totally Alien Life Form”: Teenagers by Sydney Lewis

alien life formSydney Lewis interviewed about 60 teens to get this collection of 40 essays that document teen life, liberty and pursuit of popularity. She divides the essays into subjects like “Outcasts”, “Faith” and “Secrets”. The essays are written in the teens’ own words, with just a short intro to each where Lewis provides brief background info and a physical description. What’s cool about Lewis is that she’s worked closely with Studs Terkel, a cultural historian who’s written books on everything from WWII to the state of America in the 80’s. With greatness like that rubbing off on her, Lewis is golden. Last, but not least, this hefty volume definitely has the coolest cover – with black and white stripes and magazine cut-out faces. Give it a look-see!

Coming of Age: The True Adventures of Two American Teens by G. Wayne Miller

coming of ageExcept for the lameness of the title (hello, MOST books about teens are some sort of coming of age story) this is actually a pretty good book. Like A Tribe Apart, it documents the day to day lives of Dave and Beth, two teens from the class of ’93. However, Miller doesn’t interject as much of his opinions as Hersch did in Tribe. He basically just observes, takes in the action, and saves his shtick until the afterword. Again, this book is interesting because the fly-on-the-wall perspective. As teens, we all want to know what other teens are up to and how close they are to being like us. The good news is, by reading the books listed here, you’ll find out that you’re all normal (if definitely not all the same!).