Welcome to a new series here on distraction no. 99 called Beyond the (Latest) Buzz. I’ve asked YA and kidlit librarians and book bloggers to share some books that they think deserve more attention. And I asked them specifically because I thought that, of all readers in the know, librarians and book bloggers are some of the most passionate readers we have in this industry, they read a TON more books than I do, and maybe, if I asked nicely, they’d be eager to recommend some beloved books with us here? They were—and they did.
Read on to see what books YA librarian Kelly Jensen of STACKED wants to share with us today…
Guest post by Kelly Jensen
A reader and a book work in tandem. What you bring to a book is as important as what the book brings to you.
One of the best parts of being a reader—and by extension a librarian and a blogger—is stumbling across those books where the act of reading is intimate. Where, after closing the cover, I find myself constantly thinking about the story and wanting to tell people about it. Where I wonder weeks and months and years later how those characters are doing. Where I wonder how I am doing without those characters.
Where the story becomes mine.
Most of the books that have done this happen to be quieter books. Not necessarily quiet books, but rather, books that slide under the radar or didn’t quite receive a huge buzz. Despite not shouting from the shelves, they deserve more readers and more attention.
What happens when you’re living in a school bus with your mom? When the only life you know has been one of instability? And what happens when the only thing that has been stable is ripped away from you? If you’re Amber Appleton, you put on a strong face and keep moving forward. Matthew Quick’s Sorta Like a Rock Star is a punch to the gut, but not because it’s about a girl finding herself with all of life’s lemons. It’s a punch to the gut because Amber is one of the most positive, optimistic, and tough characters despite every setback. Let me be honest a second—the first time I read this book, I quit on page 50. It was slow. There’s some weird slang, and Amber’s internal dialog is initially jarring. But I was urged to try this book a second time. Once I toughed it out past page 75, I couldn’t turn back. I had to know what it was that made Amber such a powerhouse. Why she continued to keep good spirits when she had no reason to. Why in the midst of living through hell she wanted to help everyone else around her so much. There is an authentic kindness to this character that so rarely finds itself in YA stories, and I cried as I made my way through the entire last part of the story. I wanted so much for this girl because she deserved it, even if she never once believed it. Amber is not just sorta like a rock star. She IS a rock star.
While we’re on the subject of books that made me cry, one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read happens to also be one of the sparest: Cecil Castellucci’s First Day on Earth. Mal is an alien. He’s lonely and doesn’t feel like he has any reason to be here on Earth; he wants to go back to the home planet where he belongs. But in the course of therapy, he forges a unique friendship with Hooper. Hooper wants to return to his home planet, too, but now that Mal feels a bond between them, the last thing he wants is for Hooper to leave him.
Castellucci’s book is never about aliens, nor about spaceships. This is a story about life as the child of a parent who doesn’t want you. Of what it’s like to grow up without what everyone else around you has. It’s a story about growing up too fast and making hard choices about who you do and do not let into your life. Mal has the chance to reconnect with his father, but his father doesn’t recognize him. It’s in that moment where Mal realizes the only way to move forward with his life—the only way to find home on Earth—is to let him go. Even writing this, I’m getting choked up because Castellucci’s book is the first book where I ever fully and completely understood a character going through the trauma of making such a life-altering decision at a young age. As a teen, I had to cut ties with my father, too, and did so in a manner not too unlike this one. Mal’s anger, his frustration, and his utter loneliness were palpable, aching, and nothing short of honest. In a mere 150 pages, this book riled up more from me than I could have expected. This little gem may look like an alien novel, but it is one of the most human stories I’ve ever read.
A good scary story is one you don’t see coming, and more often than not, I can see the twist from miles away. But Marianna Baer’s Frost kept me guessing. For her senior year at her boarding school, Leena is finally able to live in Frost House. It’s an old Victorian home, a bit off campus, and residing there with her good friends has been Leena’s dream. Since one of Leena’s roommates is abroad for a semester, the Dean, though, has assigned another girl—Celeste—to room with her. Leena is skeptical of Celeste, but she tries making the best of the situation. Except Celeste keeps getting stranger and stranger. Her behavior is erratic and she does things that scare Leena, like littering her bed with insects.
But Leena is far from the perfect girl she thinks she is—she herself hears voices. Her wooden owl, where she stores her medication, talks to her. Slowly but surely as the semester moves forward, both Leena and Celeste become more and more erratic toward one another and toward themselves. Baer’s momentum and subtlety make it tough to guess what it is causing the girls to slowly lose their minds—is it the setting? Is Frost House haunted? Is someone playing an elaborate prank on them all? Or is the stress of senior year causing their minds to play tricks on them? This book is unsettling through the entire ride because as a reader, you can never quite put your finger on it.
Blake Nelson is one of my favorite authors, and his Destroy All Cars is gold. Seventeen-year-old James is angry. He’s angry about everything in the world, particularly about how people continue destroying the earth with their big SUVs, their malls, and their waste. But it’s not just about that—James is also angry because he’s no longer with Sadie. She was his dream girl, and she was the only one who truly understood him. Sure, there are plenty of other girls but none of them will ever be Sadie. What makes Nelson’s story stand out to me is the non-traditional narrative structure. We learn about James through a series of essays he turns in for his English teacher’s class; we see what his teacher says back to him, too. It’s through this back-and-forth of successful and unsuccessful essays that James works through his anger to better understand himself and his passion. This book is hilarious. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time with teenage boys, but James is a quintessential 17-year-old guy. He is witty without realizing he’s being so, and he’s driven and motivated about something without realizing it, as well. Teens are smart but they’re also obtuse creatures, and Nelson captures that through James.
Historical fiction is a tricky genre for me, but when a book does it right, I can’t let it go. Jame Richards’s Three Rivers Rising is set in 1899 during the Johnstown floods in Pennsylvania. This novel-in-verse captures a number of voices, exploring what it meant to be wealthy, to be a servant, and to be in love across social classes prior to and following a massive natural disaster. Celestia—a girl born of a wealthy family—falls in love with Peter, one of the family’s hired hands, but her parents do what they can to keep them apart. Maura, the wife of a train conductor, waits for him to come home because they too have been separated. He has been working while she’s tended to their children. And the final voice is that of Kate, who is hard at work studying nursing, separated from her dream only because of the necessary schooling. The tension is believable and Richards’s use of verse serves purpose in the narrative and serves purpose visually, too. When the dams break, the story only becomes much more intense.
Christine Fletcher’s Ten Cents a Dance is set in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1940s. It’s one of poorest areas of the city, right along the stockyards so well-known thanks to Upton Sinclair. For 15-year-old Ruby, who is responsible for helping her sick mother make ends meet, the only opportunity to earn a living is working at the packing plants. It’s the last thing on Earth she wants to do. Through a once-in-a-lifetime encounter, though, Ruby’s offered an opportunity to become a taxi dancer. She has to do it in secret not just because it’s a trade with little respect—especially for someone her age—but because she’s taking it to a new extreme and stealing from her patrons. Of course, Ruby can’t keep the charade up forever. The atmosphere, the setting, and the rough-and-dirty descriptions of night clubs, jazz halls, and even the mob. Fletcher nails life in Chicago during this era and offers up a great story about class and attempting to break social expectations.
Because I could offer up many more titles, I’ll share just quickly a few contemporary gems before talking about the final book. One of the most overlooked books in this genre is Tammar Stein’s High Dive—a tale of a girl struggling with her mother’s deployment to Iraq and the sudden loss of her father. She’s tasked with closing up the family’s vacation home in Sardinia since it’s being sold, but she uses a chance opportunity to travel Europe, meet new people, and experience life in a way that she never has before. Arden is witty, intelligent, and adventure driven, despite all of the fear in her life.
Simmone Howell’s Everything Beautiful follows badass, faithless Riley Rose as she’s tricked into attending a spiritual camp full of athletes. While she can think of no worse punishment in the world, it’s through the relationships she builds with a physically disabled camper where she learns her life isn’t so bad and that maybe, just maybe, she has faith in something (even if it’s not the God they preach about at camp).
Adam Rapp’s recent release, The Children and the Wolves defines literary YA and defines “dark” and “edgy” at the same time. Three middle schoolers take a four-year-old girl hostage and leave her tied in a basement. Bounce, Orange, and Wiggins plan on using this kidnapping as an opportunity to raise money, except this story isn’t about the kidnapping or about the money-raising. It’s about power, about control, and about what happens when those who have too much power abuse those without any. It’s a hell of a risky story and one bound to make you both angry and sad for the same reasons.
I can’t forget to mention two favorite sports stories, either: Geoff Herbach’s Stupid Fast and Joshua Cohen’s Leverage. Herbach’s story follows former skinny dork Felton as he learns to work with his new, much larger body. He’s drafted at his school for the football team—not necessarily by choice—and aside from learning what it means to play the game and be an athlete, this summer Felton’s learning the truth of his family and the truth of what it means to fall in love. This story is tender and funny, the romance sweet and believable, and Felton’s voice is one of the best I’ve read.
Cohen’s story also features football, but it’s much different than Herbach’s. Arguably, it’s not a story about sports at all. Leverage is about bullying and about being a witness to inexcusable and sickening torment of other people. Told through two voices—Danny, a gymnast, and Kurt, a hulking football player—Cohen offers an unflinching look at what happens in the guys’ locker room and what it means to forge an unlikely friendship. The voices in this book are outstanding, and Kurt Brodsky is the kind of guy you wish you had in your back pocket whenever you needed him.
My final recommendation is one that I love to champion as often as possible.
When I started my new job in July, one of my co-workers asked me to recommend to her one book from the YA section she absolutely had to read. I thought about all of the books I’ve read that have left an impact on me in some way or that have refined my thinking about what a YA book can do to a reader. One title came to mind above others: Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers. I didn’t tell my coworker much about it except my standard line that it’s a book about mean girls with actual mean girls in it. She came back to me shortly after, telling me in great detail how she could not put it down, that it made her sick to her stomach, and that it scared her. She told me these same things the following week and after she read other recommendations I’d passed along to her. Some Girls Are sticks.
I think a lot of bloggers and a lot of authors are familiar with Summers’s book, but I recommend it here because every time I have mentioned it to someone, they tell me they haven’t read it. That when they do, their perceptions of contemporary YA are slightly different. That their understanding of what YA writing is is different. This book is brutal, intense, and an absolute must-read for anyone who hasn’t picked it up yet. It’s one of those rare books worth a second, third, and fiftieth read. It’s mean girls but it’s so much more—it’s power wielding, it’s bullying, it’s testing the limits of what relationships and social status are, and what it means to be yourself when yourself may be the ugliest thing there is.
That’s what YA is all about, isn’t it?
Have you read and loved these books? Chime in and tell us what you think in the comments! And read on for a chance to enter the giveaway to win the book of your choice from this great list…
- Add The Children and the Wolves to your shelf on Goodreads
- The Children and the Wolves on Indiebound
NOW ANNOUNCING THE GIVEAWAY WINNER…
Kelly has generously offered to give away one book from this post—winner’s choice! Who won? I randomly chose a winner from the comments and entry form and it’s…
The book she chose out of all the exciting titles Kelly mentioned is (one of my own personal faves):
Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers!
Congrats, Alison! I will contact you for your mailing address. And thank you, Kelly, for sponsoring this great giveaway!
Kelly Jensen is a teen and adult services librarian in southern Wisconsin. She blogs at stackedbooks.org and tweets @catagator. You can also find her over at YALSA’s The Hub blog, talking up debut novels and more. She is unashamed in her addictions to black licorice and tea.
Want more in the Beyond the (Latest) Buzz series?
Here are the posts in the series so far:
- YA/middle-school librarian Jennifer Hubert Swan recommends Better Than Running at Night and Every Time a Rainbow Dies