Sorry for Your Loss – a Look at Family Grief

Lynn: Jessie Ann Foley has just 3 novels under her writing belt but she has garnered a lot of honors already including a Printz Honor, a YALSA Teen Top Ten selection, and a Morris Debut Award Finalist among other honors. Despite this, I was totally unprepared for the emotional power and impact of Foley’s new book, Sorry for Your Loss (Harper, 2019). This story opens with a funny scene that introduces readers to Pup Flanagan, an awkward unmotivated high school boy and reveals his hopeless crush on a classmate. Then Foley broadens the view, bringing in the other members of the large and noisy Flanagan family—a Chicago Catholic family with 7 kids. Pup is the youngest at 17 and his siblings all live within a short distance in what he thinks of as “Flanland.” But this close and loving family is struggling with crippling grief over the sudden death of one of the sons from meningitis and they are all lost and alone in the midst of the family crowd.

An art teacher takes an interest in Pup and in a lucky moment, opens a door for Pup into the unusual experience of finding something he is good at and enjoys. Through his camera lens, Pup begins to really see his world, his family, his relationships and his own pain and his family’s anguish with an objective eye for the first time. Helping Pup with his photography and giving him experience with another family is Abrihet, an Eritrean immigrant girl from his art class who encourages Pup to keep looking for the light. As Pup finally begins to deal with this grief, he slowly takes his family with him on a journey that may help them all to heal.

This is a deceptively quiet book. It is written with a slight sense of distance that allows the reader to walk this emotional path with Pup while also looking on with an objective sense at the entire arc of their family dynamics. I found this story incredibly powerful and deeply moving. It is a brilliant portrait of family relationships and the way so many families deal—or don’t deal—with grief. Pup is a charming and achingly authentic character who stole my heart as did the entire Flanagan mob. I won’t soon forget them.

While this is a wonderful moving book for older teens, I think it will be equally effective as a cross-over book for the new adult and adult readers.

Finding Her Voice – The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Lynn: Finding your voice is an important theme of teen books. In Stacey Lee’s new historical fiction, The Downstairs Girl (Penguin/Putnam, 2019), we meet a young girl for whom speaking at all literally means risking the roof over her head and the food on the table. Jo Kuan works as a maid to the cruel and selfish daughter of one of the wealthiest families in Atlanta. She goes home at night to a secret basement home under the offices of The Focus, an Atlanta newspaper. Originally a part of the Underground Railroad, the little apartment is unknown to the upstairs Bell family and Jo has grown up knowing she and her grandfather must not make a sound to reveal their presence. Living in earshot of the lively Bell family has given Jo a wonderful education and vocabulary to assist her already sharp, curious mind and growing sense of justice. But Jo is Chinese in the Atlanta of 1890 and the Chinese, many of whom were brought to the South during the Reconstruction to work the plantations, are discriminated against in both law and society. So even outside of their little home, Jo must keep her thoughts to herself.

But then Jo wangles a job as the new advice columnist for The Focus – anonymously. Not even the young editor, handsome Nathan Bell, knows the identity of the Dear Miss Sweetie column and the success of the new column skyrockets. Gradually Jo takes on discrimination, women’s rights, and injustice in Atlanta and her columns and comments are the talk of the town. As deeply buried secrets about Jo’s past surface and controversy swirls, Jo begins to wonder if the price of speaking up is way too high.

Lee has once more done a stellar job of weaving fascinating history into a lively and highly entertaining story. I knew nothing of the history of Chinese immigrants in the South and the story also includes a less-than-flattering picture of the embedded discrimination in the suffragette movement, as well as the social and legal restrictions on women and minorities that existed at the time. The book is packed with vivid and well-developed characters and Jo, in particular, won my heart from the very first page. As Jo truly finds her voice and speaks up for herself and others, readers will cheer.

Cindy: The “Agony Aunt” columns, as they were nicknamed at the time, were often written by male journalists pretending to be female authors but Jo’s identity is a dangerous secret, and there are plenty of other dangers that keep the plot moving along. Interspersed with the serious themes and events, are chapter-opening sample advice responses to Miss Sweeties fan mail, some tongue in cheek and others with a good dose of snark. This story gallops to a finish, perhaps a little too neatly, but all but the most cynical readers will be cheering as author and protagonist cross the finish line. I’d love to see this book brought to film. Definitely recommend this one to fans of Jennifer Donnelly’s novel, These Shallow Graves (Delacorte, 2015), another 19th-century story with a feisty heroine, a family mystery, and issues of social and gender injustice.

The Field Guide to the North American Teenager – YA Snark with a Sighting of Sweetness

Lynn: Opening the pages of Ben Philippe’s debut book, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager (Harper/Balzer+Bray, 2019) was like opening my own front door to hear the voices of my sons and grandsons. No, they aren’t Black Haitian hockey-loving Canadians like Norris Kaplan but they were/are smart, snarky, and cynical but with a sweet vulnerability and sometimes a little too clever for their own good. Seventeen-year-old Norris’s recently divorced mother has taken a rare tenure-track position in her obscure field at the University of Texas in Austin. Dragged metaphorically kicking and screaming from his home, friends, father and beloved Habs to attend high school in Austin, Norris knows just what to expect from watching American sitcoms: mean brainless cheerleaders, bullying jocks, clueless nerds and loners! Assigned to keep a writing journal in class, Norris records his observation of the “species” in his field guide and his entries are hilarious but also smugly dismissive.

Norris plans to keep his head down, get through the year and get home to Montreal as soon as possible but despite himself, Norris makes a friend, meets a stunning girl, takes a part-time job, and begins to realize it is not all that easy to lump people into neat stereotypes. Could his field observations be wrong?

This was laugh-out-loud funny with spot-on snarky dialog and such a clever premise. The endearing cast of characters was the real highlight of this book and Norris especially stole my heart. He is working so hard at being cynical but Philippe does a stellar job of giving readers revealing glimpses of Norris’s basic sweetness and the vulnerability he works so hard at concealing. As Norris matures through the course of the story, he begins to see beyond his own assumptions and so does the reader’s understanding of the real depth of all the characters. Early on, I settled in, happy to follow the plot of what I thought was going to be a predictable trajectory. But a surprise twist took the story in an unexpected direction. This was still satisfying but it made the book that much more intriguing for me.

Don’t miss this clever “field guide” and stay tuned for Ben Philippe’s next observation of the teen species.

Updated: Want more? Check out this All Things Considered NPR interview with Ben.

Royal Reads for Teens

Lynn: American fascination with the British Royals is strong and authors for teens have brought the subject across the pond. So if Meghan Markle watching is hot at your library, here are two 2019 titles that will rate the royal wave:

American Royals (Random, Sept. 2019) by Katharine McGee asks why the Brits should have all the fun? This story posits that back in 1781 at the Battle of Yorktown George Washington accepted the offer to become King of America. Jump forward 250 years and the colonial monarchy is still going strong. Beatrice Georgina Frederika Louise of the House of Washington is Princess Royal of America and next in line to the throne. And there are not one but two spares, her younger twin siblings, Prince Jefferson and Princess Samantha. Beatrice has taken her royal role seriously but now she is faced with the need to marry for the future of the kingdom. Can she do this when her heart is taken by a commoner?

McGee has loads of fun with this concept, providing an alternate history and an American aristocracy. The Duke of Boston and the Earl of Huron anyone? She also works in the pre-requisite wild younger royals, noble mean girls, “prince poachers,” and duty vs the heart debate. Stay tuned for the next installment.

 

 

 

Next up is Her Royal Highness (Penguin/Putnam, 2019) by Rachel Hawkins, a companion novel to one of my favorites from last year. Originally titled Royals (Penguin/Putnam, 2018) it has been re-titled as Prince Charming. This story features Flora, daughter of the current Scottish king and sister to Andrew, heir to the throne. Like the first book, this story follows an American girl whose life becomes embroiled with the Scottish royals. Here, Millie Quint is a scholarship student from Texas to the illustrious boarding school, Gregorstoun. Millie is thrilled to be part of the first-ever female class at the previously all-male prep school. Her new roommate, however, sees attendance there as a penance! The two girls are as different as two people can be and dislike each other on sight. But as the term proceeds, the irritation between the two turns to attraction. Does this romance between a geeky geologist and a royal fashionista stand a chance?

This installment is just as much fun as the first one and many characters from Royals add to the fun by joining the story. Sweet and witty, this one will please old fans and make new ones.

 

Cindy: For more royal fun, check out Lynn’s post at our previous blog home of ten years, this royal post at the Booklist Reader.

 

 

ALA Exhibits: The Ones That Got Away

Cindy and Lynn: We picked up many great upcoming youth books at the recent ALA Exhibits and publisher events, but even so, there were a few that got away either because they went fast or won’t have an arc. The early bird gets the worm, and the hot new books. We try not to be greedy as we receive a bounty of books on our doorsteps throughout the year, but here are a few we are still eager to clutch in our hands.

 

All the Days Past, All the Days to Come, by Mildred Taylor (Penguin, Jan. 2020)

The 10th and final book in the wonderful Logan Family Saga that began with Newbery Medal Winner, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. If you haven’t seen the repackaging of this series, with new cover art by Kadir Nelson, check it out.

 

Lifestyles of Gods & Monsters, by Emily Roberson (Farrar, Oct. 2019)

This one sounds like the Minotaur meets Hunger Games! A debut book we really wanted to find!

 

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, by Jason Reynolds (S&S/Atheneum, Oct. 2019)

Reynolds crafts ten tales, one per block, about what happens on the walk home after the dismissal bell rings. We would have been heroes for sure if we’d scored this arc!

 

The Queen of Nothing, by Holly Black (Little, Brown, Nov. 2019)

Book 3 of the Folk of the Air series! Need I say more? We’re grateful that this publishing two months earlier than previously scheduled.

 

The Toll, by Neal Shusterman (S&S, Nov. 2019)

This concluding volume was probably the most begged-for galley from the older focus group and our Best Books Book Club.
(We wanted it too!)

 

Andrew Norriss serves up a winner with MIKE

Lynn: When book blurbs describe a book as “quirky” I’m a little cautious. Usually that means different and that can be good or bad. That was the case with Mike (Scholastic, 2019) by Andrew Norriss. Not only was “quirky” used but there is that eye-catching but odd cover. What sort of book was I getting? Well, I’m still asking myself that question AND I’m very willing to use the word quirky to describe it. But I’m also here to urge anyone and everyone to read this thoroughly unusual and extremely fascinating book.

The premise is this: teenage tennis prodigy Floyd Beresford’s future is clear: win the Under-18 championship, eventually turn pro, and make lots of money. But in the middle of a pivotal match, an odd boy strolls onto the court disrupting the game. Only it turns out that only Floyd can see him. Dr. Pinner, the kind psychologist, tells Floyd that Mike may be a projection of some unexpressed wish or need and Floyd realizes that he has no interest in tennis and especially no desire to spend his life playing it. Ah ha! But Mike comes back at intervals and sometimes someone else CAN see him and sometimes it involves things Floyd couldn’t possibly know. Who or what is Mike?

Short in length, matter-of-fact in tone, Mike breaks all the rules for a YA book as it jumps into Floyd’s early adult years, keeps kind and caring adults firmly in the story, and expects the reader to come to their own conclusions.

Norriss writes with a light touch creating a story that is easy to read but impossible to forget. He opens doors here that are impossible not to walk through. Charming, satisfying but also open-ended, this is a gem for readers looking for something different…and yes, quirky.

Game Changer: A Visit with Tommy Greenwald

Cindy: An email from my Scholastic Book Fair rep diverted my spring break reading this year. Would I be able to host an author event with Tommy Greenwald the week I returned from vacation to fill in for another school that had to cancel? Why, yes. Yes I could. I put aside the adult book I was reading (The Library Book by Susan Orlean) and bought a copy of Tommy’s latest book, Game Changer (Amulet, 2019), and read it on the flight home. I already had the book in my middle school libraries, but the attractive cover had kept it in circulation and out of my hands. I’m glad I have the extra copy as this is going to be a popular booktalk next fall.

Eighth grade football player Teddy is hospitalized in a coma after a head injury during a summer training camp. The story plays out in Teddy’s inner thoughts, dialogue between hospital visitors, texts, newspaper articles, counselor transcripts, and a social media online forum. This format exposes truths, rumors, opinions, and secrets as the mystery of what really happened to Teddy is unraveled. Greenwald, a football fan himself, explores the dangers of the sport along with the traditions of hazing in this all too realistic portrayal of how the game is often played. Lots of white space (due to the multimedia format), in addition to the many discussion points and the mystery make this a great choice for reluctant readers. The pages turn quickly as the truth comes to light.

Tommy’s presentation to our 6th-8th grade students was fun. His idea for the Charlie Joe Jackson series came from his three sons, Charlie, Joe, and Jack, non-readers all. As you can see in the photo, he tried to bribe his boys with ice cream. I don’t know if the book (or the ice cream) worked on his kids, but Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading is popular with legions of middle grade readers. He had our students laughing while also thinking about the writing process. It’s always heartening when kids realize that they are not the only ones who are asked to edit their writing. We didn’t have much time to prepare for the visit, but all of Tommy’s books are in circ now and will be for awhile. Author visits are so beneficial for promoting reading and to remind students that REAL PEOPLE write the books they are reading, or perhaps NOT reading. 😉 Thanks, Tommy!