Personal Best 2013: Top 2013 Published Titles

personal best 2013 iconWhew! 2013 has come to a close–and I still feel as though it just began! It’s been an exciting and eventful year, especially in reading and writing about reading! Sadly this excitement hasn’t been reflected on this blog for the last few months–balancing a busy beginning to my third year as a full-time librarian and the start of my tenure as a contributor to the amazing YALSA young adult lit blog, The Hub has proved a challenge! However, I hope to improved my balancing act in the new year. But if you’re curious to see where I’ve been focusing all my blogging energy this fall, head over there to check out my posts–and then read all the other wonderful posts written by far more brilliant librarians and writers!

As we enter the new year, many of us try to reflect on the past twelve months.  What important events shaped our lives? What milestones passed? Which resolutions did we keep–or forget?  And for some of us–what did you read? It’s been a good year for book lovers of all ages.  For 2013, I set an ambitious goal to read 150 books.  And amazingly, I actually beat my goal by over 10 books!  Even more importantly, I read a large number of really great books this year.  So I tried to gather together some of my favorites into my own personal best of 2013 list.   For this list, I limited myself to books I read in 2013 that were also published in 2013.  I’m hoping write up an additional post of less recently published titles that I read and loved this year as well.

All annotations are from WorldCat and each title links to Goodreads. 

A Creepy Double Feature

Despite hearing exciting things about her writing, I shamefully didn’t get around to reading any of Holly Black’s fiction until this year.  But it was a great year to start tuning in!  Holly Black published not one but two fabulous novels in 2013–and they were actually two of my favorite reads of the year.  Both novels illustrate Black’s ability to marry interesting–and genuinely creepy–horror fiction with multi-dimensional characters and an emotionally resonant storyline.  Additionally, each novel was excellently suited for its intended audience.

doll-bonesDoll Bones – Holly Black  Zach, Alice, and Poppy, friends from a Pennsylvania middle school who have long enjoyed acting out imaginary adventures with dolls and action figures, embark on a real-life quest to Ohio to bury a doll made from the ashes of a dead girl.

coldest girl in coldtownThe Coldest Girl in Coldtown – Holly Black   When seventeen-year-old Tana wakes up following a party in the aftermath of a violent vampire attack, she travels to Coldtown, a quarantined Massachusetts city full of vampires, with her ex-boyfriend and a mysterious vampire boy in tow.

Do You Believe In Magic?

As many of my recent posts over at the Hub might indicate, I’m a big fantasy fiction reader.  It’s a genre I have followed and adored essentially my entire life.  So I’m always on the hunt for good fantasy fiction–for me and for my demanding fantasy fan students!  This year was a fairly solid year for fantasy fiction, including some fresh voices and exciting contributions from old favorites.  The first title was marketed as adult fiction but have high teen appeal; the later titles are all young adult fiction.

ocean at the end of laneThe Ocean At The End of the Lane- Neil Gaiman  It began for our narrator forty years ago when the family lodger stole their car and committed suicide in it, stirring up ancient powers best left undisturbed. Dark creatures from beyond the world are on the loose, and it will take everything our narrator has just to stay alive: there is primal horror here, and menace unleashed – within his family and from the forces that have gathered to destroy it. His only defense is three women, on a farm at the end of the lane. The youngest of them claims that her duckpond is ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang. 

I’m a big Neil Gaiman fan and never more so than after reading this slim but rich gem of a novel.  Ocean was absolutely one of my top reads of the year;  it’s just a perfect jewel of fantasy novel, exploring the darkness and delight of childhood imagination.

SorrowsKnotCoverSorrow’s Knot- Erin Bow  Otter is a girl of the Shadowed People, a tribe of women, and she is born to be a binder, a woman whose power it is to tie the knots that bind the dead–but she is also destined to remake her world.

This incredibly fresh fantasy novel was the last book I read in 2013–and what a way to end the year! I heard about this novel a while ago, possibly on the fabulous Diversity in YA tumblr and I was initially just excited to see an original high fantasy set in a non-European invented world–especially a world inspired by North American indigenous cultures.  I finally got around to reading the e-galley I gained through Netgalley this week and wow, am I glad I did! Bow’s prose is just gorgeous, the world unique and incredibly well-developed, the plot epic yet intimate, and the characters beautifully complex.

bitter-kingdomThe Bitter Kingdom– Rae Carson  Elisa, a fugitive in her own kingdom, faces great challenges to rescue the man she loves from her enemies, prevent a civil war, and take back her throne but as her magic grows, Elisa discovers the shocking truth about her enemy’s ultimate goal.

dream thievesThe Dream Thieves – Maggie Stiefvater  Now that the ley lines around Cabeswater are awake, magic is swirling around Blue and The Raven boys and Ronan Lynch’s ability to pull objects from his dreams is almost out of control but worst of all, the mysterious Gray Man is stalking the Lynch family, looking for something called the Greywaren.

These last two fantasy titles are both volumes in existing series by two of my favorite current YA fantasy writers.  The Bitter Kingdom concluded Rae Carson’s break out trilogy begun in The Girl of Fire and Thorns and it was a worthy finale for one of my new favorite high fantasy series.  The Dream Thieves is the second novel in Maggie Stiefvater’s exciting and elegant new Raven Boys series and it was just as thrilling to read as the opening novel–I can’t wait for the next!

The Future Is Now

the-bone-season-cover1The Bone Season– Samantha Shannon  In the mid-21st century major world cities are controlled by a formidable security force and clairvoyant underworld cell member Paige commits acts of psychic treason before being captured by an otherworldly race that would make her a part of their supernatural army.

This futuristic supernatural thriller is already set up for a massive series and possibly a film adaption–and after reading it, I understood why.  It’s definitely a complex and unusual adrenaline-rush of a novel.  The world and story straddle the line between fantasy and science fiction and its futuristic setting might lead one to slot this debut in with the many other dystopian tale filling the shelves.  However, while this novel to be as mind-blowing as hyped, I was intrigued–and I’m excited to see the series continue.

summer princeThe Summer Prince- Alaya Dawn Johnson  In a Brazil of the distant future, June Costa falls in love with Enki, a fellow artist and rebel against the strict limits of the legendary pyramid city of Palmares Três’ matriarchal government, knowing that, like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.

I was intrigued by this unusual piece of speculative fiction from the start, at first mainly from a diversity/multicultural perspective.  Then I learned that the author graduated from the school where I work–and I was extra intrigued.  It’s been a few months but I think I’m actually still mulling this one over; there’s just so much going on in here–but the more I think about it, the more I like it.  If I had time, I would love to give this the reread it deserves.  But I can say it’s an exciting book and Johnson is doing some really different and thrilling things here.

Rising From The Ashes

I grouped these next few realistic contemporary novels together because all three focus on girls and young women struggling to deal traumatic pasts and forge a fresh place in the world.  Additionally all three deal with familial relationships in complex ways.  Despite these common themes, these novels are very different but equally highly compelling.

counting by 7sCounting By 7s– Holly Goldberg Sloan Twelve-year-old genius and outsider Willow Chance must figure out how to connect with other people and find a surrogate family for herself after her parents are killed in a car accident.

all the truth that's in meAll The Truth That’s In Me- Julie Berry  Judith can’t speak. But when her close-knit community of Roswell Station is attacked by enemies, Judith is forced to choose: continue to live in silence, or recover her voice.

where the stars still shineWhere The Stars Still Shine- Trish Doller  Abducted at age five, Callie, now seventeen, has spent her life on the run but when her mother is finally arrested and she is returned to her father in small-town Florida, Callie must find a way to leave her past behind, become part of a family again, and learn that love is more than just a possibility.

Another Kind of Survival Story

I am also a lover of historical fiction and two of my recent favorite writers of historical fiction, Elizabeth C. Wein and Ruta Sepetys both published new and very exciting novels this year.  Both deal with young heroines in very different but incredibly difficult situations.  Both young women are determined to survive and each finds a sense of resilience in the unexpected connections she forges with others.

rose under fireRose Under Fire– Elizabeth C. Wein  When young American pilot Rose Justice is captured by Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp, she finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery, and friendship of her fellow prisoners.

out-of-the-easyOut of the Easy- Ruta Sepetys  Josie, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a French Quarter prostitute, is striving to escape 1950 New Orleans and enroll at prestigious Smith College when she becomes entangled in a murder investigation.

Love Is A Battlefield

eleanor & parkEleanor & Park- Rainbow Rowell  Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits–smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Rainbow Rowell’s debut novel for teens has been both a popular and critical darling since its publication earlier this year.  And I can’t deny that I’m among its many fans.  I consumed this book in a single sitting during a train ride; I absolutely couldn’t put it down.  It’s one of those novels that reaches into your chest and grabs you by the heart.  It makes your chest ache, your stomach swoop, and your throat constrict–it packs a very special kind of emotional punch to the gut.  And while I found much to like about her second YA title this year (Fangirl), I found Eleanor and Park a bit more focused and compelling.

Learning To Listen To Your Drummer

I read a lot of really great contemporary YA fiction this year–so many, in fact, that I’ve divided them into multiple groups on this list.  Here are four strong and distinct coming of age tales with complex, lovable (if not always likable) protagonists and equally complex supporting teen and adult characters.  By chance, this group of novels also happen to share another common theme: the intense role the arts (especially music, poetry, and theatre) can play in our lives.

the lucy variationsThe Lucy Variations– Sara Zarr  Sixteen-year-old San Franciscan Lucy Beck-Moreau once had a promising future as a concert pianist. Her chance at a career has passed, and she decides to help her ten-year-old piano prodigy brother, Gus, map out his own future, even as she explores why she enjoyed piano in the first place.

sweet revengeThe Sweet Revenge of Celia Door- Karen Finneyfrock  Fourteen-year-old Celia, hurt by her parents’ separation, the loss of her only friend, and a classmate’s cruelty, has only her poetry for solace until newcomer Drake Berlin befriends her, comes out to her, and seeks her help in connecting with the boy he left behind.

this song wil save your lifeThis Song Will Save Your Life- Leila Sales  Nearly a year after a failed suicide attempt, sixteen-year-old Elise discovers that she has the passion, and the talent, to be a disc jockey.

just one dayJust One Day- Gayle Forman Sparks fly when American good girl Allyson encounters laid-back Dutch actor Willem, so she follows him on a whirlwind trip to Paris, upending her life in just one day and prompting a year of self-discovery and the search for true love.

Most Likely To Encourage Snacking While Reading

relishRelish: My Life In the Kitchen- Lucy Knisley  Lucy Knisley loves food. The daughter of a chef and a gourmet, this talented young cartoonist comes by her obsession honestly. In her forthright, thoughtful, and funny memoir, Lucy traces key episodes in her life thus far, framed by what she was eating at the time and lessons learned about food, cooking, and life. Each chapter is bookended with an illustrated recipe– many of them treasured family dishes, and a few of them Lucy’s original inventions.

Graphic memoirs seems to be on the rise and I couldn’t be happier, especially if they’re as delicious as Relish!  As an amateur baker & cook (and a passionate eater), I found Lucy Knisley’s memoir to be a totally delightful reading experience and the perfect blend of popular sub-genres, food memoirs and graphic nonfiction.

A Girl On Fire

i am malala I Am Malala- Malala Yousafzai & Christina Lamb  When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education. On Tuesday October 9, 2012, she almost paid the ultimate price.

Living in DC is consistently interesting in unexpected ways but it can be especially exciting for a reader.  We have a wealth of great libraries, universities, and bookstores bringing in great authors and speakers constantly.  I was lucky enough to snag a ticket earlier this fall to hear Malala Yousafzai and her father speak at a event hosted by our wonderful independent bookstore Politics and Prose.  It was an inspiring and fascinating evening and I found the book equally compelling.

Then And Now

twoboyskissingcoverTwo Boys Kissing– David Levithan  A chorus of men who died of AIDS observes and yearns to help a cross-section of today’s gay teens who navigate new love, long-term relationships, coming out, self-acceptance, and more in a society that has changed in many ways.

I’m an unabashedly huge David Levithan fan.  I waited in a significant line at the American Library Association conference this summer to grab an advanced readers’ copy of his newest novel and I was not disappointed.  I know that others have found the unusual narration choices and the large cast of characters distracting or difficult to connect with as a reader.  And while I completely understand this concerns, I found the book very emotionally compelling and I found that the unusual narration (especially the Greek chorus of men who died of AIDS) fascinating and quite poetic (in a classic Levithan fashion). It also feels like an appropriate spiritual successor to Levithan’s debut Boy Meets Boy, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this past year.

For a quite different but also delightfully fresh LGBTQ-themed coming of age tale, I also very much liked Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg this year.

Let’s Hear It For The Boy!

This list has been a little female-heavy in its protagonists, a bit inevitable when working at a girls’ school.  But this year was a great year for male characters, especially in middle grade fiction.  I read a few wonderful novels with lovable, unconventional heroes with a lot of heart.  I especially enjoyed seeing young male-identified characters who don’t fit neatly into masculine stereotypes.  Nate in Tim Federle’s delightful debut also happens to be one of those incredibly funny narrators who can make me giggle and snort out loud when reading on public transportation.

better-nate-than-everBetter Nate Than Ever- Tim Federle  An eighth-grader who dreams of performing in a Broadway musical concocts a plan to run away to New York and audition for the role of Elliot in the musical version of “E.T.”

Texting The Underworld by Ellen Booream and Doll Bones by Holly Black also feature complex, brave boys who break many masculine stereotypes (and some equally complex, brave girls!).

No Words Needed

Journey_by_Aaron_BeckerJourney- Aaron Becker  Using a red marker, a young girl draws a door on her bedroom wall and through it enters another world where she experiences many adventures, including being captured by an evil emperor.

While I absolutely love my job working with middle and high schoolers, I sometimes miss my time working with infants, toddlers, and younger elementary kids.  I miss creating storytimes and singing silly song.  But I especially miss the chance to keep up with picture books.  However, I managed to check out at least one of the new standouts this year and if you only look at one picture book this year, make it Aaron Becker’s Journey.  Picture book creation is a unique art and wordless picture books are a special subset.  This is a gorgeous, delightful narrative told entirely in Becker’s beautiful paintings.  As a believer in the power of art and imagination, I found this book especially lovely.    

So those were a few of my favorite 2013 books.  I have a whole other list of favorite reads that don’t fit the ‘published in 2013’ rule and yet another list of 2013 books that I didn’t get a chance to read yet.  But those will have to wait for another post or two later this week.

Which books made your personal 2013 best lists?

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Gorgeous, Gory, & Gothic: Review of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

coldest girl in coldtownOnce vampires were just stories–imaginary menaces lurking in horror novels and films. Sadly, those days are long over; vampires are very real–and very dangerous.  Tana can barely remember a time before the sudden outbreak of vampirism and establishment of Coldtowns–locked down but decadent ghettos where vampires, the recently infected, and vampire groupies live.  So when she wakes up after a wild party surrounded by drained, dead bodies, Tana knows that she is very deep trouble.  Escaping the bloodbath with her  infected ex-boyfriend and a vampire on the run from his own kind, Tana decides to take the only risk left to them: journeying deep into the voluptuous and violent world of the original Coldtown.  

Since their emergence into popular Western literature through Dracula, vampires have risen out of the myths and scary stories of various cultures and gained an extraordinarily strong hold on the human imagination.  While vampire tales seems to ebb in and out of mass popularity, they never quite disappear;  no matter the current trend, there will always be readers on the hunt for new vampire books.  A few years ago, vampires were on the upswing, especially in young adult literature; as with any big trend, the influx of related titles can become overwhelming and so we might assume that there’s nothing fresh to be written about vampires.

Thankfully, Holly Black has demonstrated how very foolish such an assumption would be!  The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a refreshingly complex take on the contemporary vampire novel.  In her newest novel, Holly Black explores the roots behind humanity’s long standing fascination, obsession, and fear of vampires: Why do we keep wanting to read and/or watch stories about them? Why are they simultaneously objects of desire and terror?

But don’t let me mislead you–this is no dry philosophical treatise on the concept of vampires.  Coldtown is an incredibly compelling story, full of richly crafted characters, gorgeous language, and heart-pounding action.  The world is clearly and specifically imagined, from the history of the unexpected outbreak of vampirism to the simultaneously highly commercialized and chillingly savage Coldtowns.  The use of contemporary technology, especially the internet/social media, is creative and interesting. While such details might eventually date the novel, for now, its inclusion both makes the world more realistic and provokes interesting questions about media and technology’s intense integration into our lives.

But it’s the characters that truly make this novel’s world believable.  Tana is brave and smart; she’s a good person but she’s not ‘nice.’  She’s forthright about her attraction to the mysterious Gavriel and she openly acknowledges her choice to to play–and sometimes enjoy– her ex-boyfriend Aidan’s manipulative games.  She is courageous and kind but not innocent or sweet.  It’s refreshing.  The other characters are equally complicated;  nearly none of the characters are purely good or evil–instead each reveals unpredictable complexities of motivation and personality.  Additionally, Black creates a wide range of characters, portraying a fairly realistically diverse cast.  Valentina is a great trans teen character whose gender identity is an important aspect of her story without being her only story.  I also found Aidan’s bi or fluid sexuality interesting.  The characters also seem to be a fairly realistic range of ethnicities and races.

Finally, Coldtown reminded me that vampires can be truly frightening.  As expressed in one character’s contemplative blog post, it’s not their inhumanity that scares us but their magnified humanity (their lust, gluttony, etc).  They are exaggerated versions of ourselves and our most intense desires.  And in Black’s version, they aren’t necessarily soul-less or without memories of their past.  In this world, there are no ‘nice’ vampires–although they are not necessarily purely evil either. Above all, vampires are hungry–they do not have human levels of self control  and Black does not gloss over this reality.  After all, it’s that lack of control which frightens us.  Vampires are us–with our appetites unleashed and unlimited.

The language helps to heighten the scare quotient as well.  Black’s writing is sensual and gothic–full of sharp sentences and rich sensory descriptions of everything from the rusty scent of blood to the lush touch of velvet.  The plot is twisty and well-structured and the shifting points of view work well in this complex but not convoluted story. I especially enjoyed the ending–nothing is tied up in a neat bow but the reader still feels satisfied.

All in all, a perfect Halloween read!

5 out of 5 spooky stars from me–and many of my biggest teen fantasy fans!

A Sampling of Sweet Links: July 2013

Screen Shot 2013-07-26 at 11.09.49 AMWhew! July was fabulous month in the online worlds of young adult & children’s literature and librarianship!  There have been so many great conversations flowing through cyberspace and so I’ve gathered together some of my recent favorite links.   I discovered many of these links through the awesome people I follow on Twitter and other brilliant bloggers’ regular link round-ups.  Since I appreciate other bloggers’ similar features so much, I’m going to make an effort to start regularly sharing my personal content curation as well.  To see more of my favorite sites and articles, check out my Diigo account.

Here are some of the posts, articles, and links that I found most interesting and enlightening over the past couple weeks:

Diversity, Multiculturalism, and Equity Issues in YA & Kid Lit

As my earlier post kicking off my Multicultural Middle School feature indicates, I make a concentrated effort to seek out resources about multiculturalism, diversity, and equity in education and young adult & children’s literature.  I find a lot of wonderful book reviews, analysis, and discussion through a combination of general YA/kid lit blogs (maintained by librarians, authors, etc.) and blogs/websites focused specifically on multicultural and diverse YA/kid lit and on multiculturalism and equity in education.

Lee and Low Books, a independent publisher focused on diversity, maintains a blog and they wrote a fascinating article about the recently released statistics about the continued lack of racial and ethnic diversity in children’s books. Check it out here–they’ve pulled together comments from a great variety of children’s literature professionals!

If you haven’t been checking out the excellent Disability in Kid Lit blog, click over there right away!  They’ve gathered articles and columns from a huge range of individuals invested children’s and young adult literature and each piece addresses an aspect of disability in kid lit.  Additionally, over at YALSA’s The Hub, the newest edition of the “Box Outside The Box” series focuses on “Different Operating Systems,” collecting a wonderful list of titles featuring characters on the autism spectrum.

Additionally there continues to be consistent and thoughtful conversations about gender and YA lit across the web. Over at Thought Catalog, there was a fascinating article about the ways that young adult lit challenges and pushes gender norms while YALSA’s The Hub had a great short essay about feminism and YA romance.

Reading, Reading, Reading

Some people might say that the internet is damaging reading somehow but I would definitely disagree (for many reasons which deserve a separate post!).  The web especially is fantastic source to find and follow the most up to date research, practical tips, and ongoing conversations about reading.  Here are a few recent posts about reading (specifically children’s and teen’s reading) that caught my eye this past month.

On the New York Times Motherlode blog, Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic wrote a refreshingly honest column entitled: “I’m Tired of Reading Out Loud To My Son, Okay?” This column then prompted a great response post by Julie Danielson over at Kirkus.  It’s wonderful to see this kind of respectful and practical conversation about children and reading!

Meanwhile, over at the fabulous Nerdy Book Club, the equally fabulous Donalyn Miller wrote about value of being a bookish fangirl and the challenge of sharing and encouraging such enthusiasm for books in children and teens.  I just love this post; Donalyn Miller asks such valuable questions that push us to rethink how we as educators approach the teaching of reading, language arts, and literature.  As she writes, “How would children see reading differently if we taught language arts as an art appreciation class?”

Hot Topics in YA Lit and Youth Services

Young adult literature and controversy appear to be forever bound together; young adult literature has, since its earliest beginnings, pushed the envelope through its content, its audience, and, frankly, its mere existence.

Earlier last month, awesome librarian and blogger Kelly Jensen wrote a great post over at BookRiot, “What Are Grown-Ups Afraid of in YA Books?”  It’s a short and excellent piece discussing the fear, distain, and disgust many adults express towards young adult literature; she touches on both historical examples and recent events (such as yet another attempt to ban Laurie Halse Anderson’s brilliant Speak).  The comments section quickly evolved into an intense (and increasingly rude) discussion and the article was featured over at the Huffington Post as well.  Kelly has pulled together her thoughts about the article and the reactions it has sparked–along with links to several response posts–over at Stacked.  If you work with teens and/or care about YA lit even slightly, you should head over and read both the original article and her round-up of responses.  Liz Burns also posted a response to the article and its resulting controversy–be sure to check that out as well!  This conversation might seem repetitive but it’s one that we must keep having.  As Kelly writes at the conclusion of the original BookRiot piece, the young adult books causing controversy among adults exist for a reason.  The issues or content included in books like Speak (which deals with sexual assault) might be frightening or unsettling for adults but there are teenage readers who absolutely need those books.  They need to know that they are not alone in their experiences and their feelings.  They need that reminder and acknowledgement that the world is not always kind, fair, or safe–and that there can be survival, growth, healing, and help.

Meanwhile, there was a lovely post over at The Hub addressing the all to common disdain expressed by many towards young adult literature and providing a succinct response to such detractors.

Finally, in a moment of shameless self promotion, I’m thrilled that my first post on YALSA’s The Hub went up yesterday.  If you’re interested in adult dystopian fiction with high appeal for teens, please go check it out!  I’m incredibly excited to be joining the amazing team of bloggers over at The Hub and contributing to the web presence of one of my favorite and most valued professional organizations, YALSA.

Meanwhile, happy August!  I’ll be posting a few more reviews of my recent reading over the next week.

Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

twoboyskissingcoverIt’s Saturday morning and on the lawn in front of a fairly ordinary high school two boys are kissing.  Their names are Harry and Craig.  They aren’t a couple–although they used to be–and their kiss is no spontaneous expression of affection or lust.  Harry and Craig are trying to break the world record for the longest kiss.  

Peter and Neil are boyfriends, navigating the complexities of being a couple.  When they kiss, it’s a reminder of who they are together.  Avery and Ryan just met.  They haven’t kissed yet but they want to–if only each can get over his fears.  Cooper is alone; he has no one to confide in–let alone someone to kiss.  Worst of all, he doesn’t even care–because he stopped caring about anything quite a while ago.

These boys’ stories are threads, woven together into a tapestry imagining the many forms that love can take–and the power of a single kiss.  

Now, I must put a little disclaimer out there: I am a massive David Levithan fan.  He’s one of the few writers of contemporary YA fiction that I read as a teen–and since I was a selective (and, to be honest, pretty snobby) reader who refused to read fiction set anytime in the last few decades, that’s saying something. So, I might be a little bias in my admiration of this novel.

And for me, this novel is classic David Levithan.  Two Boys Kissing incorporates all the elements integral to Levithan’s best work: poetic prose, a diverse cast of characters, unusual narration, and plot focused on emotional (rather than physical) journeys. And above all, his writing continues to demonstrate respect and care for his teenage readership. This novel in particular feels like a love letter to his readers. It’s a story about being young, about being different, about being LGBTQ-identified–and one told with incredible compassion, sincerity, respect, and love.

As in many of his novels, Levithan juggles a large cast of characters in this novel, shifting between their stories and gently connecting them through shared themes, experiences, and explicit plot events (primarily the record-breaking kiss).  Now, I foresee that some readers might find the large cast of characters and the constant movement between their narratives disconcerting or overwhelming.  However, Levithan takes a premise that could feel sprawling and manages to make the collective narrative feel both seamless and intimate. I love getting to know these characters as we slip in and out of their lives over a two or three day period.  While many of the primary characters appear to fit certain identifiable ‘types’ of gay adolescent males through their situations or relationships, Levithan fleshes each one out into fully formed human characters with unique personalities and motivations, avoiding stale stereotypes.

The unusual narrative voice also sets this novel apart.  The omniscient but still achingly human Greek chorus of gay men who died during the height of the American AIDS epidemic tie the novel’s multiple narratives together while also adding a sense of history and cross-generational connection frequently lacking in YA novels.  Additionally, their narration again demonstrates Levithan’s ability to offer incredible insight on the human experience through deceptively simple statements.

In all, I love following these seeming unconnected characters’ lives as they slowly become intertwined through a single, symbolic kiss.  The story illustrates the very powerful defiance & freedom that kiss represents. Even before reading Levithan’s lovely author’s note and acknowledgements, a reader will sense that this particular novel is incredibly personal–and be grateful that Levithan has chosen to write it. Additionally, it can be no mistake that Two Boys Kissing is being published approximately ten years after the appearance of Levithan’s historic debut novel Boy Meets Boy.  Two Boys Kissing feel like a natural companion to that novel. As a reader, I feel honored to be involved in such a personal and universal story–and as a librarian, I am excited to use my signed ARC as a give-away during a (hopefully) repeated resource share with our school’s queer-straight alliance this fall. Watch for the release of Two Boys Kissing on August 27.

5/5 stars for this lovely and loving novel!

*review written based on an advanced reader’s copy received from the publisher at American Library Association’s Annual Conference. 

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

house girlSeparated by over 150 years, two young women struggle to shape their own futures in very different circumstances.  In 1852, seventeen year old house slave Josephine Bell decides to run away from the deteriorating Virginia farm where she acts as nurse and housekeeper for Lu Anne Bell, a sickly amateur artist.  Over a century and a half later in 2004 New York City, ambitious young lawyer Lina Sparrow is handed the case of a lifetime; her boss asks her to find the ideal plaintiff for a monumental class action lawsuit seeking reparations for modern descendants of American slaves.  As she begins her search, Lina’s famous artist father Oscar Sparrow mentions a scandal rocking the art world; evidence has surfaced that renowned Southern antebellum painter Lu Anne Bell’s sympathetic slave portraits might have actually been the work of her house slave Josephine.  Intrigued, Lina dives into research and as she traces Josephine’s long forgotten story through attics and archives, she begins to questions her own family’s secrets–her mother’s mysterious death and her father’s continued silence on the subject.

Moving back and forth between Josephine and Lina’s lives, this layered novel explores  truth, storytelling, and justice through a suspenseful historical art mystery intertwined with intense human drama.  This strong genre-bending debut is filled with three dimensional characters, elegant writing, and a complex plot that gains momentum as it unfolds.  I found  Josephine and Lina’s narratives equally compelling and I was particularly impressed by Conklin’s ability to spin their separate stories into a comprehensive whole, bound together by both plot events and themes.  Additionally, Lina’s search for the truth about Josephine becomes a truly page-turning mystery; Conklin’s pacing and careful construction makes a potential dry history into a thrilling, heart-stopping quest.

As a (currently somewhat rusty) painter, I have always been particularly attracted to fiction featuring visual art.  House Girl explores art from a variety of perspectives, investigating both the power of art in an individual’s life and exploring the ways that art history is human history.  Josephine’s and Oscar’s paintings simultaneously hide and reveal secrets;  their art and their identities as artists directly affect the story’s events.  So it’s disappointing that the novel doesn’t include many scenes explicitly exploring Josephine as a painter from her perspective.  It might be my own background as a painter, but I wanted to hear more about Josephine’s experience as an artist–especially since her painting directly contradicts the dehumanization of slaves enforced by slaveholders, the legal system, and society at large. Creating art is an incredibly human act and one that allows stories to be told across many social and cultural barriers–as this novel ultimately demonstrates.

In all, House Girl is a satisfying and thought-provoking novel likely to attract a range of readers.  While it is published as an adult novel, Tara Conklin’s debut will appeal to both adults and older teens–especially those with an interest in historical fiction and/or art history.  Josephine is a teenager herself and Lina is in her mid-twenties & just beginning her adult life after years of schooling.  Their stories of self-discovery and identity development will resonate with young–and old–readers.  I’m adding The House Girl to my informal list of  2014 Alex Award contenders and look forward to seeing more from Tara Conklin in the future!

A definite 4 out of 5 stars for this lovely debut novel!

Multicultural Middle School: Girls In The Middle (Contemporary Fiction)

Screen Shot 2013-07-09 at 6.09.38 PMSince beginning my job about 2 years ago, I’ve had the privilege to become increasingly involved in the DC-Metro area’s multicultural and equity education work.   Last summer I attended Georgetown Day School’s fabulous Equity Collaborative as part of our school’s team. Since then, I’ve explored how I as a librarian can support our school’s efforts to become a more inclusive and equitable community.

Also, while I work with students in 7-12 grades, I spend a large amount of my time in the middle school (7th & 8th grades for us).  Accordingly, I’ve been working with middle school faculty on a variety of multicultural  initiatives.  In the process, I continue to discover a growing wealth of resources related to multicultural education and equity work with middle schoolers and I decided to begin a reoccurring feature here to share some of my favorites.

In this first edition, I want to share two fairly recent contemporary fiction novels that deal explicitly and sensitively with issues of friendship, family life, ethnic and racial identity, mental health, social class, and middle school social dynamics.  I originally read these two novels while hunting for a single book to be read by our whole middle school community (students and teachers) over the summer.  While that plan didn’t pan out for this summer, I’m still hopeful that we might make it happen next summer–potentially with one of these great novels!  They are excellent examples of multicultural children’s and young adult literature;  both tell stories about the lived experience of a diverse community of people, exploring how that wide-ranging diversity actually feels for the individuals involved.

camo girlCamo Girl by Kekla Magoon

Ella and Z have been friends for years–outsiders connected by their ‘weirdness’ and shared experiences of loss.  Since Z focuses primarily on living out his elaborate knight fantasy, he’s relatively unbothered by their outsider status.  But Ella still  longs to belong–or at least escape the daily bullying.  When new boy Bailey seeks Ella out as the only other black kid at school, she’s faced with a choice: become friends with popular Bailey and find acceptance or stay loyal to Z, her only friend for so long?  Then Ella realizes that Z’s unusual behavior might be growing into a real problem–one too big for the two of them to handle.

whole story of half a girlThe Whole Story of Half A Girl by Veera Hiranandani

When Sonia’s father loses his job, the event starts a chain reaction of changes in their family, throwing her contented and dependable life completely off balance.  Suddenly Sonia must leave her small, warm, and diverse private school and start 6th grade at a public school.  While missing her old friends and trying to navigate the unfamiliar social landscape at her new school, Sonia must also deal with the confusing financial and emotional implications of her father’s unemployment as they reverberate through her family.

While Ella and Sonia come from different ethnic, racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds, they both experience the pain of being an outsider among their peers and the confusion of shifting friendships and unfamiliar family conflicts.  Each deals with the intense experience of changing relationships with old friends and the disorienting process of making new friends amid the game of middle school politics.  Ella must make difficult decisions about the limits of her loyalty to Z.   Can she remain friends with him while also making new friends–especially among the group of kids who’ve bullied them both for years? Should she keep Z’s secrets–even when they might be hurting him? Meanwhile Sonia struggles to retain connections with her longtime friends while also navigating the unfamiliar dynamics of her new, larger school where friendships seem much more complicated than they ever were in her former tiny, tight knit community.

Additionally, their experiences of alienation are intertwined with their development of personal identities, especially their racial and ethnic identities.  These novels explicitly talk about race, ethnicity, religion, and social class without become simplistic, single-issue stories.  It’s refreshing and significant.  Sonia, who is half Indian and half Jewish American, notices that at her larger new school, black and white kids seems to sit in different groups at lunch and she wonders where she fits.  When she goes to church with a new friend, Sonia begins to ask questions about her own Jewishness: is she really Jewish if she doesn’t follow religious practices or participate in the Jewish community?  Which is she more: Jewish or Indian?  Ella initially notices Bailey because he is the only other black student at their school.  As their friendship develops, Ella and Bailey discover they have even more common than they imagined but there’s no question that Bailey’s role as Ella’s first friend and peer of color is significant.

Ella & Sonia’s first-person narrations are perceptive and authentic.  Sonia’s anger and frustration at her parents when told she will have to change schools is realistic and sympathetic; Ella’s need to belong and conflicted feelings about her friendship with Z will easily resonate with readers.

These novels are well written with strongly developed, sympathetic characters and rich, evocative language.  And while they are sure to attract many individual readers, both Camo Girl and The Whole Story of Half A Girl would work particularly well as book clubs or community reads for 5-8th grade students (and their teachers!).

The Language Inside by Holly Thompson

language insideEmma Karas truly understands the meaning of the word ‘dislocated.’  When her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, the whole family suddenly relocates from Japan to Lowell, Massachusetts. Emma feels as though her body and soul suddenly live on different continents.  Her guilt about leaving behind the country and friends she loves just as they begin to heal from the devastating tsunami is almost overwhelming–especially as she faces the terrifying reality of her mother’s mortality.  She’s become literally homesick as her stress manifests in severe migraines.  However, when her grandmother arranges for her to volunteer at a long-term care home, Emma meets Zena, a poet with locked-in syndrome, and Samnang, a fellow teen volunteer with an unhappy past and a gift for dance.  Through the growth of her delicate new connections with Zena and Samang, Emma taps into her slumbering poetic talent and learns that home can be more than a geographic location.

Since I read this novel as part of the 48 Hour Book Challenge, I was able to simply sit down and read it without interruption, finishing it in an hour flat.   I am very thankful that I was able to read this lovely novel in a single sitting because for that hour, I was utterly transported in the way that only great fiction can achieve.  Novels in verse can be tricky–but when they work, they can really work and The Language Inside is a prime example of a successful novel in verse.  Thompson’s free verse expresses Emma’s voice and situation perfectly as she attempts to navigate her sudden transplant from Japan–her home since infancy– to the United States–her birth country.  The fact that the move has been prompted by her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis has only added to Emma’s sense of loss and isolation.

However, I found Emma’s particular isolation especially relevant for my student population–and for many modern kids.  We have a large number of students at my school who have grown up around the world.  Emma’s experience, as a white American who spent nearly her entire life in Japan, can be very representative of the experiences of many ‘third culture kids’–children and teens who  spent most of their developmental years in a culture different from their parents.  This reality makes her isolation and search for identity particularly complex and poignant.  However, it also leads Emma to seek out connections with a more multicultural group of individuals in her new town than many other recently relocated teens might.

In fact, I particularly enjoy the skillful way that Thompson weaves together so many different topics into a coherent whole through her full-formed cast of characters.  From traditional Cambodian dance to poetry composition to PTSD, Emma and her newly built community of fellow outsiders expose the reader to a range of experiences and topics as the characters’ varied emotional journeys intersect in unexpected ways.

While the story does follow a clear series of concrete events, this is a quieter novel; it focuses on an emotional rather than physical journey.  And while I found the conclusion satisfying, I would guess that some readers who prefer their tales to be more action-packed might feel less fulfilled–or even have difficulty finishing.  But for poetry fans and readers likely to appreciate a quieter but emotionally rewarding novel, this is a surefire winner.

This is a truly multicultural story about the complexity of identity, family, and finding an authentic personal voice.  The Language Inside was an immense pleasure to read and I look forward to sharing it with my students this fall.  A shining 4/5 stars!