Young Adult

Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party

Revolution is Not a Dinner Party

By Ying Chang Compestine
Young adult
Henry Holt BYR, 2007
ISBN: 0805082077 / 978-0805082074
Awards/Recognition: California Book Award for Young Adult Literature
 * 2008 ALA Best Books For Young Adults
 * 2008 ALA Notable Children’s Books
 * 2007 Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Fiction Book List

Revolution is Not a Dinner Party offers a look at a family’s frightening experiences during one of the most chilling chapters in modern Chinese history. It’s a page-turner, a tragedy, and a tribute to the resilience of a young girl in the midst of a world gone crazy.

“The summer of 1972, before I turned nine, danger began knocking on doors all over China.”

So begins the story of Ling Chang, the daughter of two doctors living in Wuhan during Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution, when thousands of Chinese intellectuals were killed or sent to re-education camps. Over the course of three years, Ling and her family descend from well-respected citizens to “bourgeois pigs,” whose home is ransacked and lives made miserable at every turn. The novel doesn’t spare the thousands of tragedies, large and small, through the eyes of a little girl awakening to the darker side of human nature. Whether it’s a broken doll, school humiliations, betrayal at the hands of friends, or witnessing a suicide, Compestine lays the facts bare. Ling journeys from being a wide-eyed innocent to a streetwise twelve-year-old, who wields belt buckles to ward off bullies and who steals food from the Red Guard’s secret stash.

Beyond the nail-biting tension as the noose tightens around this family, the relationship between Ling and her parents made this novel a keeper. Ling is blessed with a healthy relationship with her doting father. His life lessons – whether dancing the tango, studying English, or memorizing the physician’s code of ethics — see her through even her loneliest days. But, I was even more intrigued by the complicated love/hate dance between Ling and her mother. Seemingly tense and unfairly critical at the start of the novel, Ling’s mother is anything but sympathetic. In time, however, Ling learns to judge those behaviors against the backdrop of what it really takes to survive in a world where even the most trusted friend can betray you, when the simplest dream or desire can cost a girl her life.  MM

Learn more about Ying Chang Compestine.


Shark Girl

Shark Girl

By Kelly Bingham
Young adult
Candlewick Press, 2007
ISBN: 0763632074 / 9780763632076
Hard cover, paperback, e-book
Awards/recognitions: * South Dakota Teen Choice Book Awards Reading List * Black-Eyed Susan Book Award (Maryland) * Florida Teen Read Award * Oprah’s Book Club – Kids Reading List * Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year

Find a hammock, a beach chair, or a blanket. Go away to your backyard, the pool, or the ocean. Leave the tissues behind. It’s not that you won’t need them; it will just feel good to let your tears splash these pages. Kelly Bingham’s debut novel, Shark Girl traces one tragic and triumphant year in the life of fifteen-year old artist, Jane Arrowood.

A sunny day at the ocean in June turns into a national news story when a shark attacks Jane, severing her dominant right arm. Jane’s older brother, Michael, starts their day at the beach by teasing his sister about her pink bikini. Shortly thereafter it is Michael who pulls Jane out, saving her life. In a way, the rest of the story shows us how many people and how much time it takes to pull Jane Arrowood out of that moment that changed her life. Everyone works so hard at Jane’s recovery; no one harder than Jane.

Using poetry, journal entries, and interior dialogue to trace Jane’s recovery, Bingham tells the story in three parts. Part One occurs in the hospital immediately after the attack. Letters, cards, and flowers pour in from all over the world. People want Jane to be a hero. Jane just wants to be Jane, again. In the hospital therapy room, she meets a little kid named Justin who has lost his leg below the knee. When Jane tells him, “A shark attacked me,” Justin responds, “He ATE your arm?” Finally, here is someone who wouldn’t know how to walk on egg-shells even with feathers on his feet, and Jane’s recovery deepens. In Part Two, Michael, their mom, and her friends help Jane adjust to returning home. Everyone thinks Jane will never draw again. She remains friends with Justin, who urges her to draw him a picture, but Jane can’t. Part Three begins with Jane alone in the kitchen struggling to cook her own dinner. Flashbacks through poems that begin with “I remember” show us how long this journey has been and will continue to be for Jane. By Part Three, though, Jane is getting there. Her worries have shifted. She talks about make up; she accepts a ride and welcomes attention from a pretty cute guy. She gets angry when a friend makes her feel not good enough. And, Jane’s back.

Shark Girl is a book to be devoured. All in one sitting. I took a blanket and pillow out in the yard and read Shark Girl in an afternoon. Later, I let myself go back and take in the visual experience of how artistically the pages are designed and rendered to bring texture and illumination to the story. GA

Click here to listen to
an interview and reading with Kelly Bingham from Candlewick Press.

Learn more about author Kelly Bingham.


Butterfly

Butterfly

By Sonya Hartnett
Young adult
Candlewick Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-7636-4760-5
Awards/recognitions: * Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award *Starred reviews from Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal

There is a particular kind of girl who moves from middle grade novels straight into the adult world, without looking back. Her heart and mind are big enough to make the leap into all kinds of reading – just as long as it moves her. Luckily, there’s room on this list for a gifted writer who can create thoughtful and provocative YA that walks such readers into adulthood. Her name is Sonya Hartnett, an Australian author who won the 2006 Printz Honor award for her novel Surrender.

Butterfly, her 2009 release, is dark, thoughtful, and unerringly honest about the hell of being 13. Hartnett, who started publishing when she was a teenager, captures the world of “frenemies” and predatory adults, without reducing anyone to simple clichés.

Plum is about to turn 14, and her party plans are at hand. She lives an ordinary life in Australia with her loving (and thus incredibly irritating) parents, her 21-year-old brother, Justin, over whom all her friends swoon, and Cydar, the oldest brother, a pothead and recluse. Plum wants to stop believing in God. She wants to be thin and well-liked (or at least not tortured) by her friends. She wants someone to understand her, perhaps as well as her 35-year-old neighbor, Maureen Wilks. But is girlhood something we want to keep or something to run from? And what price does Plum have to pay to find out?

Plum and the other characters in this novel are richly layered and unpredictable in both their ruthlessness and unbelievable kindness. Hartnett’s prose is – as always – gorgeous, and her subtle insights about the landmines of becoming a woman are unfailing. Yes, the novel has drug use, sexuality, infidelity, and an uncanny accuracy for the painful self-loathing that comes on the heels of trying to blend into vicious girl groups. It also has chapters told from the point of view of the adults. If that makes you pull the plug on it as a book for young people, it’s your loss. To me,  Butterfly, as its name suggests, is about the metamorphosis of growing up. It’s about beauty emerging from even the ugliest situation. MM


What Comes After

What Comes After

What Comes After

By Steve Watkins
Young adult
Candlewick Press, 2011
Hardcover/ebook/audio
ISBN: 10-0763642509 / 13-9780763642501
Awards/recognition: Georgia Peach Award for Teen Readers

Once while at a writing conference, I heard a famous author ask, “Does the world really need more stories about child abuse?” Almost everyone in the audience laughed. I got kind of ticked off.

Does the world need more baseball stories? More World War II stories? More talking animal stories? Are children still being abused at the hands of their families? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Our world needs many more stories of triumph over trauma, especially those told by authors such as Steve Watkins who infuse the telling with insight, beauty, and clarity.

What Comes After is the realest of realistic fiction. In this, his second novel, Watkins fictionalizes a harrowing and true crime of an orphaned teen beaten at the hands of her extended family to the point of hospitalization. The story begins with a newspaper account of the beating, which conceals the victim’s identity. From there, we meet sixteen year-old Iris Wight just after her father’s death, just before she is sent to live with distant relatives in North Carolina. The story’s main villain, Aunt Sue, sees Iris – or more accurately, Iris’ trust fund – as a meal ticket. Free labor for the family’s goat farm. Right away, Aunt Sue begins to withhold all sustenance from Iris and attempts to strip her of her identity completely.

Iris, however, instinctively reaches into the depth of her own heart and soul and memory, turning What Comes After into a story of resiliency. She writes letters to her deceased veterinarian-dad. She finds ease and relief in the natural world. As Iris begins to care for the animals on Aunt Sue’s farm with skills she learned while accompanying her father on his rounds throughout her childhood, we see vividly how her dad’s nurturing presence attends to Iris, even long after his death.

As a reader, I found myself grasping for Iris’ name about mid-way through the book. I willed myself not to forget the girl, not to let Aunt Sue take away everything even from the story. The almost-disappearance of Iris as a person throughout the narrative is no accident and is, I think, a sort of ghost journey for the identities of so many abused children, invisible and unknown to us. Watkins sets this up from the first page and though I wanted to turn away, put the book down, I did not do it because. Because I trust Steve Watkins and his knowledge of how resiliency works, how it unfurls and rises up when it is needed most. Because I do believe that we need to hear these stories so we remember there is work yet to be done.

Watkins is a mandated child abuse reporter who volunteers for his local Court Appointed Special Advocates office (CASA). In 2010, over 1,000 CASA offices throughout the U.S. restored 237,000 children in America to safety. Watkins brings his real-life experience of working to end family violence to his writing. From having witnessed healing and recovery, he knows that early nurturing, social connections, friendships, and support in a crisis are key to a child’s ability to survive and, ultimately, to thrive. Yes, he sends Iris on a journey to hell. Yes, he is very clear that the fictional character, Iris Wight, is willing to make this journey on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of children who we may only read about in the newspaper, but thankfully, Iris Wight is well-equipped to make the return trip. GA

Listen to an audio excerpt of What Comes After from Brilliance Audio

Learn more about author Steve Watkins.


Before We Were Free

Before We Were Free

By Julia Alvarez
Young adult
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2002
ISBN: 0375815449 / 978-0375815447
Also available in paperback and audio
Awards/recognitions: * ALA Best Books for Young Adults * ALA Notable Book; Miami Herald Book of the Year * Winner of the Amércias Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature * Winner of the Pura Bupré Award

Julia Alvarez is a titan in the world of Latino literature, so it isn’t surprising that a decade past its publication, her first YA novel, Before We Were Free, is still one of my favorites to recommend for middle school readers. The novel is historical fiction, but it’s not based on American history. Instead, it’s set in the Dominican Republic during the early 1960s as the brutal 30-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo was unraveling.
Rafael who? Yes, that’s exactly the problem. This bloody history happened right in our global neighborhood, but ask your average middle school kid about it and you’ll get a blank stare. So, for girls who like world history, a little bloodshed, espionage, and murder plots, this is a terrific pick.

The country is in upheaval, and the secret police are investigating anyone who is suspected of betraying “el jefe” Trujillo. Anita de la Torre’s uncle has already disappeared, and her beloved cousins are fleeing to the United States, plucked from school one day and told to take one thing they cherish. Anita stays behind with her parents, only vaguely aware of her father’s involvement in the plot against the president.

The book touches on the tragedy of those caught in political upheavals the world over. Family separations, secrets kept from children for the sake of safety, and of course, the gut-wrenching decisions people have to make about morality, ideals, torture, and murder. But what is on full display here – and what strong girls will respond to — is the cost to young people: their voice and their innocence. MM

Learn more about Julia Alvarez.


The Other Side of Blue

The Other Side of Blue

By Valerie O. Patterson
Young adult
Clarion Books, 2009 (hardcover); 2010 paperback
ISBN: 978-0-547-24436-5
Awards/recognitions * Agatha Award

The summer after her father drowns in a boating incident, 15-year-old Cyan and her mother return to their vacation home in Curacao. Surrounded by blue sky and sea, her mother, a celebrated painter, needs desperately to work and heal, but Cyan will have none of it. Feeling lost and unconvinced by the reported details of her father’s death, she is out to find the truth. One person in Curacao holds the key to the mysterious boating accident: Mayur, son of the physician who tended to the drowning. What does he know, and what is Cyan willing to give him in order to find out? Complicating matters even more is their houseguest, Kammi, the ever-pleasing daughter of her mother’s new fiancé.

The gorgeous Caribbean setting is irresistible for a summer read, but The Other Side of Blue offers much more. It’s a page-turning mystery, but a smart one that layers in a story about a dark and accusing dance between a mother and her teenage daughter. (Sound familiar?) Above all, this book gives us characters from the full spectrum of girls, from those who are a menacing blue, like Cyan, to those who are of the pink-and-easily-burned variety.

Also to its credit is the unflinching look at how even the puniest boy can pervert sexuality into a power play. Patterson courageously lays it out as it is, which is as much as you can ask an author to do for the readers she cares about. MM

On finding Cyan’s voice: “I’m not sure exactly how she came to me, but when she started to say things, her anger was always right there. That was unusual because I’ve never been a particularly angry person. But, at fifteen, I didn’t like my mother very much. At that age, not many girls do. Maybe part of it is the angst and part of it is competing with your mother…When I was writing, I was always afraid that I couldn’t recapture Cyan’s voice, but she always came back.” Valerie O. Patterson

Learn more about author Valerie O. Patterson.