When Friendship Followed me Home by Paul Griffin

A boy’s chance encounter with a scruffy dog leads to an unforgettable friendship in this deeply moving story about life, loss, and the meaning of family Ben Coffin has never felt like he fits in. A former foster kid, he keeps his head down at school to avoid bullies and spends his afternoons reading sci-fi books at the library. But that all changes when he finds a scruffy abandoned dog named Flip and befriends the librarian’s daughter, Halley. For the first time, Ben starts to feel like he belongs in his own life. Then, everything changes, and suddenly, Ben is more alone than ever. But with a little help from Halley’s magician father, Ben discovers his place in the world and learns to see his own magic through others’ eyes.

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As a huge dog lover, I knew I had to read this middle grade book. I just didn’t expect the story to be so heartbreaking AND heartwarming at the same time. There are some serious issues like abandonment, illness, and grief that could be emotional for some younger readers (heck, even I got teary eyed!) Regardless, the tone remains quite optimistic throughout. As a librarian, I loved all the public library, and librarian references, especially when former foster child Ben declares, “I think if there’s a heaven it’ll be my own private library. I walked along row after row of books and dragged my fingertips over their spines. In the twilight I felt the magic in them.” Books can be used to help individuals cope with certain emotional (and other) problems, and it’s clear that both the characters Ben and Halley use books/reading/writing as a form of bibliotherapy as they write their own sci-fi story together. The dog, Flip is an extra bonus and helps cheer up all those that meet him. Overall, a wonderful story about friendship and the true meaning of home.

More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for 16-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again–but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely. When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is. Why does happiness have to be so hard?

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I’ve been struggling to get back into YA lately, but thankfully, More Happy Than Not has renewed my love in teen fiction. I find it hard to put into words how wonderful yet sad this story is. Readers should know there are heavy  topics (homophobia, depression, suicide) explored and scenes with potential to cause distress.  Despite this, Silvera is able to maintain a level of hopefulness for his main character, Aaron as he considers a memory-alteration procedure to forget he’s gay.  This leads to many thought provoking questions and ideas regarding sexuality.  Can erasing memories truly change who you are, and who you’re meant to be?

Along with Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, the powerful and thought-provoking, More Happy Than Not is definitely one of my favourite LGBTQ books.  It’s important authors continue to write real LGBTQ stories for youth.  I’m so happy I have some amazing stories I can connect readers to.

The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

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When I found out the generic title of The Beginning of Everything, was originally Severed Heads, Broken Hearts, I was totally disappointed!  I actually read this book a few months back, and had to re-read the synopsis to remember…oh the one with the theme park decapitation!  The title of Severed Heads would have made it direct and memorable.

So while it does begin with a gruesome death, it ends up being a story about friendships in high school.  Along with that, popularity and individuality issues arise. The story is very character driven, focusing on the once popular Ezra Faulkner as he honestly and painfully explores a new life, with new friends, that help set him on a path of self- acceptance.

Although very little happens plot-wise, some readers may be able to guess the ‘big reveal’ that pieces Cassidy (Ezra’s new love interest) and Ezra together.  I thought it was an overly nice coincidence that wraps everything up. This coincidence leads to the relationship’s demise, and it’s a love or hate ending.   I thought the breakup was honest and real, but I hated the coyote scene. I thought it served absolutely no purpose.

Overall, an OK read with a good take away message for teens.  While I wasn’t super impressed, check out some of the starred reviews, The Beginning of Everything has received:

 

Starred Reviews:

“Here are teens who could easily trade barbs and double-entendres with the characters that fill John Green’s novels…subtle turns of phrase make reading and rereading this novel a delight.”  – Kirkus (Starred Review)

“This thought-provoking novel about smart kids doing interesting things will resonate with the John Green contingent, as it is tinged with sadness, high jinks, wry humor and philosophical pondering in equal measures.”  – Booklist (Starred Review)

“An engrossing romance in which tragedy brings two teens together, then threatens to tear them apart…Schneider shows remarkable skill at getting inside her narrator’s head as his life swings between disaster and recovery.”  – Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales

Making friends has never been Elise Dembowski’s strong suit. All throughout her life, she’s been the butt of every joke and the outsider in every conversation. When a final attempt at popularity fails, Elise nearly gives up. Then she stumbles upon a warehouse party where she meets Vicky, a girl in a band who accepts her; Char, a cute, yet mysterious disc jockey; Pippa, a carefree spirit from England; and most importantly, a love for DJing. 

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Happy (early) Valentines Day! If you are without a date, you can always spend the night with a reliable book boyfriend.  Or, check out TSWSYL if you share in Elise’s love of music. ♥

I devoured TSWSYL in two sittings.  I was so caught up in Elise’s story that I never felt like I was reading. Immediately, I was able to connect to Elise’s real and relatable character.  Elise struggles to fit in with her classmates, and spends a summer trying to learn how to be ‘cool’.  Unfortunately, her doubts and insecurities become too much to bear and she turns to self-cutting.  Luckily, music enters her life and the story begins to change from heartbreaking to inspiring. Elise finds her true passion in being a DJ, and slowly begins to accept her true self.  My friend has a tattoo that reads, ‘music mends broken hearts’ and I think it’s definitely true in Elise’s case.   In addition to the music, an interesting cast of characters (all with their own faults) help Elise realize her potential.  Although I doubt a few hours of practice can turn anyone into an amazing DJ (especially at 16), I am willing to overlook this.

Overall, I adored this contemporary, coming of age novel. It is powerful, and emotional. Readers are reminded to discover and embrace themselves and find comfort in the power of music. Don’t forget to check out the recommended indie dance song tracks listed in the back! I’m listening to ‘Come on Eileen’ as I write this review.  TSWSYL is my favourite 2014 read, thus far.  Pick it up today!

Doll Bones by Holly Black

Zach, Poppy and Alice have been friends for ever. They love playing with their action figure toys, imagining a magical world of adventure and heroism. But disaster strikes when, without warning, Zach’s father throws out all his toys, declaring he’s too old for them. Zach is furious, confused and embarrassed, deciding that the only way to cope is to stop playing . . . and stop being friends with Poppy and Alice. But one night the girls pay Zach a visit, and tell him about a series of mysterious occurrences. Poppy swears that she is now being haunted by a china doll – who claims that it is made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl. They must return the doll to where the girl lived, and bury it. Otherwise the three children will be cursed for eternity . . .

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This spooky adventure story for middle graders is my first Holly Black read. I must say, that I was quite impressed because even as an adult, I still enjoyed this tale.  While the storyline revolved around the quest to rightfully bury a potentially haunted porcelain doll, there was a wonderful message  about growing up. The three amigos are twelve years old, and right on the cusp of adolescence.  The three are encouraged to stop playing with make believe, and ‘grow up’. Zack’s dad even goes as far as throwing out his beloved action figures.

Even without this heartbreaking event, Zack along with Poppy and Alice are beginning to realize on their own that their relationship is undergoing change and perhaps they are getting to old to play. However, they embark on one last quest together that involves some pretty risky moves, including: sneaking out of the house, stealing a boat and bike, and breaking into a library.  I hope impressionable young readers don’t get any ideas from these three adventurers.

I adored this book because I empathized with the characters (especially Zack after his dad tossed his action figures) and could relate to that awkward, sticky transition from childhood to adolescence. Although their hobbies and friend groups are beginning to shift, I’d like to imagine the three of them beating the odds, and remaining friends.

Additionally, I’d like to thank Black for challenging the stereotypical image of a librarian. Miss Katherine rocked pink hair and stylish shoes, and as Zack pointed out, not like any librarian he’d seen before. Not all of us keep our hair in buns and wear penny loafers, thank you very much!

In terms of graphics, the cover is brilliant. Dolls are creepy enough to begin with, but one made with human bones, filled with ashes is creepy x 100.  In their quest to bury ‘The Queen’, a handful of illustrations were a welcome addition to the text.  In the end, whether or not the doll was truly haunted, remains a mystery.  However, believing in the doll’s magic allowed the three friends for one last bonding and memorable journey to become the hero of their own story.

 

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

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Wow. What a beautiful book.  I’m so happy its receiving recognition as one of the best LGBTQ young adult novels out there.  There is so much honesty in the characters and story that readers can’t help but become emotionally involved in Ari and Dante’s relationship.  It is truly a coming of age story of two Mexican American teens trying to find their place in the world.  Told from Ari’s perspective (and a couple of letters from Dante), readers feel Ari and Dante’s love, pain, and heartache. Although the book explores sexuality and identity, Saenz also includes important themes of family and growing up. Both Ari’s and Dante’s family’s played a huge role in their lives. It was so heart warming to read about open, accepting families with unconditional love for their sons. It’s no wonder the boys were ‘crazy’ for their parents- I would be too!

Overall, this moving book will appeal to anyone who has ever felt different. There are many mysteries in life; one of the biggest is figuring out who we are and how we fit in the world.  I think this quote from the book sums it all up nicely:

 “Somewhere toward the end of the shift we all started singing U2 songs. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Yeah, that was a good song. My theme song. But really I thought it was everybody’s theme song.”

Review: Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Five months ago, Valerie Leftman’s boyfriend, Nick, opened fire on their school cafeteria. Shot trying to stop him, Valerie inadvertently saved the life of a classmate, but was implicated in the shootings because of the list she helped create. A list of people and things she and Nick hated. The list he used to pick his targets.

Now, after a summer of seclusion, Val is forced to confront her guilt as she returns to school to complete her senior year. Haunted by the memory of the boyfriend she still loves and navigating rocky relationships with her family, former friends and the girl whose life she saved, Val must come to grips with the tragedy that took place and her role in it, in order to make amends and move on with her life.

Inspired by the Nickleback song ‘If everyone cared,’’ this heartbreaking, emotional book is an absolute must read.  The book jumps between the past (day of school shooting) and present (the aftermath).  Also included are newspaper style articles that serve to give readers background information about the injured and slain students.

Although based on the school shooting, the book is mainly character driven.  Valerie struggles with her identity after her boyfriend uses their ‘hate list’ to kill classmates. By adding layers of dimension to the characters of Valerie and Nick, Brown made it impossible to classify them.  At some points, I saw them as victims of bullying, other times, as the perpetrator.  I guess that’s the whole point though—everyone has good and bad in them.  Throughout the story, I really felt for Valerie (despite her total selfishness).  Her awful parents made me so angry! The majority of time, Val is so broken and sad that I couldn’t help but wish for healing and recovery.  However, it’s likely that Val will never fully recover after that experience. To me, the open-ended conclusion to the story was a perfect ending.

Although I loved this book, I’m still wondering about Nick’s mysterious friend, Jeremy. Who exactly was Jeremy and did he have any influence on Nick?  Readers are told that they were spending more and more time together before the shooting. However, after the shooting he just disappears. Why bother introducing him at all?

Unfortunately, school shootings are an all too real tragic experience.  I definitely teared up a bit, especially during the graduation ceremony scene. This is not light read, but I would recommend this thought-provoking book to anyone.  No wonder it made multiple award lists, including:  YALSA best books for young adults, and School Library Journal’s Best book of the year.  Check out more reviews below.

 

“[A] riveting debut.” (starred review) (Publishers Weekly )

“Startling, powerful, and poignant.” (starred review) (School Library Journal )

“This novel ought to be the last written about a fictional high school shooting because it is difficult to imagine any capable of handling it better . . . A story that is as sensitive and honest as it is spellbinding.” (starred review) (VOYA)

Review: Drama by Raina Telgemeier

Callie loves theater. And while she would totally try out for her middle school’s production of Moon Over Mississippi, she’s a terrible singer. Instead she’s the set designer for the stage crew, and this year she’s determined to create a set worthy of Broadway on a middle-school budget. But how can she, when she doesn’t know much about carpentry, ticket sales are down, and the crew members are having trouble working together? Not to mention the onstage AND offstage drama that occurs once the actors are chosen, and when two cute brothers enter the picture, things get even crazier!

Release date: September 2012

What a quick, fun read about middle school romance. It brought me back to my middle school days, including the awkward arms-length dances (p.105)!  I could definitely relate to the main character’s crush crazy ways, and over-analyzing every detail of the relationship.

Same sex crushes were also explored in the book; including an illustration of two boys kissing.    Throughout, the controversial topic was presented without any judgement and never made out to be more than it was. With the popularity of shows like Glee, I think younger people are increasingly becoming more comfortable and accepting of homosexuality. Therefore, I’m glad that Telgemeier included it in the book, while at the same time, making the text appropriate for the targeted reader age group.

As a graphic novel, the drawings rocked. Based on a play production, it was fitting that the story was divided into acts and even included an intermission.   I appreciated that Telgemeier included a variety of different body types and cultures throughout the book.  I also loved Callie’s facial expressions, as it was obvious when she was frustrated, happy, annoyed, disgusted, etc.

Overall, I find graphic novels are often targeted at boys.  So, I’m happy I’ve learned of another graphic novel that would appeal to young girls and their crush crazy ways. At the same time, I wouldn’t hesitate to offer this one to someone questioning their sexual identity either.

Review: Cheesie Mack is Not a Genius or Anything by Steve Cotler

At our last Father/Son Bookclub the boys chose Diary of a Wimpykid: Dog Days and absolutely loved it. Since it was my turn as the moderator to choose the next book, I wanted a read-alike that would appeal to my grade 4-5 boys. I selected the junior fiction book, Cheesie Mack is Not a Genius or Anything by Steve Cotler after reading some positive reviews.

The humorous book was about Ronald ‘Cheesie’ Mack retelling the crazy events leading up to his grade five graduation. Cheesie began with Chapter 0 (The Story is Over!) where he informed readers that the story was about a “mysterious old coin, an evil sister, a dead sister, runaway rodents, a super-best friend, a fifth-grade graduation disaster, some really unusual words… and The Haunted Toad (pg1).” Sounds awesome, right?

Well it was… yet I am still so incredibly peeved at the amount of times the CheesieMack website was promoted that I find this review difficult to write. It seemed like every page had ‘if you like this or have something to add… please go to my website CheesieMack.com and let me know!’  Ughh- I just wanted to scream, enough already! We get it!  I’m sure there could have been an equally effective way of promoting the website without having it so ‘in your face’. I can’t wait to talk to the boys to see if they were equally annoyed and if any actually checked out the website while reading the book. 

Despite this SUPUGE (SUPER-HUGE) annoyance, the book did have some redeeming qualities:

-Cheesie’s voice as a tween boy is believable. I liked the character of Cheesie, especially when he was forced to make a tough decision that had the potential to affect his friendship with his best friend, Georgie. His family relationships were also fun to read about. I was amused by the ongoing secret point battle he had with his sister. Cheesie created a point rating scale and would designate points for whoever made better insults, got the other in trouble, etc.  I wonder what my score would be with my siblings…

-As a librarian, I love when a book teaches readers new vocabulary words in an interesting way. When Cheesie added and defined new words, it never felt forced. 

-Tween boys will enjoy this book.  The storyline was fun and humourous (such as Cheesie’s invented words like scoogled- scoot and wiggle). Another aspect that will appeal to boys was the addition of several visuals, including black and white illustrations and lists. When Cheesie used lists and bulleted points, it added a visual element that changed up the words from the standard text.

While Cheesie Mack is no Wimpy Kid, I think it will satisfy its target audience. Those that loved the book will be happy to know that Cheesie Mack is being turned into a series, with the second book, ‘Cheesie Mack is Cool in a Duel’ to be released June 2012. For those that can simply not wait for the next release, you can always check out the CheesyMack website! HA!

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