Friends With Boys

11389398I was hooked by this graphic novel in the beginning. A contemporary story about a nerdy girl who can see ghosts has so much potential. I am always looking for graphic novels or comics that can appeal to young teens and/or have well written female characters.

Unfortunately I found this one to be too didactic. It was clearly from an adult’s perspective and felt like a story a parent would tell a child not an authentic young person’s voice.

I liked the art and there were elements I enjoyed but I feel like if I use them with my teen book club I might be too obviously teaching a lesson.  Maybe it would be better in a school setting, to discuss bullying or peer pressure. It just didn’t quite make it for me as something  most teens would fully enjoy in their free time.

What We Hide

cover artWhat We Hide is a tapestry of teen angst. Many perspectives make up the quilt of the story, all patched together with the common setting of the English boarding school. Most of the characters have secrets, family they are ashamed of, insecurities about friendships, identity crisis, and a lot of pent up sexual frustration.

Since my focus at the moment is Canadian literature for teens, (and this technically qualifies because Marthe Jocelyn is Canadian) I find it difficult to read about English teens and American teens spending time in England. Especially the way Canada is referred to in the first chapter, this doesn’t feel Canadian. The British slang is amusing, and made less confusing by Jenny’s American perspective.

The story is set in the time of the Vietnam war but the way the teens talk and interact feels contemporary. Perhaps I was overly sheltered or naive but I didn’t have nearly as much sex going on in my high school decades after this story takes place and I find it surprising how much is going on in the novel. Many of the characters had or become teen parents, something that I often hear older people complaining about as a “new” phenomenon because of shows like Teen Mom.

There’s good diversity of characters, with representations of more than one ethnicity, sexual orientation and social class. However, all of them feel defined by those characteristics.

I think this story might work better in a different medium, perhaps television? I felt jolted as it jumped from person to person. Format to format. Although I enjoyed the letters embedded in the text the scripts didn’t flow as well.

A Boy Like Me

Jennie Wood’s novel A Boy Like Me is a coming of age story focused on a transgender character. The character development was phenomenal. Peyton/Katherine is a well rounded protagonist who’s story will touch the hearts of readers. Supporting characters are well written as well. The uncle was my favourite. While the main story-line focuses on his feelings for Tara and his discomfort within his female body, there is more going on. There are stories of friendship, of family dynamics, of depression, of bullying… I had a lot of issues with another book about gender identity recently (When Everything Feels Like the Movies) but I feel like all the the things that made me uncomfortable in that story were played out in a much healthier, more relate-able and more empathy inspiring way in this novel.

The chemistry between Peyton and Tara felt real. Wood did a fantastic job of writing about the sexual tension. She includes some mature scenes that make this book better suited to older teens, but she does it in a way that’s tastefully sexy rather than crude.

Heavy, emotional, perhaps controversial, subject matter is included in this novel. I think that it’s great she includes resources at the end, for readers who may be going through what Peyton is in the book.

I’m glad that I read this novel because I think it gives me a better understanding of transgender teens and gives me a resource to point to if someone is looking for a good book on the subject.

Swimmers

Cover artAmy Bright’s novel Swimmers is surprisingly light considering the heavy subject matter. Suicide, drug addiction, and bullying all play pivotal roles in the plot.

What makes the book shine is the friendship between Hunter and Poppy. Misfits who have been pulled out of their troubled lives, the teen and young girl have a companionship that is complex despite how little they actually speak to one another. He has a grudging respect for the girl, not wanting to admit at first that he needs a kid’s friendship.

Where the novel is struggles is the”voice. It didn’t sound like a teenage boy’s perspective, especially not a drug using, rough, trouble maker. He also didn’t feel depressed, certainly not enough to commit suicide. His point of view was too jovial for that, his observations too comical, his awareness of himself too strong.  The parts when he was recovered were more believable than when he was on drugs or depressed.  Usually first person narration allows the reader to experience the story, but Bright may have been better off writing in third person since she failed to capture the inner turmoil.

Part of the story takes place close to my home. At first I was excited to hear the names of familiar places, however the description of Kelowna did not match where I know the Greyhound station to be.

A sound plot, and interesting characters, but dark subject matter needs to delve deeper into the gritty feelings to have full impact.

Read-alikes

what is real thirteen reasons whyMy beating teenage heart

The Sweetest Thing You Can Sing

Ck. Kelly Martin’s novel The Sweetest Thing You Can Sing is an emotional drama.

The book explores the balancing act of being in high school, where girls are ostracized for being too uptight and chaste, or are taunted and humiliated for being too promiscuous. This is amplified with the prevalence of social media because word or even video of every mistake can spread quickly. The conflicting pressures from boys, friends, and family can be overwhelming as demonstrated in the novel.

cover artSerena has a complicated family life that has an impact on the rest of her relationships. Her favourite brother’s drug problems and disappearance leave her with mentally absent parents. Her other brother’s fame overshadows her, as she struggles to deal with the loss.

The author does a fantastic job of making the everyday struggles resonate. From insecurity about her weight, to a mix of excitement and shame about her sexuality, to the disillusionment she feels about her role-model turning out to be flawed- Serena feels like a real person.

Teens looking or realistic drama will enjoy this.

Straight Punch

cover artStraight Punch by Monique Polak is a novel about a girl who gets expelled and has to attend an alternative school for troubled teens. The moral of the story is that appearances and first impressions can be deceiving. Everyone has a history that explains how they’ve ended up where they are. All of the youth at her new school seem intimidating and below her at first, but Tessa comes to see good in all of them.

Tessa is squeamish about all violence in the beginning and has anxiety about boxing being the primary physical education at her new school. The students learn different things in boxing class, depending on what’s going on in their life. Some learn discipline, some learn to channel their aggression, some learn how to stand up for themselves. Art, especially street art is another main component of the story. Expressing themselves through art is important to many teens.

Alcoholism, gambling addiction, bullying, and teen pregnancy are all topics that arise in the novel.

*spoiler alert*

Trigger warning for women who have suffered a miscarriage. There is a descriptive scene that could bring back bad memories.

Switch

Switch by Douglas Davey is a bildungsroman. It explores the struggle of a bisexual young man coming to terms with his feelings and with prejudice from bullies. Being bisexual is confusing for him and his friends, with everyone questioning how he really felt about his girlfriend.

The narration is great, and makes it feel like Sheldon is a real person. The footnotes are funny and informative, but I’m not sure teens will enjoy them as much as I do.

This is a book that could be helpful to a teen who is questioning their sexuality. It explores different opinions and misconceptions about bisexuality that they may face. You don’t have to be gay to enjoy the novel, but sexual orientation is the main focus so it will probably appeal the most to those who can relate or have friends they are trying to understand.

There are no explicit sex scenes in this novel, it’s more about the identity struggle than the actual sexuality.

Rain

cover artRain is Amanda Sun’s sequel to Ink (I recommend you read that first).

Sun’s urban fantasy is exciting and different from any other series I’ve read. The Kami mythology is intriguing and it was great to learn more about the powers and history. The idea of drawings and words that literally come to life is fascinating. Add the angst of competition, identity crisis, and doomed romance and you have a great novel for teens.

Tomo’s drawings turning against him and those he loved seems like a metaphor that could be explored at length in a book club or essay.

The contrast of beautiful scenery and gang violence, and intricate art and monstrous ink creates amazing imagery. The characters ruled by their jealousy and fears have back-stories that make the reader sympathetic.

I sometimes struggled to keep track of who was who because of the cultural differences. Everyone calls people by different names because your relationship is reflected in the name you use. This would be really confusing for me and I’m glad Sun has Katie struggle with it too.

I actually found the chemistry between Katie and Jun more convincing than the chemistry between her and Tomo. I’m not sure he ever did or said anything that made me feel like he was worth all the trouble they go through. However, I think this was partly intentional because there had to be some distance between them to create the love triangle- or hexagon if you consider all the people competing for Tomo’s and Jun’s affection not just Katie’s.

Blue Gold

In her novel, Blue Gold, Elizabeth Stewart explores the horrible hidden costs of technology. There are three stories intertwined, exploring the lives of teenage girls in Africa, Asia, and North America. The characters are fictional but the conflicts are real and this is not a light fluffy read. There are heavy topics and a good dollop of guilt for those of us who benefit from the cell phone industry.

Sylvie’s life in the refugee camp and the horrors that brought her there are shocking and sad. Her dedication to holding her family together, and her bravery makes her an admirable young woman. She aspires to help others when she could have wallowed about her mistreatment. Her struggle to understand how the Canadians who she saw as saviours may have instigated the conflict that caused her woes is eye opening. Violence, rape, and child soldiers are all part of her story.

Laiping’s unreasonable working conditions in China will make Canadian teens grateful for their less than ideal part-time jobs. I think her story will be easier to relate to than Sylvie’s because working long hours and not getting decent paid or given respect is something that Western kids may experience on a less drastic scale. Her lack of opportunities is disheartening.

Fiona takes for granted the products the other girls have suffered to produce. She is careless with privacy, and like many young girls, regrets sharing a half naked photo of herself when it is posted online for everyone to see.

Blue Gold would make for an interesting book club discussion. How can we as consumers ensure that we aren’t causing unnecessary harm in return for our luxuries? The author includes a few resources at the end for readers to educate themselves.

I went to see Mockingjay Part 1 this week and it made me sad to hear that so many teens seemed to think the movies are just about action and cute boys. The Hunger Games is about the same thing this book is: the exploitation of poor people for the cheap production of luxuries. In this case North America is the Capitol , and Congo and China are the exploited districts. I have always thought The Hunger Games was a fantastic way to broach this topic with youth but overhearing a lot of shallow comments during the film I feel like many are not reading between the lines. Hopefully Blue Gold is direct enough to reach them.

The Town That Drowned

I received Riel Nason’s The Town That Drowned as a submission for the YABA. It starts off a bit odd and I wasn’t sure what to expect but in the end I loved it. It’s Canadian historical fiction with a tiny touch of the paranormal.

“Set in the 1960s, The Town That Drowned deftly evokes the awkwardness of childhood, the thrill of first love, and the importance of having a place, any place, to call home”.

The struggles of the town as a whole are beautifully reflected in Ruby’s story. The heart of the novel is Ruby’s relationship with her little brother, who appears to be in the autistic spectrum. His matter of fact way of seeing things and blunt speech frames the crisis in an interesting light, and her protectiveness of him is well written. Every one in the town is exposed as the bullies, hoarders or whatever they are in the face of adversity. It was a hard book to put down, even among the bustle of the holiday season.

I felt like Ruby had a personality that suited her family and small town life.