Monthly Archives: December 2016

YA Reads for December

My book report for December is over four great Young Adult novels.

Babe in Boyland by Jody Gehrman – Natalie is Dr. Aphrodite, the love guru of the school paper. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have much first-hand knowledge of love and her column is turning into a joke. The boys in her school won’t give her a straight answer about anything, so her solution is to disguise herself as a guy and spend a week at Underwood Academy, an up-scale private boys boarding school.

This is a riff on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and could be likened to another take-off on that theme, “She’s the Man.” Just as Viola does in both of those stories, Natalie ends up learning a lot more than she thought she would about guys and girls and how they feel about love, while falling in love with her boarding school roommate. Shakespeare wrote his comedy in 1601, which was revamped as the movie in 2003. Jody Gehrman’s book came out in 2011. Just goes to show what a great story-teller Shakespeare was.

Six Feet Over It by Jennifer Longo – This 2014 YA novel was a VOYA Perfect Tens Pick, an Indies Introduces New Voices Pick, and Best YA Debut of the Year on Leigh’s father is a would-be real estate speculator who buys a cemetery and moves his artist wife and the chronically depressed teenage curmudgeon Leigh away from the ocean they both love. Leigh longs for her impish best friend and the confidences they shared. To make matters worse, Leigh’s mother keeps disappearing to go back and paint at the beach, her father runs around wheeling and dealing with everything but the business, and both leave her running the cemetery office. Unfortunately, she rarely gets anyone who is interested in buying pre-need. So on a daily basis this emotionally frozen teenager must deal with people in crisis and overcome by tragedy. She hates her life, her parents, and just about everything. Gradually, we learn this is tied directly to a mystery involving her best friend.

The young Hispanic grave-digger, Dario, that comes into her life teaches her a great deal about his philosophy of life, how to love (he’s saving to bring his fiancé to this country) and how to serve people in their darkest moment. When the time comes, she finds “the courage to fight for him and save herself along the way.”

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (illustrated by Ellen Forney) – Among the many awards this book won in 2007 were the Boston Globe Horn Book Award, Book Sense #1 Pick, NYPL Book for Teens, New York Times Bestseller, Kirkus Review Best YA Book of the Year, Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year, Best Book of the Year for both American Library Association and the New York Public Library. It was also the most widely banned book that year.

This book is about being an Indian (or Native American if you are trying to be politically correct, which Alexie is not) living on a reservation, where he absolutely does not fit in. Junior is an aspiring cartoonist with an assortment of physical and health issues. He has grown up being picked on by everyone except his best friend and defender. But when he makes the decision to find a way to go to the all-white school in a neighboring farm town, he becomes an outsider not only at his new school but a pariah on the reservation and his former best friend becomes his sworn enemy. This is a true-life story of overcoming adversity, finding your own path to your best self, and learning to reconcile that with your family and your culture.

eleanor & park by Rainbow Rowell – This 2013 novel was a Printz Award-winning book. This story also deals with a girl dealing with her parent’s bad decisions and living through terrible harassment and isolation. Eleanor has moved to a new town with her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, and their blended family. The stepfather is a jerk and treats her alternately as a trouble-maker and a possible object of his scorn and lust. She affects a bizarre mode of dress that marks her as a kind of out-there eccentric, but it is because her mother barely has enough money to feed the kids and nothing left over for her school clothes.

Bullied on her first day on the bus, she meets Park who begrudgingly allows her to share his seat. His mother is a savvy and successful Korean hairdresser who is always pushing him to excel. At school he manages to stay on the good side of the popular sharks that roam the hallways while doing his own thing, but he still falls victim to all the usual pre-conceived notions about Asians and mixed-race kids. Eleanor and Park share advanced placement classes and start to become friends and to explore their attraction. His family is different but ‘normal’ by almost any standard. She is gradually integrated into a core loving family who understands part of her family life and accepts her.

Just as they are becoming comfortable with being a couple and in love, her stepfather becomes more violent and threatening. As her living situation reaches critical mass, she plans to run away to her uncle in Minnesota. Park, the most careful driver in the world, offers to drive her—to give her up in order to save her. His father discovers the plan and insists that he take his Dad’s truck. Eleanor insists that he leave her on the doorstep because she doesn’t think she can say goodbye. Her uncle and aunt listen to her horror stories and intervene to rescue Eleanor’s mom and siblings as well.

Park writes to her every day. When she never responds, he stops mailing the letters. Eleanor suffers in her self-imposed silence until finally she writes him a single postcard with the three words he always wanted her to say.


Remember, books are great gifts and can make indelible memories.

Middle Grade Reads

Last month I volunteered to do a handful of book reports for our Houston Regional SCBWI meeting. I’m hoping someone else will step up to do picture books as I’m woefully under-read in that area. These were four recommendations that I made to our membership, not all recent, but all delightful.

The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler (illustrations by Sarah Gibb) – Series began with this book in 2003 and continues through 2015. Think Princess Diaries meets Splash with a lot of Ariel.  Emily has never known her father.  She lives on a boat with her mother who oddly enough has taught her to fear the water. She’s never been immersed in water in her life. She takes showers instead of baths. Then, in seventh grade she takes a swim class and learns that after a few minutes in the water she morphs into a mermaid.  It’s a bit terrifying and embarrassing.  She manages to hide her secret by spazzing out and skipping swim class, but starts secretly swimming in the ocean at night while her mother works.  She meets and befriends another adolescent mermaid who reveals another world and community below the sea. They meet secretly because it is apparent that Emily is an illegal mermaid, the product of a marriage between a merman and a human woman.  Eventually she confides in her school friend and the three of them plot to free her father from Neptune’s prison. This is a very successful and slightly Disney-like series.

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate (author of The One and Only Ivan) – Jackson is a in the 5th grade when the imaginary friend he had as a little kid returns. A giant cat that surfs and carries an umbrella, Crenshaw is about six feet tall but no once else can see him. Think Harvey as a cat. He’s come back, because Jackson needs him. His father is unemployed, his mother is a waitress working extra shifts. Since losing their house, they live in a motel on the brink of homelessness. His parents try to put a good face on things, but Jackson understands all too well what is happening. Crenshaw becomes his confidant and only outlet. He has assumed a lot of responsibility for his baby sister and even his parents’ happiness. He tries to act normal at school to hide this secret. But he’s depressed because he loves his school and his best friend, Marisol and knows that soon they will have to move again. When his father sells their television to Marisol’s father, the ‘cat’ is out of the bag. Once she knows his situation, Jackson imagines her pity and feels humiliated. Eventually, he confides his secret and tells her about Crenshaw as well. He’s fears she will think he’s crazy, instead she says, “Jackson, just enjoy the magic while you can, okay.”

Jackson is planning to run away and relieve the pressure on his parents, he’s even written a note. But he decides against it because his sister needs him. In the end, his parents find the note and realize the pressure he’s been under and that he deserves the truth and their confidence. In the end, their situation is resolved realistically so they can stay together and he can stay in his school. Before he leaves, Crenshaw explains that imaginary friends never really leave. They’re on call and they can come back whenever we need them. This book deals with very real issues in a soft and magical way.

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo – Raymie is in middle school when her father runs off with a dental hygienist. She decides that if she wins the Little Miss Central Florida contest that her father will see it on the news and come home. So she signs up for twirling lessons and starts looking for good deeds that she can do to win the contest. Her twirling teacher is an eccentric at best, but she meets two other oddball children in the classes: Louisiana, a tiny southern belle who faints at the drop of a hat and Beverly, who is a bellicose tomboy who comes to class with bruises.  They become an odd but inseparable trio and work through their separate but equally traumatizing abandonment issues. More than anything else this book reminded me of the play The Miss Firecracker Contest by Beth Henley.

Footer Davis Might Be Probably Is Crazy by Susan Vaught – Footer is a middle grader with a bipolar mother who has been in and out of the looney bin a few times. Her mother is home now, but maybe not for long. She’s taken to using a gun to explode snakes in the yard. Footer is more than a little afraid that her mother’s illness is hereditary and that she is going crazy. She’s been dreaming about her mother shooting someone and burning down a building. Then she finds out that two kids from her school were probably killed in a fire and their father was shot.

With her best friend and confidant Peavine, Footer has to work through her mother’s issues and play detective to figure out what happened at the farm and whether her mother killed that family. She discovers her mother’s correspondence with the kids’ father in prison. Eventually, we learn that these other children are alive and have a terrible secret. Their grandfather was abusing them on a regular basis and Footer’s mom was trying to help them get away.

Each of these middle-grade books deals with increasingly real-life situations and tragedies and the coping skills of children.


Murder on a Summer’s Day by Frances Brody

The fifth in the Kate Shackleton Mystery series, Murder on a Summer’s Day offers an evocative picture of both post-WWI England and the splendor of the Raj.

Professional female detectives are rare, but this one has made enough of a name for herself that she is brought onto the scene at Bolton Abbey when an errant Maharaja goes missing in Cornwall while making plans to take a beautiful chorus girl as his second wife. It is a potential scandal that the India Office, the Duke of Devonshire, and the government wish handled with discretion. What better person to locate the missing Maharaja and defuse a delicate situation than the distinctly upper class young widow of a war hero.

Unfortunately, Kate finds the vital young Prince after he has been murdered. The India Office and government (both local and Empire) seem bent on hushing it up and calling it a tragic accident. The parade of Indian royalty, the pomp and circumstance,  class distinctions, the excitement of political intrigue, and a missing priceless jewel are all here. Even the hint of a future romance between Kate and a local doctor (and I mean only a hint).

Two cultures are well researched and accurately portrayed. Several historical characters appear, the inspiration for the unsuitable lover was the real-life Folies Bergère dancer Stella Mudge. But somehow the story is not as exciting a romp as I would expect. The plot is full of twists and turns and imminent threat, but even the cobra placed in Kate’s room does not cover the somewhat scattered and disjointed plotlines. The big payoff never seems to come. The villain is insufficiently punished for two murders and multiple attempts, the jewel disappears into a vague Swiss bank, and the only real romance is at third-hand. It is all a little too formal and proper. Personally, I much prefer the impish misadventures of Lady Georgiana in Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness series. It is equally well researched, but a lot more fun. But then I prefer a little humor mixed into my murder and mayhem.

Sometimes a series is extended a little beyond its natural virtues or takes a dip in the middle. Before discounting this successful series, I would recommend going back and checking out one of the early books, such as Dying in the Wool, A Medal for Murder, Murder in the Afternoon, or A Woman Unknown (shortlisted for the MWA Mary Higgins Clark award).