Review: The Lucky Kind

The Lucky Kind by Alyssa B. Sheinmel. Knopf, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Nick Brandt, 16, doesn’t know that answering the phone will shake up his world. A strange man asks for “Sheffman Brandt,” knowing Nick’s father’s name but not knowing he goes by Rob, his middle name. A stranger, whose call upsets the tight, close world of Nick and his parents. The man calling is Sam Roth. As Rob Brandt later explains to Nick, thirty years ago Rob had a son who was given up for adoption. Sam is that child.

His father had a child, a child given up for adoption, and Nick never knew. His parents never told him.

The Good: Like last year’s The Beautiful Between, The Lucky Kind is a wonderfully quiet book. The plot above sounds way too “ripped from the headlines,” and The Lucky Kind is the opposite of that. It’s a look at Nick and his family and friends over several months, as Nick adjusts to the knowledge of his father’s past and the secrecy surrounding it.

Nick’s life up until that point was charmed — lucky, even. He has a wonderful family (put Rob and Nina down in the “pretty great parents in a YA book” category), he lives in a nice apartment in Manhattan (average by Manhattan standards, not richy rich), he has a great best friend, Stevie, and a girl, Eden Reiss, who he’s been crushing on for years. Seriously, any reader would want to have Nick’s life. The phone call from Sam Roth shatters all that — but only in Nick’s head, because it shatters how Nick sees his life and those around him. Sam and his existence represent numerous betrayals and secrets: that his father had another child. That his father gave that child up for adoption. That his father put his name on a registry indicating he would want contact with that child, should the child wish. That his father and mother both knew all this, and never told Nick.

What does Nick do? And here is one of the reasons I adore this book, and Sheinmel’s writing and choices. This is not “and then the disillusioned teen drugged, drank, and violently acted out in all sorts of gritty ways.” No! This is much more true to life, much more real. One of the first things Nick does? Nick finally gets the nerve up to call Eden Reiss on the telephone. Yes. That is the first thing. Nick and Eden begin dating. He loves her. Here is Nick, when he knows he will be kissing Eden for the first time: “I walk Eden to the subway, and the whole walk there, I know I’m going to kiss her good-bye, and I know she’s going to kiss me back. I feel the kiss coming up from my stomach, as though that’s where every kiss originates, waiting in your belly, growing stronger as it climbs up your rib cage, fluttering a bit when it passes your heart, and waiting, patiently in your throat, until you tilt your head and move your lips, and it knows it’s time to come out from inside you.” You can practically hear the giddiness and joy in his voice the first time he calls Eden “my girlfriend.”

Over the next few months, Nick’s acts of rebellion are so subtle that I dare not call it rebellion, yet so significant that I have to call it something. Nick reacts by beginning to distance himself emotionally from his parents. It would be easy to want to create a physical acting out on behalf of Nick, to dramatize that acting out, but Sheinmel doesn’t take the easy way out. Instead, she does it by showing the conversations that don’t happen. For example, Eden? The amazing Eden who has made Nick so happy? Who Nick truly cares about? Nick doesn’t tell his parents about her. He doesn’t do it on purpose; and he tells himself it’s because he wants to keep it just the two of them, Eden and Nick. The reader, though, will realize that Nick has decided to keep a secret from his parents just like his parents kept a secret from him.

Nick’s struggles with the change in his family, or, rather, with his having to adjust to new information about his family, impact those around him. Part of the joy of The Lucky Kind is that because Nick has family and friends who are loving and supportive, they are able to give him what he needs during these months. No, they aren’t perfect; it is better than that, in that they are understanding and forgiving. Nick’s growth and coming of age is about how he, too, becomes understanding and forgiving. How he, too, earns the right to be one of “the lucky kind,” and learns that being “the lucky kind” isn’t about what one is given but rather what happens because of the choices one makes.

Because this is a book that rang so true. Because I love Nick and his family. Because Nick and Eden are a terrific couple. Because I felt as if I slipped into Nick’s life for a few months. Because the writing is so true and pure and strong. The Lucky Kind is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011. 


YALSA Nonfiction: Voting

Time to discuss Voting Procedures for the YALSA Nonfiction award. Not as simple as “just vote,” but pretty darn close:

Following discussion at Annual, balloting will begin. Members must be present to vote. Proxies will not be accepted. Additional titles nominated after this point will be considered in the final voting conference calls between October 31 – early December.”

So, voting begin at Annual and members must be present; after Annual, because of the way the calendar works, the discussions take place during conference calls.

Next week: Final Voting of Award Title.

Review: Fallen Grace

Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper. Bloomsbury. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from ALA.

The Plot: London, 1861. Grace and Lily Parkes, two teenaged orphans, have little and keep losing the little they have. Despite it all — despite the poverty, the hunger, the work — Grace and Lily have each other. The bond between the sisters is strong and loving, even though Grace, the  younger sister at 15, has to take care of the older Lily. Another harsh blow is delivered when Grace delivers a stillborn child.

While at Brookwood Cemetery to bury the child, Grace has two chance encounters. Neither, at first, seems very significant. Things are happening, though, things about which Grace and Lily are unaware. Chance encounters will lead to a future different than anything Grace ever dreamed. 

The Good: Writing the plot part of Fallen Grace was challenging, because it sounded so doom and gloom! Poverty and orphans and a stillborn child. Stolen shoes and stolen identities.

But it’s NOT doom and gloom! It’s the opposite of doom and gloom! The bond between Grace and Lily is loving and kind. No matter what happens to them, no matter what possessions they pawn or lose, no matter the trials and tribulations that are heaped upon them, their bond remains strong. Each roadblock is one that Grace matter-of-factly confronts. Abused in the workhouse? Leave, find a place to live, find a way to make money. No money for rent? Figure out what can be pawned. Feeling down? Use bits of scrap newspapers as inspiration to weave stories to entertain your sister. Grace does not deny how dire their situation gets, but she has determination and drive.  Grace also has standards; she’d rather deal with the daily uncertainty of the Seven Dials than the guaranteed food and shelter of the training center, because the training center came with a man who felt he was entitled to the young girls.

Worried about how things will end for the Parkes sisters? Never fear. The book promises “a great fraud has been perpetrated on young Grace and her sister, and they are the secret recipients of a most unusual legacy-if only they can find the means to claim it. Mary Hooper’s latest offers Dickensian social commentary, as well as malicious fraud, mysterious secrets, and a riveting read.” By page 70, the reader knows just what that legacy is, even though it will take the rest of the book for Grace to discover it. Another clue as to what secrets float around Grace comes even sooner.

Fallen Grace is an interesting way to tell a story — the reader knows (or is given enough clues to suspect) many things before Grace does. As the name implies, Fallen Grace is primarily Grace’s story but some chapters are about Lily or others, sharing with the reader what Grace does not know or suspect. The suspense and mystery are not about “what is the fraud? What is the secret legacy? Why is it a secret?” The suspense is, when will Grace figure it out? Will it be too late? In books like Fallen Grace, lost heiresses are discovered, there are reversals of fortune and coincidence, hard work is rewarded and villains punished, so why should the author and reader pretend otherwise? Why not reveal some of it to reader from the start?

This brings another great aspect of Fallen Grace; the book design. Scattered through are newspaper announcements, business cards, and other things that at first appear to just provide general information about 1861 London but turn out to be adding not just depth, but also clues and insight into the lives of Grace and Lily and those around them.

Hooper uses some fascinating history – that of the funeral industry in Victorian times. Grace becomes a mute, a professional mourner. Fallen Grace is also an intimate look at the working-class poverty of the 1860s. How would a young woman, with no relatives, no money, no skills survive alone? How do people and families get by?


Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray has all the current information on KidLit Con 2011.

What is KidLit Con? From my post explaining KidLit Con 2010:Four years of planning, arranging, meeting, having fun. Where does the time go? Oh, there are other conventions and conferences in a year: booksellers have BEA, librarians ALA, teachers NCTE. Still, none of them are just about the bloggers and while some of us meet at those events, those meetings are an add-on, not the prime event. KidLitCon is the prime event. It’s held over the weekend, so people don’t have to worry about vacation time being used. Topics are geared just towards bloggers, whether the bloggers are authors, publishers or readers. It also moves around the country, so that the responsibility for planning doesn’t fall on the same shoulders over and over.”

I’ll also add that this is for anyone who blogs about children’s literature or young adult literature — bloggers and authors.

So far, I’ve been to Kid Lit Con 2007 in Chicago, 2009 in DC, 2010 in Minneapolis and, fingers crossed, I’ll be in Seattle for KidLit Con 2011.

More on last year’s event is at Kidlit Con 2010: Building a Real Community (my article that first appeared in SLJ’s Extra Helping) and my blog post.

Back to 2011!

As Colleen explains at Chasing Ray, this year’s Kidlit Con is September 16 to 17 at the Hotel Monaco, Seattle. The main event is Saturday, but there is also a precon planned for Friday. Chasing Ray has all the information about prices and what is and isn’t included, etc. Keep an eye on the Kidlit Con website, Facebook and Twitter for details.

Review: Tighter

Tighter by Adele Griffin. Knopf Books for Younger Readers, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Reviewed from copy from publisher.

The Plot: Jamie, seventeen, is spending her summer as an au pair at ritzy Little Bly, Rhode Island, taking care of eleven year old Isa McRae while Isa’s dad works in Hong Kong. The only other person in the large beachfront estate is the housekeeper, Connie, a disapproving local woman.

It turns out, there are things Jamie wasn’t told about Isa and the McRaes. There’s an older brother, Milo, fourteen, who turns up unexpectedly, spoiled and handsome. Then there’s Jessie, last year’s au pair, a free spirited girl who Isa adored. Jessie, who along with her boyfriend, Peter, died in a plane crash the year before.

Even creepier, it turns out that Jamie looks like Jessie. Jamie is seeing the ghosts of the two lovers, and is somehow drawn into the echoes of the drama, heartache, and betrayals of the year before. But is she really seeing Jessie and Peter? Or is something else going on?

The Good: Tighter creeped me out. In a good way. In a this is how I like to be scared way.

Jamie may not have been told everything about her summer job and the previous summer’s tragedy, but she has a few secrets of her own. While running track, she suffered a back injury (a major lower lumbar sprain) and has been self-medicating ever since by raiding the medicine cabinets of her parents and siblings. Jamie has brought along fifty-odd pills for the summer, hoping they’ll ease the aches and help her sleep. But, the reader wonders, is that all it is? Especially after Jamie shares with the reader that two relatives who killed themselves “had started to appear to me, claiming me in secret hours as one of their own. My eyes would open into darkness — not in terror, not yet — to find them right there, in my room. The rope skewed around Uncle Jim’s neck and Hank staring blankly, the bullet wound black as a cigarette burn at his temple. And then I’d wake up for real, in a gasp, my heart beating fast as rain, my newly identified lumbar muscles — extensor, flexor, oblique — pulsing the nerve roots of my spine. By then, they’d be gone.”

When Jamie starts seeing the ghosts of Jessie and Peter, when she starts sensing the anger and jealousy Pete, one of the working class locals, felt for Jessie and her fellow rich summer residents, is Jamie seeing ghosts? Or is it the pills and the pain and her imagination? Jamie sees more and more evidence of Pete’s dark nature, and begins to believe that it has permanently impacted Isa and Milo. Is Milo somehow channelling the dead teen? The suspense builds, especially as Jamie becomes more and more obsessed with the dead teens and her actions become more and more erratic.

In case you haven’t guessed, Tighter is inspired by Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. I’m not sure if I ever read the James novella, but I’ve seen some of the films based on the book. I don’t think you need to read the novella to read the book, but readers of the novella will catch some references: Miles is now Milo, one of Isa’s nicknames from Jessie is Flora.

Because Tighter spooked me. Because the twists and turns kept me guessing — and surprised me even when I guessed them. Because the ending made me see the book in an entirely different light, making me reread it immediately. This is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011.

YALSA Nonfiction: Field Nominations

As promised in last week’s discussion of the YALSA Nonfiction policies, and procedures, Field Suggestions:

“Field suggestions are encouraged. To be eligible, they must be submitted on the official suggestion form. The form will allow for both a rationale and summary of nominated titles. Committee members will be notified of all field suggestions, which are eligible to be considered for nomination by members. Nominated titles must also have a second from a committee member. Only those titles that have been nominated will be discussed at Midwinter and Annual Conference meetings, as well as phone meetings, though a committee member may request that a suggested title be moved to the discussion list and thus treated as a nominated title. Furthermore, all nominated titles must be discussed. To prevent a conflict of interest, publishers, authors, or editors may not nominate titles in which they have a vested interest.”

So yes, if you want to suggest a book? Do it! Don’t just think about it! Do it! Don’t wonder if a book is going to be considered! Do it! Here is the Nomination Form. (And yes, you can make suggestions for other YALSA awards and lists).

Next week: Voting Procedures!

Review: Eon

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman. Penguin Books. 2008. Reviewed from audiobook by Brilliance Audio provided by Brilliance Audio. 2008. Narrated by Nancy Wu.

The Plot: Eon is a twelve year old boy. He has been training intensively for years to get the opportunity, along with a handful of other boys, to be selected by a magical dragon, thus becoming a Dragoneye. Sword work is difficult, because of an accident years ago that left Eon lame. Eon is gifted with magical gifts, able to see energy and dragons. He and the master who discovered him as a slave on a salt farm believe that these gifts will be enough to have the Rat Dragon choose Eon.

Eon has a secret. Eon is actually Eona, a sixteen year old girl.

Eon’s world is one with strict laws and beliefs about class and gender. A female Dragoneye? Ridiculous! Discovery means death. How far will Eon’s charade go? And who else will be swept into the intrigue?

The Good: Goodman creates a complex world, the Empire of the Celestial Dragons, with references to Chinese astrology and mythology. Dragons are real; the twelve Dragons each has an Dragoneye and each Dragoneye has an apprentice. Every twelve years, a dragon chooses a new apprentice, the former apprentice becomes a Master, and the old Master retires. The relationship between the Dragons and their Dragoneyes are complex; it takes those twelve years for the chosen boy to master the skills and gain the stamina needed to interact with the dragon and control it’s powers. The Dragon council work to serve the land, preventing natural disasters. They are supposed to be removed from politics, but as Eon/Eona soon learns, some Dragoneyes pursue power at any cost.

What to tell without revealing whether Eon is chosen as a Dragoneye? Well, the book is called Eon: Dragoneye Reborn. She gets what she desires, but not quite in the way she planned. Her masquerade gets more intense and complicated as the game escalates, and lies build upon lies. Eon’s game is simple: one of survival. She didn’t seek this out — her master bought her, and if she fails him, he can sell her, send her back to the salt farms. While she didn’t seek this life out, Eon quickly realizes she has a role to play, and an important one. How she embraces that, while juggling her lies, is fascinating. What is the right answer? Should she reveal her true self?

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn is also an interesting look at gender and gender roles. Eona hides herself as Eon to gain opportunities barred from women. She muses on how learning how to be a boy is much more than wearing trousers. Eunuchs also play a role; and a major character is a Contraire, a man who lives as a woman. The Emporor has concubines. Class and rank also matter; and some implications are deadly. Part of the reason that political intrigue and danger exists is that the present Emperor did not follow protocol. When becoming Emperor, he should have executed all his younger brothers. He did not, and one of those brothers, Sethon is now a threat — a threat with power, because the trusting Emperor made his brother Commander in Chief of the Armies.

If you don’t like spoilers…. don’t read the title of the sequel!

Contemporary YA Fiction

The librarians over at Stacked recently did a week-long love fest for contemporary young adult literature. Since this came hot on the heels of a certain newspaper saying today’s contemporary is “darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18,” it’s terrific to see contemporary YA highlighted in it’s full glory.

It’s also terrific to see today’s contemporary examined and championed in such detail. As you can see from clicking thorough, there is a variety of available titles — if you just know where to look.

Stacked began by asking, Why Contemporary?  They note their inspiration for the week long celebration, the Contempts blog (authors blogging about contemporary young adult literature). Stacked defines contemporary lit: “Contemporary is a setting — the now — but it’s also a grounding in reality. Contemporary ya lit transcends just being a story set in today’s world; it’s lit that has something to it that’s actually timeless. Good contemporary stories get to the heart of any challenge, any story, and that heart is something that reads honestly whether the story itself was published yesterday or ten years ago. It’s more than being an “issue” driven lit, and it always has been (despite the fact that it was “issue”-driven lit that began the growth of contemporary lit in the first place). Contemporary lit is truth driven. Some of the best contemporary ya lit out there actually delves little into “issues,” but instead, it delves into a slice of life and shares that story, that moment, the things that happen then.” This first post not just defines contemporary, but explains why teens want, why they read it, and why librarians and booksellers should know about it and promote it. The subtitle of this post could have been, “there’s more to YA than paranormal!”

Over a week, Stacked provided a number of booklists, with different themes and topics. Stacked highlighted Kelly’s Pick List: Contemporary YA to Read. She informs the reader, “I should say I lean toward the edgier, heavier topics, but I’m going to make the effort to toss in some lighter contemporary, as well. I also make no promises on not spoiling the plot on some of these.” Here’s what I love about reviewers — they can recommend something without gushing. Or, even recommend while saying “I didn’t like this book, and I hated both the main characters. But you know, that’s what made the book work and that’s part of why it’s so powerful.”

Justine Ireland (of the YA 5) provided a guest post of the Top 5 Contemporaries You Aren’t Reading (But Should Be). Contemporary Picks # 1: Friends, Lovers, Countrymen covered friendship, love, and rural life. Contemporary Foundations: Major YA Contemporary Titles You Should Know covers the “must know” titles. Who is being “should”-ed? Not readers; rather, those of us who help connect readers to books, whatever you want to call us (librarian, book seller, whatever). If you’re going to do readers advisory, in my humble opinion, you need to know beyond what you like and what you read.

The next Contemporary Picks List included titles for Religion, Sexuality, and Life After High School. Yes, quite the mix of titles! It includes belief and non-belief for a variety of religions; sexuality is “more specifically, coming to terms with the fact you might like someone of the same sex. Or you might identify with the opposite gender more than your own. Or that there are other people like there with these same identity questions as you,” and life after high school includes stories about teens who don’t go on to college.

A second guest post was by none other than Patricia McCormick, author of Cut, “on being 15.” I’ll quote this: “Thinking of myself at fifteen makes me cringe. I was on the debate team. I plastered my hair with Dippity-Do, then rolled it in empty juice cartons. I made my own clothes—including a pair of yellow culottes that I wore with yellow sneakers and a homemade perfume of lemon juice and baby oil.”

The third Contemporary Picks list features Loss, Sports, and a Grab Bag of Tough Stuff. 

Stacked took a break from lists to Advocate for Contemporary YA Lit: “contemporary ya lit doesn’t get the marketing or publicity bucks behind it that so many other genres do. Pay attention to the advertisements you see around for books — do many of them look familiar? Do they target the same few books over and over? What about the standing displays at book stores, the promotional events, and even the books that are reviewed multiple times throughout the blogosphere? So few, if any, are contemporary books — most of these titles end up as mid-listers, as the books that require the author and readers to do much of the leg work in promotion.”

The final list is for Contemporary Middle Grade Lit, with titles that have appeal for those ages 8 to 12. Many of the main characters are in middle school — seventh or eighth grade.

By the time you’re done going all through those posts, you’ll have a ton of books to either read or recommend. Also, if you have suggestions for other titles, please share!

Review: Beauty Queens

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. Scholastic Press. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from ALA.

The Plot: A plane full of teen beauty queens crashes on a remote tropical island.

No, really.

The Good:  What I’m fast appreciating about Libba Bray is that she’s always doing something different as an author; but, each time, it’s awesome. It’s like she’s the Meryl Streep of authors. Without the accents. Wait, Gemma Doyle was British so I guess maybe that counts? Anyway, so far Bray has given us a historical fiction lush with fantasy; a road trip that explores life, death, and spirituality; and now a satire about commercialism, beauty, and modern priorities and pirates. What’s next, westerns? (Actually, I know the answer is the Roaring Twenties. But still.)

Here’s the short pitch: America’s Next Top Models plus Lost multiplied by Arrested Development.

There will be quoting. Because Bray’s writing is humorous and biting and insightful, and because the best way to know if you’ll like her style is, well, by reading it. There is a plane crash, but don’t worry! The book begins, “A Word From Your Sponsor. This book begins with a plane crash. We do not want you to worry about this.  . . .  But there are survivors. You see? Already it’s a happy tale. They are all beauty queen contestants. . . . Such a happy story. And shiny, too. This story is brought to you by The Corporation: Because Your Life Can Always Be Better (TM).” Now you know: an arch tone, slightly over the top, and from the start satire about consumerism and the companies that convince is that if we just buy that terrific button down white shirt, our lives will be better. (They won’t? But I bought the shirt already!)

The crash happens in the prologue (“the pilots and copilot, whose names are not important to our tale, are trading stories with each other“) and Chapter One stars with Adina Greenberg (Miss New Hampshire) opening her eyes. Adina is a journalist and she, like us, at first views her fellow dozen-odd survivors as simply pageant girls: “the waving goddess stood outlined by the smoking metal wing as if she were a model in a showroom of plane wreckage. She was tall and tanned, her long blond hair framing her gorgeous face in messy waves. Her teeth were dazzling white.” “I want to pursue a career in the exciting world of weight-management broadcast journalism. And help kids not have cancer and stuff.” “They were both artificially tanned and beach-blond, with the same expertly layered long hair.”

As Beauty Queen progresses, the teenagers turn out to be more than Adina thinks. Taylor (Miss Texas) may eat, breathe, and drink the pageants, but she is also a leader, an organizer, and has some very interesting military skills thanks to her her general father. When days pass with no hope of rescue, it is Taylor who digs up a grub because “it’s packed with protein. My daddy says his unit had to survive on these for a whole month once.” And then — to cement her leadership status — Taylor gets Adina to be the first person to eat a grub. Shanti (Miss California) turns out to have written her junior thesis on “micro forming and sustainable agriculture. I could come up with some plans for planting a garden and constructing an irrigation system. And I know how to make a system for drinking water.” It’s like Gilligans Island, with the teens each a mixture of Ginger and the Professor.

Bray shares with us what Taylor, Adina, Shanti and the other contestants are thinking: their fears, their motivations, what being in the pageant and succeeding means to them. The reader, the other contestants, and the young women themselves begin to see themselves, and each other, as more than the “nice, happy, shining, patriotic girls” the pageant showcases. What is terrific about Beauty Queens is that it does so with respect and without trashing the contestants. It trashes the pageant system, yes. Beauty Queen‘s satire also targets commercialism and the way things are sold, reality TV, and overuse of PowerPoint.

I adore this type of humor; but like rich chocolate, for me it was best read over several days instead of all at once. And it’s a humor that masks some deeper issues and observations. The tag line to one of the commercials for breast implants? “Breast in Show. Because “you’re perfect just the way you are” is what your guidance counselor says. And she’s an alcoholic.” It’s not all deep — there is also this very serious warning about dolls: “But you should not put anything on a pedestal, least of all dolls who watch you while you sleep, waiting to suck the breath from  your lungs.”

And I still haven’t talked about how Beauty Queens is also about ambition, and friendship, and what happens when a bunch of reality TV pirate hunks show up, and sex and sexuality and race and gummi bears.

Because it’s Libba Bray. Because beauty queens are so much more than pretty faces. Because there are footnotes. Because there is romance. Because there is happy ever after, and hopeful ever after, and happiness isn’t about being all coupled up. Beauty Queens is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011.

Links: Bray uses footnotes in Beauty Queen; so Melissa Rabey at Librarian by Day uses them for her review. Reading Rants calls it Lord of the Flies meets classic 90210.

YALSA Nonfiction: Nominations

Next in the YALSA Nonfiction Policies & Procedures:  Nominations

From the website: “Committee members suggest titles beginning in November after their election or appointment, with suggestions due each month through the end of the time period. Committee members are responsible for nominating titles throughout the process. Following this procedure allows committee members to reflect on what their peers consider to be award-worthy titles and narrows the list, leading to more efficient and productive meetings. Each suggestion must be in writing on an official online suggestion form. Each suggestion must include the following information: author, title, publisher, price, ISBN and publication date.”

Reading, discussions, nominations are continually being made. Even for committee members, the official form has to be used and has to include the pertinent details about the book.

Next week: Field suggestions!