Review: Aristotle and Dante

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Simon & Schuster BFYR. 2012. Copy from library. Printz Honor Book.

The Plot: Summer, 1987. Angel Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza is fifteen, and it’s the start of another lonely, hot summer in El Paso. Bored, he goes to the local swimming even though he can’t swim.

“I can teach you how to swim.”

With those words, Ari meets Dante Quintana, also fifteen. And makes a friend. In some ways they are opposites — Ari is quiet, Dante talkative and confident. But they make each other laugh.

Through ups and downs, good times and bad, even long distance, their friendship endures and grows. Ari still feels alone, though; and when Dante tells Ari that Dante prefers kissing boys, Ari isn’t sure what to do. Or how he feels. Or what he wants.

The Good: Another terrific selection by this year’s Printz committee!

Ari tells the story, and oh, Ari is so — alone. He has such barriers up. Why? He has parents who love him, yes, but his father, a Vietnam Vet, is not a talker and Ari craves communication. Perhaps that explains part of the reason he likes Dante, because Dante and his family are talkers and huggers.

Ari’s family holds secrets, secrets that are danced around. His father’s nightmares from Vietnam. Ari’s older brother, now in prison, whose name and crime are never mentioned. Other secrets are ones that Ari doesn’t even guess at, but the secrecy colors his life and is part of the reason Ari isolates himself.

Aristotle and Dante is not just about the friendship between young men; it’s also about family. And love. And acceptance. And connections. And good people trying to do the right thing. And it’s the power of meeting someone, and being known, and kissing, and holding hands.

I also loved the diversity in Aristotle and Dante; both boys are second or third generation Mexican American. Dante talks about not being as Mexican as Ari, because Dante’s skin isn’t as dark. Mentions are made about the amount of Spanish that is (or isn’t) spoken at home, food that is eaten. Dante is the only child of a college professor and a psychologist; Ari’s parents are a high school teacher and mailman, and Ari is the youngest of four with several nieces and nephews. So there is diversity in terms of the main characters being Mexican American, but also in terms of what being a “Mexican American” means.

Dante likes boys; this is shown gradually, over the course of the book, as Dante himself comes to realize it. I don’t want to get spoilery here, but — well, here’s the thing. Sometimes, I watch movies with my mother and she turns to me and she asks, “I don’t want to know how it happens, but will this have a good ending? Will it be OK for that character?” And so I won’t tell the details, and I won’t say it’s easy, but I’ll say — it’ll be OK for Ari. It’ll be OK for Dante. It’ll be more than OK. And when I cried at the end of this book, it was in part happy tears.

The secondary characters are also so fully drawn that even when they are on the page for only a short time, I feel like I know them. That they are as real as Ari and Dante; but of course, it is Ari and Dante, and especially Ari, that is known best. And oh, the quotes! Because this is Ari’s story, all are him talking. “But love was something heavy for me. Something I had to carry.” “When do we start feeling like the world belongs to us?” “Maybe I wanted too much.” How could I not love Ari?

One last thing. As the story of Ari’s older brother was gradually revealed, as well as the depth of the impact of his crime and loss on the family, I had some “well what about thoughts” about Bernardo. In book print in my reading journal, I have “BUT WHAT ABOUT BERNARDO??” written down. I sternly told myself, this is Ari’s story, don’t be so demanding as a reader. And then — and then — what Aristotle and Dante delivered to me. It was perfect.

The combination of language; Ari; Ari’s beautiful family; Dante; and the warmth and goodness and compassion, even in the presence of hate; for all of these, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Teach Mentor Texts; Librarian of Snark; SLJ author interview.


Flashback June 2006

A flashback to what I was reviewing in June 2006:

Poetry Friday: The Geography of Girlhood by Kirsten Smith. From my review: “Penny is the understudy in the school play and when her big moment comes — they end up cancelling the play. When she gets her first kiss — she faints.But it’s also serious, as she tries to figure out who she is, what she wants, and whether to stay or go. Penny looks to her older sister for guidance, but her sister is busy, so Penny watches, trying to pick up cues about what it means to have a boy fall in love with you. Penny also falls for the boy; and whether it’s because she loves him, is competing with her sister, or just following the steps her sister left is unclear.”

Amazing Grace by Megan Shull. From my review: “Teen celebrity runs away to an anonymous, working class world, finds love, acceptance, and herself. . . . .[This] answer[s] the question, what if Britney/Lindsay wanted out?

The Red Judge by Pauline Fisk. From my review: “Zachary/Zed Fitztalbot feels responsible for his older sister’s accident; and his father also blames him, and dumps him at the abandoned house of his recently deceased grandmother. It’s unclear how much of the next week or so Zed dreams, imagines, or is real; Welsh myth and legends come to life, reality changes, as Zed confronts his own guilt about his sister, his failure to fit into the Fitztalbot family, and questions about his own past.”

Fables: March of the Wooden Soldiers. From my review: “Starts with a quick intro of people and plot; which was just as well because somehow I missed the 3rd in this series. Basically, refugee Fables (Pinocchio, Rose Red, Prince Charming) have been living among us in Fabletown, in Manhattan, having fled their magical homelands because of the mysterious Adversary, who hunted and killed the Fables. This series is about the Fables as they live in exile. This is not a cute retelling; it’s dark & gritty.”

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. From my review: “Evil governesses, stolen fortunes, prison like boarding school, escape, shipwrecks, poor & sickly Aunts, brave kids, orphans, last-minute surprises, kindly people, mean people, food, funny names, secret passages, grand houses, poverty, and of course wolves; it has it all.”

Sir Thursday by Garth Nix, Series: The Keys of the Kingdom. From my review: “Why Garth Nix is fabulous: he’s created 2 alternate worlds and, through all the books, remains consistent. The worlds do not contradict their rules; the realities make sense; and they are incredibly complex and layered. Nix has to keep track of a lot of things and I wonder if he has a “bible” with lists and rules and maps and the like. Because I cannot believe he can keep this all straight in his head. The world of Keys to the Kingdom is just too dense, too intricate. What is also interesting is that in Book 1, I thought Arthur was of “our” world, going into the “other” world. But as details of Arthur’s world emerge, I realize his Earth is not our Earth. (Truth be told, there may have been details that revealed this earlier which I just thought were Australian things rather than otherworld things.) Not only do I wonder about Arthur’s actual origins, but now I wonder about Emily, his mother, who seems a bit too quick on the pick up when dealing with Denizen-inspired disease.”

Permanent Rose by Hilary McKay. From my review: “How much do I love McKay’s writing? I almost want to go right now to the bookstore and buy everything she has written, because it’s the type of writing that is enjoyed so much it must be owned. Love the Cassons; love that even Bill, who I should hate, I just forgive. I love the messy, untidy, loving family that should be dysfunctional but isn’t. And how McKay does make so much of the every day things of life, turning the normal into adventure.

Woof Woof by David A. Carter. From my review: “See a shape; guess what it is; turn the page and find out if you’re right. Watch as the shapes take form. This appears to be a simple story; but it has more layers than that. It requires thought and input from the reader, making this an active book, rather than a passive story. To look at just the words would result in missing the point of the book.

March by Geraldine Brooks. From my review:  “It’s 1861, and March is an Army Chaplain for the Union. He tells not only of his wartime experience, but also thinks back on different times in his life: as a wandering tinker in the South 20 years before, meeting his wife, raising his four daughters . . . . What I liked about March: as historical fiction, it’s almost perfect. Brooks has done her research; no “it’s fiction so I can make up whatever I want” to be found here. She researches her time, her place, and both the March and Alcott families. (Do I even have to tell my readers that the March family was based on Louisa May Alcott’s family?) Most importantly, Brooks never has March or any other character be a modern person set down in the past. March, Marmee, and the others remain, at all times, people of their time period; progressive in some areas, even ahead of their time, perhaps, but never with a 21st century mindset. One thing that remains is snobbism and classism that most historical fiction books like to either ignore, or to have their characters realize and change. . . . ” And then my explanation of why I hate March, the character.

A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb. From my review: “Helen panics when a boy notices her in school. It’s been a while since someone has looked at her and truly seen her. Not since she’s been dead. Helen is a ghost; and humans don’t see ghosts. But this one sees her. Helen discovers that it’s another ghost who can see her; and that James has found a way to inhabit a human body, Billy. Helen has a second chance at living — and at love — if she, too, can find a body. Jenny seems not to care about life, so Helen slips in and becomes her.

The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster, illustrated by Chris Raschka. From my review: “The nameless narrator visits her grandparents. The “hello, goodbye” window is the kitchen window. When coming to visit, it’s the Hello Window; when leaving, the Goodbye Window.”

Review: The White Bicycle

The White Bicycle by Beverley Brenna. Red Deer Press. 2012. Printz Honor Book. Library copy.

The Plot: Taylor Jane Simon, 19, is in France for her summer job, being a personal care assistant for her friend Luke Phoenix’s younger brother, Martin Phoenix.

Unfortunately, Taylor Jane’s mother has tagged along. It only makes sense; Penny Simon’s mother just passed away, leaving some money, so why not spend it on traveling? All the better because Penny is dating Alan Phoenix, father to Luke Phoenix and Martin Phoenix.

A summer job in France is something anyone would want! For Taylor Jane, though, it means even more. It means the chance to add something to her resume, to make more money than she would in her part time job at the bookstore, to possibly get a better job, which means independence.

Independence is what any 19 year old wants, right? And isn’t her mother’s coming along on Taylor Jane’s trip evidence enough that her mother is too involved?

The White Bicycle is the third and final book about Taylor Jane Simon, a young woman with Asperger’s Syndrome.

The Good: First things first: while The White Bicycle is part of a trilogy, you do not have to read the other two books in order to read and enjoy and understand this book. The proof of that statement is that I have never read the other two books, and I simply adored The White Bicycle.

As I’ve said in the past, much as I like reading a book before it gets an Award nod, I also like being able to read something new after it has that recognition. Here, to be able to read The White Bicycle asking “why a Printz Honor.” I suspected, going in, that part of it would be because the narrator, Taylor Jane, has Asperger’s Syndrome and that her way of telling the story would be unique and fresh. I was right; but Taylor Jane’s voice was so much more than that. It was funny; it was insightful; it revealed a different way of looking at the world; and it was full of yearning.

Here, from the first few pages. Taylor Jane has just recounted a dream about going someplace on a white bicycle, and it’s pretty symbolic of independence and life. She muses, “I do not know whether this is really a dream or a nightmare. My mother would say it is a nightmare because it has unhappy parts in it; but so does life, and life is closer to dreams than nightmares.”

Taylor Jane explain what being an adult is and is not: “I used to be waiting for boyfriends but now I know that I don’t need a boyfriend to be an adult. Then I waited for a job, but now I now that just having a job doesn’t make you independent.” This, then, is the second great thing about The White Bicycle: exploring what it means to be an adult and to be independent, and doing so without it being tied to a “thing” such as dating or a job or even knowing what one wants to do with the rest of one’s life.

The third thing that made me sit up and go, “yes,” was the way the story was told. You all may realize by now I love when stories aren’t linear in fashion. Taylor Jane is writing this all down, and yes, it’s about her summer in France, but she also shares various memories of her childhood. Several of them are from the time before she received a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome; which means it includes the years at school when Taylor Jane was seen by teachers as stupid or spoiled or a trouble maker. It’s insightful, to see her point of view for what caused meltdowns or other instances. It was also heartbreaking, because I recognized what her mother had to be going through in those years without an answer and only blame. Even if Taylor Jane doesn’t realize it, it’s easy for the reader to see just why her mother is now over protective. It’s also to see that her mother is not without reasons to still be involved in her daughter’s life. The trip to France has multiple plane changes and a few issues (missed connection, lost luggage) and I’m honestly not sure how Taylor Jane would have navigated them alone.

A final reason to love The White Bicycle: it shows how a mother’s over involvement can damage a relationship. Taylor Jane grows increasingly resentful over her mother telling her what to do and not do. At the same time, she misses the things she and her mother used to do together for fun, such as watching movies.

Oh, I said a final but there are many more reasons — such as the Phoenix family and their love, understanding, and acceptance of Taylor Jane. The setting of the south of France, and I want to go to there right this minute! The instances were people other than Taylor Jane are shown to have trouble with change: her mother’s concerns about driving in France, Luke Phoenix and his place in the family. So, yes, a Favorite Book Read in 2013.  Thank you, Printz Committee!

Other reviews: The Horn Book; Booklist; Bibliophile; Story Carnivores; Author Interview at By Word of Beth;



Actual Teen, Adult Teen

We all know that actors don’t always play exactly their age.

There are many reasons for that, including the very practical reason that minors — those actors who are also teens — have more limitations when working than adults. Pay a 27 year old to play a 15 year old, and they can work more hours a day, not have an on set tutor, etc. Or, the role may span several years so the actor is only playing younger for a portion of that role.

Children are asked to make very grown up commitments and decisions that can influence their lives forever. I read Mara Wilson’s Seven Reasons Child Stars Go Crazy (An Insider’s Perspective), and thought, OK, why not hire adults to play teens, if it saves children and teens from those things? If a child or teen wants to act, they can always wait until they are older.

The Actual Teen vs Adult Teen Tumblr puts a different focus on the issue of adults playing teens: what that means to the public view of what a teen looks like.  The Tumblr was created by Ann Foster (on Twitter, she’s @annhepburn).

Some images from Actual Teen vs Adult Teen:

Joshua Jackson, a real teen (age 17) on the left, and a 23 year old playing 17 on the right:

 Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a real teen (age 17) on the left, and on the right as 24 year old playing a high school student:

 Rachel Bilson, a real teen (age 17) on the left, and on the right as a 25 year old playing a high school student:


Ann agreed to answer some questions about her Tumblr project.

Liz: Why did you start Actual Teen, Adult Teen?

Ann: It all began with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. (Note from Liz: I had selected JGL’s photo to highlight before I got back the answers from Ann!) Back when he (and I) were both 16, he appeared in the film 10 Things I Hate About You. I remember seeing that as a teen and responding very positively to how most of the cast — but especially him — really looked like the actual teens I was going to school with. It wasn’t until then that I became aware that so much pop culture has much older actors playing teens.

Flashforward to 2004, when I went to see the gorgeous film Brick, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt . . . still as a high school student. I’d responded so well to him in 10 Things I Hate About Youit was pretty bizarre to see him still playing a teen, when I knew he was my age and I’d already graduated from my undergrad by that point.

I find the phenomenon most striking with actors like JGL, who I watched grow up in other movies and TV shows. It’s like, “I know what you looked like as a 16-year-old and you, sir, are no 16-year-old.”

Also I got really freaked out when I learned that the Bianca Lawson playing 17-year-old Maya on Pretty Little Liars is the same Bianca Lawson who played 17-year-old Kendra on Buffy, 15 years ago. She has aged in this incredible, Benjamin Button manner.

Liz: Why do you think it’s important for people to know that adults are playing teens in film and TV?

Ann: I don’t think it’s important, so much as just informative. It started out as me wanting almost to prove a point, like, “You aren’t fooling anyone, 27-year-old ‘teens’! I’m onto you!” but it’s developed into this interesting sociological thing.

I know there are very good reasons to cast adults as teens — legal reasons, labour regulations, the ability to work longer hours and include more love scenes — but some of the examples I’ve found are just bizarre. Like, 30-year-old Trevor Donovan as “teen” Teddy on 90210 — who is he kidding? (Sidenote: I’m dying to find a picture of Trevor as an actual teen, but the earliest pics of him online are already in his very buff 20s)

So part of it is, I think, to help dispel the notion that teens and 25-year-olds look the same in real life.

Liz: What has surprised you most about the “adult teens” playing teens?

Ann: There seem to be three distinct groups of “actual teens”. There are the ones where their “actual teen” pics make them look little and squishy, like Daniel Sharman, Topher Grace, Nina Dobrev, Paul Walker, Leonardo diCaprio, and Michael J. Fox. If you’d cast their actual 16-year-old selves as teenagers, nobody would have believed it because they look 12.

Then you have people like Seth Green, Juno Temple, Freddie Highmore, Ralpha Macchio, Alyson Hannigan, Stacey Dash and Bianca Lawson who appear ageless and their “actual teen” photos are sometimes indistinguishable from their “adult teen” pictures even when they’re taken 10 years apart.

And then you’ve got people who look so obviously not like teens that they were clearly cast despite their age, like Stockard Channing, Tom Welling and Luke Perry.

Liz: What type of feedback have you gotten from readers?

Ann: I’ve had lots of really great feedback, but two messages have been especially thought-provoking for me. One, from a non-US reader, said she’d always just assumed American teens were very old-looking compared to teens in other countries, but now she knows it’s because the actors are all 25.

The other really interesting feedback came from a real, live teen who said she felt badly she looked so much younger than teens on TV, but this blog has helped reassure her that her appearance is what teens are *supposed* to look like. I hadn’t thought about this — for some people, constantly seeing older people (for instance, the entire cast of Glee) in high school settings, it can lead to some confidence issues.

Liz: So far, who is your favorite “Actual Teen” playing a teen role? Who is your favorite “Adult Teen”?

Ann: Ooh, good question. Other that Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I have a lot of affection for 16-year-old Anna Kendrick’s performance in Camp. I also have a soft spot for Zac Efron in the original High School Musical movie — he looked so little and sweet, back before he turned into a heartthrob and got big muscles. He has a shirtless scene in that film where you just want to squish his little cheeks.

My favourite adult teen is definitely Michael J. Fox. Much like Leonardo DiCaprio, actual teen Michael J. looks like he’s about 10. It blows my mind to imagine Marty McFly looking like that in the Back to the Future films.

Liz: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Ann: I just wanted to mention that if anyone has any suggestions they can always submit them through the Tumblr. As well, I’ve got a new respect for the fans of shows like Teen Wolf and Glee, who are able to identify the year any given picture of their favourite stars were taken. They’ve been really helpful with corrections when I’ve just estimated somebody’s age in a picture.

Liz: Thank you, Ann!

I’d like to also add as a viewer, it can be odd when an actor, such as Anna Kendrick, goes from an adult role in Up in the Air back to a teenager in Pitch Perfect.

The Actual Teen v Adult Teen Tumblr and the conversation with Ann have got me thinking:

Do we start, without realizing it, to think the adults are the “norm” in terms of attractiveness and beauty and maturity?

How much of a disservice do we do to real teens when the image presented again and again is the person who has already physically “grown up”?

One of the reason I like books is that they can be read without an image; the characters look like how I want them to look. Often, readers play a game about the books they read, a game of what actors they would want to see in what role. How many times are those actors actual teens, or the adult-teen? Even in that game, do we make the teens older, more mature, less children?

Review: Rapture Practice

Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler. Little, Brown & Co. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

It’s About: Aaron Hartzler’s memoir about growing up in an ultra-religious Christian family. It is funny; touching; rebellious; believing; and loving.

The Good: I have a bit of a fascination with religion, especially those that say they have the answers. In a world that is at times messy, and unclear, how reassuring to have, well, a guidebook telling you what to do. I watch shows like 19 Kids and Counting or Polygamy USA and wonder, what about the kids who aren’t satisfied with such a black and white worldview? What happens when that guidebook doesn’t work for you?

Rapture Practice is about one of those kids.

Hartzler writes with love and honesty and respect for his parents, their religion, and the way they raised him and his siblings. His parents do everything they can to have young Aaron and his siblings follow the path of his parents, including keeping such secular things as popular music, television, and movies out of their lives and having all the children attend strict Christian schools.

Young Aaron believes: “when I say we believe that Jesus is coming back, I don’t mean metaphorically . . . I mean literally, like glance out of the car window and, “Oh, hey, there’s Jesus in the sky.” Yet as time goes by, he cannot help but question; cannot help but have questions that his parent’s doctrine doesn’t answer.

Such as, what is so wrong with popular music? Or movies? Why does his father not see that the messages found there can be about love, or friendship, or forgiveness? Is watching the movie Pretty Woman really a danger?

As Aaron grows, he begins to do more and more things that he knows his parents would disapprove of; or, worse, be disappointed by, because disobeying them, and rebelling against them, is the same as rebelling against Jesus. He knows that he shouldn’t, but he does — he goes to movies. He listens to rock music. He dreams of becoming an actor. He pays attention to the clothes he wears. He watches TV at his friends’ houses. He tries a beer. He kisses girls. He drinks. He does all the things his parents don’t want him to. And yet — yet he wants to please his parents. He wonders why he has to pick; why he has to lie.

Some things I cannot emphasize enough: just how funny Rapture Practice is. And just how loving Aaron’s parents are. This is not a memoir about abusive religious parents. Aaron’s parents love him and want what is best for him; they believe and they want Aaron to believe. They have created a warm, loving, caring family. Rapture Practice is one reason I like non-fiction, because this type of complexity, that Aaron’s parents can be both loving and restrictive, warm and controlling, is something hard to find in fiction. Aaron’s moment of coming of age is not embracing independence by moving on from his family; rather, it’s the recognition that he has to accept them as they are in the same way that he desires to be accepted by them.

Part of Aaron’s high school years includes relationships with girls. It’s part of what could get him in trouble with his parents and his school, because saving oneself for marriage is something taken very seriously. Yet, it’s also part of what Aaron does to fit in, to hide from himself and his parents and his friends that he may like boys. It’s heartbreaking, reading how Aaron sits through classes about the abomination of homosexuality, and his take away is a that the two guys shown kissing are look like him; “it looked like they were nice guys who were nice to each other.” Kissing girls hides this the world, and from himself. But as I said, see the humor even here, in that the very film whose point was to show Aaron just how wrong being gay is instead ended up being one of the series of things leading him to the recognition that he likes boys; and that people who are gay weren’t so different after all. So it’s sad and it’s funny; and I want to say to Aaron, it’s going to be OK; and I’m glad that since this is a memoir, it’s a built in spoiler that it gets better for Aaron.

Yes; this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013. Because it is warm and wonderful and full of joy; while at the same time, showing just how damaging narrowness can be.

Other reviews: Forever Young Adult; The Nervous Breakdown Interview; Lambda Literary Review; Book Riot; Leila Roy (Bookshelves of Doom) at Kirkus; The Librarian Writer.

Flashback June 2008

A flashback to what I was reviewing in June 2008:

Day of the Scarab by Catherine Fisher. Sequel to The Sphere of Secrets. From my review: “A world with gods, where those in control stopped believing. But it turns out the gods and the myths are real; and a handful of people, including a young priestess, a scribe, and a thief, are chosen by the god to fix things. . . . It’s a bit weird writing up something for a third book; on the one hand, if you’ve read the other 2, you are breathless and eager to read this one. On the other hand, if you haven’t, what I want to say is this: Here is a brilliantly plotted fantasy, tightly told, over three volumes. It is worth your investment to go, read the first, and continue thru all three. This final book has a wonderful conclusion; it addresses the main issues raised in the trilogy (restoration of the Oracle, threats of rebellion, the preservation of religions) yet does not answer every question.

Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson. Series: M.T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales. From my review: “The Thrilling Tale of Katie Mulligan (you remember her from the Horror Hollow Books), Jasper Dash (Boy Technonaut) and Lily Gefelty as they encounter Whales — on — Stilts. (I’m saying that in my Pigs In Space voice.) . . . To begin with: “On Career Day Lily visited her dad’s work with him and discovered he worked for a mad scientist who wanted to rule the earth through destruction and desolation.” Could there be a better opening line? Or summation of a plot? Lily herself is quietly observant: “Lily believed that the world was a wonderful and magical place. She believed that if watched carefully enough, you could find miracles anywhere.” . . . But, as I said, you don’t need to know that Katie is RL Stine come to life or Jasper a throwback to the 20s/30s to enjoy the humor. Dad works in an abandoned warehouse on edge of town. With a receptionist. That, my friends, is the type of humor I adore. An abandoned warehouse where the father doesn’t realize something is up, is just plain crazy; add in a receptionist for the evil people? And chums, it is brilliant.

King Of Shadows by Susan Cooper. From my review: “Present-day Nat is a teenager and actor who is in a staging of one of Shakespeare’s Plays. Then, boom! Time slip happens and he’s back in the day, meeting the real Bard.

Gray Horses by Hope Larson. From my review: “This graphic novel looks at the experiences of a French exchange student in America; the art and text is deceptively simple. Noemie struggles with loneliness, fitting in, finding friends; and is also having odd dreams about horses.”

Review: The Coincidence of Callie and Kayden

The Coincidence of Callie and Kayden by Jessica Sorensen. Grand Central Publishing. 2013. Personal copy.

The Plot: Callie and Kayden grew up in the same small town, but weren’t what you’d call friends. Kayden was the popular football player; Callie was the outcast with no friends.

One early summer night, Callie sees Kayden’s father hit him. Rather than run away, she interrupts — and just by her presence, his father backs off.

Callie and Kayden don’t see each other again until four months later, when both are at the same Wyoming college.

Both are looking for new starts and to leave their pasts behind them. Kayden is not just grateful for what Callie did to help him; he’s impressed with her, because no one had ever stuck up to his father that way. He finds himself falling for her.

Callie has spent the last six years keeping the world at arm’s length, but being at college has given her a second chance. Things aren’t perfect; but they’re getting better. Part of that “getting better” is not just how attracted she is to Kayden; it’s also that she allows herself to be attracted, and to act on it.

Together, Callie and Kayden tell their story.

The Good: As part of my preparation for the ALA Conversation Starter I’m doing with Sophie Brookover and Kelly Jensen, I’m reading a lot about what “New Adult” is or isn’t, what is or isn’t being published, and, of course, reading some of the books that have the “New Adult” designation. Briefly, New Adult is primarily for a readership of ages 18 to 25.

One of the descriptions I’ve read of New Adult is, a young adult book with sexytimes. This meets that definition: the general plot of the story, and the age of the characters (while on the high end as college freshman), reminded me of young adult books. And yes, the physical relationship between Callie and Kayden is important and described. I’d say the sexytime scenes are more than what I’d see in a typical Young Adult book; but less than what I’ve read in most romance novels.

I’ve also seen that the setting — college or college age, or post college age — is part of what is essential to New Adult. Callie and Kayden are both  starting college. Callie actually began a few months early, because she had such a strong desire to leave high school behind and start reinventing herself. Yes, that is their age, that is the setting, but to be honest, if someone was looking for a “what will college be like” type of novel, this isn’t what I’d pick.

The Coincidence of Callie and Kayden had many elements of what I see in young adult books: fast paced and a page turner; absence, in one way or another, of parents or adults; emphasis on peers; growing independence of the main characters; and it was a quick read. What’s interesting to me is that the major traumas that both Callie and Kayden have suffered took place while both were still at home. So this isn’t, “the kids are in college and that’s why the adults are all gone”; even when they were 8, 12, 16, the adults in their lives (parents, teachers, coaches) let them down in various ways. For whatever reasons, it’s not until Callie and Kayden are no longer home that each begins to deal with their own painful pasts.

And now, the past and those reinventions. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that when she was in sixth grade, Callie was raped, causing her to withdraw from everything around her. Callie doesn’t admit it to the reader, or Kayden, until pretty far along in the book but it’s pretty obvious to the reader. At college, Callie makes her first new friend in ages, Seth. Seth is “safe” for her, because he is gay, so not a sexual threat; he is also a sympathetic ear because he has his own tragic backstory. He “knows” where she is coming from. Together, they offer each other support. Part of it is by creating “lists”, the small (and big) steps to, well, rejoining the world.

One thing I liked about Callie and Kayden is that this “recovery program” is something Callie does herself, by her own initiative; and that she is already in the process of “saving herself” so that Kayden is not saving her.

That said, I kept thinking throughout this whole book, are there no therapists or psychiatrists in Wyoming? It’s not just that Callie’s own obvious suffering has been ignored for six some years; it’s that the physical abuse suffered by Kayden and his brothers is likewise never noticed, or if noticed, ignored. I kept going back and forth in my head about this because I honestly found it a little unbelievable; then I told myself that it was Callie and Kayden telling their story, and it was their reality and that, yes, even today, abused children and teens don’t get the help they want or need. But then I’d think, Kayden was a football player and not one team mate or coach noticed the scars and bruises? So round and round in my head it went. And while therapists and counseling are not some magic band-aid, stepping back, Callie and Kayden are doing only a so-so job of saving themselves, because Callie forces herself to vomit as some type of mental defense mechanism (her list with Seth doesn’t include stopping that) and Kayden doesn’t cut the ties to his own abusive parents.

But. But. I had to remind myself what type of book this is: and at it’s heart, it’s a hurt/comfort romance book. In this instance, both Callie and Kayden are hurt, and both are comforting each other, and Callie and Kayden delivers this and more. Any type of professional counseling is totally at odds to what a hurt/comfort story does, so of course, it’s not here. Also, I personally saw this as not so much realistic as soap-opera; in other words, stop worrying about non-existent therapists but instead just go with the flow of emotions and will-they/won’t they for Callie and Kayden.

While Callie and Kayden are fully drawn, most of the other characters are not. Seth is basically the Sassy Gay Friend. Luke is supposed to have his own Issues but they never gelled together for me to make him real. As mentioned, the parents are either abusive or useless. Kayden has a girlfriend, Daisy, who relentlessly bullies Callie and Daisy’s motivation seems to be just that Daisy is a bitch. That the reader can still feel sympathetic to Kayden despite the fact that he’s stood by while Daisy tormented Callie is a credit to Sorensen’s ability to show us Kayden’s own tortured thoughts and defense mechanisms. It’s also a good truth: Kayden was so wrapped up in his own pain that he didn’t see Callie’s. The “bitchy girlfriend” is also a trope I remember well from all the Harlequin and similar romances I read in high school.

And this, perhaps, is one of the things that struck me about Callie and Kayden: it’s not my type of book now. (As you can tell, I was a bit too much ‘GET INTO THERAPY ALREADY’, in addition to a few other things.) But then? As a teenager or young twentysomething? In many ways, it was very much like the romance type of books I read back then, so of course I can see why people are reading then now. Except for that ending. ARGH. Not to get all spoilery, but I want my romances to have a happy ever after, thank you, and NOT a cliff hanger.

Final librarian thoughts? I’d put this in adult fiction, using booklists and cataloging to make sure the people looking for it found it. While I can see the style of young adult books being present here, ultimately, it felt more like an adult book to me.

Other reviews: Dear Author; Good Books, Good Wine; Good Choice Reading; Under the Covers.

Review: Sticks and Stones

Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Emily Bazelon. Random House 2013. Random House Audio 2013. Reviewed from borrowed copy of audiobook. Making this part of my “vacation reads” series, figuring most of my readers who work in schools are on vacation now or soon will be!

It’s About: Bullying: it’s all over the news. The terrible way children and teens are treated by their peers, both in the “real world” and online via cyber-bullying.

Bazelon looks at bullying in depth: what it is, what people think it is, the way it’s been treated in the news, the manner that anti-bullying classes are incorporated into schools. She does so by examining the stories of three students in detail, as well as taking a historical look at the study of bullying and how children interact with each other.

The Good: A must-read, nuanced examination of what “bullying” is, and isn’t, especially the difference between “drama” (conflicts between kids) and “bullying.” The definition of bullying Bazelon uses (from research by Dan Olweus): “it had to be verbal or physical abuse, it had to repeat over time, and it had to involve an imbalance of power.” “Drama,” because it doesn’t involve that power (or has shifting power dynamics), is a more common occurrence, but still should be taken seriously. Bullying is also “a behavior that peaks in middle school, continues to some degree in high school, and then declines significantly in college.

What to do about bullying and drama? Sticks and Stones looks at how the culture of a school matters, and what anti-bullying programs work and why. Most important? Creating a school culture that doesn’t reward bullying or drama. Creating such a culture is neither easy nor simple; it’s not about a one-time assembly.

Easy or simple: the biggest take-away I had from Sticks and Stones is that bullying (and drama) isn’t easy or simple. Easy or simple reactions or solutions at best, don’t work, or at worst, create a worse problem. Is a bully best served by suspension or being expelled, or is he or she best served by helping them have empathy and other skills to not bully? Add that assumes that the situation is indeed bullying, and not drama between two equals (or two kids with varying degrees of power, depending on the time and situation.) “Drama” has it’s own issues, yes, but since resolving personal conflict is a much-needed skill for adults, part of childhood drama has to be children and teens working it out without adult intervention.

The second biggest take-away? The issue of mental health and children and teens. Some of the reason for the decline in bulling seems to be about the growing maturity of those involved, both in terms of greater empathy and in greater skills to combat or ignore it. Put empathy and awareness aside, there remains the mental health of both the bully and the victim. A child may bully because of underlying mental health issues; a victim may react in ways because they are already fragile because of their mental health.

The third take-away? Bazelon talks about creating a culture of empathy within schools. As I see and observe behavior in media — in TV shows, or in comments sections, or in politics — I think a bigger culture of empathy is needed.

I would like to say more: about the programs discussed, the children Bazelon interviews, the situations examined. Sticks and Stones is so nuanced, and Bazelon’s treatment is such, that I don’t want to give bite size, simplistic confusions. Just, this: Sticks and Stones is a must-read, which offers much to the reader in terms of how best to work with children and teens and what programs to use in schools. Part of the reason I decided to post this now at the beginning of summer vacation for many schools is I think it will give readers who work in schools time to think and plan for what they will do at the start of the next school year. Also, while Sticks and Stones focuses on children and teens, I’d also say it gives a structure for analysis for adults who encounter their own situations involving bullying and/or drama.

Further reading: Defining Bullying, a The New York Times op-ed by Emily Bazelon; review at The New York Times; review at S. Krishna’s Books; Interview with Emily Bazelon at NPR; Can We Really Stop Bullying at Slate. Edited to add The Power of Empathy: Q & A with Emily Bazelon at SLJ.


ALA Annual is just around the corner, which means, OH NO SO MUCH TO DO.

The highlights of my schedule, so far:

Saturday, June 29th

All About ARCs: The Ins and Outs of Requesting, Using and Abusing Advanced Reading Copies, where I’m co-presenting with Kelly Jensen and Kristi Chadwick. 10:30 to 11:30, McCormick Place Convention Center, S103d.

From the program: “Librarians may have heard of Advanced Reading Copies (ARCs), but do they actually know how to acquire or use them? Why do publishers create these unsaleable copies? Have you seen them at used bookstores, Friends book sales, and should they really be there? What about those “digital galleys” that are becoming available? Come explore these questions and more with a panel of librarians and publishing reps who use them every day in many ways. Discussion topics: What are ARCs?; Who is the intended audience of an ARC?; Why do publishers provide them?; How can you get them?; Digital vs. Print?; What you can/cannot do with an ARC.”

Kristi, Kelly and I are working on this right now. I have THOUGHTS and FEELINGS about ARCs, and libraries, and librarians, and all the things! Including not just what people do (or don’t do) with them, but in how people view them and their use as part of one’s whole professional tool kit.

Fabulous Films for Young Adults, 1:00 to 4:00, Hilton Chicago, Pullman Boardman. This is a committee meeting, but Fab Films is an open committee.

Sunday, June 30th

 YA Author Coffee Klatch, 9:00 to 10:00, McCormack Place Convention Center, S406b. Ticketed event.

From the program: “Enjoy coffee and meet with YALSA’s award winning authors! This informal coffee klatch will give you an opportunity to meet authors who have appeared on one of YALSA’s six annual selected lists or have received one of YALSA’s five literary awards. Librarians will sit at a table and every 3 or 4 minutes, a new author will arrive at your table to talk!
I’ve managed to go to almost all of these, and while one should bring their own bagel or pastry, what one really goes for is is the chance to talk with and meet the authors.

Monday, July 1st

Conversation Starters: New Adult Fiction: What is it and is it really happening? 9:15 – 10:00, McCormick Place Convention Center, S102d. I’m co-presenting with Sophie Brookover and Kelly Jensen.

From the program: “New Adult Fiction (NA) has made waves in the New York Times, the Guardian, Publishers Weekly, and more. Depending on who you ask, NA either demands its own section of the library or is just a new name to describe books about twenty-somethings, which libraries have always carried. Maybe it’s “young adult books with sex.” Maybe it’s books about emerging adults trying to figure out the world before an uncertain future happens. Join a lively discussion on what NA may be, who’s reading it, where it’s shelved, how we catalog it, and how it fits into reader’s advisory.

Part of the reason I’m enjoying putting together this Conversation Starter is that, while online New Adult has been talked about for a while, most people I talk with in libraryland haven’t heard about it. I think this is a great opportunity to connect with patrons who are twentysomething.

Michael L. Printz Program and Reception, 8:00 to 11:00, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Grand AB. Ticketed Event.

This is always so much fun! This year, though, I’ve only read 3 of the 5 books. I don’t have copies of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe or The White Bicycle, and I’ve been so busy with things that borrowing a library copy hasn’t worked out. Maybe I’ll have time in the next couple weeks.

So, those are some of things I’m doing and looking forward to!

What about you? What are you plans for ALA Annual?

Flashback June 2009

A flashback to what I was reading in June 2009:

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell In Love by Lauren Tarshis. From my review: “Emma-Jean Lazarus, an astute observer of her fellow seventh graders at William Gladstone Middle School, watches as her friends fuzz over the upcoming dance and worry about what boy they’ll ask. She decides their behavior is a result of spring fever – and then realizes that she, too, has fallen prey to spring fever. . . . Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell in Love is equal parts mystery (which boy left a note in Colleen’s locker?) and middle school politics and friendship. Emma-Jean has a unique look at the world; from the first, I imagined her as mini Temperance Brennan from the TV show Bones. Smart, logical, observant, removed; and like Brennan, with loving friends and family. Emma-Jean on seventh grade boys: “She had been observing her fellow seventh graders for many years, trying to understand them better and she had long ago concluded that it was simply the boys’ nature to be rambunctious on occasion.”

Columbine by Dave Cullen. From my review: “On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, high school seniors, entered Columbine High School. They killed twelve students and one teacher, and then committed suicide. Dave Cullen has covered the story since day one. Columbine is about what happened on April 20th; what led up to it; and what followed. In particular, it firmly ends many of the myths surrounding Columbine. Interestingly, the truth has been out there; Cullen wrote The Depressive and the Psychopath, published in Slate, in April 2004. Yet ask most people, and they won’t say this was the case of a psychopath but rather the result of bullying and jocks and revenge and disappointments.

I And I Bob Marley by Tony Medina. From my review: “The life of Bob Marley, told in verse. . . . Do you have to “know” Bob Marley to appreciate this book? No. Someone familiar with his life and music will recognize phrases and the chronology; but those not as familiar will follow along, as Bob is a small child living on a farm, a boy abandoned by his father, a teenager raised in a slum, all along music shaping him and his life.

Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. From my review: “Twenty-five year old Rebecca Bloomwood has a love affair with shopping. There’s nothing like the rush of finding — and buying — that perfect sweater. Pair of boots. Mascara. Coffee. Dress. Notecards. But for some reason the credit cards won’t leave her alone; they actually want to get paid. And, funny enough, Becky’s job? A journalist. For a finance magazine. .  . .  I’ll be honest: while I’m not the shopaholic Becky is, I totally understand the “high” she gets, the way she imagines herself better, smarter, more liked with that new dress, makeup, sweater, scarf. Actually, upon finishing this book I really, really wanted to buy a new gray cardigan for the summer. Part of the attraction (for me) is to be able to think “well at least I’m not as bad as Becky is!” So far, I’m resisting the temptation to get that cardigan. (But I do have a 15% off coupon for the store it’s at, so it would be like saving money, right?)

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson. From my review: “Lia’s best friend, Cassie, is dead. Before she died, Cassie called Lia thirty-three times. Lia didn’t answer; the two had stopped talking, stopped being friends. But they had never stopped being partners — partners in the race to see who could be skinniest. Anderson captures the tortured thoughts and worldview of Lia, who, to put it mildly, has serious problems. She starves herself; cuts herself; berates herself (stupid/ ugly/ stupid/ bitch/ stupid/ fat/ stupid/ baby/ stupid/ liar/ stupid/ lost); sees herself as fat; and sees ghosts. Sees Cassie. Everywhere. Haunting her; taunting her; encouraging her. In audio, especially, Cassie’s words twist into your heart and your head.”

My Japan by Etsuko Watanabe. From my review: “Yumi presents her life in a matter of fact way, full of the details that readers love. Even the back cover gives information (Japan has over 3,000 islands). Yumi’s Japan is modern; when she shares the meals she eats, there is sushi, ramen, tonkatsu…and hamburger. And spaghetti. It is also traditional; during summer vacation at her grandparents, she wears a yukata.”

The Tushy Book by Fran Manushkin. From my review: “Oh, let’s be real. There is no plot! It’s just a love-fest to the tushy!”

The Treasure Map of Boys by e. lockhart. From my review: “It’s the second half of Ruby Oliver’s junior year. Things seem better. She now has two friends (two!), Nora and Meghan. And Noel likes her, but because Nora likes Noel, Ruby has promised herself to stay away from Noel (even tho Ruby likes him, also.) And Jackson is back in the picture! And maybe Finn. And Hutch is still there, working for her father. Kim and Cricket still don’t talk to her. Things should be better. But Ruby is lonely; it’s been over thirty weeks of no boyfriend! And she’s still getting panic attacks. And the rumors may be starting again.”

Norman and Brenda by Colin Thomspon & Amy Lissiat. From my review: “Norman and Brenda live their own lives, waiting for life to begin, waiting for that someone. Will their paths ever cross?

My Parents Are Divorced, My Elbows Have Nicknames by Bill Cochran, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman. From my review: “Ted is made up of many things. His parents are divorced (but that doesn’t make him weird.) He sleeps with one sock on (so maybe that’s a little weird.) Sometimes when he answers the phone pretending he’s a chicken (OK, so that IS weird.) Ted is Ted; he is who he is.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. From my review: “For the potential reader? Read The Hunger Games, knowing you only have to wait a few short months to read the sequel, Catching Fire. It’s a wonderful experience for a reader: great plotting, memorable plotting, a unique world. And in all honesty, once you’ve read the first, you don’t need to read a review or recommendation to read the second.”

Hate List by Jennifer Brown. From my review: “Valerie Leftman was shot during a school shooting moments before the shooter turned the gun on himself. She may have tried to stop him; instead of a half dozen dead, their could have been more. Or, since she was his girlfriend and had helped write the “Hate List” he used to target his victims, she may not be so innocent.”

Crash Into Me by Albert Borris. From my review: “Four teens go on a road trip to visit celebrity graves, pledging to commit suicide together at the end. Their obsession with suicide and their own attempts brought them together; and the friendship they form may save them all. Chilling, sad, and funny.”

If The Witness Lied by Caroline B. Cooney. From my review: “First, their mother dies. Then, their father. The four Fountain children are left alone, except for their Aunt Cheryl. Overwhelmed by grief — by how and why their parents died — the family cannot hold itself together. Their mother was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant with Tris, now almost three. She choose to have her child rather than have an abortion and aggressively treat the cancer; the press had a field day, as did protesters who called her choice suicide and criticized her abandoning the children she did have. Toddler Tris then kills his father. The little boy releases the emergency break on his father’s jeep; and the jeep runs over and kills his father. The press once again and return to the house. Maddy, the oldest and now a senior, fled to stay with family friends. Smithy found a boarding school and escaped that way. Jack, fifteen, was left behind to take care of Tris. To protect the child. But can he keep protecting Tris, when Cheryl decides to turn the little boy’s life into a TV reality show? The baby who killed his parents. What can Jack do?