Morris Award Winner!

The Morris Award Winner was announced at the Youth Media Awards at ALA Midwinter 2014.

 

The Winner:

Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn. St. Martin’s Griffin, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan. From my review: “Charm & Strange is a brilliant look at a damaged child, and the teenager he becomes. It’s about what happens when the world breaks a child, and he’s left alone to pick up the pieces and reconstitute a life and a personality. Even better: Charm & Strange is told entirely from the point of view of Win, who doesn’t recognize the damage or the impact. He is an unreliable narrator who believes he is a telling us the truth.”

The Finalists:

Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian. Carolrhoda LAB, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group. From my review: “I love Evan, and I love his journey. I love that he calls himself a dirtbag and then makes cupcakes for a little boy’s birthday. I love that he worries about the girl who was attacked. I love how he makes friends, and the people he makes friends with. I love that he decides to learn how to fight. I love the realistic portrayal of a victim of violence. I even grew to love his father. And I feel weird saying “love” because Evan and the others in the book are so flawed and real. And that “love” may be mistaken for “like.” I don’t like what happened to Evan; I don’t like the place he is in at the start of the book; I don’t like the journey he has to go through. I want to reach into the pages and fix it for him and make it better. No, I don’t like the violence or how Evan treats women. But I love how real and true Evan is, and the things that happen to him, and the people around him.

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos. Houghton Mifflin, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. From my review: “The reader knows that if James calls his parents the Brute and the Banshee, his home life is not simple and happy. Whether the labels are that of an angry teen, or deserved, is revealed slowly. James doesn’t even quite realize, or acknowledge, the full dynamics of his family. James — like other teens — is recognizing the way his family works and his own role in it. Yes, they are deserving of the labels Brute and Banshee — but enough is shown of their own pasts to show how they ended up the way they are. And that they aren’t just their label. What James wants is to get his [runaway] sister back. This forces him into action, with one thing leading to another. His wanting to learn more about his sister’s poetry leads him to being involved with the literary magazine, using his own poetry and photographs. He wants to see a therapist, recognizing his own anxiety and depression needs more than in imaginary pigeon (even if Dr. Bird’s advice is sometimes good), but to do so needs a job, so starts working at a pizza place with Derek. So one step in James’s life leads to more steps, that both open up his world but also result in James own personal growth, including the steps he takes for his own depression. And that those steps are more than “make friends, get out of your house, find a hobby” (all things that James does in fact end up doing) — they are meeting with a therapist (a real one) and using that.

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross. Delacorte Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books. From my review: “All too often, historical fiction is about the “fancy” things, so, the things that the rich and well to do have. It is about the options that those people have. Isabelle, then — the daughter of wealthy parents who years only for an education — would be the main character, so that the parties and events and dresses could be described but you’d also have a “good” main character, one who values education over appearance and strives for independence. Instead, there is Maud. Maud, who ran away and finds that life in Paris, while magical, is also about being hungry and desperate when you’re poor without connections. It’s about having to sit silently while someone describes the flaws of face and figure. Despite the cover image, this is not about someone who is beautiful. When she gets to wear pretty clothes, they are not truly hers: they are part of the person she has to pretend to be. She is only just now learning about the world of art and music, and Isabelle introduces her to photography. Maud discovers things and people to care about, and has to decide whether her job is more important than her integrity and her relationships with others. And she has to do so while wondering how to pay rent and buy food. Because she already has independence, her struggle is how to maintain it.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters. Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS. From my review: “Mary Shelley, scientist, always pragmatic, almost dies. After, she sees and senses things differently. One of those things — well, a ghost. Or, at least, one ghost. Believing in spirits doesn’t mean that she also believes, suddenly, in spirit photography or seances. In some ways, it makes her more skeptical. At this point, In the Shadow of Blackbirds also turns into a mystery, as Mary Shelley begins to investigate the death of the ghost. (Look at me, being all careful about that identity of the ghost!) Mary Shelley is an interesting character: she’s the daughter of a female physician, who died shortly after giving birth to her. Her father’s been arrested for treason, but it’s more that he’s an an anti-war pacifist than someone agitating for the downfall of his country. She loves science, and is the type of person who, when she takes something apart and then puts it back together, it works better than it did before.

Morris Award Shortlist

YALSA has announced the shortlist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award; see YALSA’s the Hub for the list of finalists and the official annotations.

The five finalists, with my comments, are:

Charm & Strange written by Stephanie Kuehn, published by St. Martin’s Griffin, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan. I just got this from my local library.

Sex & Violence written by Carrie Mesrobian, published by Carolrhoda LAB, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group. From my review: “I love Evan, and I love his journey. I love that he calls himself a dirtbag and then makes cupcakes for a little boy’s birthday. I love that he worries about the girl who was attacked. I love how he makes friends, and the people he makes friends with. I love that he decides to learn how to fight. I love the realistic portrayal of a victim of violence. I even grew to love his father. And I feel weird saying “love” because Evan and the others in the book are so flawed and real. And that “love” may be mistaken for “like.” I don’t like what happened to Evan; I don’t like the place he is in at the start of the book; I don’t like the journey he has to go through. I want to reach into the pages and fix it for him and make it better. No, I don’t like the violence or how Evan treats women. But I love how real and true Evan is, and the things that happen to him, and the people around him.

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets written by Evan Roskos, published by Houghton Mifflin, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. I don’t have a copy of this, and neither did my local library.

Belle Epoque written by Elizabeth Ross, published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books. I have a copy. 

In the Shadow of Blackbirds written by Cat Winters, published by Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS. I just got this from my local library.

You can get more information on the Morris Award at the YALSA website.

The winner will be announced at the ALA Media Awards at the ALA Midwinter Meeting on January 27.

I like to read all the nominated titles; so far, I have 4 out of 5 which is better than what I’ve read so far for nonfiction!

I plan on participating in the YALSA Hub Morris/Nonfiction Reading Challenge, which begins next week

What titles have you read? If you’ve read all 5, do you have any favorites?

A big thank you to the hardworking committee members:  Dorcas Wong (Chair), San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco, Calif.; Jerene D. Battisti, King County Library System, Issaquah, Wash.; Betsy Fraser, Calgary Public Library, Calgary, Alberta, Canada; Hannah Gomez, Castilleja School Espinosa Library, Palo Alto, Calif.; Christopher Lassen, Brooklyn Public Library-Marcy, Brooklyn, N.Y.; Alissa Ann Lauzon, Lexington, Mass.; Rachael Myers Ricker, Brooklyn, N.Y.; Jenna Nemec-Loise, Chicago, Ill.; Mary A Wepking, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee SOISMilwaukee, Wisc.; Ileana Pulu (administrative assistant), Bayview Branch, San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco, Calif.; and Daniel Kraus (Booklistconsultant), Chicago, Ill.

Morris Finalists

This past December, YALSA announced the shortlist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award. Edited to add: The Award went to Seraphina by Rachel Hartman!

You can get more information on the Morris Award at the YALSA website. I’ve had the chance to read and review all the books, and let me say, it’s going to be a tough choice. The winner will be announced at the ALA Media Awards at the ALA Midwinter Meeting on January 28. We’ll see what happens!

The five finalists are:

Wonder Show, written by Hannah Barnaby, published by Published by Houghton Mifflin, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. From my review: “Portia Remini has not run away from home to join the circus. First, its’s a carnival, not a circus, and it’s called Mosco’s Traveling Wonder Show. Second, it was not home, not a home with parents or family. Parents and family left, long along, fleeing the dust and looking for work, and finally the last relative had enough and sent her to the McGreavey Home for Wayward Girls. She lasted there a few years before deciding she had to leave, to try to find her father. And why not the Wonder Show? She’s a normal among freaks: the Wild Albinos of Bora Bora, the Bearded Lady, and others. Will Portia find what she’s looking for? And will the McGreavey home let her go?

Love and Other Perishable Items, written by Laura Buzo, published by Alfred A.

 

Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc. From my review: “This is a book about that delicious, wonderful feeling of being in love, in having a crush that is so overwhelming it just consumes everything. That is what Amelia feels for Chris. It is both real and solid and full of possibilities, the possibilities of sharing time with the object of one’s obsession, of looking forward to a conversation as if it were oxygen, yet at the same time it is always an illusion, a dream, something that makes her brighter but is never real.

After the Snow, written by S.D. Crockett, published by Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. From my review: “The journey to find his family takes Willo outside his comfort zone, the mountains and forests he knows. After the Snow is almost a fairy tale, as Willo encounters abandoned children, cannibals, settlements and cities, brutality and kindness. He learns about who he can trust, and who he cannot. At times he is the wild boy encountering civilization at times, wondering at the world he discovers. He is a puzzle with pieces missing, because of the isolation he was raised in.”

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, written by emily m. danforth, published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. From my review: “Cam is both isolated yet not alone. She is isolated from her grief, and isolated because she has to hide her relationships with girls. She is not isolated, in that she has friends. While Cam cannot be public about her emotions and love, she is not alone. She manages to make connections. There is Irene, with whom she shares her first kiss. There is Lindsey, visiting for the summer from the west coast, who Cam dates and who becomes Cam’s long-distance friend and mentor, a link to a world where people are out and proud and public. Then there is Coley, the girl who Cam falls for, falls hard, who presents a danger to the delicate balance Cam keeps between her private and public lives.”

Seraphina, written by Rachel Hartman, published by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc. From my review: “Seraphina’s world: What is her world, exactly? The book begins just a few weeks after she joins the royal household, but soon it’s learned that this is Seraphina’s first steps outside her family. Seraphina has tried to keep herself away, hidden, at arm’s length from others to protect her secret. She doesn’t always know how to interact with others. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered, while reading, if some of Seraphina’s brusqueness was part of her dragon heritage or the result of a deep seated sense of isolation: “I did not understand that I carried loneliness before me on a plate, and that music would be the light illuminating me from behind.” Whatever the reason, she is also a keen observer of people: “He noticed my eyes upon him and ran a hand through his wheaten hair as if to underscore how handsome he was.””

Review: Love And Other Perishable Items

Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo. Alfred A. Knopf, Random House. 2012. Review copy from publisher. YALSA Morris Award Finalist.

The Plot: Amelia, fifteen, is in love with Chris. Chris is her co-worker at the local supermarket.

Chris is twenty-one years old.

Chris is finishing up university, trying to get over Michaela, figuring out what he wants to do with his life.

Amelia looks longingly at Chris, Chris jokes around and calls her “youngster.”

The Good: I hate to do this, but there will be spoilers. I know, I know, I don’t like telling too much about the plot, but this is one of those situations where what happens and doesn’t happen, matters, matters very much.

So: know this. This is not a book where a fifteen year old and a twenty-one year old get together because she is so mature and so understanding and he sees her soul and age just doesn’t matter. This is a book about a young man who knows that a twenty-one year old does not date a fifteen year old. I feel like I have to get that out there, that this is not about a creepy twenty-something.

This is a book about that delicious, wonderful feeling of being in love, in having a crush that is so overwhelming it just consumes everything. That is what Amelia feels for Chris. It is both real and solid and full of possibilities, the possibilities of sharing time with the object of one’s obsession, of looking forward to a conversation as if it were oxygen, yet at the same time it is always an illusion, a dream, something that makes her brighter but is never real.

Amelia doesn’t even know what wanting Chris means: “The yawning six-year chasm between my age and Chris’s is not the only fly in the proverbial ointment of this ‘loving Chris’ business. I’m not even sure what ‘getting’ Chris would involve; all I know is I want him.”

Amelia’s life as a student is boring and typical. She has a best friend, Penny; her older sister Liza has left for university; she’s helping take care of her little sister, Jessica, and her parents are either working or tired. She doesn’t realize it, not really, just what Chris is giving to her, by being the object of her affections.

Chris, meanwhile, is lost and out of sorts. Love is both their stories, Amelia’s and Chris’s, so the reader sees the relationship from both their points of view. For example, Amelia barely knows who Michaela is, while Michaela who left Chris and broke his heart, is a significant person in his life.

Chris is finishing up university is almost over and he’s not quite sure what he’s going to do. He feels as if he’s staying in place, as he watches friends move out, get serious about girlfriends, get jobs. Amelia is, at first, just another coworker, one who happens to be bright and different and someone smart to talk to.  He is, for most of the book, terribly unaware of Amelia’s feelings. I say terribly because of course it is terrible for Amelia, but it also shows that he is just a nice guy.

Before it seems like Chris is a saint: he isn’t. At one point, he is cruel to Amelia; part of that cruelty isn’t as much about Amelia as about how lost Chris himself is at that point. While 21 is older than 15, it is still young and Chris does things that are thoughtless and cruel. Amelia, meanwhile, is self-absorbed in her feelings for Chris.

As the year goes by, the year of the two of them working together, there are highs and lows and funny parts. Working at the supermarket opens Amelia up to life beyond school, life not just of crushing on Chris but also of going to parties and having her first drink and her first kiss and even her first hangover. It’s a story told by both Chris and by Amelia, and part of the wonder of this books is how it balances and reveals and shows the two perspectives on the same year.

Love and Other Perishable Items works terrifically as a book about love and friendships and growing up: both Amelia and Chris are growing up, just in different ways. Amelia, as a fifteen year old; Chris, as a twenty-something  That their lives intersect at this critical time for both is one reason their friendship works so well; and it’s to Chris’s credit that he is always mature enough to be aware that the age difference is there.

As I was mulling over this book, I realized that geography plays a big role. Not in, “set in Australia!” No, rather in the geography of the lives of Amelia and Chris. For Amelia, a job opens up a new world beyond high school. It gives her a first crush, but also other opportunities that broaden her world, including going to parties and meeting people outside her school classmates. Meanwhile, what broadens Amelia’s life is another example of how narrow Chris’s life has become. He still lives at home; his friends are fellow university students; his job gives him money, yes, but other than that it’s really just a different place, same thing: parties, hanging out.

Amelia is enjoying how big her world is becoming; Chris, not realizing it, is trying to figure out a way to escape his narrow constraints. I love that it’s the same thing, from two different viewpoints. In talking about what is New Adult, that is another thing to consider: how a twenty-something’s life is about moving beyond the borders of a teenager.

I could go on and on about what I love about this book. Amelia’s parents are a teacher and a director, both educated but both in professions that don’t provide a lot of money. Her mother is often stressed out or just plain tired; her father isn’t always home and when he is, he isn’t the most communicative. Neither has the time (nor inclination) to be a helicopter parent. Hardworking but tired and underpaid professional parents aren’t always shown in books.

Because I loved both Amelia and Chris. Because of capturing that wonderful feeling of longing for another. Because Chris’s seeking something is just as achingly drawn. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other Reviews: Stacked Books; Jen Robinson’s Book Page; Forever Young Adult.

Review: After the Snow

After the Snow by S. D. Crockett. Feiwel & Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Finalist for the YASLA Morris Award.

The Plot: Willo is watching and listening and waiting.

Willo was born after the weather changed, after the seas dried up and the snow kept coming and coming, and people got mean. Willo’s father, Robin, and others left the cities and went into the mountains, struggling to live but knowing it’s better than being in the settlements and cities. Willo doesn’t know anything about that; he just knows that this life, of hunting and cold and wild dogs and nature, is all he’s ever known.

All Willo has known is this life, with his father and family.

And now his father and family is gone. Willo is alone. He may have spent hours alone, observing animals, hunting, but now that he is alone he has only one goal: find his father. Find his family. No matter what.

The Good: “I’m gonna sit here in my place on the hill beyond the house. Waiting. And watching. Ain’t nothing moving down there. The valley look pretty bare in the snow. Just the house, gray and lonely down by the river all frozen. I got to think what I’m gonna do now that everyone gone. But I got my dog head on.”

This is Willo’s story, and his unique voice shines through the entire book. His voice alone is reason enough to have After the Snow on the finalist list. It’s the voice of a teenage boy who is the first generation born after the weather changed and a new ice age began. Willo is not a boy for books and contemplation. He is all about action and survival,  hunting hares and wild dogs for their meat and fur. Willo lives close to the world as he knows it: observing and being one with it, respectful of the animals he hunts, wearing the skull of one dog and half-believing the dog gives him guidance.

Willo’s voice is the one of someone who doesn’t know about the time before, the time of hotbaths, and doesn’t really care. It’s about the here and now. The here and now is what matters: and the here and now is that his father is missing and Willo will do what he can to track him down.

The journey to find his family takes Willo outside his comfort zone, the mountains and forests he knows. After the Snow is almost a fairy tale, as Willo encounters abandoned children, cannibals, settlements and cities, brutality and kindness. He  learns about who he can trust, and who he cannot. At times he is the wild boy encountering civilization at times, wondering at the world he discovers. He is a puzzle with pieces missing, because of the isolation he was raised in.

One observation: Willo’s voice and cadence and observation is a strength of After the Snow. For some readers, it may be overwhelming. Also, what we know we learn from Willo, which at times is narrow both because of his knowledge and of his interests. I guessed at some thing well before Willo, but, to be honest, while I was reading books that made me good at guessing plot twists Willo was busy hunting animals to keep his family alive.

A prequel is coming out in 2013, One Crow Alone.

Other reviews: Bookshelves of Doom; Someday My Printz Will Come; Stacked Books.

YALSA Morris Award Shortlist

YALSA has announced the shortlist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award.

From YALSA’s the Hub, the five finalists are:

Wonder Show, written by Hannah Barnaby, published by Published by Houghton Mifflin, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Love and Other Perishable Items, written by Laura Buzo, published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

After the Snow, written by S.D. Crockett, published by Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, written by emily m. danforth, published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. From my review: “Cam is both isolated yet not alone. She is isolated from her grief, and isolated because she has to hide her relationships with girls. She is not isolated, in that she has friends. While Cam cannot be public about her emotions and love, she is not alone. She manages to make connections. There is Irene, with whom she shares her first kiss. There is Lindsey, visiting for the summer from the west coast, who Cam dates and who becomes Cam’s long-distance friend and mentor, a link to a world where people are out and proud and public. Then there is Coley, the girl who Cam falls for, falls hard, who presents a danger to the delicate balance Cam keeps between her private and public lives.”

Seraphina, written by Rachel Hartman, published by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc. From my review: “Seraphina’s world: What is her world, exactly? The book begins just a few weeks after she joins the royal household, but soon it’s learned that this is Seraphina’s first steps outside her family. Seraphina has tried to keep herself away, hidden, at arm’s length from others to protect her secret. She doesn’t always know how to interact with others. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered, while reading, if some of Seraphina’s brusqueness was part of her dragon heritage or the result of a deep seated sense of isolation: “I did not understand that I carried loneliness before me on a plate, and that music would be the light illuminating me from behind.” Whatever the reason, she is also a keen observer of people: “He noticed my eyes upon him and ran a hand through his wheaten hair as if to underscore how handsome he was.””

You can get more information on the Morris Award at the YALSA website. I’ll also be talking a bit more on Monday about what makes a debut book a debut. The winner will be announced at the ALA Media Awards at the ALA Midwinter Meeting on January 28.

A big thank you to the hardworking committee members:  Chair Joy Kim, Pierce County Library System, Tacoma, WA; Lee Catalano, Multnomah County Library, Portland, OR; Diane Colson, Palm Harbor (FL) Library; Michael Fleming, Pacific Cascade Middle School Library, Issaquah, WA; Sarah Holtkamp, Chicago Public Library; Shelly McNerney, Blue Valley West High School, Overland Park, KS; Anne Rouyer, New York Public Library; Judy Sasges, Sno-Isle Libraries, Marysville, WA; Vicky Smith, Kirkus Reviews, South Portland, ME; Sandy Sumner, administrative assistant, Morehead (KY) State University Camden–Carroll Library; and Ilene Cooper, Booklist consultant, Chicago.

I like to read all the nominated titles; so far, I have 2 out of 5 which is better than what I’ve read so far for nonfiction! I plan on participating in the Morris/Nonfiction Reading Challenge, which begins next week!

Review: Seraphina

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. Random House. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Edited to add: Morris Award winner.

The Plot: Prince Rufus has been murdered; not just murdered. His head is missing, which indicates a dragon was involved. It’s been forty years since peace was declared between the dragons and the humans of Goredd, but at best, it’s an uneasy peace. The combination of the Prince’s death and an upcoming visit from the dragons leads to more unrest.

Sixteen year old Seraphina Dombegh is an unlikely person to find herself in the middle of dragon and human intrigue. She is a talented musician who  has recently joined the royal court of the kingdom of Goredd; she is hard-working and while her father is a well-respected lawyer, she is hardly of the same class as the people at court.

Seraphina has a secret. Prince Lucian, nephew of the murdered prince, is perceptive enough to guess it’s about Orma, Seraphina’s dragon tutor who has lived cloaked as a human for years. Lucian believes Seraphina loves Orma. The idea of human-dragon relationships disgusts many. Even when dragons assume human form, one can always tell there is something not quite right about them. They don’t understand human emotion, are overly logical, cold and calculating. Plus, who can forget their true form, or the pre-peace years when dragons hunted humans?

Lucian is right that Seraphina has feelings for Orma; that she doesn’t share the knee-jerk dislike of so many humans. It’s true that Orma has given her insight into the truth about dragons: that they are as complex as humans, just different. He is wrong, though, about Seraphina’s relationship with Orma. This secret may help solve the mystery of Prince Rufus’s murder; and may help preserve the fragile peace.

The Good: Seraphina is an intricately constructed world; and I fell for several things in this book: Seraphina; Seraphina’s world; the dragons; and the royal family.

Seraphina’s secret is quickly revealed (and guessed at); as a matter of fact, the book trailer gives it away, as do other reviews. So, even though I’m usually quite hesitant about spoilers, here goes:

Seraphina is half-dragon. Dragons are indeed dragons in their natural physical form. Dragons in their natural form fly and have treasure hordes. The dragons can shift to human form, and it is in that human form that dragons and humans now interact. (Before the peace, it was much as you’d expect: flying dragons fighting groups of knights).

How to describe dragons, when in human form? Think Vulcans, like Star Trek — individuals who prefer logic and disdain emotion. It’s not that simple, of course. Take, for instance, Seraphina’s own parents, her human father and dragon mother. Such pairings are viewed on both sides with a bit of contempt, so why? Why does it happen? Some dragons are shown to have very little social graces, with the excuse being their failure to fully understand humans. However, other dragons do a much better job of “passing.” Why? The answer is simple: dragons are as much individuals as humans.

Dragons are logical; they are scientists and inventors. Dragons value “ard”, or order, before anything: “Ard was the way the world should be, the imposition of order upon chaos, an ethical and physical rightness.” They are said to appreciate art and music but to be incapable of creating it. Yet, Seraphina, like her mother before her, is a musician. Contradictions, because these two races think they know and understand each other, and themselves, but do not.

Seraphina lives in Goredd; there are other countries, other customs, other peoples. It is a complex world, with each country having their own ways. Hartman shows the layers, from every day people to royalty, their history, the religious beliefs; and how the countries interact with each other. It is a medieval type world, with the scientific dragons giving humans a taste of technology.

Seraphina’s world: What is her world, exactly? The book begins just a few weeks after she joins the royal household, but soon it’s learned that this is Seraphina’s first steps outside her family. Seraphina has tried to keep herself away, hidden, at arm’s length from others to protect her secret. She doesn’t always know how to interact with others. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered, while reading, if some of Seraphina’s brusqueness was part of her dragon heritage or the result of a deep seated sense of isolation: “I did not understand that I carried loneliness before me on a plate, and that music would be the light illuminating me from behind.” Whatever the reason, she is also a keen observer of people: “He noticed my eyes upon him and ran a hand through his wheaten hair as if to underscore how handsome he was.”

Prince Lucian is a bastard, but still a royal; he is engaged to his cousin, Princess Glisselda. In this apparently matriarchal society, Selda’s grandmother is Queen and she is the one who negotiated the original truce with the dragons. One of Seraphina’s duties is music tutor to Selda, and Selda has taken a liking to Seraphina. Lucian, too, respects and likes Seraphina, and this creates a wonderful triangle: Selda and Lucian, who have a political engagement but also truly like each other, and Seraphina, friend to both, who begins to feel something more for Lucian. Seraphina keeps Lucian at arms length (as she does most people) because she is hiding her mixed heritage. Even if she didn’t have that secret, it would be highly unlikely that someone of her background could have any type of future with a Prince.

All of this weaves together to form both a mystery (who murdered Prince Rufus) as well as a story of politics (the factions working for and against human-dragon peace), with a teenage musician at its center.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers (and author interview); Omnivoracious review by Tamora Pierce; Confessions of a Bibliovore.

Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth. Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 2012. Reviewed from copy from publisher. Edited to add: Morris Finalist.

The Plot: When Cameron Post’s parents die in a car crash, Cameron is left to be raised by her mother’s sister and father’s mother. On the day her parents died, Cam kissed a girl, her best friend Irene. Part of Cam is relieved that now her parents won’t know, that her secret is safe.

Cam is careful, but when she meets Coley — beautiful, popular Coley — Cam falls hard. Cam’s fears come true when her religious aunt discovers what Cam is hiding and sends her away to be “fixed” at “God’s Promise,” a “Christian School & Center For Healing” that will lead her from “the sin of homosexuality” to holiness.

The Good: The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows Cameron through several years, starting in 1989 with the death of her parents and on through 1993 when Cam has to make a decision about what to do about “God’s Promise.” From twelve to sixteen, Cam grows and matures, trying to find herself, trying to come of age in a time and place where she has little support and those she loves try to “fix” her.

Cam is strong; she may not realize it, and it may not be obvious. She has tough things to deal with: the loss of both her parents, and then coming of age in a time and place where she has to hide. She struggles, yes. She watches film after film in her room, both as a form as escape but also as a way to try to find herself; her film choices include Personal Best. Make no mistake, though: Cam is tough, emotionally. She is a survivor.

Cam is both isolated yet not alone. She is isolated from her grief, and isolated because she has to hide her relationships with girls. She is not isolated, in that she has friends. While Cam cannot be public about her emotions and love, she is not alone. She manages to make connections. There is Irene, with whom she shares her first kiss. There is Lindsey, visiting for the summer from the west coast, who Cam dates and who becomes Cam’s long-distance friend and mentor, a link to a world where people are out and proud and public. Then there is Coley, the girl who Cam falls for, falls hard, who presents a danger to the delicate balance Cam keeps between her private and public lives.

While Lindsey warns Cam against falling in love with a straight girl, whether or not Coley is straight is left up in the air. There are questions unanswered about Coley; the reader only sees her as Cam does, as Cam’s best friend, a smart, beautiful girl with the perfect boyfriend. Cam has other friends; there is also Jamie Lowry, one of the boys from school who is a better friend than Cam may realize. Jamie has figured that Cam likes girls, that Cam looks at Coley with desire.

Secrets can only be kept so long, and eventually Cameron finds herself in “God’s Promise.” The people who run God’s Promise are well intentioned, but you know what they say about good intentions. By “good,” I mean that they are presented with truly believing what they preach and thinking they are doing the “right thing”. The Miseducation of Cameron Post shows how harmful and damaging such “good intentions” can be, without creating any true villains. Yes, Aunt Ruth sends Cam to God’s Promise, and she is not always the most understanding person. But, she is never shown as mean or cruel; and while Cam, caught up in herself, doesn’t get into the details of what happened after her parents’ accident, Ruth quits her job and moves from Florida to Minnesota to be with her niece. Likewise, Cam’s grandmother (loving but unable to deal with Cam’s “problem”), leaves her own apartment and moves in with Cam and Ruth. Cam’s aunt and grandmother (who, remember, are not related to each other) both sacrifice their own lives and homes so that Cam can remain in her home. These two women have put Cam first and show her kindness and compassion. It would be easy to have turned Ruth into a caricature, but she is not.

And the writing! I love the writing. When Cam’s parents die she is sleeping over a friend’s house. She is aware that something has happened, that her friend’s father is about to enter the bedroom. “I think about [Mr. Klause] standing there, waiting, maybe holding his breath, just like me. I think about him on the other side of that door all the time, even now. How I still had parents before that knock, and how I didn’t after.”

It looking at books set in the past, I ask “why.” Is it just a way to avoid dealing with mobile phones and Internet? There was no moment, either for plotting or characterization, where I thought “oh, a mobile phone would have changed this entire arc.” Places like God’s Promise and the reactions of Cam’s friends and family could have easily happened today. Why, then, not have Lindsey provide Cam with playlists instead of mix tapes? Part of me wonders if (despite news articles to the contrary) there was a concern that what happened to Cam could “only” have happened years ago, not now. Then I looked at the author’s website, and saw that Quake Lake and the August 1959 Earthquake that formed it are real. While set in the late 80s and early 90s, the lake and the earthquake are both important to Cam’s story. To make that work (and it works very well), Cam’s story couldn’t be set in the present.

Other Reviews: Book Smugglers; NPR Books (by Malinda Lo); An Interview with the author at Presenting Lenore.

Review: Under the Mesquite

Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall. Lee & Low. 2011. Morris Award Finalist.

The Plot: At the beginning of Lupita’s freshman year at high school, her mother is diagnosed with cancer. Mami has always been the one who held their large family together. Lupita, as the oldest, has always been responsible. Now even more falls on her shoulders. Like the mesquite, Lupita will survive and grow stronger.

The Good: Under the Mesquite is told by Lupita, using free verse. The reader is pulled into Lupita’s world: the eldest of eight children, born in Mexico and raised in the United States. Her father works hard, her mother holds the family together. Lupita figures out her mother is ill:

My heart aches

beause I have heard the word

that she keeps tucked away

behind closed doors.

“What do you know?” Mami asks.

We lock eyes,

and she knows I know.

“Don’t tell the others,” she begs,

and I hold her while she cries.

School becomes an escape for Lupita, even if sometimes her friends say something thoughtless. In acting, she can channel her emotions. In writing, she can express her feelings. While, at home, she worries about her mother, her father, her siblings.

Under the Mesquite is a window into a family dealing with cancer; but it is also more than that. It’s the look at an immigrant family, balancing traditions and cultures. It’s parents saving money for their children’s future until medical bills eat up the savings. It’s a family whose life is full. It’s the story of Lupita, as she balances her roles of sister and daughter, of caretaker and child.

Review: Paper Covers Rock

Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Library copy. Morris Award Short List.

The Plot: Sixteen year old Alex’s journal covers a few short months, the time following the accidental drowning of his friend Thomas. What happened to Thomas? What caused the accident? Does anyone suspect that the story Alex, Glenn and Clay tell may be leaving things out? One person may suspect, the young, pretty English teacher Miss Dovecott. What will Thomas do to protect his secrets?

The Good: Paper Covers Rock takes place at a private boys boarding school in a remote area of North Carolina in the 1980s.  Alex’s world is narrow and insular because of all these things; the physical isolation of the school, the isolated community of all boys and men with a handful of women, like young Miss Dovecott, with the outside world accessed only by mail or public telephones.

Alex is smart; and he writes with a certain self awareness of himself and the story he tells, complete with allusions to Herman Melville and Moby Dick: “My apologies to Herman Melville, from whom I may have to steal a few words to tell the story that is about to be told, that is in the middle of being told, that will never stop being told. Such is the nature of guilt; such is the nature of truth. But it is also the nature of guilt to sideline the truth.” Truthfully, yes, I believed Alex to be the type of boy to not just write like this but to think that he is impressing the reader with it. I agree with Someday My Printz Will Come that Alex’s language make him and his grief suspect; but, for me, that meant that I doubted much of what he said, despite insisting that “I am big on verbatim because I am big on truth. Truth: as important and essential as rain.”

Alex has a secret about the day Thomas died; he, along with the others, were drinking. It’s a violation of the honor code and if it’s found out, he’ll be expelled. It appears, because it is what Alex tells us, that Alex and Glenn are driven by this secret in what they later do and don’t do. This is what they think Miss Dovecott knows. Alex tells the reader how and when he fell in love with his teacher; but before that he observes her interactions with students: “it is the thing that draws me out of myself, the thing that calms me down: the realization that a teacher could be more scared than the students — and scared of the students.”

Secrets, lies, half truths, manipulations: that is the story behind Paper Covers Rock, the story leading up to the death of Thomas and what happens after. What type of story that is depends on whether or not you believe Alex. Whatever you believe about him,  there is also much about sex and power; while Miss Dovecott is a teacher, a person to be respected, she is female and young and pretty and the students find ways to make her uncomfortable. As for each other, “there was no worse label at an all-boys school than “gay.” What would someone do to avoid that?