The Last Time We Say Goodbye

On Monday, the latest nominees for the South Carolina Book Award program were announced. For the first time in probably ten years, I had not read any of the books listed in the Young Adult category. (I may work in an elementary school now, but I still love YA literature…as you may have noticed.)

Anyway, I knew I needed to correct that situation immediately, so I asked a friend which of the YA nominees I should read first. Her recommendation was Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. Unfortunately, that book was unavailable through Overdrive, so I had to move on to another one. (Luckily for me, Red Queen became available fairly quickly, so that’s my next SCYABA read.) Since I couldn’t immediately dive into Red Queen, I chose to read The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand. I’d read her Unearthly trilogy (Unearthly, Hallowed, and Boundless) and enjoyed it, so I trusted that I would like this book as well. I was right…again.

The Last Time We Say Goodbye is not what I would call an “easy” read. The subject matter–suicide and those left behind–is tough to read about. It’s even tougher if one’s life has been touched by suicide. That being said, I feel this is an important book for allowing readers to explore a tough topic…and to know that they are not alone.

Lex thought she knew the path her life was on. She was happy, excelling in school, and hoping to get into MIT. She had good friends and a great boyfriend who really understood her. Sure, things were tense at home since her dad left, but she, her mom, and her brother would get through that eventually. Things were okay.

And then everything changed. From one moment to the next, Lex’s entire world was turned upside down.

When her brother Ty ended his life, Lex didn’t know what to do with herself. How could she ever be happy again when her brother would never be able to? How could she look forward to her future when Ty wouldn’t have one?

As the weeks and months pass, Lex searches for her new normal. She’s forgotten what it feels like to be happy. She’s lost touch with her friends and ended things with her boyfriend. Her grades are beginning to slip. She worries about her mother, and she can’t even deal with her father. Moving on from this tragedy doesn’t seem to be an option.

Lex reluctantly talks to her therapist who suggests she keep a journal. Through writing, Lex begins to explore her relationship with her brother, what may have led to his decision, and her own guilt over not being there when Ty needed her. Could she have done something to stop him? Lex doesn’t know, but the guilt–and the feeling that Ty is still around somehow–are driving her crazy.

If Lex has any hope of moving on and being happy again–whatever that looks like–she knows she must face everything that happened the night Ty died, all of the events that may have led up to it, and the horrible fallout. She has to confront her parents about their actions as well as come to terms with her own. It’s the only way she can possibly have any real peace.

Will Lex’s efforts be enough, or will she forever be haunted by the ghost of her brother? Find out when you read The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand.


The Last Time We Say Goodbye is sure to be popular with fans of Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, The Fall by James Preller, or I Was Here by Gayle Forman. It’s a great book dealing with a difficult subject, and it may be just what someone needs to get through a tough time.

I don’t know that I would recommend The Last Time We Say Goodbye to all middle grade readers, but some may be able to handle it. Use your best judgement when putting this book in young hands, but keep in mind that kids–yes, even those in middle school–have been touched by suicide. A book like this one may be what they need. Trust me on this.

For more information on The Last Time We Say Goodbye, check out author Cynthia Hand’s website. You can also connect with the author on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Finally, if you or anyone you know is contemplating suicide, please get help. Talk to someone–a parent, a friend, a guidance counselor, a librarian, a religious leader, someone. Go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or It Get’s Better. You’re not alone.

I’ll Give You the Sun

Sometimes, when it takes me a while to finish a book, it’s because I just couldn’t get into it. (See my previous post.) Other times, however, my reasons are more complicated. My latest read, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, took me about six weeks to get through, but the problem definitely wasn’t that I couldn’t get into it. Just the opposite, in fact.

I’ll Give You the Sun–like the works of John Green, Gayle Forman, and Rainbow Rowell–is one of those books with the power to completely take over everything, causing me to forget to sleep or eat and making me resent going to work. So, I had to force myself to only pick up this book when I could devote all of my attention to it…and I was finally able to do a lot of that this weekend. I consider it a weekend well spent…even with all of the ugly crying going on.

This amazing book tells the story of Jude and Noah, twins who have been torn apart by heart-breaking circumstances. Told in alternating perspectives–the earlier years by Noah and the later years by Jude–this story allows readers to see both sides of a tarnished (yet still beautiful) coin.

Through Noah’s eyes, we see Noah and his obsession with the pictures in his head, the enigmatic boy next door, and his fear that both he and his art are simply not good enough. We see Jude, her wild ways, and Noah’s confusion over why she’s drifting away from him. We also see the pain of being different, Noah’s struggle to find–and accept–his own identity, and how secrets big and small have the power to rip a boy’s soul to pieces.

Through Jude’s eyes, readers see what the twins are like just a few short years later. Jude is no longer the wild child of the bunch. That honor goes to Noah. Jude is now the withdrawn, artistic twin, and she wants to find some way to reach her brother and force him to really be his true self. All the while, Jude is also wrestling with her own ghosts and seeking a measure of peace in her life.

What could have caused such a drastic personality switch in these once-close twins, and is there any way to heal the wounds of the past and move toward a happy future?

With the help of a couple of people with odd connections to the twins’ past, there may be hope for these two siblings to once again find each other. The journey will not be without its painful revelations, but, if they can make it through to the other side, they may just find everything they thought they’d lost.

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As so often happens with books that grab me and won’t let go, this post doesn’t begin to do I’ll Give You the Sun justice. I laughed, I cried, and I roared at the vindictiveness of siblings, twins who claim to love each other more than anything. I’ll Give You the Sun was an intense, emotional roller coaster, and I honestly wasn’t ready for the ride to end. That may be another reason I took my time with this one. On some level, I knew that this book would be one to savor.

For more information on author Jandy Nelson and this amazing book, I encourage you to visit the author’s website, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.

*This amazing book is being touted as one of the great new YA reads, and I totally agree with that. I would, however, caution some librarians, teachers, parents, and others that recommend books to young people that I’ll Give You the Sun does explore some mature themes–sexual identity and alcohol abuse being two of them. Those themes may be par for the course for many teen readers, but I doubt I’d recommend this book to anyone below the high school level…unless that reader showed incredible maturity. Of course, you know the young people in your lives better than I do, so do what you will.*

Summer of the Gypsy Moths

My latest read, Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker, is another nominee for the 2014-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t all that enthused about reading this book. I didn’t want to read one more book where kids take on too much responsibility because the adults in their lives have–in one way or another–abandoned them. (I kind of got my fill of that when I read Keeping Safe the Stars, another SCCBA nominee.) But, since I do promote all twenty SCCBA nominees, I plowed through, and, while Summer of the Gypsy Moths is not exactly my favorite book on the nominee list, I can say it was a good book, and I know many young readers will enjoy it.

While Stella’s flighty mother is drifting from one town to the next, Stella is sent to live with her Great Aunt Louise on Cape Cod. Even though Louise is kind of grumpy sometimes, Stella likes living with her. Louise keeps things nice, neat, and orderly, something Stella’s mom never did. Stella has high hopes that her mom will eventually settle in Cape Cod with her and Louise, and they’ll be a happy family.

One obstacle to that “happy family” scenario–along with Stella’s mom’s lack of reliability–may be Angel, a foster kid who’s also living with Louise. Angel and Stella are like oil and water, and they seem to work best when they stay far away from each other. Fate, however, seems to have other ideas.

When the girls discover that Louise has suddenly passed away, they must work together to decide what to do. Neither girl wants to go into group homes or anything like that, so they do the only thing they can think of. They keep Louise’s death a secret. They make up plausible excuses for Louise’s absence. They take care of the vacation cottages that Louise was responsible for. Stella takes comfort in cleaning, gardening, and keeping Louise’s prize blueberries alive. Both girls do what they must to survive as long as they can. It’s not easy, but Stella and Angel think they have no other choice. They must learn to rely on each other.

Both Stella and Angel have taken on more than any two kids should, but their predicament is bringing them closer together. They’re communicating, working together, and learning more about each other. They each have their own ways of coping with this horrible situation, and they’re doing the best they can.

But what happens when the secrecy finally becomes too much? When the truth is revealed, what will it mean for Stella, Angel, and their future? Will they find the sense of family and home they so desperately need? Will someone finally take care of them? Find out when you read Summer of the Gypsy Moths, a 14-15 South Carolina Book Award nominee by Sara Pennypacker!

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I think many of my students will draw parallels between Summer of the Gypsy Moths and Keeping Safe the Stars, and that’s a good thing. The two books have different settings and circumstances, but the struggles that the characters experience in each book are very similar. In both books, young children take on way too much in order to avoid being taken away from their homes. I look forward to conversations about the similarities and differences in how each character handles certain situations and what young readers may have done differently.

That being said…

*Spoilers ahead!*

One big issue I had with this book was the neatness of the ending–and how long the main characters got away with deceiving everyone around them. I mean, two girls hide a dead body, bury it in the backyard, and live on their own for nearly two months, and everything essentially works out fine for them! I know it’s fiction, and one can expect a fairly happy ending in a book written for upper elementary and middle grade readers, but this seemed very unrealistic to me. Like many other books I’ve read this summer, the responsible adult in me (don’t laugh) cringes at the entire premise of this book. I’m sure many of my students will be intrigued by the plot–and I know they are the target audience–but Summer of the Gypsy Moths just wasn’t for me.

If you’d like more information about this book and acclaimed author Sara Pennypacker, visit her website. And let me know if you have a different take on Summer of the Gypsy Moths. Maybe you’re seeing something that I missed!

Love Letters to the Dead

I began reading my latest book, Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira, about two weeks ago. Unlike Oblivion, which was an easy book to put aside, this one kept calling to me, but I wanted to wait until I could give it my undivided attention before I really became absorbed in the story. I read bits and pieces here and there, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I finally sat down and got to know Laurel, the haunting voice that drives this wonderful book.

Love Letters to the Dead is just what the title suggests. It begins as a simple English assignment, but this is one that takes on a life of its own. Laurel was supposed to write a letter to a dead person, but she didn’t really stop there. She wrote letters to several famous people, most of whom died too young…just like Laurel’s big sister, May.

In Laurel’s letters to such notable figures as Kurt Cobain, Judy Garland, Amelia Earhart, River Phoenix, Amy Winehouse, and others, readers learn not only about the lives–and deaths–of these people, but we also see how Laurel is dealing with her sister’s passing. (In short, she’s not.) Laurel’s entire life seemed to stop when May died, and moving on is excruciating at times. She doesn’t really know how to be herself because she’s always lived in May’s shadow. With May gone, who is Laurel…and why would anyone really care?

As Laurel enters a new school, forms a few unlikely friendships. and experiences love for the first time, she relates her experiences to those of the “stars” to whom she is writing. She writes about her fractured family and her guilt over May’s death. She writes of her sister’s magnetism and how everything May touched seemed to be absolutely perfect. She writes about her friends, Natalie and Hannah, and Hannah’s self-destructive behavior–which seems all-too-familiar at times–that is tearing the girls apart. And finally, Laurel writes about what happened before May’s death, the horror she suffered when May should have been watching out for her.

Through these “love letters,” Laurel deals with her grief and guilt, and she comes face to face with the sister she idolized. The sister who maybe wasn’t so perfect. The sister who let her down, first by leaving her vulnerable and then just by leaving.

Laurel realizes that there’s more to her than being May’s little sister, and it’s okay to want a life that isn’t ravaged by grief. Will she always love her sister? Absolutely. Nothing can ever change that. But will she finally understand that her sister was human and responsible for her own choices? Well, that’s a different question altogether and one that Laurel will have to answer for herself. These letters, though, might actually help her come to grips with the truth, and what started out as a simple English assignment could finally set Laurel free.

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So, yeah…I liked this book. Anyone who has every experienced loss will relate to Laurel in some way. We experience Laurel’s crippling grief, we cry along with her, and we wonder if the pain will ever go away. Just like reality, the pain never really leaves Laurel, but she finds a way to deal with it so that she can get on with the business of living. And the process itself is not without its ups and downs, but Laurel powers on, facing herself and the truth about who her sister really was. Through it all, Laurel learns more about herself and who she wants to be.

In addition to empathizing with Laurel in Love Letters to the Dead, readers may also find themselves learning a little along the way. This book taught me more than I ever knew about the lives and deaths of Judy Garland, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger, and several others. Their stories, like May’s, were tragic, and their deaths came too soon. Their legacies, though, live on.

I don’t feel I’ve done a very good job of capturing this book, but I hope you’ll give it a try anyway. If you enjoy coming-of-age stories like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, If I Stay, The Fault in Our Stars, We Were Liars, The Opposite of Hallelujah, and many others, I suggest you read Love Letters to the Dead. The format alone makes it a fairly quick read, but the story will stay with you long after you close the book.

For more information on Love Letters to the Dead and author Ava Dellaira, visit the author’s website, Facebook, or Twitter.

The Book Thief

As is the case with so many books, I’m late to the party on this one. The Book Thief has been in my I’ve-been-meaning-to-read-this-for-a-while-but-haven’t-gotten-around-to-it pile since I first became a school librarian (way back in 2005 when the book came out). Like Ender’s Game, it was the desire to see the movie adaptation that really spurred me to finally read the book…and I’m so glad I did.

I finished reading The Book Thief less than an hour ago, and I was so moved by the book that I was sitting in my library crying my eyes out. My students and my clerk thought I’d lost my mind. (By the way, I have no problem taking some time to read at school every now and then. How can I expect my students to learn to love reading if they don’t see me modeling it?)

Anyhoo, back to The Book Thief. This book tore me apart, and I can only hope that the movie will, in some small way, live up to its source material. I’m going to see the movie this afternoon, and I fully expect my heart to be in shreds by the time I get home tonight. Here’s hoping…

The Book Thief takes place in Molching, a small town outside of Munich, Germany, during World War II. It is told from Death’s point of view, and the story follows the journey of a young girl, Liesel Meminger, the the lives she touches, and the books she steals during this turbulent period.

I’ve read quite a few fictional accounts of WWII, but most of those tend to focus on the experience of Holocaust victims and survivors. This may be one of the first books I’ve read that details the experience of a German teen who has to at least pretend to tow the party line while quietly protesting the world around her. Liesel finds power in words, and she does everything she can to gain access to as many words as possible…and share those words with those most important to her.

From her foster parents to her best friend to community members to the Jewish man hiding in her basement, Liesel, through both words and deeds, touches every life around her and demonstrates how much one girl–a book thief–can impact so many lives…and can make even Death stop to take notice.

I’m not going to say much more about this book other than it is at once heart-breaking and heart-warming. I was pulled in by the unique way this story was told, and I stayed because I truly grew to care about Liesel, her family, and her friends. The Book Thief has more than its share of tragedy, but there’s so much more to take in here. Even in the midst of a war, people find ways to experience joy, peace, laughter, friendship, and courage. Some of those things may reveal themselves in unexpected ways…perhaps in the form of a stolen book.

If the movie adaptation is even half as good as the book, I think I’ll be pretty happy.  I guess we’ll find out at 4:25 this afternoon!

For those who haven’t seen The Book Thief yet, here’s a movie trailer to whet your appetite. It worked for me!

Looking for Alaska

Over the past year or so, I have experienced a great deal of grief because of my emotional attachment to fictional characters. Most of the blame for my grief can be laid at the feet of two men. The first (and worst) offender is one Steven Moffat. (I’m sure my fellow Whovians and Sherlockians can sympathize.) The second man to bring on copious feels is author John Green. I read The Fault in Our Stars in July of last year, and I was an emotional wreck for days because of that book. Well, earlier today, I finished reading Green’s Looking for Alaska. This Printz medal winner was released way back in 2005, but, for whatever reason, I didn’t get around to reading it until this week. The simple fact that Looking for Alaska is a John Green book should have let me know that I would need tissues by my side while reading, but I was woefully unprepared for how overwrought I would become because of this book. I read the latter part of the book without wearing my glasses because the tear residue was too much to see through. Yes, it’s that good.

When Miles Halter–or Pudge, as he would come to be called–began attending Culver Creek, a boarding school in Alabama, he didn’t really know what to expect, but he was hoping that his life would become something more than what he left back in Florida. Almost immediately, he gets more than he bargained for thanks to a couple of new friends that will change his life forever. The first is his roommate, the Colonel, who is some kind of math genius with a fondness for video games, cigarettes, and booze. The other friend is a girl named Alaska. This girl is quite probably the most beautiful creature Pudge has ever seen…and the most volatile. Despite the roller coaster that comes with knowing Alaska, Pudge is drawn to her and the excitement and mystery that seem to be a part of Alaska’s very being.

The first part of Pudge’s year at Culver Creek is one filled with friends, pranks, laughs, and his first experiences with smoking, drinking, sex, and breaking school rules. The second part of his year takes a turn, however, when something terrible happens that shakes the foundation of his entire world. (If the title didn’t clue you in, this horrible event revolves around Alaska.) As Pudge, the Colonel, and a couple of other friends look for answers, they all begin to question why things happen the way they do and if there’s anything that could have been done to stop tragedy from striking their lives. Will they find the answers they seek, or will they forever be looking for Alaska?

I’ll be the first to admit that the recap above…well, it kind of sucks, and it doesn’t come remotely close to conveying just how amazeballs this book is. It contains so much awesomeness that, quite frankly, it’s probably impossible for me to write a decent blog post about it. Looking for Alaska forces readers to examine some pretty deep existential questions. It alludes to great works of literature and gives us information on famous last words. It teaches us about relationships and how much they mean to us. And it shows us that some emotional damage may be too much to overcome…or it may just make us stronger for having gone through it. I cannot say enough good things about this book, and, despite the grief I’m experiencing right now, Looking for Alaska made me love John Green even more.

One word of caution.  Looking for Alaska is not a book that I would recommend to readers younger than about sixteen. It contains quite a bit of cursing, and the characters are not shy about enjoying smoking, drinking, sex, and subverting authority. (I’ve taught middle school, so I’m not naive enough to believe that younger readers don’t have experience with this stuff, but I do think librarians, bloggers, teachers, and others should be careful when recommending this book to readers who may not be mature enough to handle it.)

In closing, read Looking for Alaska if you haven’t already. It’s an exquisite book that will stay with me for a long while.

Beautiful Redemption

Spoilers ahead!  If you haven’t already read the first three books in The Caster Chronicles (Beautiful Creatures, Beautiful Darkness, and Beautiful Chaos) by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, do so immediately! They are AMAZING, and you can’t possibly understand the fourth book without reading these first!

Yesterday, fans of YA literature descended on Charleston, South Carolina, for YALLFest.  Sadly, I was not among them.  I’ve been feeling kind of crummy lately, so I decided to stay at home and get some much-needed rest.  (This turned out to be a very good decision as I’ve been sick all weekend.  Wouldn’t have been a good idea to be three hours away from home with the way I’ve been feeling.)  Anyway, even though I wasn’t at this young adult book festival in person, I was there in spirit (and I hope I can be there physically next year).

Since my weekend was rather uneventful, I did get to spend a lot of time reading.  This week’s pick was Beautiful Redemption, the fourth and final book in The Caster Chronicles by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl (one of the driving forces behind YALLFest, by the way).  I had been looking forward to this book for a while, and my appetite was only whetted by seeing the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation of the first book, Beautiful Creatures.  Beautiful Redemption was released on October 23rd, and I waited a little while to start reading it.  (I had to finish a couple of other books, and I needed to re-familiarize myself with how Beautiful Chaos ended.)  I started Beautiful Redemption at the beginning of this week, and I finally finished it this morning.  At several points in this book, I had to put it down–not because it was bad, but because I had to calm down, breathe, and remind myself that the characters I’d come to love in the previous three books had to have a happy ending in this final one…even though things weren’t looking good for them at present.  You see, I’ve become attached to these characters (as so often happens when I get absorbed in a series).  I think part of it is because the major part of the action in these books takes place in South Carolina (my home state), in a community that’s not at all different from the one I live in now.  I relate to these characters.  No, I’m not a Caster (witch)–at least, I don’t think so–but I do know what it’s like to be different in a small southern town.  It’s not easy, so I tend to root for anyone, real or fictional, who’s trying to survive when the odds are stacked against them…and when others keep telling them that what they’re trying is impossible.  And things don’t get much more impossible than rewriting history and coming back from the dead…

Ethan Wate has sacrificed everything, even his very life, to restore Order to the world.  He fell from the Summerville water tower to save everyone he loves.  But death is not all it’s cracked up to be, and Ethan is determined to find a way back to his small town of Gatlin, his family, his friends, Amma, and the love of his life, Lena. He becomes even more determined when he realizes that his death was not something that had to happen.  Horrible forces are rewriting destiny to suit their own ends, and Ethan may be the only one who has any hope of stopping them (and restoring his own life in the process).  But Ethan needs help.  This is a huge, seemingly impossible, task and one he can’t complete on his own. He needs to find a way to communicate with Lena and Amma and get their help to save the world…again.

Lena is heartbroken by Ethan’s death, but she knows that he’s somewhere out there watching over her.  Ethan, however, may be even closer than Lena knows.  When she sees things moving (things that only mean something to her and Ethan) and gets strange messages in the local newspaper’s crossword puzzles, Lena knows that Ethan is trying to reach her.  It’s not always clear why Ethan needs the things he’s asking of her–river stones, an audience with the Greats, the Book of Moons–but Lena knows she must find a way to help him  if she has any hope of uniting with Ethan one day.  Getting these things, though, is the easy part.  It then becomes Ethan’s job to use what Lena–and Amma–send him to fight the evil that is threatening to destroy the world that he sacrificed so much to save.

Ethan will face unspeakable horrors in his quest to return to Lena–old and new enemies alike.  He’ll also encounter some unexpected allies along the way, those who have been tortured by the very being that Ethan must now destroy.  But will Ethan’s quest to reverse his fate and prevent even more atrocities be successful? Can one young man defeat what he believed was his destiny and make it back to the life and love that mean so much to him?  What bargains will he and those he loves have to make this time, and will they be worth what comes next?  Nothing that Ethan is facing is easy, but he and his loved ones will do what they must to be reunited once more…no matter what the cost.  Will it be enough? Is redemption possible?  Read Beautiful Redemption to discover how far people are willing to go–and what hells they’re willing to travel through–to get just one more chance to be with the ones they love.

It should go without saying that I love this book…and the three books that preceded it.  This whole Caster Chronicles series is made of awesome, and I just wish I had been able to make it to YALLFest to hear the authors talk about the series in person.  (I would have also like to get my books autographed!  Maybe next year.)  Even though the ending of this series made me cry (which isn’t difficult since I’m a big softie), I was very satisfied with it.  It ended the way it needed to, in my opinion.  I applaud Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl on a truly excellent supernatural series, and I can’t wait to read more of their work in the future.  Kudos!

If you’d like to learn more about this series, the authors, or the upcoming movie adaptation of Beautiful Creatures, I urge you to visit one (or more) of these sites:

You may also want to check out this book trailer for the entire series.  It doesn’t give away much, but it does look pretty cool.