All the Bright Places

Last night, I finished yet another of next year’s South Carolina Young Adult Book Award nominees, All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.

Like The Last Time We Say Goodbye–also a SCYABA nominee–All the Bright Places deals with the subject of suicide. The two books differ, however, in how they approach the topic. While The Last Time We Say Goodbye takes a look at what happens after a loved one commits suicide, All the Bright Places kind of shows readers what leads up to it. Yes, this book also gives a glimpse of the fallout, but the bulk of the book focuses on the “before,” for lack of a better word.

Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet on the ledge of the school’s bell tower. Both of them are there thinking about doing something drastic. In Finch’s case, he never really stops thinking about ending it all. Violet, for her part, is overcome by grief following her sister’s death and simply wants to escape.

On that fateful day, this unlikely duo eventually climbs down from the bell tower, and, though their classmates think they know what happened up there, no one but Finch and Violet knows the truth. Who really saved whom?

After the “bell tower incident,” Finch and Violet partner up for a class project. Their assignment is to explore the wonders of the state of Indiana. At first, Violet is less than enthused about the project…and working with Finch. Ever since her sister’s accident, Violet won’t get in a car. That sort of limits just how much of Indiana she and Finch can explore. Finch doesn’t let that stop them. He’s determined to enjoy every moment with Violet. After all, how many moments do they have left together?

As reluctant as she was in the beginning, Violet is enjoying her time with Finch. There’s something about his seemingly boundless energy that makes her want to join the world again. But while Violet is starting to live again, Finch wonders how long he can stay “awake.”

Finch is pulling Violet out of her self-imposed shell, but he’s also retreating into his own. Violet senses something is “off” with Finch, but she doesn’t know how to help him…or if he’d even accept any help. And his friends and family don’t seem to find anything amiss.

What can Violet do if no one will admit that anything is wrong? And is there any way to stop Finch from doing the unthinkable and leaving Violet to wander this crazy world alone?


So, you’ve probably surmised by now at least a little of what happens in this book. No, there’s not some magical happy ending, but it doesn’t leave readers feeling totally hopeless, either. As someone whose life has been touched by suicide, I really appreciate that.

Another thing I appreciate about this book is the very realistic way it portrays bipolar disorder and the stigma attached to it and other mental illnesses. Some people–often even those suffering with mental illness themselves–don’t think they have an actual medical problem. After all, it’s not like they have cancer, diabetes, or anything like that, right? Wrong. People need to pay attention to the signs of mental illness and treat it as the serious medical–and treatable–issue it is. Would attention and treatment have been enough to change the outcome of All the Bright Places? I don’t know, but it might be what it takes to save someone you know and love.

If you’re a librarian, teacher, parent, or other adult wondering if this book is a good fit for middle grade readers, I would honestly say that I’m not sure. There is some cursing, a couple of sex scenes (which for some reason freaks people out way more than graphic depictions of violence), and very frank talk of death, but that’s reality for lots of kids. Yes, even those in middle school. I would say to know your audience. Use your best judgement when recommending this book to anyone, but especially those not yet in high school.

I definitely enjoyed the time I spent with Finch and Violet, and I’m so glad the SCYABA committee chose to place this book on next year’s nominee list. All the Bright Places elicited a lot of feelings–not all of them comfortable–and I went through my fair share of tissues while reading. I predict that lots of other readers will have the same experience.

Apparently, we’ll be able to see Finch and Violet on the big screen sometime in 2017. Pre-production has already begun on the film adaptation of All the Bright Places, and Elle Fanning has been cast as Violet. I’m sure more will be revealed soon on the book’s website (which has tons of great information), but that’s all we know for now. This has the potential to be a great movie. I just hope Hollywood doesn’t screw it up (like they tend to do).

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The Girls of No Return

Truth time. I only picked up my latest read because it’s nominated for next year’s South Carolina Young Adult Book Award. The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin is definitely not my normal fare. In all honesty, the minute I realized that much of the story took place in the wilderness, I lost a little bit of interest. (I’m not an outdoorsy kind of gal…and that may be the understatement of the year.) That didn’t really change through much of the book. Normally, it takes me just a few days to finish a book. This one took me two weeks. (I will confess, though, that I read the last half of the book in about a day. If you can get through the first part, the latter half goes pretty fast.)

In The Girls of No Return, readers are introduced to Lida, a troubled girl who is being sent to the Alice Marshall School for Girls, a place for girls with issues to come to terms with themselves and the mistakes they’ve made in the past.

This school is located in the wilderness of Idaho (in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area…hence the name of the book), and Lida is sure she’s going to experience more of the misery she’s come to expect in her life. And she’s not totally wrong. Each girl at the school has her Thing, the reason she was sent to AMS in the first place. The school encourages the girls to talk about their issues, but Lida isn’t sure she can really do that. Some things are just too personal.

Lida is in a cabin with other sixteen-year-olds, but she does her best to keep to her self. A couple of her cabin-mates, though, seem determined to bring Lida out of her shell. One of those is Jules, a girl who is full of life and appears thrilled with her place at Alice Marshall. The other is Boone, a kind of scary, tough girl who, after cutting Lida’s hair on her first night at AMS, seems to consider Lida something close to a friend.

Things change for Lida, however, with the arrival of a mysterious new girl at the school. Gia is immediately the most popular girl at AMS. Everyone wants to know more about this beautiful, glamorous girl and why she was sent to this school, but Gia seems to have set her sights on Lida. She seeks Lida out, asks questions about her life, and bestows small nuggets of kindness, things that Lida never experienced in her old life. Lida is quickly growing dependent on Gia’s attention, and that’s about to lead to trouble…

It becomes obvious very quickly that Boone, the school’s resident tough girl, absolutely loathes Gia. How, then, can Lida continue being friends with the popular girl while keeping the peace with Boone? The answer: She really can’t. Lida resorts to lies to maintain the status quo, but those lies are catching up with her.

As Lida prepares for her solo wilderness trek, things are about to come to a boiling point. Boone and Gia are on a collision course, and Lida is stuck in the middle. All of her deceptions are about to be revealed, and she’ll have to decide which girl means more to her…a decision that could have disastrous consequences.

Will Lida come to terms with her Thing? Will she finally confront her demons at Alice Marshall? Or will her experiences there give her even more inner demons to battle?

_______________

Okay, so I think I’ve managed to make this book sound pretty good above…and at times, I really enjoyed it (especially at the end). All in all, though, this was not one of my favorite books, and it could be a hard sell to many teens. If they can get past the first half of the book, however, I think readers will be very invested in what happens to Lida, Boone, and Gia. I, for one, am totally on Team Boone. I also hated Gia from the minute she entered the book, and I was certain she would be bad news for Lida. Spoilers! I do so love it when I’m right.

I do think this book should be targeted to high school readers. Middle school readers may not be quite mature enough for some of the content, and, as one can imagine in a book about troubled teen girls, there is a fair amount of language. There’s also mention of smoking, drugs, alchohol, and sex, so proceed with caution when recommending this to younger teens.

If you know of a teen reader who thrives in the wilderness, has an interest in camping/roughing it, or who may have his/her own difficult issues to work through, The Girls of No Return might be a good fit. It wasn’t totally my cup of tea, but another reader might bring a whole new set of experiences to this book and really find what he or she is looking for.

The Girls of No Return is the debut YA novel from author Erin Saldin. To learn more about this book and the author, click here.

 

Skinny

I’m not quite sure how I feel about my latest read, Skinny by Ibi Kaslik. I’m not even sure I would have considered reading this book if it had not been on sale…or if my book club wasn’t reading green books this month (books with green covers, “green” in the title, or by authors with the last name Green…you know, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day). With a green popsicle on the cover, I kind of expected Skinny to be sort of lighthearted. Boy, was I ever wrong.

Skinny is told from the perspectives of two sisters.  Giselle, a former medical student, is struggling with anorexia and quite a few other problems. Holly, an eighth grade athlete, is watching her sister, who used to be so strong, totally self-destruct.  Both girls are dealing with very different memories of their deceased father, relationships with guys, and the general business of living. Holly seems to want to help Giselle, but how do you help someone who is so bent on ruining her own life?

The character of Giselle is at once sympathetic and repellent. The reader wants her to turn her life around because she has so much potential, but it’s not easy to even read about someone who doesn’t want to help herself.  One minute it looks like she’s making a turn for the better; the next, she’s returning to her same old patterns. And soon, those patterns will manifest in Giselle’s entire body breaking down.

Holly, the younger sister, has her own issues. She’s partially deaf, she’s prone to acts of spontaneous stupidity, and she crushes on her sister’s boyfriend. But when you see what she has to deal with at home, Holly’s actions at least make a little bit of sense. She’s worried about her sister, but she’s also still a girl focused on her own life…which is going through a rough patch at the moment.

As the story progresses, and we get to know Giselle and Holly a little more, the reader roots for things to change. It doesn’t quite happen, though. This story is not a delightful romp through the park.  There is no happy ending or magical cure for the many issues plaguing Giselle or those who have to watch her downward spiral. As a matter of fact, I found much of the book to be depressing, and only occasionally did I even crack a smile while reading. But that’s okay. This book deals with some pretty serious issues, so it follows that the general tone of the book is serious as well.

Did I get what I expected when I started reading Skinny? Absolutely not. Did I like the book as a whole? Some of it. It was an interesting story, but it was a little hard to follow at times.  I don’t know if that’s because it was hard to nail down an exact setting through much of the book or because Giselle’s thought processes were so scattered.  (I honestly don’t know if the problem was with the character of Giselle or with the author’s writing.) Several times while reading, I asked myself, “What is the purpose of that word or sentence?” Some things just didn’t make sense to me. Maybe I’m alone in that, but I had to reread some passages a couple of times, and things still didn’t become clear.

I do appreciate that this book didn’t have a happy ending. That may seem weird, but, when you’re dealing with issues as serious as eating disorders and everything that results, sometimes happy endings just aren’t realistic. Anorexia takes a toll on the body, and we definitely see that in Skinny. Giselle wasn’t the only one to suffer because of her illness, though. Those around her did as well, and I imagine that many readers with similar experiences will relate to the pain depicted in this book.

Despite the age of Holly’s character, Skinny, in my opinion, is not a book that belongs in the hands of middle grade readers. (Some may be able to handle it but not many.) Much of the content (drugs, sex, drinking, etc.) is for mature audiences, so I would recommend this for high school students who have some modicum of maturity.

Splintering

I finished a book last night that was very short and extremely easy to read. (It’s a novel in verse, so I flew through it.) The subject matter, however, was kind of disturbing. The book is Splintering by Eireann Corrigan, and it explores what happens to a family after a violent attack and home invasion. (Since I was the victim of a home invasion in September, I related a bit to the characters. Thankfully, I wasn’t home when some lowlife broke into my home. I shudder at the thought.)

Splintering is told in two distinct voices:  Paulie, a fifteen year old girl who has endured way too much in her young life and is barely coping with the horror that she faced on that fateful night; and Jeremy, Paulie’s older brother, who hid in the basement while his family was being attacked by a drugged-out monster. These two teenagers reveal to readers what life was like before, during, and after the attack that would change not only their lives but also the lives of their parents and their older sister, Mimi.

Even before everything went pear-shaped, things weren’t great for Paulie and Jeremy. Paulie, in particular, dealt with being a punching bag for their mother. After the attack, Paulie suffered from horrible nightmares, and she found solace in the arms of a much older boy. Jeremy, on the other hand, retreated into himself. He grew pot in the basement, and he lived with being thought of as the coward who hid in the basement when a madman was beating on his family. Both them are dealing with strained and changing relationships with their parents and worry over how everything impacted their big sister, who is just short of catatonic.

Things are looking pretty bleak for Paulie, Jeremy, and their family, but, somehow, they hold onto a small measure of hope. Hope that things will eventually get better. Hope that they won’t have to live with this fear forever. Hope for some sense of normalcy. Will they ever recover from the attack that changed everything, or will their lives continue to splinter? Read Splintering by Eireann Corrigan to learn how a family comes back from one terrible, horrifying, life-changing event.

In my opinion, Splintering is too mature for most middle grade readers, but it might be a good fit for reluctant teen readers who want to read something that isn’t all sweetness and light. There is frank talk about violence, drug use, and sex, and, even though most adults might not want to admit it, these things are parts of some teens’ daily lives. They might be able to relate to what Paulie and Jeremy are going through (even if they haven’t experienced the exact circumstances themselves).

Where She Went

Please, please, please read If I Stay before you read this post or the book I’m talking about.  (Actually, you should read If I Stay anyway.  It’s an amazing book.)  Where She Went is the sequel, and you definitely need to read the first book to put everything in context.

I read Gayle Forman’s award-winning novel If I Stay nearly two years ago.  At the time, I was awed by the story’s quiet intensity, and this book has stayed with me ever since.  I have recommended this book to countless people, both teens and adults, and I haven’t heard a negative comment yet.  Mia’s story, of choosing whether to live alone or join her family in death, is one that makes all of us think and wonder what we would do in a similar situation.

Just this week, I began reading the sequel, Where She Went.  This story follows Adam, the boyfriend who stood by Mia’s side during the accident, and subsequent surgeries and therapies.  Now, however, it’s three years later, and Adam’s life is falling apart.  He and Mia are no longer together, and ever since they parted ways, his life has been in a downward spiral.  On the surface, everything looks great.  He’s a world-renowned “rock star,” he has the popular Hollywood girlfriend, and he’s got more money than he knows how to spend…but he’s never been more alone, and he’s close to his breaking point.

As Adam is walking down a street in New York, a poster catches his eye.  Mia’s face is staring back at him.  She’s playing a concert at Carnegie Hall that very night.  Call it fate, coincidence, or divine intervention, Adam buys a ticket to Mia’s concert, and the two come face to face for the first time in three years.  The night that follows this meeting will bring up some painful memories, demons that need to be laid to rest, and a small hope for redemption.  Adam and Mia will finally talk about what happened, why she stayed, and, eventually, why she left him.  Can Adam and Mia put the past to rest?  And is there hope for a future beyond the pain of the past?  Read Where She Went by Gayle Forman to find out.

I don’t feel like I’ve adequately captured how gripping Where She Went was.  I had to read the last quarter of the book with my glasses off because I couldn’t stop crying.  Reading about what happened in Adam’s life was devastating, and hearing how Mia coped with what happened to her and her family was enlightening.  I feel safe in saying that I like this book even more than I did If I Stay.  It was absolutely wonderful.

For more information on Gayle Forman and her superb books, visit http://www.gayleforman.com/.

Hate List

I don’t even know where to start when it comes to my latest read, Hate List by Jennifer Brown.  Given the recent shooting in Arizona, this book was especially powerful.  It looks at a point of view not often considered–someone who loved the one responsible for such a tragedy.  Hate List deals with a school shooting, and I’m sure that some educators, parents, community members, and students will want to keep this book out of school libraries, but I strongly urge those people to take the time to actually read this book.  It provides readers with a very real view of the guilt someone could feel in not seeing what someone was capable of, in still loving the person that committed such atrocities, in feeling responsible for what happened.  Most of all, Hate List is about forgiveness, which is something all of us could stand to learn a little more about.

Everything changed on May 2, 2008.  On that morning, Valerie Leftman’s boyfriend, Nick, opened fire in the commons area at their high school.  He killed some and wounded others, including Valerie, before turning the gun on himself.  Valerie is now left to deal with what happened in the aftermath, including facing her own actions leading up to the shooting, saving an enemy’s life, going to school again, and simply surviving each day.  She knows Nick’s actions were monstrous and destroyed many lives, including her own, but she still remembers the loving boyfriend only she seemed to know.  How could she have not seen he would do something like this?  And why did he seem to think, just before she stepped in front of his gun, that she supported his actions?

As Valerie reflects on what happened, her relationship with Nick, and facing going back to school, she is forced to face some harsh truths.  Was she somehow to blame for what happened?  Yes, she and Nick had a Hate List, filled with the names of people who bullied or wronged them in some way, but they never really took that seriously.  At least, she didn’t think so.  Could she have stopped him or seen what he was planning?  Can anyone forgive her for her part in the shooting, or for loving Nick?  Can she even forgive herself?

Read Hate List to discover what it’s like for one girl who truly loved someone who committed horrible acts and how she learns to cope with the guilt that comes from surviving, especially when so many around her wish she hadn’t.  Can Valerie move on?  Does she even want to?  Read Hate List by Jennifer Brown to find out.

I really think Hate List is a wonderful book.  It is by no means a comfortable read, but it could serve to open up discussions in high schools and beyond about dealing with bullying, violence, and the aftermath of tragedy.  It could also help people to really see that those who commit these crimes have loved ones, too.  These are often the forgotten victims that no one really wants to see.  Something to think about.

For more information on Hate List and author Jennifer Brown, visit http://www.jenniferbrownya.com/.

Happyface

When I started reading Happyface by Stephen Emond, I was prepared for a light-hearted, humorous read.  (The big yellow smiley-face on the cover led me to that assumption.)  Well, let’s just say that I didn’t exactly get what I was expecting.  While the journal format was different from a lot of young adult novels, the whiny, self-centered protagonist was not.  I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing.  Many young adults I know are whiny and self-centered, so they’ll be able to easily relate to this character, also known as Happyface.

We begin our story in a seemingly normal situation–a teen boy is out of school for the summer; his older brother Everett is home from college; they live with their parents who have their problems but seem to fit together; and this teen boy is in love with his best friend Chloe.  Everything’s great, right?  Um, no.  Fast forward to August, and our young friend is entering a new school, he and his mom have moved into a tiny apartment, and there is little to no mention of Dad, Everett, or Chloe.  What happened in just a couple of short months?  (Note:  I’m not going to tell you.  You’ll have to read to find out.)

With all these changes, our main character decides to make some changes of his own.  At his old school, he was kind of a nerd, always apart from everyone else (except Chloe).  Now, he is determined to be different.  He wants to be outgoing, popular, active.  It all begins when he meets Gretchen.  He makes an effort to be nice and happy around her, and Happyface is born.  That’s the nickname Gretchen gives him because he’s always smiling.  Happyface thinks if he’s smiling and acting like nothing bothers him, people will like him and not care (or know) about the mess his life is at home.  For a while, it works.  He’s going to all the parties, breaking curfew, hanging out with new friends, and basically becoming the popular guy he’s always wanted to be.

As with most things, however, this new-found popularity cannot last.  People begin to find out just what Happyface is hiding.  They discover what happened with his parents, his brother, and his best friend.  Happyface is back to square one, and he’s not, well, happy about it.  How can one person experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in one short year?  (Trust me, it can happen.  I speak from experience.)  How can Happyface reconcile his new life with the one he thought he left behind?  Read Happyface by Stephen Emond to find out.

If you like books written in journal format with lots of illustrations, Happyface might be the book for you.  If you enjoy it, I also encourage you to check out Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  The books have similar formats, but, while Happyface takes himself way too seriously most of the time, the main character in Alexie’s book uses a lot of humor to get him through some tough situations.

For more information on Happyface and Stephen Emond, visit http://www.stephenemond.com/.