Bang

Every once in a while, I come across a book that I know is going to wreck me. Sometimes, all it takes is a look at the cover or a glance at the description to realize that I better get the Kleenex ready. That’s what happened with Bang by Barry Lyga.

When Sebastian Cody was four years old, he did the unthinkable. He shot and killed his baby sister. It was an accident, but that event changed everything. It broke up his family, and it made Sebastian into a pariah. Everyone knows him as the kid who shot his sister.

It’s now ten years later, and Sebastian has nearly reached his breaking point. He’s certain it’s almost time for him to end his pain. He can’t escape what he did to his sister, but he can escape this life. He’s almost ready. Almost.

When his best friend, Evan, goes away for the summer, Sebastian is sure that he won’t see his friend again. He’s going to end his life, and nothing is going to stop him. His plans begin to change, however, when he meets Aneesa.

Aneesa is unlike anyone Sebastian has ever met. For one thing, she’s Muslim, which already makes her unique in his extremely white bread town. For another, she doesn’t know anything about Sebastian’s past. To her, he’s just Sebastian, awkwardly funny guy who charms her parents and makes delicious pizza.

Sebastian and Aneesa become fast friends–and partners in a pizza-making YouTube venture–and it’s almost enough to make Sebastian forget his plans. Could he possibly move past what happened to him all those years ago? Does he deserve friends and a future after what he did? He’s starting to think it’s possible.

But maybe all of the positive stuff in Sebastian’s life is too good to be true. After all, no one will ever let him forget his past. Even Aneesa’s friendship isn’t enough to blot out the pain. Can anything help him to move on, or is Sebastian fated to end his life the same way he ended his sister’s?


Like I said, this book wrecked me…so much so that I’m finding it difficult to write as much as I typically do. It is an outstanding piece of realistic fiction, and it’s sure to keep readers eager to turn the page. Yes, some of that enthusiasm could be morbid curiosity–will Sebastian end his life or not? But I’m hopeful that most people will want to keep reading to see if Sebastian finds his way through the darkness. Maybe they need to see him find a glimmer of hope so that they can seek their own measure of peace.

Aside from the deep stuff in Bang–and it does get pretty intense–I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that it made me hungry. Not something you expected in a book like this one, right? Well, when you read about Sebastian’s epic pizza creations, you’ll probably feel the same way. After reading the descriptions of his pizzas, Papa John’s just won’t cut it anymore. I’m not inspired to make my own pizzas or anything–I hate to cook–but I may have to venture beyond the traditional after this book. When I wasn’t using tissues to dry my tears, I’m pretty sure I was using them to wipe away drool. (Can you tell I’m on a diet? Is it too obvious?)

I’m not sure if Bang is a good fit for a middle school audience, but I definitely recommend it to YA readers. It’s a powerful book, a quick read, and it makes readers think about differences, friendship, forgiveness, and redemption.

To learn more about Bang, visit author Barry Lyga’s website or connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr.

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Royce Rolls

I’m typically not one to watch “reality” television (with the exception of Survivor). I don’t care about keeping up with anyone, any sort of dynasties, or housewives from major cities. I see enough on social media to know that there’s not much that’s real about these shows, and I prefer my celebrities to have actual talent.

I tell you all of this to introduce my latest read, Royce Rolls by Margaret Stohl. This book is, of course, fiction, but it takes readers behind the scenes of what life on a “reality” show may be like. The action revolves around Bentley Royce, middle child in the family featured on Rolling with the Royces. It’s almost immediately clear that the Bentley shown to the public is nothing like the real girl, and she’s growing tired of the charade. If only her family felt the same way.

Bentley Royce has spent much of her life in front of cameras. It kind of goes with the territory when your family is the subject of the number two reality show in the nation. But Rolling with the Royces is in trouble. Cancellation looms, and Bentley is hopeful that this could be her chance to live life on her own terms instead of following the network’s idea of who she should be.

But the Royces have never been a family to go down without a fight. Bentley’s momager, Mercedes, is ruthless and will stop at nothing to get her family back on top. Her older sister, Porsche, isn’t much better. Bentley’s only possibly ally is her younger brother, Bach, but he’s dealing with his own problems with gambling.

While Bentley longs for freedom from the insanity around her, she quickly realizes that it’s not that simple. Without the show, who are the Royces? The family could very well crumble without the show keeping them afloat, and that’s simply not acceptable to Bentley. So she’ll do what she must–including embracing the Bad Bentley character the public seems to love–to ensure that her family stays on the air.

As Bentley is giving the paparazzi a show, her sister has her own idea for avoiding the show’s demise. What else but a celebrity wedding? Porsche announces that she’s getting married (to a guy that no one knows anything about), and the family drama gets even more insane. Now, Porsche is planning the wedding of the century, Mercedes is shooting daggers at her future son-in-law, and Bach’s gambling addiction is worse than ever.

It seems, as always, it’s up to Bentley to get things back on track. But how can she keep her family in the spotlight while stepping out of it herself? Is there any way out of this mess? Who can she turn to for help? In a world that never looks below the surface, can she find anyone that sees and supports the real Bentley Royce?

Discover just how far one resourceful, desparate girl will go to save herself and her family when you read Royce Rolls, the latest book by best-selling author Margaret Stohl.


Whether you love or hate reality television, Royce Rolls definitely makes you think a bit more about what you’re watching. In turns both hilarious and serious, this book makes it abundantly clear that what we often see on screen is not even remotely real. That doesn’t mean, however, that the people on these shows aren’t dealing with very real problems. I couldn’t handle cameras in my face 24/7, and I now have a little more empathy for those who do. (That doesn’t mean I like–or even respect–any of them, but I get that their seemingly charmed lives may not be as easy as they appear.)

Royce Rolls is a great book for people who both love and loathe reality TV, particularly Keeping Up with the Kardashians…which had to be the inspiration for most of the book’s characters. I would recommend this book to a high school audience, but it should be fine for mature middle school students as well.

If I have one complaint about this book, it would be the footnotes. From what I gather, they are production notes, but that isn’t clear at the beginning of the book, so I find them distracting and not altogether necessary.

For more information on Royce Rolls and others by the fabulous Margaret Stohl, check out the author’s website. You also definitely need to take a look at this totally awesome book trailer for Royce Rolls.

Wild Swans

Thanks to NetGalley, I was fortunate enough to read an early copy of Wild Swans, the latest novel from Jessica Spotswood. I finished the book late last night, and, while I’m paying for it today (seriously, there is not enough coffee to get me going), the time I spent reading this riveting book was well worth it. It is a great example of contemporary YA fiction, and I think many libraries that serve teen readers will be adding it to their shelves.

Ivy Milbourn knows a little something about pressure. Her grandfather drives her to be the best (at nearly everything) and live up to the Milbourn family legacy. But what legacy is that? Using her talent to achieve success? Dying too young? Or abandoning her family?

A few Milbourn women took care of those first two things, and Ivy’s own mother handled the last. Ivy wants to be successful–without being driven crazy–but she also wants to prove that she’s nothing like her mother, a woman she hasn’t seen since she was two years old. Ivy is looking for a way to stand out, but she’s constantly tormented by her own feelings of mediocrity.

Well, this summer, which Ivy thought was going to be relatively pressure-free, may just be the one that breaks her and forces her to really examine what it means to be a Milbourn woman. Ivy’s mother, Erica, has come back home…with Ivy’s two little sisters.

Ivy doesn’t quite know how to handle her mom’s sudden reappearance, especially when faced with Erica’s blatant animosity. Why does her mom hate her so much? What could a two-year-old have possibly done to earn so much loathing, and why does this virtual stranger seem to delight in making Ivy miserable now? What’s more…why does Erica insist that Ivy’s sisters never know of their true relationship?

As if this huge mess with her mom and sisters is not enough, Ivy is also dealing with a changing dynamic between her and her best friend, a potential love interest (who is also one of her grandfather’s students), and the continuing struggle to both live up to and break free of her grandfather’s expectations and the Milbourn family legacy.

Will Ivy be able to handle all of the burdens on her young shoulders? Will she crack under the pressure or find some way to rise above it all while remaining true to herself?

Discover the answers to these questions and many more when you read Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood.


Any reader who’s ever dealt with family pressure will find something to relate to in Ivy. (Doesn’t narrow the audience down much, does it?) Ivy didn’t always handle things in the best way, but she did experience quite a bit of personal growth throughout the course of the book. She learned to speak up for herself and let others know how they made her feel. It wasn’t easy, but Ivy came to realize that it was necessary. That’s a lesson that many adults–myself included–have yet to learn.

As much as I liked this book and most of the main and supporting characters, I have to say that I loathed Erica. (Kudos to the author for making me despise someone so much.) This woman’s behavior was absolutely atrocious for the vast majority of the book. Erica is definitely a character that readers will love to hate, and they’ll cheer when Ivy finally confronts her. Even though there is a hint of redemption for this troubled woman by the end of the book, she still comes off as the villain of the piece…as she should.

Wild Swans, which will be released on May 3rd, is a good fit for teen readers. I wouldn’t recommend it for middle grade readers, simply because there is some frank talk of sexual situations, a lot of underage alcohol use, and a fair amount of swearing. (Having worked in a middle school, I’m not stupid enough to think that some middle school students don’t have experience with that stuff, but I am certain that they’re not mature enough to deal with a lot of it.) This is a book for high school libraries and YA collections.

If you’d like more information on Wild Swans and other books by Jessica Spotswood, check out the author’s website as well as her Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, and Goodreads pages.

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.

See You at Harry’s

You’d think I’d know by now not to judge a book by its cover. Well, I don’t, and the latest book to fool me is See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles. Let’s take a quick look at the cover:

This cover practically shouts, “Brain candy right here!” I mean, there’s ice cream on the cover, for goodness sake. Of course I thought I would be getting a light, fun read that would be a nice contrast to other, heavier books I was reading. Alas, that was not the case. (I probably should have paid closer attention to the blurb on the front cover and the synopsis on the back. My bad.) Now, that’s not to say that See You at Harry’s was bad in any way. It was wonderful, to be quite honest. It just wasn’t what I was expecting…and that’s a good thing. I re-learned an important lesson and got a moving, sob-inducing book in the process. Hooray for me.

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Fern often feels ignored by her family. Her father’s main focus is on the family business. Her mom, when not helping Fern’s dad, is wrapped up in her meditation. Her sister Sara is taking a year off between high school and college and seems to delight in telling her siblings what to do. Her brother Holden spends most of his time hiding his true self from the world. Then there’s Charlie.

Charlie is three years old and the center of everyone’s world. Fern, who is probably Charlie’s favorite sibling, loves her little brother but finds him annoying at times. Sometimes, Fern wishes Charlie would just leave her alone and bother someone else with his dirty, sticky, loud, obnoxious self. Why can’t he ignore her like everyone else does?

Fern’s only solace is the time she spends with her friend, Ran. Ran is the epitome of cool, calm, and collected. His mantra of “all will be well” soothes Fern when things aren’t great–both at home and at school. Pretty soon, though, even Ran’s mantra won’t be enough to soothe what ails Fern…

When tragedy strikes Fern’s family–and Fern feels as if she’s to blame–life as she knows it begins to unravel. How can any of them go on when something so horrible has happened? At first, they can’t. Fern wonders how anyone in her family can stand to look at her when they know that this horrible accident is all her fault. She doesn’t see any way past what has happened, and she can’t fathom being happy after what has befallen her family.

But there is hope…

Fern, with the help of her friends and siblings, eventually realizes that, even though her sadness is often unbearable, she deserves to be happy. She can laugh and celebrate and love despite her tragic circumstances. Joy can be found even in the bad times. Fern and her family simply have to find a way to look for the light in the midst of the darkness.

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I really hope I haven’t given away what happens in this book. That would just ruin everything. Suffice it to say that I cried ugly tears through the latter half of the book. (We’re talking wet shirt, foggy glasses, going through a whole box of Kleenex here. I was a mess.) So, if you’re looking for a good cry, See You at Harry’s may be the book for you.

In my most humble opinion, See You at Harry’s is a book suited to middle grade readers on up. I do think, though, that tween readers will have a very different reaction than will adult readers of this book. It might be interesting to compare the two reactions in a faculty-student book club. (If I worked in a middle school library, I’d strive to make this a reality.)

If you’d like to learn more about See You at Harry’s and other books by Jo Knowles, check out the author’s website. (Quite a few of her books are on my extensive TBR list.) You can also connect with the author on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

Happy reading!

Saint Anything

This next statement may shock some of you. Until a few days ago, I had never read a Sarah Dessen book. I know, I know. It’s a true scandal for someone who loves YA literature as much as I do. The good news is that I have remedied that situation, and I’m now prepared to read everything that Dessen has ever written. Her newest book, Saint Anything, is outstanding, and if her other books are in any way comparable, I’m already hooked.

In Saint Anything, we meet Sydney, a girl dealing with the fallout of her brother Peyton’s mistakes. Several months ago, Peyton, after claiming that he was finally going to get his act together, had a few drinks at a party and proceeded to get behind the wheel of a car. On his way home, Peyton hit a kid named David Ibarra, paralyzing him for life.

Now, Peyton is in prison, and Sydney is left to deal with her guilt and shame over her brother’s actions. And with all of her parents’ focus on Peyton and his issues, Sydney wonders if they really see her. Even her decision to transfer to public school doesn’t seem to faze them. (They don’t appear to realize that Sydney’s decision was based partly on the financial burdens created by Peyton’s actions.) She’s invisible in her own home.

At first, Sydney feels invisible at her new school as well, but that changes rather quickly. When Sydney encounters the Chatham family, she feels like she’s finally seen.

The Chathams are a close-knit family with their own share of issues. The family owns a local pizza parlor, and, almost immediately, they treat Sydney as one of their own. Layla soon becomes Sydney’s closest friend. Layla has no luck with guys, but she’s always searching for the one who will be true to her. (Also, she has a weird obsession with fries.) Then there’s Rosie, a recovering addict who is trying to get her figure skating career back on track. Mr. Chatham runs the pizza parlor and plays in a bluegrass band in his spare time. Mrs. Chatham struggles with multiple sclerosis, but that doesn’t stop her from keeping her entire family in line. And then there’s Mac…

Mac is Layla’s older brother, and Sydney is drawn to his quiet, protective nature. Even though she knows it could damage her friendship with Layla, Sydney can’t seem to help growing closer to Mac…and he feels the same way. Sydney finally feels like there’s someone who really gets her, and she won’t let go of that without a fight.

After an argument with Peyton and discovering Sydney breaking a couple of rules, Sydney’s parents finally turn their attention to their daughter. (I say “they,” but I really mean “her mother.” She leads, and Sydney’s dad sort of follows along.) They don’t want her to go down the same path that Peyton did, and they seem to think that the Chathams have something to do with what they perceive as changes in their daughter’s behavior. (They don’t see their own lack of attention as a problem, in my opinion.) They tighten the reins on Sydney, talk about transferring schools, and basically try to keep Sydney away from anything that could be a “bad influence.” What they don’t realize is that the true danger to their daughter has been right under their noses all along.

Sydney knows her parents are being unreasonable, but she doesn’t know how to convince them that a couple of mistakes do not mean she’s headed for trouble. She’s tired of being punished for Peyton’s actions, and she’s unwilling to let go of the relationships that have come to mean so much to her. What can she do to make her parents finally see her? Can Sydney reconcile her own feelings about her brother while helping her parents to see her for herself? And how will her closeness with the Chatham family help–or hinder–her efforts? Discover the answers to these questions and many more when you read Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen.

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I adored this book. The characters were wholly relatable, and I honestly felt like the Chathams made me a member of their family as I was reading. I was charmed by that entire family, particularly Layla, Mac, and Mrs. Chatham. This family was a beautiful example of how a family should come together in tough times. That provided a perfect counterpoint to Sydney’s own family.

Sydney’s parents, blinded by the experiences with their son, were exasperating. At several points during the book, I wanted to reach through the pages and smack Sydney’s mom. (I’m sure I’m not alone in this.) I know she was dealing with a hard situation the only way she knew how, but it was still frustrating to read, and Sydney’s dad didn’t really help matters. When he was around, he meekly followed along with whatever his wife wanted, even though it was clear that he often disagreed with her. Neither of them paid enough attention to their daughter…until something happened that forced them to.

Saint Anything, which I think is suitable for both middle grade and teen readers, is a wonderful book about a girl discovering herself and what it truly means to be part of a family. The Chathams provide her with the love and attention she’s craved, but they also show her that every family experiences difficulties. Those connections help Sydney cope with what is happening at home. In her own family, Sydney comes to realize that her perceptions, of her brother and her parents, may not always reflect what’s really going on.

I hope you enjoy Saint Anything as much as I did. If you’d like to learn more about it and author Sarah Dessen, click here. You may also want to connect with the lovely Ms. Dessen on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Goodreads, and Pinterest.

As for me, I’m now going to add every other Sarah Dessen book to my already staggering TBR pile. Wish me luck!

How to Steal a Dog

Sometimes my job as an elementary school librarian forces me to pick up books that I normally wouldn’t. My latest read is one of those books. It’s How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor, and it’s one of the titles selected for my district’s Battle of the Books competition this year. I can’t really quiz my kids on the book if I haven’t read it myself, so I devoted much of last night to reading this one.

Normally, I shy away from books with dogs on the cover. I blame Old Yeller for this. It’s difficult, however, to work in an elementary school and stay away from “dog books” completely. They’re everywhere. (There are two on this year’s Battle of the Books list and more on the South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominee list.) Luckily, How to Steal a Dog wasn’t quite as painfully heart-wrenching as most. It did have its emotional moments, but it didn’t leave me with a crying-induced headache at the end. That’s a good thing.

Georgina Hayes needs to find a way to make some quick money. Her dad left Georgina, her mom, and her little brother with almost nothing, and they’ve been living in their car for way too long. They need a home, but Georgina’s mom is working two jobs and still struggling to make the money needed to make a deposit on a house or apartment. Georgina knows there’s got to be a way to help her mom, but what is this young girl supposed to do?

Well, after seeing a reward poster for a missing dog, Georgina gets the bright idea to steal a dog. But it can’t be just any dog. It has to be a quiet, friendly dog. A dog that is loved by its owner. A dog that someone would pay a lot of money to get back.

Georgina writes down her dog-theft plan in her notebook, and, with the help of her little brother Toby, she puts her plan into action. She finds the perfect dog, nabs him, and waits for the reward posters to go up. But nothing really happens the way Georgina wants it to. She feels guilty about what she’s done, and the dog’s owner may not have enough money for a big reward. This sticky situation is quickly spiraling out of control, and Georgina doesn’t know which way to turn.

Can Georgina turn things around and get the money she and her family need? Will she do the right thing, or will she see her dognapping through to the bitter end? What will happen to make Georgina face all the wrongs in her life and do what she must to make things right? Read How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor to find out!

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On a rather serious note, How to Steal a Dog, like Almost Home by Joan Bauer, shines a light on something that gets way too little attention…homeless children. When most people think of the homeless, they envision older people who live on the streets. They don’t realize that some of those people have children, children who still have to go to school, do their homework, and deal with social pressures…all while worrying about where they will sleep at night, if they’ll get a shower this week, or where their next meal is coming from. For me, I think this book made me more aware of what my students may be going through outside of the school walls. Not all of them have a nice house to go home to every day. Not everyone has a mom and a dad there every night to help with homework. Some kids don’t have that extra money needed for class parties, club fees, or even school lunch. That’s something that many educators–myself included–don’t really think about enough. My hope is that How to Steal a Dog will make other readers reflect on these issues and maybe–just maybe–foster just a little more empathy for those around them.

I look forward to discussing this book with my Battle of the Books team. I think they–and many of my other students–will have a lot to say about Georgina’s desperate situation and what they may have done differently.

For more information about How to Steal a Dog and other books by Barbara O’Connor, check out the author’s website.