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 Jude is now the withdrawn, artistic twin, and she wants to find some way to reach her brother and force him to really be his true self.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.*

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard

Yesterday, in the span of about an hour, I read a book of poetry that really spoke to me. (People who know me realize just how unusual this is. I don’t read a ton of poetry.) October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman takes a look at a senseless tragedy in a very unique way. I think many readers will be both horrified and captivated by the story presented, and my hope is that they will use this book as a starting point in learning more about Matthew Shepard’s too-short life and what they can do to put an end to homophobia.

October Mourning shows readers just what happened to Matthew Shepard on October 6th, 1998. Readers learn how two homophobic Neanderthals lured a gay 21-year-old out of a club and into their truck. They see that Matthew was beaten to within an inch of his life, tied to a fence, and left for dead.

While some of what readers see is presented from Matthew’s perspective, they also see this event through some unique points of view. The fence to which Matthew was tied, the doe that kept him company during the long, cold night, the stars that watched over him, the biker who found Matthew, the doctor who cared for him, the protesters at his funeral, and even the perpetrators themselves.

Each of the poems in this book paint a picture of what happened to Matthew Shepard and the events that occurred after his death. No, the book is not a narrative, but I think the poems used in this book often make things clearer than they might be otherwise. They cut through a lot of stuff and get to the very heart of Matthew’s story.

While the poems in October Mourning were created from the author’s imagination, they are based on real events, and there are footnotes at the end of the book detailing much of the content in the poems as well as explanations of the various poetic forms used.

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I picked up this book because it was nominated for the 14-15 South Carolina Young Adult Book Award, but I honestly think I would have read October Mourning anyway. You see, I can remember when this tragedy occurred. I was a sophomore at Winthrop University, and I recall being absolutely horrified by what happened in Laramie, Wyoming. I remember realizing that this could happen in South Carolina. Several of my friends were openly gay, so I worried that some dumb redneck might get the idea to do something similar. (Even today, that worry hasn’t entirely gone away.)

I know a lot has changed in the nearly sixteen years since Matthew Shepard’s death, but there is still so much work to do. Look around. Homophobia still runs rampant, and political talking heads and uber-conservative blowhards continue to prey on irrational fears to prevent true equality from becoming a reality. Many churches–institutions that are supposed to be all about God’s love–preach messages of hate. Books depicting gay characters are pulled from library shelves. People’s lives are still threatened just because of who they love. Will we ever see an end to this madness? I truly hope so.

If anything positive can come of a tragedy like this, I hope that young people will read October Mourning, learn a bit more about Matthew Shepard, examine their own attitudes, and do something–no matter how seemingly small–to eradicate homophobia. I believe it can be done.

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For more information on October Mourning and what inspired author Lesléa Newman to write it, check out this Huffington Post article. There’s a video there as well, but I’ve also put it here. It tells you about this book more succinctly than I ever could.

*By the way, I applaud the SCYABA committee for choosing this book as one of next year’s nominees. It goes to show that, even in a state as conservative as ours, attitudes are changing, and South Carolinians can be champions for gay rights. Thank you!*

Getting It

My latest read, Getting It by Alex Sanchez, has been on my bookshelf for a while.  This week, I finally decided to give this book a go.  It was a quick, light read, but it had a very positive message—a message that teens as well as adults could stand to receive.  Getting It revolves around the life of Carlos, a fifteen-year-old guy who comes to understand that getting something isn’t nearly as important as giving.

Carlos wants a girlfriend.  Bad.  His buddies all brag about their latest hookups, but Carlos is a virgin, and he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.  He’s obsessed with gorgeous Roxy, but he knows he has no shot at her.  He’s a slob with bad skin and no confidence.  Is there any way to change his image and get the girl of his dreams?  There just may be…

Carlos decides to seek the help of the only openly gay guy in school, Sal (because everyone knows that guy guys know about being clean, neat, and fashionable).  Sal agrees to help Carlos in exchange for a little cash and his assistance in starting a Gay-Straight Alliance at their school.  Even though Carlos worries that everyone will think he’s gay, he agrees to Sal’s terms.

As Sal works his magic, and Carlos begins to notice changes on the outside, it seems the inside might be changing as well.  Yes, he’s still obsessed with Roxy, but he’s also coming face to face with homophobia among his friends and classmates.  His time with Sal has made him realize the power of words, and how gay slurs, even when directed at straight people, are not okay.  But Carlos is still uneasy about his friendship with Sal and forming a GSA at school.  Can he overcome his own issues and step up for the friend who has helped him so much, or will he always be worried about what other people think?  Will Carlos ever get the girl, and, if he gets her, will it really make him happy?  Join Carlos on his journey of self-discovery when you read Getting It by Alex Sanchez.

Even though some of the pop culture references in this book are a little dated—particularly the nods to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy—and some stereotyping of gay men, the book’s message is really timely.  If you keep up with current events at all, you know that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people are fighting alongside their straight allies for equal rights.  There have been great strides recently, but there is still work to be done.  Getting It brings that fight to a high school setting.  Even teenagers, gay and straight alike, can do their part to battle against homophobia (and they might just teach us adults a few things along the way).

If you’d like more information about Getting It or author Alex Sanchez, visit http://www.alexsanchez.com/default.asp.

Hero

I’ve always wished I had a superpower.  When I was in middle school, I was picked on a lot, and I always wished I could turn invisible or be able to fry bullies with just a look.  Now, I still wish for superpowers, but I’d like something like super-memory, telekenesis (for when I can’t reach the remote control), regenerative powers, or the ability to lose vast amounts of weight in a short period of time.  What can I say…I’ve matured.  Well, the main character of my latest read, Hero by Perry Moore, has actually discovered that he has a superpower, but he has to hide who he truly is from everyone around him.  Having superpowers isn’t all fun and games, you know.

Thom Creed is not your typical teenager.  Sure, he’s one of the star players on the basketball team and has issues with his father, but there’s definitely something different about Thom.  First of all, his dad is a disgraced superhero.  Secondly, Thom is just discovering his own superpower, the ability to heal, and is being recruited to join the League, a group of the very same superheroes that shunned his dad.  Finally, Thom is gay and hiding it from everyone around him.  But secrets have a way of coming out, so to speak, and Thom can’t stop the flood once it starts.

In Hero, Thom must learn what it truly means to be a hero.  How can he continue to save people when it seems that he’s hated by everyone around him?  Can he join the very group that disowned his father?  What’s the real story behind his father’s disgrace, and where was his mother in all of this?  Whether Thom is ready for these answers or not, he’s about to come face to face with his secrets and those of his family.  On top of all of this, someone is killing the League’s top superheroes, and Thom, along with some of the most unlikely heroes ever, are the only ones who can stop the madness.  Will they be able to save the world?  Can they save themselves while they’re at it?  It is even possible to be a hero and truly keep one’s own identity?  Read Hero by Perry Moore to find out.

I truly enjoyed reading Hero, and I think this would be a great book for LGBT young adults and other readers who are interested in comic books and fantasy fiction.  For more information on Hero and Perry Moore, visit http://home.perrymoorestories.com/.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Before I begin delving into the wonder that is Will Grayson, Will Grayson, let me preface things by saying that I strongly feel that this book is for more mature readers.  It deals quite candidly with issues of homosexuality, friendship, depression, and everything that might go along with those issues.  The authors, John Green and David Levithan, really don’t hold anything back, and some readers may not be able to handle that.  So…make sure you can deal with the issues presented in this book before you pick it up.

Okay. Disclaimer over.  On to the fun part.

Even though they live mere miles apart, Will Grayson and will grayson have never met.  (The capitalization, or lack thereof, is intentional.  This is often how the two Wills are distinguished in the book.)  That’s all about to change.  On a weird night in Chicago that is fraught with disappointment for both of our boys, Will meets will in a rather odd location, and worlds collide.  Both Wills are dealing with their own issues, some serious, some not-so-much, and their lives begin to intertwine on this cold Chicago night.

Will Grayson’s best friend is the large and fabulously gay Tiny Cooper.  Tiny is a star football player and musical theater enthusiast.  When will grayson comes face to face with Tiny, sparks ignite, and life for both Wills gets a little complicated.  Will’s best friend, Tiny, is now involved with will.  (Confused yet?)  Now Will Grayson is a little jealous that Tiny is spending so much time with will grayson.  Relationships are changing, and neither Will is really comfortable with this.  On top of all of this, Tiny Cooper is trying to write, produce, direct, and star in the most fabulously wonderful high school musical in history, and, of course, it’s based on his life (and the lives of those around him).  What will happen to Will Grayson, will grayson, and the force of nature that is Tiny Cooper?  I’ll leave that for you to find out.

I am fully aware that this post has not even come close to doing justice to this book.  I truly loved this book, but it’s really difficult to describe Will Grayson, Will Grayson in just a couple hundred words.  John Green and David Levithan have done a wonderful job of showing how two boys’ lives can intersect and how one person can impact them so dramatically.  Sensitive subjects are dealt with frankly and with humor.  Some novels fall short on this, but Will Grayson, Will Grayson excels in giving most, if not all, readers someone to relate to.  Highly recommended.

Twelve Long Months

“Just a small town girl livin’ in a lonely world…”

Those immortal words from one of the world’s greatest songs make a great introduction to Brian Malloy’s Twelve Long Months.  (And if you don’t agree with me that Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ is a great song, you’re in denial.  You know you sing along whenever you hear it.)  Molly Swain is your basic smart-girl outcast.  She lives in a small Minnesota town, is in love with her lab partner, Mark, has no friends, and dreams of being a physicist.  After graduating from high school, Molly moves to New York where she attends Columbia University.  Mark is moving to New Jersey, so Molly thinks she finally has her chance to get him to really notice her.  Well, fate is not without it’s own sense of irony.

Soon after Molly and Mark meet up in New York, Mark reveals that he is gay.  Molly, understandably, is crushed, but she puts on a brave face for Mark and helps him to accept who he really is.  She also enters into her first serious relationship with fellow physics major Simon.  Molly feels like she’s finally getting the life she’s always wanted:  She has two awesome friends, a great boyfriend, she’s living in one of the most exciting cities on the planet, and she remains friends with Mark.

Well, this wouldn’t be a young adult novel without emotional turmoil, and Molly gets a lot more of it in spades near the end of this novel.  I won’t tell you what happens, but you’ll see it coming a mile away, but you’ll wish you didn’t.  I found myself praying, “Please don’t let it happen, please don’t let it happen.”  It happened, and I felt as lousy as Molly did.  (Well, probably not, but I did empathize with her.)  Even though I predicted what would happen, I found this book to be an engrossing read that I did not want to put down.

Although Twelve Long Months will be a hard sell for most guys, many female readers will enjoy it.  They’ll see that the book is about love at its core…maybe not the love envisioned at the beginning but something that grows into an unbreakable friendship at the end.

My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins & Fenway Park

If you haven’t read Steve Kluger’s My Most Excellent Year:  A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins & Fenway Park, drop whatever you’re doing, go to your nearest library or bookstore, and get this book.  It’s awesome!  The story is funny, sometimes sad, funny again, and heartwarming.  I’d love to see more young adult novels like this one.  If the characters were real, I’d want to hang out with them.

T.C. Keller and his merry band of misfits live in Boston (in case the Fenway Park reference in the title didn’t clue you in).  T.C. is obsessed with the Red Sox and Alejandra Perez.  His brother, Augie, is getting ready to come out and loves musical theater.  Alejandra is an ambassador’s daughter who really wants to sing and dance, and she’s trying to deny that she has the hots for T.C.  The characters’ lives mish-mash into a hilarious tale that sometimes pushes the bounds of reality (but I personally think reality is for people with no imagination).

My Most Excellent Year is the story of the best year of their lives–9th grade.  I won’t tell you everything that happens.  You really must read the book.  But I will say that there is a special guest appearance by the great Julie Andrews.  When reading this book, I learned more about the Red Sox and musical theater than I ever really wanted to.  (As a die-hard Atlanta Braves fan, it is difficult for me to admit that I now have a soft spot for the Red Sox.)

No blog entry that I post could possibly do justice to this wonderful book.  Steve Kluger, you’ve hit this one out of the park!

The Last Exit to Normal

In Michael Harmon’s The Last Exit to Normal, Ben, a seventeen-year-old troublemaker, his gay father, and his father’s partner, a man Ben jokingly refers to as his “momdad,” pack up and move from Spokane, Washington, to Rough Butte, Montana, where Edward, the momdad, grew up.  They move in with Miss Mae, Edward’s mother and possibly one of the most ornery old women in the world.  At first, Ben is reluctant to even try to make the situation work.  He’s mad at his dad for his lifestyle.  Ben is ticked that his dads moved because they said his behavior was getting out of control.  And he’s not really happy with Miss Mae hitting him with wooden spoons every time he steps out of line.

Things gradually get better for Ben.  He still has issues with this dad and a smart mouth that tends to lead to trouble, but his life is improving.  He meets a girl who he immediately falls in love with, he works out a deal with Miss Mae to buy an old truck, he learns to hunt, he saves a man’s life, and he seems to be finding his place.  But he worries about Billy, the eleven-year-old boy next door.  Billy seems to be a nice, hard-working kid, but nothing is ever good enough for his seemingly abusive father.  Can Ben help this kid?  Is it even his problem?

The Last Exit to Normal is an engrossing book that readers will not want to put down.  I found myself thinking about it when I should have been doing other stuff.  Ben is a character that I found very easy to identify with.  (I, too, have a somewhat smart mouth that gets me into sticky situations occasionally.  I know…hard to believe.)  I think many young adults may relate to Ben’s attitude, but they could also learn something by reading about how he grows up and learns what it means to really be a man.