Every Last Word

Last month, I read OCD Love Story, a book about a teen girl struggling with OCD. Late last night, I finished yet another book about a girl with OCD. The two books, however, are very different in my humble opinion.

I struggled to get through OCD Love Story. It took me a month to finish it. My latest read, though, gripped me from the first page. The book was Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone, and I finished the entire beautiful story in one sitting. (It’s been quite some time since I’ve had the luxury of doing that. Thank the Maker that my summer vacation has begun!)

Every Last Word, which will be released next Tuesday, June 16th, introduces readers to Samantha McAllister. On the outside, Samantha seems to have it all. She’s pretty, popular, smart, and athletic. On the inside, though, she’s at the mercy of a constant stream of thoughts, some of which frighten her at times. Sam has Purely-Obsessional OCD, and no one outside of her family and her therapist know about her struggles with this disorder…and Sam needs to keep it that way.

Sam knows that one wrong move will forever damage her standing with her so-called friends, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to keep her true self from the girls she’s been close to since kindergarten. But if she loses them, Sam fears that she’ll really go crazy, and she simply can’t risk it.

Everything changes for Sam when she meets Caroline. Caroline seems to have a confidence that Sam longs for, and the two girls form an instant bond. Caroline leads Sam to a secret part of the school, Poet’s Corner, a refuge for those who have no place else to go. Sam doesn’t realize immediately that this hideaway may be exactly what she needs to finally express all of the thoughts that stay bottled up inside, but with Caroline’s encouragement and a bit of attention from the guitar-playing AJ, Sam begins to find her true voice.

Sam is still struggling with her changing relationships with her oldest friends, but she’s coming to realize that change can be good. Caroline, AJ, and Poet’s Corner have given her a new perspective and made her realize that she’s stronger than her OCD, and the “normal” she’s always craved may finally be within her reach.

But what will happen when Sam realizes that her mind has betrayed her? What she thought was so real may just be a trick of her anxiety, and the realization could jeopardize everything Sam has fought so hard for this year. When the truth is revealed, she could end up losing not only her old friends but also the safety and love she’s found in Poet’s Corner…and AJ’s arms.

Will Sam become a prisoner of her own mind once again? Or will she work through the maelstrom of emotions, thoughts, and worries that have held her back for so long? What will it take for her to become the person she so desperately wants to be?

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It’s been difficult for me to encapsulate this wonderful book into one short blog post. That’s what happens to me when a book grabs me and won’t let go. I grew very attached to Sam in this book, and the big reveal at the end quite simply tore me apart. I was doing a lot of ugly-crying, and it took me a long time to wind down when I finally finished Every Last Word.

Even though not every person who reads Every Last Word will identify with Sam’s OCD, I do think every reader will relate to Sam’s desire to fit in. I think we’ve all had those friends who we remain close to simply because it’s too difficult to move on from them. I know I’ve held onto some toxic friends way too long because it was just easier.

Sam’s journey throughout this book is a familiar one. She works to find her true self–through swimming, therapy, poetry, and friends who are truly there for her–and realizes just how lacking her old relationships have become. Is it difficult for her to separate from the girls she’s held onto since childhood? Yes…but she can’t grow into the person she wants to be while holding onto people who don’t really know her anymore. (I’m still working on that one myself.)

I think Every Last Word, while a somewhat serious book at times, has elements of Mean Girls that many readers will recognize. Sam is working to move beyond the mean girls in her own life, and, even though the road is often rocky, she’s slowly growing more comfortable in her own skin and her own mind, a huge deal for anyone suffering from any kind of mental illness. Finding Poet’s Corner ultimately leads to Sam finding herself. All teens should be so lucky as to find that one group in high school where they can totally be themselves.

The author’s note at the end of this book provides readers with a closer look at Purely-Obsessional OCD and the importance of a close patient-therapist bond in dealing with this disorder. It also leads readers to websites that may be useful in learning more about OCD and other anxiety disorders. That’s something that was sorely lacking in OCD Love Story, so I’m glad to see it included in Every Last Word.

For further information on Every Last Word and Tamara Ireland Stone, you can connect with the author on her website, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Remember that Every Last Word comes out next Tuesday. Pick up a copy of your own! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

*Note to those who select books for middle grade readers: There is one sex scene in Every Last Word, but it is not gratuitous. Additionally, there is some mature language. That being said, this book may be okay for readers in eighth grade and up. As always, though, read the book yourself first, and use your best judgement when recommending this book to readers.*

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!*

Amiri & Odette: A Love Story

I don’t typically like poetry.  I don’t really like ballet either.  So Walter Dean Myers’ Amiri & Odette:  A Love Story, which is a retelling of Swan Lake through poetry, was really not for me.

Don’t get me wrong…there were things about it that I liked.  For instance, I LOVED the artwork by Javaka Steptoe.  The illustrations were done with acrylic paint on slabs of asphalt embellished with things like jewelry, bags, and candy wrappers.  I thought these were very unique.  I also liked the setting of the story.  Myers moved the story from the realm of fantasy to the inner city.  The key ingredients to the story were still there (mom throwing a party for her son so he can find a wife, bad guy getting in the way, mistaken identity, etc.), but the setting and characters were more relevant to urban teens.

Like I said, I’m not a big fan of poetry, but I know a lot of my students are, and Amiri & Odette may be just what they’re looking for.  It’s a quick read (took me about five minutes) and has appeal for both guys and girls.