Book Reviews

Don't Overlook These Young Adult Books

Barbara A. Ward

Although much attention focuses on winners of the American Library Association Awards each January, among which many are happy to find their favorites, many other outstanding books that receive less attention are no less deserving of a place on the bookshelves. These reviews  introduce some of the quality young adult literature of 2013.

Bascomb, Neal. (2013). The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World's Most Notorious Nazi. New York, NY: Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine. ISBN: 978-0-545-43099-9.

Adolf Eichmann, the head of operations for the Nazis' Final Solution, was a man whose name struck fear in the heart of any hearer. But as World War II came to an end in 1945, this powerful man somehow disappeared and went unpunished for his crimes against humanity. Incredibly, he managed to escape notice for 16 years, hiding in Argentina, until a team of spies brought him back to Israel where he faced justice. Readers will be fascinated at Eichmann's ability to hide in plain sight and at the fact that a teen girl and her blind father provided information that would lead to his arrest. The involvement of an elite Israeli spy team, many of them with personal connections to the Holocaust, along with lesser-known heroic figures, takes the book at a breathless pace as readers will race through the pages to see if Eichmann manages to escape and go underground once again. The book relates some of the mistakes and assumptions that could have spelled failure for the team and its mission, as well as its triumphs and its members' dedication, with photos throughout the text. This factual narrative deservedly won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction.

Berry, Julie. (2013). All the Truth That's in Me. New York, NY: Viking Juvenile. ISBN: 978-0-670-78615-2.

The citizens of Roswell Station are quite puritanical, dealing swiftly and severely with those who break the town's rules or deviate from the norm. When she is 14, Judith and her best friend, Lottie, disappear from town. Lottie's body floats down the river, while Judith doesn't return for two years. Judith's cut tongue makes it hard for her to communicate, and the villagers shun her because of what they assume happened while she was away. Because her mother fears what others will make of her, Judith remains mute, rarely speaking. Only when the village is threatened by outsiders does she enlist the help of her kidnapper. Thanks to an unexpected friend in Maria, she begins trying to speak and even decides to attend school. Ever since she was a child, Judith has loved Lucas, a handsome local boy. But he pays little attention to her, while she yearns for his attentions. Even Judith's mother shuts the door against her daughter when Judith most needs her help. Were it not for the horse and cow in the barn, her brother, and Maria, her lot would be, indeed, loveless. Her interest in Lucas is palpable, especially since the entire book is addressed to him through the author's use of second person. This title brings to mind The Scarlet Letter and Speak, while reminding teen readers of the power of finding and using one's voice, especially in righting a wrong. Judith's story of redemption is powerfully told.

Black, Holly. (2013). The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. New York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 978-0-316-21310-3.

This original and intriguing novel explores a future world in which vampires and those who may be infected by vampires live inside the walls of Coldtowns, alongside regular citizens who are trapped there. So fascinated are outsiders by these exotic places that the goings-on in those towns are broadcast to outsiders, contributing a hint of realism for the fantastic story. Teenage Tana awakens after a party to find that all the guests except her former boyfriend Aidan and a young vampire named Gavriel are dead. Since Aidan has been attacked by a vampire and Tana fears that she too has been contaminated, they head for the nearest Coldtown, where they hope to find sanctuary. During several twists, turns, and surprises along the way, readers will be as helplessly enthralled by Black's prose as they are by the most innocent victim who might be lured by the charms of Lucien, the vampire who created Gavriel. Tana is an imperfect heroine, making costly mistakes but redeemed by her loyalty to her friends and her knowledge that everyone longs for those most human of all needs: acceptance, love, and compassion. Teen readers will be pleased that the book contains references to a well known short story about choices, "The Lady or the Tiger," a narrative which explores the bestial nature hidden within us all.

Gansworth, Eric. (2013). If I Ever Get Out of Here. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books (imprint of Scholastic). ISBN: 978-0-545-41730-3.

Because of his academic potential, Lewis Blake, who lives on the Tuscarora Reservation, is placed in advanced classes in his new junior high, where he is ignored or scorned by his classmates because of their prejudices about reservation residents. When new student George Haddonfield, the son of an Air Force officer, tries to befriend Lewis, the other white students try to discourage their friendship. As Lewis wavers between his mistrust for George and his longing for a friend, they spend time together, bonding over their love for music—in particular, the Beatles. Each of the chapter titles is a Beatles song or a Paul McCartney song associated with the musician's time after the Beatles. The book's title perfectly evokes the ineffable longing felt by those who dream of transcending their current situation. The clash between that longing for more and the prevalent need to stay close to the familiar is beautifully described in this book. The author explores many significant themes and questions through his characters: an individual's cultural identity; the assumptions we make about others; the secret selves we reveal to no one; the relentlessness of bullies and the school system's inability to see them as they are; the soul-numbing poverty that makes life's little extras impossible for some; and the risks involved in becoming someone's friend and accepting him on his own terms.

Reed, MK, & Means, Greg. (2013). The Cute Girl Network. Illus. by Joe Flood. New York, NY: Macmillan/First Second. ISBN: 978-1-596-43751-7.

When Jane moves to Brookport, she eagerly soaks up the flavors and experiences of her new home. She meets Jack near the soup truck where he works. The attraction is mutual, and they begin to spend as much time as possible with each other. As a skateboarder, Jane often encounters sexist attitudes at work and when she's on her board. Jack is not exactly filled with lofty ambitions and has had more than one unsuccessful relationship. When it turns out that Jack once dated one of Jane's new roommates, another roomie suggests that she check out the opinions of the local Cute Girl Network, a group of women who share the dirt about their former lovers to warn other women that these men are not desirable as potential love interests. Despite the negative information she hears about Jack, Jane is convinced that she is strong enough to deal with whatever comes her way. She decides that she likes Jack despite his flaws. After all, she too has plenty of skeletons in her relationship closet. Not only is the story itself delightful, but the artwork in this graphic novel contains all sorts of hidden treasures, such as the message on the needlework being completed by Rose, one of Jack's roommates.

Rowell, Rainbow. (2013). Eleanor and Park. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press/Macmillan. ISBN: 978-1-250-01257-9.

Despite its odd ending, readers will fall in love with both of this book's main characters and the author's pitch-perfect cultural and musical references from 1986 sprinkled liberally throughout. While it's clearly a love story, exploring a first love that seems to be so special and thus never really leaves one's memory, it's so much more than that. The author's decision to alternate the story between Eleanor and Park allows readers to watch the two of them falling in love and struggling with the challenges of being together as well as dealing with their own individual family dynamics. Also their separate ruminations reveal their own deep insecurities and fears, often hidden from others. Dealing with his biracial cultural identity, Park rebels in quiet ways through his musical choices, his wearing of eyeliner, and his refusal to use a stick shift when driving. Eleanor's life is a bit more challenging. Along with her younger siblings and her mother, she barely survives the iron-fisted rule of her stepfather, Richie, and she suffers from the cruelty of her classmates, who take advantage of their physical education class to humiliate her. The taunting nickname of "Big Red," shouted at Eleanor as the school bus riders cheer for the Cornhuskers, shows how impossible it is for her to fade into the background and remain unnoticed. While both Eleanor and Park are misfits in their own ways, they find a way to fit with each other, at least briefly. As the book draws to a close, many of Eleanor's reasons for behaving as she does are revealed, and they are heartbreaking. This book provides plenty of opportunities for discussion about relationships and family dynamics, as well as the difficulty of mending something that has been broken into so many pieces.

Sonnenblick, Jordan. (2013). Are You Experienced? New York, NY: Macmillan/Feiwel and Friends. ISBN: 978-1-250-02564-7.

Fifteen-year-old Rich Barber chafes from his parents' over-protectiveness. His performance at a protest rally sparks an argument that leads him to willfully play a chord on his father's prized guitar, which was signed by Jimi Hendrix. Rich's spirit and body assume another form, Gabriel, and he goes back in time to the three days of the Woodstock Festival in 1969. He joins a group which includes his father (at age 15) and his uncle Mike (at age 18). The book alternates between the two time periods, particularly effective in describing the protagonist and his new friends' reaction to the music being played and the large crowds attracted by the festival. Gabriel (Rich) is determined to prevent the heroin overdose that he knows will kill his uncle Mike a couple of months after the festival. While the author paints several scenes of hope and joy experienced at Woodstock, he also describes the abundance of drugs and free love along with the muddiness of the fields. Readers will feel as though they too are time travelers, visiting a place and time almost five decades in the past.

Swanson, James L. (2013). "The President Has Been Shot!" The Assassination of John F. Kennedy. New York, NY: Scholastic. ISBN: 978-0-545-49007-8.

Although this book, intended for teens, doesn't include anything new or startling about the JFK assassination, the author is dedicated to telling as much of the story as he possibly can for a younger audience. By introducing first Kennedy and then his assassin, with interesting details about their earlier and later years, the author humanizes both men. In this treatment, Lee Harvey Oswald still remains something of an enigma, and readers will be able to follow his movements in the days before the assassination and wonder about his motives and the consequences of his actions. The author's skillful attention to detail includes descriptions of what happened after the president had been shot, including the actions of Secret Service agents; surgeons; the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson; and Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline, who refused to remove her blood-soaked clothing so that the world could see the results of the assassin's bullet. The account keeps readers engaged and leaves them breathless, and it also prompts reflection about what might have happened had JFK not died. Along with several photographs, the book provides additional references for interested readers. This book is just as compelling in its own way as Chasing Lincoln's Killer (2009), the author's previous work.

Thompson, Holly. (2013). The Language Inside. New York, NY: Random House/Delacorte. ISBN: 978-0-385-73979-5.

Tenth grader Emma Karas loves her Japanese home and struggles when her family relocates temporarily to Lowell, Massachusetts because of her mother's breast cancer. Emma desperately misses everything about Japan—her friends, the language, the food, her school. As she experiences stress-related migraines, she looks for ways to fit in and to keep herself busy. When she volunteers at a long-term care center, she bonds with a boy named Samnang, who spends much of his time working with Cambodian refugees, and with Zena, a woman whose physical limitations caused by a stroke don't prevent her from enjoying life and crafting poetry. Emma enjoys writing poems and sharing stories with Zena, although Zena relies on a letter board and computer program to help her speak. This novel in verse contains several lovely poems created by the two of them, as well as references to many classic poems worth finding and reading. Emma eventually faces the question of whether to stay in the U.S. or return to Japan. This is not an unusual decision, but it is packaged in an appealing format with interesting, complex characters who remind readers of the universal need to belong somewhere. Anyone who has lived for a time in a country where his/her native language is not spoken will identify with Emma's linguistic disorientation and her conviction that her true feelings are expressed in the language she keeps inside her. Emma's physical and psychological journeys are described beautifully. Although part of her reason for staying has to do with her budding romance, readers will be pleased that she has many other reasons to do so, which include providing support for the Tohoku residents who lost so much during the tsunami.

Whitman, Sylvia. (2013). The Milk of Birds. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster/Atheneum Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 978-1-442-44682-3.

The power of written words, notably the connections they enable individuals to form, even when the words must be translated from one language to another, emerges in this remarkable book told from alternating points of view. Fourteen-year-old Nawra lives in a refugee camp in Darfur, Sudan, after fleeing from terrorists with her mother. An organization called Save the Girls brings food and hope to the refugee camp and pairs a small number of girls with sponsors from the United States. Nawra is paired with K.C., an American teen who is struggling with her parents' divorce and her own poor grades. K.C. hates school and avoids writing anything; although her mother continues to donate money each month for Nawra's use, the self-absorbed K.C. is uninterested in writing to Nawra. However, Nawra pours her heart out in her letters, offering thanks for the financial gifts that ease her situation slightly. Only when the charitable organization follows up to find out why no letters are coming from K.C. does she finally respond to Nawra. As Nawra reveals the horrors that she has endured, including rape and pregnancy, K.C. is inspired to face her own challenges and comes to care about the other teen so deeply that she considers her to be a sister. The journeys of both girls are, by turns, inspiring and heart-breaking. Because the book is so well written and realistic, reading it may spark interest in the world outside the front doors for many teen readers, who discover changes in themselves as they look for ways to make a difference in the lives of others.

Yang, Gene Luen. (2013). Boxers and Saints. New York, NY: First Second. ISBN: 978-1-596-43924-5.

Boxers and Saints are emotionally stunning and informative graphic novels about the Boxer Rebellion in China, available as a boxed set. Boxers begins in the Northern Shan-tung Chinese Province in 1894 before moving four and then five years later. Upset after witnessing two pivotal events concerning foreigners, Little Bao becomes angry enough to form a group called the Big Sword Society. Their goal is to push back against the foreigners who seem determined to overrun their country and replace their traditional beliefs with Christianity. Bao has good intentions, and he finds a way to harness the power of Chinese ancestors. But while others flock to join his forces, including Mei-wen, a woman whose mother was killed by some disreputable Chinese Christians, Bao finds little room for compassion. In one especially compelling scene, he orders his followers to burn the sanctuary where several Christians, white and Chinese, have sought safety, reminding himself of all the horrors of which they must have been guilty. The book's images are stunning, and its messages about intolerance, power, and cultural treasures are worth considering since ignorance and intolerance are at the root of most conflicts. When he burns the famous library in Peking, with all of its literary treasures, to get to the foreigners on the other side, Mei-wen reminds Bao that in so doing he has destroyed China's people and her stories. Like the characters in the companion volume, Saints, Bao is influenced in his choices by his visions and connections to individuals from the past.

In Saints, the author takes the other side of the Boxer Rebellion, representing Chinese Christians through the misadventures of the unwanted Four-Girl, who converts to Christianity. This volume explores cultural identity through important historical events, plumbing the depths of how events affect individuals. In 1989 China, readers become acquainted with Four-Girl, whose name indicates her family's bad fortune; her grandfather refuses to even name her. Four-Girl seeks friendship in the nearby woods, and when her grandfather dies, she is convinced that she has killed him. She is initially drawn to Christianity because she thinks it will make her seem more evil. But her new religion brings her friendship and a new name, Vibiana, and she leaves her village. While she finds some measure of happiness in her new home, the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist is not far behind, and they murder the Christians. Vibiana is an appealing character because of her reactions throughout the book. The book's provocative material will appeal to readers' minds and emotions. The fine line between sinners and saints is pervasive in both volumes.  

Barbara A. Ward taught in the New Orleans public schools for 25 years, working with all grades, kindergarten through high school. She is currently a clinical associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Washington State University, where she teaches literacy courses for both graduate and undergraduate students, including instruction, assessment, and psychological foundations.  She is also president of the Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group of the International Reading Association.