From the Morris-Award winning author of Charm & Strange, comes a twisted and haunting tale about three teens uncovering dark secrets and even darker truths about themselves.
When nearly killing a classmate gets seventeen-year-old Sadie Su kicked out of her third boarding school in four years, she returns to her family’s California vineyard estate. Here, she’s meant to stay out of trouble. Here, she’s meant to do a lot of things. But it’s hard. She’s bored. And when Sadie’s bored, the only thing she likes is trouble.
Emerson Tate’s a poor boy living in a rich town, with his widowed mother and strange, haunted little brother. All he wants his senior year is to play basketball and make something happen with the girl of his dreams. That’s why Emerson’s not happy Sadie’s back. An old childhood friend, she knows his worst secrets. The things he longs to forget. The things she won’t ever let him.
Haunted is a good word for fifteen-year-old Miles Tate. Miles can see the future, after all. And he knows his vision of tragic violence at his school will come true, because his visions always do. That’s what he tells the new girl in town. The one who listens to him. The one who recognizes the darkness in his past.
But can Miles stop the violence? Or has the future already been written? Maybe tragedy is his destiny. Maybe it’s all of theirs. – Goodreads
Charm & Strange was one of my favorite books the year it came out. I love a good YA novel about troubled teens, especially if it includes an unreliable narrator. This book centers on three characters, Sadie, Emerson, and Miles. Sadie sounds like a bit of a sociopath, someone who hurts others because she’s bored, who gets off on making people uncomfortable, who knows just how much to say or not say. She’s a rich kid with a past, a missing father, a penchant for being kicked out of boarding schools, things like that. Emerson and his brother Miles are different. They live on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak, though Emerson has now joined the rich kids in the cool crowd due to playing basketball. Their father killed himself when they were younger, so there’s some leftover baggage from that. Miles, though, is truly different, in that he is constantly sick and believes he is having visions. These visions appear to often be accompanied by a panic attack or a seizure. Miles sees violence in his future, but is having trouble seeing it clearly. They are all connected, both by their past and their present, and you can see the disaster coming from a mile away.
Each of these kids are disconnected in some way, though Sadie is perhaps the worst. She has no real feelings other than boredom and the joy she feels when she is in control, hurting others, or getting what she wants. I’m sure there’s a reason Kuehn chose to name her protagonist something similar to “sadist.” She is hard to rile, very slow to anger, and she sees no point in most of the baser emotions that rule the lives of the average teenager. She enjoys trying to manipulate and shock her school therapist, she uses information to blackmail and control other students, and she is, in her heart and at her base, cruel. She is the kind of person who believes people are born as they are and nothing can change them, even if they are born “bad.” Sadie is the worst kind of apathetic, and we slowly discover her roots and her experiences, which only sort of explain why she is the way she is. Emerson, on the other hand, seems to be all base emotion, all pride, lust, and anger. He is afraid of Sadie and also drawn to her, running from a past full of hate and pain, and yet also seeming to want to jump back into it. Emerson does things differently than Sadie, but they’re still terrible. In fact, I liked him even less than Sadie, even though it seemed like Sadie was being set up as the villain. Miles is a bit of an enigma. He doesn’t do terrible things, isn’t a ball of anger or indifference, but he is in pain and his past is sort of shrouded in mystery. Something is there, something has happened, but we don’t know what it is. At first, I wasn’t sure Miles himself knew what it was.
This book is a heartbreak. There’s really nothing happy or fulfilling about it, but that doesn’t make it a bad read. Just a hard one, one you have to brace yourself for, even if you see it coming.
Esperanza thought she’d always live with her family on their ranch in Mexico–she’d always have fancy dresses, a beautiful home, and servants. But a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California during the Great Depression, and to settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers. Esperanza isn’t ready for the hard labor, financial struggles, or lack of acceptance she now faces. When their new life is threatened, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstances–Mama’s life, and her own, depend on it. – Goodreads
This is the final book required for my literacy class and it was one of my favorites. Esperanza Ortega is a privileged girl on her father’s ranch. She has grown up with servants and nice clothes, horses and dolls, everything handed to her. Until her father is killed. Her uncles try to force Esperanza’s mother into some things, so they flee for California, where the land of opportunity awaits. Of course, it’s not exactly what it seems either. Esperanza is privileged, like I said, and spoiled and prejudiced. She treats “peasants” with some scorn, she has never bathed herself without the help of a female servant, and she is startled when one of the field worker’s sons points out that the lighter skinned Mexicans are top tier and the rest work. She doesn’t seem to understand that her family is fleeing to California to work, not continue the life they had in Mexico. She’s bratty, but it’s almost endearing, because you know what’s coming next, and you know it will change her.
Like all the books I had to read for this class, Esperanza Rising is a coming-of-age tale. Esperanza has to leave her old life behind and become someone else, which isn’t easy when other girls call you “Cinderella” and you don’t even know how to sweep a platform. Esperanza also has to try to understand foreign terms like “strikes” and is presented with the other side of the Mexican civil war, the side of those who tried to bring men like her father down. It’s a lot of change happening at once for a thirteen-year-old girl, and I felt enormously sorry for her. But she does rise. Oh, does she rise.
When her mother is sick, Esperanza takes to the fields. She becomes one of the best workers. She transforms. She becomes a real person. She endures hardships, and loss, and sadness. She grows and doesn’t hold onto any grudge or hate. This story was inspiring and eye-opening. One of the best stories I’ve read all year.
Russ is tired of coming in second to his best friend, Garret. Whether it’s in sports, in school, or with girls, he can never get ahead. Something has to change, and when a new girl comes to town he sees his chance. He has to win her over before Garret does, but proving he’s not second best won’t be easy when Garret is a pro.
Russ will do anything to beat Garret, including using his little sister to get closer to the new girl. He has to be careful, though, because if anyone at school finds out he attends anime night (and he might even enjoy it), it would ruin his reputation, just like his secret love for cooking and James Taylor.
But pretending to be something he isn’t will catch up to him eventually, and Russ can only get away with living two lives for so long. As more than one friend reveals they aren’t who they seem, Russ must figure out what and who he really wants in his life. And more than that, he needs to find the courage to make it happen.
NATALIE WHIPPLE has always felt like a sidekick, but has never actually been one. At least not to her bestest friends. Which are the ones that matter. She lives in Utah with her husband and kids, and they spend most of their quality time playing video games together and being proud “freaks” in general.– Goodreads
Sidekick is a delightful novel that reminded me what I love about contemporary YA fiction. Sidekick may be my new favorite Whipple novel. Russ is second best. He knows that he will never be his best friend Garrett and he’s fine with that. This is the life he has in a small down outside of Fresno. But what Russ hasn’t been is honest with himself, his friends, or his family. It’s not that Russ has been living a secret life, because he hasn’t, but he has compartmentalized all of the aspects of his life.
At home, he loves his sister, her “freak” friends, and anime. At work he’s a jock with his best friend, and he could be seen has an ass. There is a part of him that loves to cook, but this is also compartmentalized and not talked about. I understood where Russ is coming from. Could his various worlds mix and get along? Could he ever be seen as first and not second best? Throughout Sidekick Russ learns things not only about his friends, but mostly about himself. Things that he honestly did not see coming and was shocked about. The growth arc throughout Sidekick blew me away because I too was surprised. Russ was surprised maybe there is more to life than being a sidekick and if you’re more than a sidekick to your good friends, isn’t that what matters?
What Whipple did was create a realistic story. I saw myself and my friends throughout this novel. I also saw a huge amount of character growth for not only Russ, but also the secondary characters. Whipple never once wasted time or characters in Sidekick everyone was part of Russ’ story from his parents (Parents! In a YA novel!) to his sister to his BFF Garrett. There is pain, there is humor, but every moment felt real and when I got to that last page I wanted more from Sidekick. I’ll miss these characters.
Inside Out and Back Again is a New York Times bestseller, a Newbery Honor Book, and a winner of the National Book Award! Inspired by the author’s childhood experience of fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama, this coming-of-age debut novel told in verse has been celebrated for its touching child’s-eye view of family and immigration.
For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food . . . and the strength of her very own family.
This moving story of one girl’s year of change, dreams, grief, and healing received four starred reviews, including one from Kirkus which proclaimed it “enlightening, poignant, and unexpectedly funny.” An author’s note explains how and why Thanhha Lai translated her personal experiences into Hà’s story. – Goodreads
This is another book for my literacy class, but I chose it myself based on the fact that it’s a Jane Addams award winner and the struggle of fitting in has always been something I could relate to. Ha, at 10, is the youngest in her family and the only girl. Her brothers, 14, 18, and 21, make fun of her, and she longs for a sister. War is ravaging Vietnam and only getting closer to Saigon. Ha’s father has been gone for nine years after being captured while on a Navy mission, and her family is preparing to flee.
They are on a boat for a few week, hungry, dirty, awaiting rescue. It finally comes, and Ha is fascinated by the bearded American soldiers. They land in Guam, where they attempt to learn English and watch Western movies. They eventually go to Florida, then are finally sponsored by a family in Alabama, which leads them to their own rented house.
Ha has a hard time in school. She can’t explain that she already understands fractions, and she doesn’t have the words to understand how the other kids are making fun of her. It’s sad and hard to read. Kids can be cruel, especially when it comes to anything even slightly different. The words escalate to pranks and even violence, but then Ha’s family meets Miss Washington, who offers to tutor them all.
This book made me cry, because this little girl feels so much frustration and loss and gets almost no reward for it. She has her moments of childish selfishness, but that’s typical, and she’s a fish out of water in Alabama, of all places. It’s another coming-of-age tale, but it’s also a tale of social justice, understanding, acceptance, and love.
Zach, Poppy and Alice have been friends for ever. They love playing with their action figure toys, imagining a magical world of adventure and heroism. But disaster strikes when, without warning, Zach’s father throws out all his toys, declaring he’s too old for them. Zach is furious, confused and embarrassed, deciding that the only way to cope is to stop playing . . . and stop being friends with Poppy and Alice. But one night the girls pay Zach a visit, and tell him about a series of mysterious occurrences. Poppy swears that she is now being haunted by a china doll – who claims that it is made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl. They must return the doll to where the girl lived, and bury it. Otherwise the three children will be cursed for eternity . . . – Goodreads
Holly Black is one of my favorite YA/MG authors ever. I’ve loved everything I’ve read of hers, from the Modern Faerie Tales to the Curse Workers to the Spiderwick Chronicles, and I’ve had this one on my list since it came out. I love how Black blends the creepy and the funny. She’s a master at that kind of thing. I mean, there’s a cat named “The Party.” Come on! So we start with Alice, Poppy, and Zach. Alice lives with her overprotective grandmother, Alice lives with her seemingly neglectful parents and wild siblings, and Zach lives with his parents, though his father has just moved back home after three years away. Each of these environments offers problems and hardships for the kids, but their friendship is strong and based on a love of make believe and play. Until Zach’s father throws away all his action figures, sending Zach into a spiral of rage and despair. He can’t think of any other way to deal with it than to stop playing with Alice and Poppy. Since Zach is only twelve, he can be forgiven these terrible coping skills. Soon, though, he’s pulled back in when something happens with the china doll they call The Queen.
The ghost of a little girl named Eleanor visits Poppy, imploring her to bury the girl’s bones, threatening her with a curse if she doesn’t. The kids decide to travel to Ohio to do so. As a mom, this would freak me the hell out. No kid of mine is traveling to another state on a bus by themselves. Of course, they don’t tell anyone where they’re going.
This book, despite being superficially about a quest and spooky dolls, is really a coming of age story. Alice is the most mature of the three and has gone through the most. She is the most aware of her feelings, actions, and intentions. Poppy is the most immature. She isn’t good with change and she’s easily angered. Zach falls somewhere in between them. These kids are learning about life and hardship and love and death. That’s what the story is about, not some doll or some ghost. Holly Black is SO GOOD at incorporating these elements into her stories, and the flow is just so smooth and normal. It feels like you’re watching it happen in real-time. This is why I love her so much and have read literally everything she’s written.
Something’s up with Garret. I know this because he sits perfectly still next to me when usually he’s in constant motion. His eyes say he’s somewhere far away from this party and all the people celebrating his winning catch. No one else will notice, but I’m his best friend. It’s kind of my job.
I elbow him. “What’s up?”
He startles, as if he honestly forgot where he was. “Nothing, man. Just tired.”
I don’t believe him, but before I can ask anything else Mercedes shows up. She glances at me and waves. “Hey, Russ, mind if I steal him for a while?”
“What if I said no?”
She laughs and sits on his lap, attaching her face to his. That would be my cue to find another seat, because the last thing I want to see up close is Garret making out with his girlfriend. It’s bad enough that I’ve had to endure so many of them over the years while never having one myself.
I grab a beer from the counter and crack it open. I don’t really like the stuff – especially when it’s cheap crap like this – but you can’t be a school athlete without at least looking like you drink. Especially after smashing your rivals at Homecoming. But nothing seems right tonight. No post-game high. Nothing. This party is like déjà vu, and I get the feeling my whole senior year will be the same. Football games, parties, girls, school. Rinse and repeat.
Out of nowhere, Garret pushes Mercedes off him and says something to her. I can’t tell what it is over the blaring music, but she gives him that I’m-trying-to-be-the-understanding-girlfriend smile. Then she hugs him, and he pulls away.
I get it now. Garret’s getting restless. It’s always the same pattern: Garret gets swarmed by girls, he picks one, dates her, gets bored, and breaks her heart. We’ve now hit the “I’m bored out of my mind” phase. I give her a week, which means I must prepare. Since I am his best friend, every single girl campaigning to be the next trophy on Garret Taylor’s arm will suddenly want to be my friend.
You couldn′t really tell about Mama′s brain just from looking at her, but it was obvious as soon as she spoke. She had a high voice, like a little girl′s, and she only knew 23 words. I know this for a fact, because we kept a list of the things Mama said tacked to the inside of the kitchen cabinet. Most of the words were common ones, like good and more and hot, but there was one word only my mother said: soof.
Although she lives an unconventional lifestyle with her mentally disabled mother and their doting neighbour, Bernadette, Heidi has a lucky streak that has a way of pointing her in the right direction. When a mysterious word in her mother′s vocabulary begins to haunt her, Heidi′s thirst for the truth leads her on a cross-country journey in search of the secrets of her past. – Goodreads
Heidi lives with her mother, a developmentally and cognitively disabled woman who can’t read, write, or tie her shoes. Their next door neighbor, Bernie, helps them out, but she is strapped for cash as well. This book immediately made me sad. It was obvious Heidi didn’t go to school or have any experiences a kid her age should. I wondered who had gotten her mother pregnant. A woman with the kinds of disabilities Heidi’s mother had can’t consent to sex. Lots of hard questions came up right off the bat. Would Heidi be better off in state care? Would her mother? I felt badly for Heidi because her world is so tiny. There is so much more that she could do and accomplish rather than hanging out all day with her agoraphobic neighbor and taking care of her mother.
Heidi decides that she needs to know more, more about herself, her mother, their lives, everything. She finds some photos in the back of her mother’s closet and gets on a Greyhound (alone) headed to Liberty, New York to find herself. She meets people along the way who teach her about the world and how her actions affect others. She learns about lying, big families, and college, and she is presented with different perspectives. This is at its heart a coming-of-age tale, and we get some hints throughout the beginning that the knowledge Heidi uncovers may not be exactly what she wants to know.
Heidi, who has always been lucky, finds her luck has abandoned her when bad storms take down the phone lines and someone steals her money. She lands in Liberty penniless and alone. This trip is not what she thought it would be, and I had a bad feeling that the things she was going to find out would not be what she wanted either. I was right.
This book is sort of alternately frustrating and heartbreaking. It’s not a story with a happy ending, exactly, even though Heidi gets her answers. You can see happiness for her on the horizon, but it still seems far away. This is a great book about the search for truth and the sacrifices you make to get it.