Kindness for Weakness by Shawn Goodman

Desperate to earn his older brother, Louis’, attention, fifteen-year-old James enlists in Louis’ drug dealing business. However, when James is caught by police and Louis leaves him to fend for himself, James finds himself the small, scrawny kid locked up in “juvie”. Desiring only to do his time and get out, James must find a way to survive amidst a sea of pre-eighteen-year-old “gangbangers”, and learns the true meaning of self-respect and loyalty.

I think the saddest thing about this book is that it’s so real. Goodman, in the author’s note, even apologizes for how sad the book is. However, its sadness is also reality. If you’re curious at all about the juvenile criminal justice system, this is the book for you. The characters are strikingly real, and the situations even more so. I especially liked that Goodman doesn’t make the novel too preachy — it’s not a “scared straight” book. This is just James’ attempt to find himself in an incredibly hostile environment, after he’s been lost for years. I have to warn you though — it’s heavy.

Aside from the sadness, I feel like something just fell flat with Goodman’s plot. James’ story is an important one, and he’s an easy character to relate to, but there was just something missing. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a good book. Just not a great one. Still worth a try, though! You might love it!

Rating: 3/5

*YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults

*TAYSHAS Reading List, 2014

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

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Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Cover

Told in screenplay format, Myers depicts the trial of Steve Harmon, a sixteen-year-old accused of second-degree murder. According to prosecutors, Steve acted as lookout during a drug store hold-up, during which the owner of the drugstore was killed. With the help of his defense attorney, Steve must separate himself from the other accused participants in the crime or face a possible death sentence.

So, this book is a little older (published 1999), but it’s still great. Its screenplay format is extremely interesting and provides excellent opportunities for read-alouds and even reader’s theater (the format also makes for a great quick read if that’s what you’re looking for). Though published 15 years ago, Steve’s story is extremely relevant. I would recommend pairing this book with some research about what happened to Oscar Grant at Fruitvale Station, and also the recent case of the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Myers’ work is all about racial stereotypes, so it would be interesting to see how much has (or hasn’t) changed in the past decade (and a half).

Aside from the social commentary, Monster is an all-around entertaining read. Steve Harmon is arguably an unreliable narrator, and he keeps you guessing throughout the whole book. The screenplay is paired with entries from Steve’s diary, which adds a powerful touch to the court proceedings. In all, this is a great book if you’re at all interesting in the justice system, or if you like criminal dramas. Give it a read!

Rating: 4/5

*Printz Award Winner, 2000

*National Book Award Nominee, 1999

*Coretta Scott King Honor Book, 2000
For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

 

Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

 

After his mother forces him to befriend a now terminally ill childhood acquaintance, Rachel, Greg Gaines’ chameleon-like strategy of skating through high school is brought to an end. Through Greg’s relationship with Rachel, his secret film-making hobby is brought to light, and he is talked into attempting to make a movie for “the dying girl”. Thrust into the limelight and faced with a friendship he has no idea how to handle, Greg must confront his inner feelings and stop running from a life he tried so hard to ignore – his own.

If books about leukemia can be funny, this one is it. Of course, the disease is not funny at all, and it’s tough to watch Rachel dealing with her battle. However, Rachel is not the character telling the story. Greg is, and he’s hilarious. Sometimes his humor can get pretty nasty — to some that’s a drawback, but I always found it entertaining. That said, sometimes his self-deprecating humor (like the way he tells you to stop reading his book over and over) becomes over-used and annoying. Also, I walked away from this book wondering what Greg really learned. Not that every book needs to have some kind of life lesson, but I wanted to see Greg actually face something. It kind of fell flat. Overall, though, a good book that I feel looks at what it really means to have a terminal disease, and the impact of the experience on everyone that person touches.

Rating: 3/5

*YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2013

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

 

Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brogsol

Obsessed with trying to look and act like a “regular” American girl, Russian immigrant, Anya, struggles to outrun her cultural heritage. After she inadvertently becomes attached to the ghost of a supposedly murdered girl, Anya uses her new companion to become more like a “typical” teenager. However, as the ghost’s mystery unfolds, Anya learns that surface beauty may not be as glamorous as she thought, and must fight back against her own demons.

If you’re not a fan of “superhero” comic books, this is a graphic novel for you! Anya is a typical high school girl, just trying to fit into a world where only the thin and beautiful survive. The supernatural element to the novel adds suspense and mystery, and you won’t want to put the book down until you find out what’s really going on. Above all, Anya’s is a story of finding yourself and being ok with who you really are. 

*YALSA Top Ten Graphic Novels, 2012

Rating: 4/5

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Set in dystopian America, when separation of church and state has been abolished, Jordan’s novel follows Hannah Payne. Hannah, after an affair with a high-ranking church official, becomes pregnant and decides to have an abortion. In current society, abortion is murder, and, after she is caught, Hannah is melachromed so that her skin remains an unyielding red. In many ways a tribute to Hawthorne’s Scarlett Letter, Jordan’s novel tackles difficult and important social issues, such as women’s reproductive rights, religious fanaticism, and humane criminal punishment.

I have to say that I am a fan of the story of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, but not necessarily its execution. Jordan’s novel is the best of both worlds. It features Hannah Payne (Hester Prynne?) as a confused young woman faced with an unplanned pregnancy. However, instead of having her illegitimate child, Hannah terminates the pregnancy and refuses to reveal the father of the child. In the hyper-religious society Jordan creates, Hannah is ostracized, abandoned and shamed, much as Hester is in Hawthorne’s work. Jordan’s novel adds a sci-fy twist to the traditional story, full of unexpected turns and interesting plot developments. That said, I felt the suspense in the novel fell somewhat short of what I expected. It’s still a great read — something’s just missing. However, the book provides MUCH room for discussion, as I don’t feel Jordan’s world is all that impossible to imagine as reality.

*Booklist Editor’s Choice, 2011

Rating: 4/5

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

Counting by 7’s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

After the unthinkable happens, Willow must attempt to make sense of her shattered world. Willow’s remarkable intelligence sets her apart from kids her age, and she struggles to fit in. However, with the help of Mai, an older high-school student, Willow finds temporary safe haven. Sloan laces Willow’s story with that of almost everyone she touches – from Mai’s brother and single mother, to school counselor, Dell, to even Willow’s cab driver — creating a rich, engaging novel nearly impossible to put down.

By far, this was the best book I’ve read all year! At first, Sloan’s writing seems disjointed and it’s a little hard to see how all the stories fit together. Once things get going, however, everything flows perfectly and you won’t want to stop reading. Willow’s serious outlook on life often results in hilarious observations, and you feel connected to her from the start. The other characters are believable and flawed — a very realistic representation of “normal” people. Though the book is on the longer side, you will keep reading out of curiosity — what will happen to Willow in the end? The ending is powerful, tying all ends together perfectly and leaving readers with an unshakable sense of hope. 

Rating: 5/5

*Bluebonnet Nominee, 2014-2015

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson

Though from starkly different backgrounds, Jeremiah and Ellie experience an instant connection which soon progresses to love. While the two share deep feelings for each other, they have difficulty dealing with the world’s judgment of their interracial romance, and must rise above the hatred around them. Using excellent dialogue and smooth, poetic prose, Woodson’s novel touches on themes such as racism, stereotypes, and heartbreak.

If you’re a romance lover, this one’s for you. Though heavy at times, Woodson story features the best of teenage romance, with great dialogue and believable characters. While you may have trouble relating to parts of Miah’s or Ellie’s life (both are fairly wealthy kids attending prep school), you’ll have no problem understanding their feelings. I personally felt that the novel was a little short, and I would have liked more plot and character development in some areas. However, for what it is — a slice of Miah and Ellie’s life — it does extremely well. While it may be a quick read, If You Come Softly leaves much to think and talk about, especially concerning social issues.

Rating: 4/5

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.