How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
In this novel, a young woman whose darkness has been a long time coming connects with a once happy family that has recently experienced the sudden and devastating death of the father. The widow has invited the pregnant un-wed 18 year-old into her home with the intent of adopting the baby when it is born. Her daughter, in her last year of high school, thinks her mother has lost it. All three are so busy trying to save themselves from their own grief that almost no communication takes place. Aptly named, this story follows to resolution the dictum, “The life you save may be your own.”
Told in alternating perspectives of the two teen girls—Mandy and Jill—both the main and the supporting characters gradually emerge as complex and appealing individuals. Mandy negotiates with herself as she tries to both ditch her unfortunate childhood and to make better decisions for the new life she will bring into the world. Jill uses hostility as best she can to shut out others in her quest to numb the loss of her father. They are as different as two teens can be; their only common ground is the mother’s generosity and sorrow that holds them in an embrace. The magic of this story is how the author slowly brings them together to resolve the underlying and yet most gripping conflict in the plot, which is the question of the quality of life that awaits the new baby.
Zarr’s books, while clearly targeted to the teen girl audience, also fit well into the category of “If it’s good enough for a teen to read, it’s also good enough for an adult to read.” In fact this is a great book for mother and daughter to share.
Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt
In Schmidt’s latest novel for middle school readers, eighth-grader Doug Swieteck has many cards stacked against him. He’s got a mean older brother and a liability for a father. He’s just moved to a new school. He can’t read. He gets in fights. The principal is after him. The coach hates him. He doesn’t have a decent coat or a warm pair of shoes. His mother is sad and long-suffering.
Yet the satisfaction in this story comes not from the bad guys getting their due. Instead, the satisfaction is much deeper and broader—it comes from the reassurance that the inner self is always and truly free. In Doug’s story, this deliverance is aided by the kindness of strangers and by the gift of fine art. In author Gary Schmidt’s capable hands, its light shines right out of the pages of the book, making every day look like a fresh new spring day.
The fine art in this story is a book of John James Audubon’s Birds of America that Doug finds in the local library. Each chapter in Okay for Now is faced with a different plate from this book, and in each chapter, Doug uses that plate to further understand his world—this bird was falling and there wasn’t a single thing in the world that cared at all (the Arctic Tern) and that’s what the picture was about: meeting, even though you might be headed in different directions (The Forked-Tailed Petrel). A librarian—one of the kind strangers in this book—sees Doug’s interest in this book and encourages him to make his own drawings of the plates. The librarian’s critical analysis of these plates and the part they play in Doug’s story make a good reading experience into a sublime one.
I highly recommend this wonderful book for middle school kids of both genders and for adults who like a good story.
Whatever Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen
Sarah Dessen is an author who aspires to express what her readers are feeling. She writes to an audience of teenage girls about the challenges of maintaining equilibrium in the face of adversity. The appeal of her books lies in the first person narrative voice of genuine and likable characters who work through their own reactions to difficult events in their lives. While she does not shrink from difficult subjects, neither does she indulge in shock value. Her steadfast message is one of the value of being real, forgiving, and true. This, and her natural writing style, make her books suitable and of interest to girls as young as middle school and enjoyable reading for their parents as well.
In this book, Dessen’s latest and seventh novel for young adults, seventeen-year-old Mclean tells the story of her reaction to her parents scandalous divorce. She struggles with a loss of identity, resentment, and disorientation. After several moves with her dad, a consultant for a restaurant chain, she lands in a town where the people she encounters begin to help her bring her life back into focus, if not to stability. For Dessen fans, it is another visit to her emotionally satisfying fiction; for those new to her writing, probably the first of many.
Half a Life by Darin Strauss
“Half my life ago, I killed a girl.” begins this memoir. Having just turned eighteen (the age when your identity is still up for grabs, in the author’s words), Strauss accidentally hit a girl riding a bike and killed her. He was forever changed.
With incisive honesty, Strauss lays bare in this memoir what he spent half a lifetime being unable to dredge up into the light. He takes readers along on this journey into the inner-most workings of his own experience, to the lonely place where the person in the throes of trauma exists. Without sentimentality, he simply nails the precise truth of the effect an unfortunate few seconds had on him.
Though not written for teens, Half a Life is a book that will interest them for it is ultimately about them and who they will become. In fact, I wish there were more books like it because it offers so much for the teen reader: life-enhancing information and superb writing that is at once demanding and entertaining. Though it reads more like a long essay than a novel, this short book is nevertheless a page-turner, albeit one that benefits from frequent reflective pauses. Teens of both genders who like getting deep into the lives of others and who like a mental challenge should really enjoy this book.
Freefall by Mindi Scott
This is a story about a sixteen-year old boy who makes the choice to step back from the slippery edge of heavy drinking and shallow romance that took the life of his best friend. He does this largely with the strength of his own inner voice and aided by what he learns in a class in communication and by the good fortune to encounter true love.
Seth is a protagonist who is easy to like. Even at his darkest moments, he maintains an open mind, he is kind to his friends, and he directs his thoughts toward the light. The reader feels comfortable following him through the turbulence of his high school life because he is such a good guy. Even though the reader feels confident that Seth will continue to move in a better direction, author Mindi Scott manages to maintain a delicate but steady tension that keeps the pages turning.
Content and themes in this book are appropriate for high school readers and I think boys and girls alike will enjoy this book. They will recognize the high school life it depicts and they will gain from its positive message. Mature middle school readers will also enjoy this book–drinking and sex are gracefully handled.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow
High school kids often find themselves struggling with parts of their life that 1) they don’t fully understand or even know that much about, and 2) affects how they embrace aspects of growing up, sometimes in confusing or harmful ways. The Girl Who Fell From the Sky tells the story of just such a high school girl. Besides also being a very readable and well-told tale, this makes it a valueable story for high school girls who wrestle with their own ghostly demons. As many of my students have told me, reading how others handle life situations helps them in handling their own.
That said, this is a mature tale, most suitable for the older teen reader, girls primarily, but thoughtful boys will like it also. It is told from perspectives alternating between several of the central characters. The plot centers on the girl who physically survives her mother’s murder/suicide jump from the roof of a building and who, understandably, is bumped around for years by the emotional damage. Yes, it is a harsh, tragic story, but amidst the lost, broken souls there are angel spirits who make all the difference.
Ball Don’t Lie by Matt de la Peña
A kid sits at a bus stop with his hood pulled up and headphones on. No one is looking at him. This moment inspired de la Peña to write his first book; this moment is the turning point in the highly successful book he wrote. He makes his reader look at this kid for three hundred pages that are more like a series of waves approaching a beach than a linear or even a woven plot. The kid on the bench is about to make a move that will break open his cornered life.
Matt de la Peña writes from what he knows: basketball as a kind of tether leading out of the mean streets. He creates a kid who goes by the name of “Sticky,” a name his mother gave him because of all the past-due-date Hostess Twinkies he ate as a little kid. When his mother overdoses, he spends the rest of his childhood in and out of foster homes. He has nothing, but is very good at basketball. The book is a buidup of all that has gone wrong, of all the miscues he has gotten in his life, of all the treacherous pitfalls looming around him, all rushing toward an opening that may or may not shut before he gets to it–the basketball scholarship and a real life.
When the author first presented this book to agents, they suggested he cut some of the cussing and sex and release it as a young adult novel. This excellent book will appeal to teens, certainly boys and basketball enthusiasts, but the complexity of the plot and the subtlety of the character development will be a challenge to all but experienced readers.