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.
Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly
Jennifer Donnelly has written a book in an authentic teen voice in the tradition of Holden Caulfield that is highly educational, both about music and about the French Revolution. The narrator is a teen girl in her last year at a prestigious New York prep school. She has recently suffered a family tragedy and is tormented by what she views as her responsibility for that tragedy. Her often absent father whisks her away to Paris, thinking it would be good for her to get away.
In Paris, Andi discovers an old diary hidden in a secret compartment in a centuries-old guitar case. She has in her hands the guitar and the diary of another teen girl who lived during the French Revolution. Though all Andi can think of is leaving Paris and her father, as she slowly reads this diary she gets drawn further and further into the life of Alexandrine, her eighteenth century counterpart, until she is, in fact, there on the streets of revolutionary Paris. Even for readers new to the story of the French Revolution, Donnelly’s account is thorough and illuminating.
The second major theme of this story is music, specifically, the tradition of music that passes from the earliest classic composers all the way down through modern rap music. Andi is a serious musician; in fact, her music is all that keeps her together for most of the novel. Her musings on styles and compositions throughout this story should be of great interest to any teen interested in music.
Teens of both genders, both young and old, will like this book. It is history, it is music, and it is the pursuit of personal strength in the face of the worst of odds.
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.
Crank by Ellen Hopkins
One of my students once told me that she liked the books she had been reading because they explained exactly what it was adults had been warning her about. Concerned adults can present information to young adults about things that might hurt them on their journey to adulthood and those young people may still wonder what exactly it is the adults are talking about. With a book like Crank, Ellen Hopkins’ fictionalized account of her own daughter’s descent into crank addiction, readers feel what addiction is as surely as they feel what something rotten in the stomach feels like. They will be able to recognize the monster whether it is a snake in the grass or it is rearing up its ugly head.
Hopkins’ books are all written in verse, arranged in different shapes on each page–the effect is as much a physical experience as a literary one and adds greatly to the impact. She tackles the most difficult subjects: abuse, suicide, addiction, and prostitution. Many teenage girls say that Ellen Hopkins speaks to and for them. But her books are disturbing, with an end effect of strengthening a commitment to a positive life.
Crank is followed by Glass which chronicles a further slide into addiction as the teenage girl, Bree, moves into adulthood. The third book in this series, the recently published Fallout tells the story of Bree’s children as they grow into adulthood. These are definitely books that adults would be interested in reading: for parents already close to their teenage children, these books will offer material for discussion; for parents drifting away from their maturing children, these books will inspire them to regain contact.
I Love Yous Are For White People by Lac Su
Dodging bullets to throw himself onto a boat which almost sinks in a violent storm is but the beginning of Lac Su’s harrowing life as a Viet Namese immigrant growing up in West LA. In his memoir, he does not flinch in capturing the peril of gaining asylum in an “American Heaven” that is in reality a dismal spot for a hazardous childhood in an alien culture. The result is a story that is not for those with a faint heart or a weak stomach.
Lac Su captures a story of sorrow, of longing, and of fear with grace and a quiet sense of humor. That he is now a happy family man with a PhD is a testimony to humankind’s ability to make it through the darkest days. This book will be of interest to high school kids of both genders. However, though it is not a challenging read, and a child lives through all the events portrayed, the content can only be classified as “mature.” The reader will feel compassion and horror, but will emerge the wiser.