The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff
Mackie should not have lived long enough to become a teen. Most replacements–put into cribs when babies are taken for sacrifice– die fairly soon and are buried in the unconsecrated part of the cemetery. But Mackie’s sister and parents loved him anyway and unconditionally (not hard to imagine why most families wouldn’t) and he has loved them back. Now, however, his allergies to blood, iron, and church are wearing him down and he has to make contact with his own kind in the dark, damp tunnels to gain time.
With this contact, he soon comes up with an idea to stop the sacrifice of babies—to change the deeply troubled way things have always been for something better. This is today’s version of the common story of humankind’s vulnerability to evil: through unconditional love, the dark and scary can produce a hero who is willing to do anything to save us all.
This pleasing note of optimism comes from a novel that can only be classified a gothic horror thriller laced as it is with blood, cruelty, and decrepitude. From a novel about the saddest aspects of human life—loss and frailty—comes a novel about the best aspects of human life—genuine, deep caring for more than ourselves.
Both teen genders will like this book. It is well-told, the characters gain our sympathies, and there is more to it than scariness.
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.
Star Crossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce
This is Elizabeth Bunce’s second novel and the first in a new series. I loved her first book, A Curse Dark As Gold, an intriguing interpretation of the Rumplestiltskin folktale, and I eagerly looked forward to her next book. A genre, fantasy series, usually less favored by me, Star Crossed nevertheless delivers on many of the same levels: a strong, resourceful, true-hearted heroine; a diverse cast of interesting characters; vivid description; and the entertainment of life’s deeper questions.
Set in a fantasy world that atmospherically parallels eastern Europe in the late middle ages, this tale is narrated by a girl who has had to make her way into a hostile world at a very young age. She is on a singular mission—to stay alive. She becomes a very good thief, forger, and spy. But a near brush with death from a failed caper at the beginning of the story propels her into a mountain castle. Here she will sit out a snowbound winter with a cast of characters at the center of a budding rebellion.
Celyn, as she calls herself, is afraid of nothing. She uses her talents to find out everything there is to know about the castle and its inhabitants, slowly flushing all mysteries into the light. The reader comes along on her journey, flinching at her every daring move, as each of the characters slowly but inevitably reveals the clarity of their position in the central conflict.
Celyn is tough, resilient, and clever; she knows and protects good whenever she sees it. Readers of all ages who have enjoyed the Bloody Jack books will also like this book. The plot is tightly wovern and requires the reader to pay attention and work things out, but there is nothing inappropriate for the youngest of accomplished 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.
Slam! by Walter Dean Myers
On the basketball court, a player has a clear objective and several people who are seriously in the way. In a young person’s life, there is the goal of reaching adulthood with style and what can seem like shark-infested waters in the way. For Greg, who likes to be known as Slam for his finesse on the basketball court, the obstructions on the court are no threat to his confidence. Off the court is another story. As he makes his way through one successful basketball season, he struggles to transfer some of his basketball skill to his life.
Told solely through Slam’s voice, this story also reveals what goes on inside the head of an African-American youth growing up the inner city, where drive-by shootings are commonplace and drug-dealing is a prevalent career choice. Yet his only real obstacle to realizing his dreams is himself. Slam has grit and heart and a family that he values; if he overcomes his sensitivity to what he sees as disrespect, he will have a clear shot at his dreams.
As a story with a lot of basketball action, this book will mostly be enjoyed by kids in upper middle and high school, boys and girls, who like to play basketball. But the basketball should not be a reason to avoid this book. It is a great story of tackling growing up with both mind and heart.
Night Hoops by Carl Deuker
One of my students said about books by Carl Deuker, “I like it when sports books have something else going on.” The pages of this book are filled with basketball. But the story is about focus, compassion, and an open mind, and it keeps up as fast a pace as the action on the court.
A sophomore, Nick is obsessed with basketball–everything in his life revolves around it. But he also realizes that if he is going to be a star player on a winning team, the rest of his life has to work well. He has to keep up his grades, he has to understand his family, he has to respect his teammates, and he has to trust his intuition. As much as he pushes himself to be a star athlete, he also has to push himself to mature as a human being.
Anyone who likes to play basketball or even to watch it will enjoy this book, boys and girls, from middle through high school, or even younger for advanced readers. As a good sports book, it is an affirmation of the winning combination of ambition and wisdom.