Book Review:  The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (YA)

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Starr Carter has two lives.  She lives one with her family in Garden Heights, a mostly black neighborhood where neighbors take care of each other, small locally owned businesses provide hope, and gang violence affects everyone’s lives no matter how hard they try to avoid it.  She lives the other in her mostly white school, Williamson Prep, where she is careful to keep her speech slang-free and never gets emotional because she doesn’t want to be known as “the angry black girl.”  She has friends in each world, but they never mix, and she prefers to keep it that way.

Over spring break, Starr attends a Garden Heights party at the insistence of her friend, Kenya.  She feels out of place, a girl in a hoodie and ponytail surrounded by girls dressed in their sexiest outfits, until she sees her childhood friend Khalil.  Once best friends, Starr and Khalil had not even crossed paths in months, but they catch up quickly.  When gunshots go off at the party, Starr and Khalil leave in a hurry, taking his car home. On the way home, Khalil is pulled over for a broken taillight.  Pulled out of the car by an aggressive cop, Khalil is treated like a criminal, and when he opens the door to ask Starr if she is all right, the cop assumes Khalil is reaching for a gun and shoots him in the back, killing him.

After Khalil’s murder, Starr tries to keep a low profile, not wanting to known as the witness in her community or in her school, and she does not know how to speak about the murder to her own friends in either world. She cooperates with the police in the investigation, but quickly realizes they are not interested in investigating the cop but in investigating Khalil and Starr and finding out if Khalil had a criminal history and if either teen had been drinking that night.  Soon, Starr is no longer able to keep quiet, learning that she can only honor Khalil’s life by becoming his voice.

The Hate U Give (or THUG) is a heavily hyped book right now, and with any book that is receiving an unusual amount of attention, the first question is always, “Is it worth the hype?”  The answer for this is a definite yes. The first 100 pages don’t move as quickly as the rest, but once you are a quarter into the book, it is very difficult to put down. For me, the primary appeal was that I fell in love with the characters.  Not only has Ms. Thomas created well developed main characters, but even the supporting characters are worth rooting for, from Starr’s neighborhood friend, Kenya, to the grumpy barbershop owner, Mr. Lewis.  My favorite character may have been Starr’s father, Maverick, a wonderfully complicated man.

Another thing I appreciated about this book is that it feels universal, or at least national. We are never told exactly where Starr lives, but I think this could take place anywhere in the U.S.  The images in my head were that of my hometown of Saginaw, a heavily segregated Michigan city that is quite similar to Flint or Detroit.  I highly doubt that Ms. Thomas, a Mississippi resident, had Saginaw, Michigan in her mind when she wrote this, but it’s to her credit that you can take this story and move it into your own world and it will feel true.

THUG does not simplify the issue of police violence in black neighborhoods.  Starr’s uncle is a police officer and a colleague of the officer who killed Khalil, and Uncle Carlos is definitely a positive part of Starr’s life.  Also, Khalil has a past.  If he had been presented as 4.0 student who never got into trouble a day in this life, this novel might have been didactic with a simple message. But with Khalil presented as a good person who has not always been on the right side of the law, there are more questions that a reader has to work through.  Questions about the assumptions we make about victims of police violence, wanting to make angels or demons of them, and questions about whether a white teen with the exact same history as Khalil could have ever found himself in the same situation.

I do strongly recommend The Hate U Give, and I am going to pass this onto my stepdaughters because that is what I do with the YA novels that I love.

FCC Notice:  I bought my own copy.

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February Book Review Club:  Mosquitoland by David Arnold (YA)

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When Mary Iris Malone (Mim) learns that her mother is sick, she steals money from her stepmother and runs away from her Jackson, Mississippi home to return to her hometown of Cleveland and be with her mom.  Mim boards a Greyhound for Ohio, but her bus trip is anything but routine.   With bus accidents and encounters with poncho-wearing sexual predators and homeless teenage bullies, Mim finds herself off course and eventually road tripping with Beck, a college student on a mission, and Walt, a homeless boy with Down syndrome. There are some interesting revelations at the end of the book.  One involving Mim’s mom could be anticipated; the others are more surprising.

Mosquitoland has an escapist appeal, as a road trip book. It’s a story of finding friends in unexpected places.  Mim has struggled with friendships her entire life, but when liberated from the normal contexts of school, family, and home, she finds she can make connections with people.  Her first friend on the road is an elderly woman in sensible shoes who she initially bonds with over shoes.  However, Mim’s experiences are not all carefree.  She faces physical danger at a couple points, managing to escape bad situations with a combination of ingenuity and sheer dumb luck.

The biggest appeal of this book is definitely Mim herself.  Mim is quirky, inquisitive, sarcastic, and fiercely loyal to her mother.  We get to know her quite well between the first person narration and the letters she writes to Isabel through her journey.  While Mim is loveable, she is also a brat. She steals $880 from her working class stepmom, and she has written her own family history so her mother is a wonderful bohemian capable of no wrong and her father is the anxious killjoy.

Mental illness is an important part of Mim’s story.  We learn early on that Mim suffers from mental illness, like her Aunt Isabel, and this is the source of much of the tension between Mim and her father.  Her dad insists on medication, which Mim does not want to take, and switches her therapist when she had already bonded with her first therapist.  I appreciate that YA literature addresses mental health these days.  I went through severe depression in high school, and it was a bit like spending four years as a bat.  I would go to sleep the moment I got home and then wake hours later in the dark, disoriented, and I never felt like I was ever truly awake or interested in anything around me.  I would have appreciated a novel like this in the early nineties.

My only real critique of this book is that Mim’s love interest is far too old for her.  The relationship never gets physical, but the age difference between Mim and Beck is uncomfortable.  Overall, this is a likable, smart, and fast-paced novel, which I highly recommend.

For more  February book reviews, please visit Barrie’s blog:

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@Barrie Summy
FCC Notice:  I read a library copy, and since then, I have purchased a copy for my stepdaughter

10 YA Books to Get Teens Through the Next Four Years

In summer and early fall, I thought my stepdaughters, soon to turn 13 and 15,  would spend the bulk of their teen years with the first female U.S. president in office.  Like many, I did not think the most qualified candidate would lose to the least qualified.

This isn’t the America I want for them. I don’t want my girls to start dating in a world where sexual assault is normalized.  I don’t want their Muslim school friends to worry over the decision whether or not to wear a headscarf.  I don’t want their black friends to live in fear of police violence. I don’t want their gay friends bullied or threatened.

I am grateful both of my girls are free thinkers with no shortage of strong opinions and both have a diverse group of friends, even growing up in suburbia.  Both of them have been eager to volunteer and to give to the less fortunate.  They are both smart and ambitious and interested in the world around them.  I do not doubt they will become powerful women.  And my powerful girls need books that open up the world for them, make them think, and cultivate empathy.

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The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon.  Given current events, this book about immigration and deportation is one of the timeliest things you could give a teen reader.  Natasha’s family is family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica when she meets Daniel.  The two teens have little in common –Natasha is practical and scientific and Daniel is a poet under pressure to become a doctor– but they fall in love. The Sun is Also a Star has done well with critics, earning a 2017 Printz Honor and several other awards, and teens will love it as much as the critics

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  Junior has grown up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He is a gifted student and a good basketball player, but he is not tough in the way that is prized on the reservation.  When a teacher encourages him to go to the all-white school outside the reservation, Junior agrees with his parents’ support, but his decision is viewed as a betrayal on the reservation, even by his best friend.  At his new school, Junior is surprised when he makes friends, but he does so while living a double life, one where he disguises his poverty and his difficulty in getting to and from school each day.  Throughout one school year, Junior experiences losses, several surprise triumphs, and makes peace with his identity.

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All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.  In a routine trip to the store for chips, sixteen-year-old Rashad, a black high school student,  is mistaken for a shoplifter and becomes the victim of police brutality.  The incident is witnessed by Rashad’s white classmate, Quinn, but the cop who beat Rashad had helped to raise Quinn.  The story is told in alternating perspectives of Rashad and Quinn by two different authors.

The historical novels of Cat Winters:

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The Cure for Dreaming is the story of would-be suffragist, Olivia Meade, who wants to go to college, ride a bicycle, and vote.  Olivia’s father wants her to marry immediately after graduating high school and alarmed by his daughter’s independence. Mr. Mead hires a traveling mesmerist to hypnotize his 17-year-old daughter so she will accept the world as it is and be unable to argue, and all that Olivia will be able to say when she is angry is, “All is well.”  It works, but the mesmerist also gives Olivia the ability to see people as they truly are as a protection in her newly fragile state.

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The Steep and Thorny Way is a loose retelling of Hamlet, set in 1920’s Oregon.  Sixteen-year-old, Hanalee Denney learns that Joe, who was convicted of killing Hanalee’s father in a drunk driving accident,  is out of prison and back in her hometown of Elston, Oregon.  When she consents to meet with Joe, he tells her that her father’s only injury from the accident had been a broken leg, and he had not been in any danger until he was under the care of the town doctor, who is also Hanalee’s new stepfather.  Hanalee, who is the daughter of a white mother and black father, begins investigating the local rumor that her father is a ghost wandering the country road and she also begins to investigate her new stepfather to see if he might be a murderer and a member of the local Klan.

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Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.  Speak is, to the best of my knowledge, the first YA novel to deal with the issue of rape in depth.  Now many YA novels focus on rape and consent including Maria Padian’s Wrecked and Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It, but Speak broke the ground for the others.  Ninth grader, Melinda Sordino, begins high school as the most unpopular girl in the school.  She called the cops at a party over the summer and even her closest friends have abandoned her as a result.  She is unable to speak about what happened to her at the party, or even think about it, and over time she finds herself unable to speak at all.  It is not under Melinda realizes that she is not alone in her experience that she is able to speak up for herself.

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I’ll Give You the Sun
by Jandy Nelson.  Noah and Jude are twins with extremely different personalities. At thirteen, introverted Noah looks to his art to save him and develops a crush on a neighbor boy, while Jude’s priority is on her social life and adventurous hobbies such as cliff-diving. At sixteen, the relationship between the twins has been destroyed, and Jude is now the anti-social twin. Noah is outwardly the more successful twin, but beyond the surface, he isn’t doing any better than Jude and is more firmly wedged in his closet than he was at thirteen. The novel alternates chapters narrated by Noah at thirteen with chapters narrated by Jude at sixteen.

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None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio.  Kristin Lattimer is eighteen when she learns that she is intersex.  Kristin never got her first period in spite of being in her late teens, but it never occurred to her that this might be unusual since she assumed her athleticism delayed it.  When she loses her virginity, it is unusually painful, and she goes to the doctor and finds her reproductive system is not entirely female.  As Kristin struggles with her gender identity, news of her diagnosis spreads through her school and Kristin, who was the homecoming queen, becomes the most bullied student.

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Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky.  This nonfiction option is not written specifically with teens in mind, being more of an all-ages coffee table book, but it is ideal for girls aged 12-17 who are thinking about college and future careers.  This book provides short bios and illustrations for fifty women, both famous and lesser known, in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

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Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen.  This one just came out, so I have not yet read it, but it certainly seems timely.  Here is the description from Amazon:

“Forty-four writers, dancers, actors, and artists contribute essays, lists, poems, comics, and illustrations about everything from body positivity to romance to gender identity to intersectionality to the greatest girl friendships in fiction. Together, they share diverse perspectives on and insights into what feminism means and what it looks like. Come on in, turn the pages, and be inspired to find your own path to feminism by the awesome individuals in Here We Are.”

FCC notice:  I have not received any free copies of any of the books listed.  I have either purchased my own copy or read library copies.

Additional reading:  

10 Diverse Reads by YA Authors of Color (Teen Vogue)
#BlackLivesMatter Reading List for Teens (School Library Journal)
Where to find diverse books (We Need Diverse Books)