I’m always amazed when authors can take several different characters and tell one story through their various points of view — especially when they are so very different as the characters in this story. Here, we have five different teens who meet for the first time at their high school’s freshman orientation day and write letters to themselves to open again when they graduate. Zoe is the daughter of a famous movie star [who is in and out of rehab], and she’s afraid that people only ever want to talk to her to find out more about her mom. Jake isn’t quite sure where he stands now that he opened up about his true feelings for his [formerly?] best friend Teddy and bailed on football. Mia is so unsure of herself that she keeps trying to reinvent her persona with the hopes that she will eventually “find” a Mia she can be comfortable with. Gregor is a band geek who is hoping for “more” out of his high school experience — especially if that “more” would involve Whitney. And Whitney is the pretty/popular girl who seems to have it all while she actually feels like her life is coming apart at the seams.
We follow these characters in their journey through high school and witness how even the smallest of bonds and seemingly minor interactions can actually make a big difference in people’s lives. My only problem with this book is that it felt a little too condensed. It felt like there could have been more character development and more interaction if only there were time… I almost wish it had been stretched out into a series so we could get more details from each year. Who knows? Maybe there will be some novellas released to give readers extra background and to fill in the gaps of each school year. (A girl can dream, can’t she?!?)
Agnes and Moira are just about as opposite as two girls can be, at least as far as appearance is concerned. Agnes is tiny, frail, and pretty much looks like a little old lady [because she has a medical condition called Progeria]. Moira, on the other had, is rather big. Too big, as far as she and the school bullies are concerned. Her bigger size is definitely a benefit of their friendship, though, because she can be a bodyguard of sorts for Agnes — who might be safer if she were homeschooled but prefers to live as “normally” as possible by attending public school. Boone is a guy they both used to be friends with in elementary school, but something happened that caused the girls to stop talking to him. When fate leads them to, unexpectedly, start spending time together again, their past seriously complicates the present. Agnes appears to think Boone deserves a second chance, but Moira seems determined to keep Boone from getting too close again. Since they’re all-too-aware that Agnes has already exceeded the standard life-expectancy of a kid diagnosed with Progeria, though, Moira and Boone begrudgingly give in to Agnes’ pleas to spend more time together.
This book would be a great conversation-starter for so many topics — friendship, bullying, and body image just to name a few. I won’t lie and say that this is an easy read, because it’s clear from the start that Agnes doesn’t have long to live and that Moira and Boone already have some major issues they’re dealing with. I will say, though, that I think McInnes did a fantastic job of weaving together these characters in a story that is both believable and capable of providing some hope and direction to teens who might be handling difficult situations in their own lives.
Jill Charon can’t remember anything that happened in the past six weeks. When she first awakens from her coma, in fact, she is initially concerned that she is waking up with a terrible hangover and that her mother will find out she was drinking the night before. Imagine her shock, then, when she discovers that she is actually waking up in the ICU after a horrific car crash. Jill is worried that her parents won’t let her take her scheduled trip to Europe now that she has a broken leg, but that’s not really a concern. You see, she doesn’t need a speedy recovery to go to Europe because she already took the trip — and the car accident actually took place in Italy. To make matters worse, her parents are acting very strangely and being weirdly quiet about the accident. Why? Because her best friend died in that accident… And many people believe that Jill purposely crashed the car. Will she ever be able to recover the memories she lost? How will she be able to move on with her life if she never remembers? And what if Jill *does* start to regain her memories only to uncover something she would rather not remember?
High school graduation is often a time filled with celebration and excitement. For Jaycee, though, graduation day dredges up feelings of anxiety and depression. Why? Because her older brother, Jake, died on his own graduation day. Jaycee doesn’t know how to handle the fact that she will now, officially, be older than Jake ever was. Though his death came as the result of a daredevil stunt gone wrong, Jaycee finds comfort in emulating his behavior. Instead of seeing Jake’s death as a warning to be more careful, she finds herself repeating his stunts in an attempt to channel his spirit. Jaycee expected to take this journey alone, but she ended up with a motley crew of [former?] friends who also needed to make their peace with Jake’s death. Guided by Jake’s urban exploring journal, Jaycee followed both literally and figuratively in his footsteps and finally discovered that it’s possible to let go of grief without letting go of her loving memories.
I appreciated getting parts of the story directly from the perspectives of different characters, like Jaycee’s childhood BFF Natalie. But, more than that, I enjoyed the different storytelling techniques that were employed — like the pictures of the poems Bishop crafted in his sketches and graffiti or the graphic novel panels that told the story of Mik, who refused to speak aloud but whose actions spoke for him. McCarthy did a fabulous job of showing how the death of a loved one can alternately tear us apart and build us up stronger than before. I recommend this story to readers who enjoyed See You at Harry’s and Before You Go.
This book was a haunting read. Any book about school shootings strikes fear into my heart, being that I work with kids and have children of my own, but this one was particularly eerie. I know I’ve read books before that gave harrowing depictions of the different perspectives of characters experiencing a school shooting — like This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp. But, what makes this book stand out from the crowd is that it provides the perspectives of many different characters’ interactions with Kirby Matheson [the shooter] in the days, months, and even years leading up to the shooting. The author explores a variety of relationships people had with Kirby, effectively highlighting the many clues that were missed or ignored.
When compiled in a story such as this, it becomes rather obvious that the young man was struggling with anger and depression and that someone should have stepped in; that an intervention may have been able to prevent this tragedy. But, as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. I can only hope that readers will take this book to heart and apply the information garnered to recognize if and when the people around them are struggling with anger and depression. If we can increase the chances that people will recognize someone in need of help, we can increase our chances that we can get people the help they need before they resort to violence. For more resources, check out the CDC’s page on Injury Prevention & Control: Division of Violence Prevention.
I couldn’t believe how shocked I was when I read Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray. I mean, I had taken a world history class with “in depth” unit about WWII and didn’t really know much of anything about what Stalin had done — nor had I even heard of the [Soviet] Holodomor (roughly translated to “death by hunger”) that rivaled the well-known [German] Holocaust. After reading Between Shades of Gray, though, I felt like I had a much better grasp of WWII history… And then I read this book. How is it that there is yet another major piece of WWII history that has flown under the radar for so long?!?
Before reading Salt to the Sea, I had never even heard of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. I was stupefied to learn that OVER NINE THOUSAND people died in this tragedy. Prior to reading this book, I would have been willing to bet that the Titanic and the Lusitania were the two largest maritime tragedies of all time. Even when you combine the death tolls of those two ships, nevertheless, they only account for about a third of the losses of the Gustloff. I wish American ethnocentrism didn’t extend to history classrooms in which *world* history is being taught, but it seems pretty evident to me that the anti-Germany sentiment surrounding WWII and the lack of American passengers aboard the ship have both contributed to a lack of American attention. People from all walks of life [civilians, refugees, and soldiers] and of all ages [from babies to senior citizens] were aboard that ship. It was a tragedy of unbelievable proportions.
Thank goodness Ruta Sepetys! With her well-developed characters and gripping plots, Sepetys is providing readers with compelling stories that will also spread awareness of these previously unknown tragedies. Who knows? Maybe her books will even lead to better coverage in future history textbooks and classes. I can only hope that the multiple points of view provided by this particular story will resonate with readers and finally bring much-deserved American attention to the great number of lives that were lost in the Baltic Sea [almost exactly] 71 years ago.
Parker Grant is blind. Not just legally blind, but completely and utterly blind. She can’t see blobs of color or even tell the difference between light and dark. Why? Because her optical nerves were horribly damaged when her mom drove drunk and crashed their car. Parker was lucky, though, because she only lost her sight — her mom died in that crash. With the help and support of her loving father and her friends, and also in part because she was still a resilient/young kid, Parker managed to adapt very well to life without vision. When her dad suddenly died, the summer before her junior year of high school, though, it wasn’t quite as easy to transition again. Despite the fact that her aunt’s family came to live with her — so she could remain in the same house and attend the same high school — she felt so alone. Though they were technically “family,” it just wasn’t the same as living with her own parent(s).
This story probably sounds totally depressing as I have described it thus far, but please believe me when I say that it is not all doom and gloom and death. It was actually quite funny in parts. A lot of the story focuses on Parker’s budding love interest [Jason], her evolving friendships with her close friends, and the reappearance of her former friend/boyfriend [Scott]. High school is rife with drama as it is, and the fact that Jason and Scott became friends before Jason met Parker set the stage for plenty more. I loved Parker’s sassy, snarky, tell-it-like-it-is attitude, and I was further intrigued by the ways that standard teen angst could be compounded by a visual impairment. (Just imagine all the body language and other visual cues you’d miss!) I’d recommend this book to fans of Sara Zarr’s Sweethearts.