Category Archives: you think you’ve got problems?

You Were Here by Cori McCarthy

you-were-hereHigh 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.

Happy Reading!

Violent Ends by Shaun David Hutchinson

violent-endsThis 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.

Happy Reading!

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

salt-to-the-seaI 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.

Happy Reading!

Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom

not if i see you firstParker 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.

What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler

20922826[1]When I read this book, I was equally sickened and angered.  I wanted to punch people in the throat…  I wanted to flip tables…  I wanted to lash out and scream at Aaron Hartzler for imagining a world in which a girl could be blamed for her own rape!  The problem is, he didn’t have to imagine it.  I don’t want to have to acknowledge that there are people in this world — in this country, even — who still feel more sympathy toward how a rape conviction might ruin the lives of the young men who perpetrated the crime than how the act of rape has already ruined the life of the victim.  But, sadly, this book is not an indication that Aaron Hartzler has an over-active imagination but rather an echo of what happens in far too many communities — including Steubenville, Ohio — when a rape makes headlines.  Much like his memoir, Rapture Practice, this book reveals that Hartzler has an uncanny ability for absorbing the realities of life in the American Midwest and translating them into realistic, honest, captivating stories.

If you work with tweens and teens, or if you are a parent, I highly recommend you read this book.  Although I found it extremely unsettling to read and experience what happened to Stacey, I recognize that my personal comfort sometimes needs to take a back seat to reality.  It is important to acknowledge the fact that many people in our society still choose to react with victim-blaming and cover-ups.  It is important to question and to actively work to change this pervasive rape culture.  And one of the best ways we can do this is to start an open dialogue with our children about the topics of sexual violence, consent, and the role drugs and alcohol play in this equation.  Hopefully, books like this will help to start these important conversations and to change the hearts and minds of people who didn’t know better before.

Have a Safe and Happy New Year — and Happy Reading!

Like Water on Stone by Dana Walrath

like-water-on-stoneI think this book should be required reading for all teens and adults in America right about now.  All too often, I find myself listening to or reading about people who just don’t understand why America should step up and actually help the Syrian refugees.  Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that people don’t have any concept of what life is truly like for people who are forced to flee their home and country in fear of losing their very lives.  Without a frame of reference, people have no idea what it is that they are turning their backs to.  I am sick of the, “It sucks to be them, but it’s not America’s problem” mentality.  Perhaps, by reading this story [about three children who narrowly escaped the Armenian genocide of 1915], people can begin to understand what these current refugees are experiencing.  And maybe, just maybe, people can put aside their fear long enough to see that there is something we can do.  We can open our hearts — and our borders — to the huddled masses who so desperately need somewhere safe to go.  I think Master Yoda said it best when he said, “Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.”  So, let’s stop letting our fear get in the way.  In this season of giving, love, and goodwill, let’s do our best to put aside our fear and to actually help out our fellow human beings.

Happy Holidays!

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm

sunny-side-upI don’t generally read a lot of graphic novels. I used to read some now and again to stay on top of what I needed to order for my collection, but now I just get to read for pleasure. My son is a big fan of both graphic novels and manga, though, so I tend to keep an eye out for recommendations of books he might enjoy. Recently, a colleague recommended this book and I requested it without even reading the description. (She has never failed me before, and I didn’t think she was about to start anytime soon!) When the book came, I saw that the blurb by Raina Telgemeier said the book was “Heartbreaking and hopeful…” I decided to see what about the story might be heartbreaking and whether this story might be too mature. If my son had specifically asked for it, I might have handed it straight over without even noticing, but I figured it warranted a little look if I was giving him a recommendation.



As it turns out, Sunny was sent to spend the summer with her grandfather in Florida because her parents didn’t want her to have to deal with the fallout as they attempted to intervene and get help for her brother’s substance abuse problem.  I definitely believe that books are a fantastic way to broach tough subjects, and I think this book did a superb job of letting readers figure things out both gradually and without too many unnecessary details.  Though the story didn’t hold back, the storytelling [via words and illustrations] was both subtle and sensitive enough for somewhat younger readers.  Though I initially got this book simply because it was another graphic novel from the author of the Babymouse series and came as a recommendation by a trusted colleague, I’m planning to use this book to jump-start [another] candid conversation with my fifth grader about drugs and alcohol.

Happy Reading!