Here are a few titles that I’ve enjoyed recently. Those most likely to appeal to older students are near the top, with those geared toward younger readers toward the end.
The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner
“It’s like I’m here, solid, but I’m not connected to anything. I’m completely untethered.”
Amid the chaos of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Kyle and other New Yorkers are fleeing the area around the World Trade Center when he thinks he sees enormous wings in his peripheral vision. When he turns back to quickly investigate, he finds a disoriented girl coated in ash wearing a pair of enormous wings. He takes her to the apartment he shares with his father, a New York City police officer, and his uncle, a disabled New York City police officer. When Kyle asks the girl for her name, she has no answer and no memory.
Gae Polisner’s The Memory of Things is a completely satisfying novel, but more significantly, it’s an important book. Kyle’s narration reveals a young man trying to keep it together in unprecedented circumstances. His voice alternates with the girl’s awakening perceptions delivered in verse. This puts those of us who remember 9/11 right back in the strangeness of those first days after the attack, and gives those who are too young to remember a feeling for that period.
The Memory of Things is a book about loss, memory, love, and hope, and reminds us that even in the darkest days there are people whose impulse is to help those around them.
“How everyone was terrified but calm.”
His voice caught.
“Everyone was helping everyone,” he said.
Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach
I can’t remember a book that starts with such an engaging voice as Thanks for the Trouble. The plot set-up is also compelling. A boy and girl meet in the lobby of a posh San Francisco hotel. Zelda appears to be sad, although she has a thick wad of hundred-dollar bills. Parker is a thief who is unable to speak. And one of them might be immortal. So there you go. This book is funny, quirky, surprising, and wise with traces of John Green, Jennifer Niven, Matthew Quick, and Anne Rice.
I somehow missed author Tommy Wallach’s first book, We All Looked Up, but I’ll be into that one soon with the hope that it’s as satisfying as Thanks for the Trouble.
Bleeding Earth by Kaitlin Ward
Blood is oozing from the earth. No one knows why it’s happening or if it will end. As Lea, her friends, her girlfriend, her parents, and her community deal with the rising blood, the rest of the planet is also facing with what may well be the “bloodpocalypse.” Gory and violent, Bleeding Earth is not for the squeamish, but it delivers suspense, authentic relationships, and a premise that evokes Poe, Macbeth, Revelations, and The Stand. My favorite sentence: “I just like the outdoors, and blood or not, it feels good to be away from my house.”
Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy
Yuri is a 17-year old Russian physics genius brought to Pasadena, California to help the United States government figure out what to do about a massive asteroid expected to decimate the Los Angeles area in seventeen days.
Yuri can do the math involved in solving the problem, but navigating the California suburban social scene is a little trickier. He’s a scientist. He’s Russian. He’s a lot smarter than everyone else. And the fate of the world is in his hands.
Learning to Swear in America is fast-paced, entertaining, and sure to especially satisfy readers who like science and math. I picture this being the favorite YA fiction book of kids on scholastic bowl.
The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan
Amadou and Seydou are two young Malian brothers enslaved on a cacao farm on Africa’s Ivory Coast, the origin of much of the world’s chocolate trade. When another kidnapped worker arrives, the first girl among the enslaved children, her “wildcat” tendencies challenge the overseers and lead to horrific consequences for the children.
Although clearly written for younger readers, author Tara Sullivan masterfully conveys the brutality of the children’s situation without being graphic. Terrible things happen to the main characters, but much of it happens “off stage,” which makes The Bitter Side of Sweet no less dramatic but a little more palatable. The novel reads like an adventure story with cliffhangers, near-misses, and chases, but all of it is against the backdrop of an international travesty.
Readers of all ages will come away with an understanding of what child slavery is like in Africa and why much of the world’s cocoa trade is dependent on the harsh treatment of its workers, many of them children.
Still a Work in Progress by Jo Knowles
Still A Work in Progress, the seventh novel from Jo Knowles, begins with Noah and his middle school crowd caught up in friendship, families, who-likes-who, and smelly stuff. It’s all charming in a Wonder Years kind of way. But after a mention or two of the Thing That Happened, we know that all is not right and something is lurking.
Noah’s older sister Emma is militantly vegan. Their parents tread lightly where Emma’s eating is concerned. Noah has no choice but to go along, but his mind is mostly on other things. A girl seems to like him. One of his friends is acting weird. Another friend suddenly has a girlfriend. Curly, his school’s hairless mascot cat is in trouble for catching mice and displaying the carnage.
I’m treading dangerously close to spoilers here. By the time Still A Work in Progress delivers its poignant conclusion, we’re left with important lessons about silent illnesses, the power of addictions, and the importance of supporting not only those with devastating conditions but also their siblings and other family members.
Jo Knowles is a treasure among YA/MG authors. She consistently writes important, satisfying books that explore the tricky balancing act of adolescence. Each of her books reminds readers that perfection is an impossible standard, but if we reach out to those experiencing tough times, together we can get to higher ground, to places where, as Noah says, “We’re all relieved to be laughing together again. It doesn’t matter why.”
Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier
Raina Telgemeier aimed high this time and ended up creating a graphic novel masterpiece.
Catrina’s family moves to a new town where the air will be healthier for her sister, a cystic fibrosis patient. This town is passionate about its ghosts, which unnerves Catrina but is actually kind of a comfort to her sister. These are not zombie ghosts; they are spirits of the departed. Take a look at the cover. You will see the different attitudes in the sisters’ faces as they confront the ghosts.
Ghosts masterfully shows how graphic novels can use the conventions of comics to explore profound issues and render them accessible to young readers.
Thank you for reading. Your comments are always welcome.