See You at Harry’s: A YA Must Read

See You at Harry’s has been on my radar and on my TBR list for a few months now, thanks to my Nerdy Book Club friends via Twitter. I had to wait a few weeks after buying it last month before I could read it, but it was totally worth the wait.

I have been a big fan of Jo Knowles for a while now and loved her novel Lessons from a Dead Girl. You can read all about it here.  As I read See You at Harry’s, I began wearing various hats: mother, young teenage girl, sister, and writer. I experienced a slew of emotions as I continued reading, sometimes stopping because I had to catch my breath and let my eyes rest—not from strain, but from tears and swelling.

I feared I would run out of tissues.

This book touched my heart in ways not many books do. Knowles has an incredible talent for writing, and for getting to the heart of things, for tapping into our emotions, grabbing them, and not letting go. Not even when the book is finished.

As a writer I always wonder how other writers craft scenes that tear your heart out, and I wondered this over and over as I read See You at Harry’s. I wondered how Knowles captured such raw emotion and handled it in such a genuine and delicate way. I marveled at how she handled such sensitive issues and captured the essence of this family, which could be anyone’s family really.

I want to be like Jo when I grow up. She’s freakin’ awesome.

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When a Book Grabs You and Doesn’t Let Go

As a teacher, I really look forward to two things in the summer: 1) getting to read A LOT, and 2) getting to write A LOT. Okay, so I actually look forward to more than just these two things during the summer (I do love not having to answer to the alarm clock most days).

I am a self-proclaimed bookaholic, which my husband and children will attest to, and I bought a book (Lessons from a Dead Girl) a few months ago that had been on my ever-growing To Be Read (TBR) list. I lost track of the book between taking it to school and bringing it back home again, so when I found it again a few days ago I was excited to finally be able to read it.

Here’s a quick review of Lessons from a Dead Girl, a damn fine book written by one of my Teachers Write! mentors, Jo Knowles.

From the book jacket:

Leah Greene is dead. For Laine, knowing what really happened and the awful feeling that she is, in some way, responsible set her on a journey of painful self-discovery. Yes, she wished for this. She hated Leah that much. Hated her for all the times in the closet, when Leah made her do those things. They were just practicing, Leah said. But why did Leah choose her? Was she special, or just easy to control? And why didn’t Laine make it stop sooner? In the aftermath of the tragedy, Laine is left to explore the devastating lessons Leah taught her, find some meaning in them, and decide whether she can forgive Leah and, ultimately, herself.

Lessons from a Dead Girl focuses on Laine, and how she reconciles the death of Leah (her former best friend for life) and the guilt, hatred and shame she felt as a result. The friendship they shared was convoluted, unforgiving, and binding; bound by secrets fueled by years of abuse in various forms. Laine struggles to understand why Leah does the things that she does to her—why she abuses her and their friendship—over and over again. It isn’t until the night of the fatal accident that Laine learns the horrible truth behind the abuse. After the tragic accident that claims Leah’s life, Laine begins to piece everything together and discovers their story has two victims.

Jo Knowles wrote a difficult story, a story which clearly needed to be written. This story grabbed me immediately and didn’t let me go until I had finished the very last word. I read this book in one sitting, which is something I hadn’t done since I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I couldn’t stop reading. The characters of Laine and Leah were real and flawed and masterfully created. Knowles did an amazing job crafting Leah, and try as I might, I just couldn’t hate her. Instead, my heart broke for her. And for Laine. But most of all, for all the kids who have suffered in silence, bound by secrets.

Thanks, Jo, for writing a story that needed to be told and for giving me the inspiration to do the same.

It’s CAMP Time!!

I had the most fortunate accidental meeting of author Elaine Wolf on Facebook through a mutual friend (none other than Mr. Paul W. Hankins), that has resulted in a developing friendship of mutual respect and support. Elaine is the author of CAMP, a brand new YA novel which she graciously sent to me complete with autograph!! *insert SQUEEEE here*

Although I couldn’t get to reading CAMP right away, my daughter Keri snatched it up and read it in a matter of hours (she devours books almost as fast as I can get them into her hands) and loved it. I started reading it on Sunday and finished it last night in the wee hours of the morning. It was worth losing sleep over.

From the book jacket:

A coming-of-age novel about bullying, mothers and daughters, and the collateral damage of family secrets.

Every secret has a price.

For most girls, sleepaway camp is great fun. But for Amy Becker, it’s a nightmare. Amy, whose home life is in turmoil, is sent to Camp Takawanda for Girls for the first time as a teenager. Although Amy despises spending summers at home with her German-immigrant mother, who is unduly harsh with Amy’s autistic younger brother, Amy is less than thrilled about going away to camp. At Takawanda she is subjected to a humiliating “initiation” and to relentless bullying by the ringleader of the senior campers. As Amy struggles to stop the mean girls from tormenting her, she becomes more confident. But then her cousin reveals dark secrets about Amy’s mother’s past, setting in motion a tragic event that changes Amy and her family forever.

Camp is a compelling family drama that will resonate with a wide teenage readership. It will be a strong addition to recommended reading and summer reading lists, and it is appropriate for anti-bullying programs. Mostly, though, Camp is a mother-daughter story for mothers and daughters

Here are my thoughts:

The afore mentioned Mr. Paul W. Hankins says he thinks CAMP will be the “sleeper hit” of 2012, and I think he’s absolutely right about that. I hope word of this well written debut YA novel spreads very quickly so that multitudes of people read it and share it, particularly via social media. We all know the power of social media.

A couple of days ago, Elaine posted a picture on her Facebook of a display table her book was on at the Barnes and Noble where she was doing a book signing. One of the books on that table was The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. After reading Elaine’s book, I see why both books were on the same table. I don’t want to give too much away from either book, but I will say I see a common thread among both books: huge secrets kept under the guise of protection that lead to devastating truths.  I also see a quite obvious pairing with Dear Bully: 70 Authors Share Their Stories edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones.

The main focus of this story is how the narrator Amy Becker deals with despicable bully Rory at sleepaway camp (Camp Takawanda) and finds sanctuary in new friend and ally Erin. But the story runs much deeper than that. There is also the undercurrent of the classic mother/daughter struggle at play here, but with a twist: Amy’s mother is a German immigrant with a past too painful to share with her daughter, which drives a deep wedge between them. As I read the final chapters of CAMP, and the secrets revealed themselves, I thought of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, which chronicles a similar mother/daughter struggle complicated by a secret past from another land.

Mother/daughter relationships are complicated (I have three lovely daughters, by the way) and beautiful and sometimes hard. I think this book can create and provide a path for more open communication between mothers and daughters. We mothers most likely have things in our pasts that we may not want to talk about with our daughters, which is probably an indication that we really should.

Two Kids, Some Gravity, and A Messenger

I didn’t realize how long it had been since I have talked YA lit and shared some thoughts on the matter. If you’ve been following along over the last couple of weeks, you know I’ve been talking up #TeachersWrite and have been pouring a lot into my writing. I’m still doing that writing thing (and loving it, btw), but I’m also still reading a lot of fabulous YA lit.

In case you’re wondering why I read so much YA lit (even while working on my own), I read it for three reasons: 1) because I LOVE it!! 2) to make good recommendations to my students, and 3) reading good YA lit helps me be a better writer of YA lit.

I finished two gems in the last week or so: The Pull of Gravity by Gae Polisner and I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak.

First up is The Pull of Gravity. I really love a good coming of age story, and this one fits the bill. I LOVE the two main characters: Nick Gardner (the narrator) and Jaycee Amato, who are very real and with whom readers will easily identify. Plus, its many references to Star Wars and Yoda will appeal to Star Wars fans, and I really dig the incorporation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (which makes it a great mentor text). *Good job, Gae!!*

Here’s a small excerpt and synopsis from Gae’s website:

“Nick? Yes or no? Are you in?”
I shake my head at how crazy it all is, but even as I do, I know.
“Jaycee, why are you even asking? Do I really have a choice?”
“No,” she smiles, “No choice at all.”

While Nick Gardner’s family is falling apart, his best friend, the Scoot, is dying from a freak disease. Enter Jaycee Amato, a quirky girl with Siberian-husky eyes and an odd affinity for Of Mice and Men. She’s made a seemingly-impossible promise to the Scoot, and wants Nick’s help to keep it.

Armed only with the wisdom of Yoda, the beauty of Steinbeck, and the vaguest of plans, Nick and Jaycee set off on a secret, whirlwind journey to find the father the Scoot has never known. When everything goes awry, will the pull of gravity be enough to keep them together?

And hey! Check out the book trailer!


The Pull of Gravity is a coming-of-age story about friendship, first love, and the true nature of family.

 

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak is quite different from his other AMAZING book The Book Thief. One thing that is similar, though, is Zusak’s ability to make words form sentences and phrases that I wish I’d written myself.

Meet Ed Kennedy—underage cabdriver, pathetic cardplayer, and useless at romance. He lives in a shack with his coffee-addicted dog, the Doorman, and he’s hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence, until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery. That’s when the first Ace arrives. That’s when Ed becomes the messenger. . . .

Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary), until only one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission?

Book Trailer!!

Happy reading and I’ll catch ya later!

Where I’m From

I wrote this “Where I’m From” poem a couple of years ago, but it seems fitting to share it now. It is National Poetry Month, after all! Oh, and feel free to write your own “Where I’m From” poem, if you feel so inclined…

Where I’m From        

I am from bright yellow sunflowers, from Peanut M&Ms and Diet Coke.

I am from the white house in the middle of the block on the only stretch of dirt road, black and gold Railer country, loud and proud.

I am from towering elm trees in graceful green glory, pink and white chrysanthemums, crisp fresh air, the vegetable garden of my grandfather, tulips, and rosebushes along the fence.

I am from crazy good family reunions in late September and determination (and stubbornness), from Howard and Doris and Aunt Nancy, my second mother.

I am from the always loving and sometimes drive-me-nuts Tedder and Fryhover clans.

From bouncing to the moon because of all the gum I swallowed as a kid and the bird that never actually perched on my stuck-out lower lip when I didn’t get my way, like my grandma said it would.

I am from Irish Catholic, Nazarene, Pentecostal, B’hai, and Mennonite.  This is my family and it extends beyond bloodlines and last names to the people that matter most to me.

I’m from small town America and Ireland and England and France and Germany and a Cherokee tribe in Oklahoma, pizza and chocolate brownie trifle.

From the great, great, great, great Grandfather Northrop who came to this country on the Mayflower, the Englishman looking for a new life, and the little Cherokee girl adopted by a white family who lost all her tribal ties to her Cherokee Nation (and so did we).

I am from boxes in the attic and basements and photo albums spanning generations and hundreds of years that we sorted through after my grandma died.  I am from the wild west that has been tamed and captured on film.  I am George and Phylis and Angela and James.  I am Alex and Abby and Keri and Sarah, who will, in turn, be me.

A Double Dose of Pam

I have read two books recently that were written by Pam Bachorz: Drought and Candor. Both books received a four star rating from me on Goodreads (goodreads.com), and I am reviewing Drought for you here.

     Ruby Prosser dreams of escaping the Congregation and the early-nineteenth century lifestyle that’s been practiced since the community was first enslaved.
She plots to escape the vicious Darwin West, his cruel Overseers, and the daily struggle to gather the life-prolonging Water that keeps the Congregants alive and gives Darwin his wealth and power. But if Ruby leaves, the Congregation will die without the secret ingredient that makes the Water special: her blood.
So she stays.
But when Ruby meets Ford, the new Overseer who seems barely older than herself, her desire for freedom is too strong. He’s sympathetic, irresistible, forbidden—and her only access to the modern world. Escape with Ford would be so simple, but can Ruby risk the terrible price, dooming the only world she’s ever known?

I finished Drought yesterday and decided to take a day to process my thoughts about the book before rating it and writing a review. I’ve read a lot of less than favorable reviews for Drought, and although I get what most of these reviewers are saying, I don’t completely agree with them. Are there parts of the plot that require you to suspend belief? Yes. Are there some holes in the plot that could have been knitted together better? Absolutely. However, for me at least, I think the strengths of Pam Bachorz’s novel outweigh its weaknesses.

Bachorz has written a strong heroine, Ruby, who is easy to identify with and who seems quite real. While Ruby’s plight is far from typical and is infuriating, she experiences many things a teenager would: young love, mother/daughter conflicts, loss of loved ones, unwanted affections from a boy, and the persistent need to think for herself and to be free. Ruby longs for a better life, which is something most of us can relate to.

I also like what Bachorz does with the character of Ford—how she effectively shows the internal conflict he has between what he feels he must do for his family and what he must do to Ruby’s family because it’s his “job.” In doing so, Bachorz also explores the dichotomy of doing what’s necessary for survival vs. what’s right as she explores this age-old argument.

The relationship between Ruby and Ford is not only forbidden, it is what holds this story together and makes it easier to overlook the flaws of the plot. Although I think the meat of the story is in the relationship between Ruby and Ford, I do wish more backstory regarding Otto and the history of the Congregation had been woven into the story. There are a lot of unanswered questions that may not be necessary to the Ruby/Ford plotline, but would have definitely tightened up the other veins of the story and filled in some of the holes.

While I’m not reviewing Candor, I did want to give you a little tidbit about this novel that will leave you with chills at the end:

 In the model community of Candor, Florida, every teen wants to be like Oscar Banks. The son of the town’s founder, Oscar earns straight A’s, is student-body president, and is in demand for every club and cause. But Oscar has a secret. He knows that parents bring their teens to Candor to make them respectful, compliant–perfect–through subliminal Messages that carefully correct and control their behavior. And Oscar’ s built a business sabotaging his father’s scheme with Messages of his own, getting his clients out before they’re turned. After all, who would ever suspect the perfect Oscar Banks? Then he meets Nia, the girl he can’t stand to see changed. Saving Nia means losing her forever. Keeping her in Candor, Oscar risks exposure . . . and more.

Happy reading!

Why YA? The Fault in Our Stars, that’s why.

The Fault in Our Stars

Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 12, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs… for now.

Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.

Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.

This book makes me want to hug my children more and thank God seventy-two times a day that all four of my children are healthy and happy (most of the time). It makes me appreciate my husband more (please don’t tell him I said that…on the Interwebs).

You see, my husband was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer nine years ago, at the age of 32. Stage III means the cancer is treatable, but it has invaded the lymph nodes, thereby entering the bloodstream, making for a poorer prognosis. My husband was lucky. He had surgery and underwent nearly five months of chemo and has been cancer free for nearly nine years now. This is a miracle and a blessing for our family.

But I digress. This is a book review about a girl with terminal cancer, and given my life experience it’s no wonder I crawled right inside Hazel’s world.

It took me about ten days to read this book because life kept getting in the way of my reading. I stayed up way past my bedtime two nights in a row to finish it, which was difficult to do at times due to the steady flow of tears. It was worth feeling tired and a little cranky so I could finally finish this book.

Hazel is not someone you feel sorry for. She simply will not allow you to. What she will do, however, is give you a honest picture of what life with cancer looks like, feels like, sounds like, and on occasion, smells like. Hazel is bad ass, and someone you want to know. She’s smart and understands things about life most of us never will. She sees things we miss because she pays attention. Hazel worries about those she will leave behind and is fully aware of the devastation that will follow her death, referring to herself as a “grenade.”

But don’t despair. Hazel has a wicked sense of humor and although she is painfully aware of the graveness of her situation, she often comments on the irony of things and sees humor in even the most serious situations.

Meeting Augustus at a cancer support group is serendipitous, cathartic, and just what Hazel needs, despite her prolonged resistance. She eventually learns that resistance is futile, and embraces the gift Augustus becomes in her life. Augustus is bad ass in his own right, and you can’t help rooting for the two of them.

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