by Justin Sayre
First sentence: “Ducks, now would you look at this!”
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Release date: September 22, 2015
Review copy provided by the publisher rep.
Content: There’s really nothing objectionable, though the subject matter is a bit on the more mature side. It will be in the YA section of the bookstore, though it’s probably good for 5th graders as well.

Davis is an only child, living with his mother — who is gone all the time, working at the bakery she owns — and his grandmother. His father’s out of the picture (dead? I think?) and his grandpa died a few years ago. And his grandmother is one of those Irish Grandmothers: overprotective, nosy, loud. The only real escape Davis has is his opera music (yes, he likes opera. No, it doesn’t come off as weird) and his friends, Sophie and Ellen. Except that Ellen is a sarcastic mean and likes Charlie (whom Davis isn’t really quite sure of), and Sophie has been hanging out with Allegra who is one of those stereotypical Mean Girls. So, where does that leave Davis?

During this summer before high school, Davis tries to figure all of it out.

I wanted to like it. Partially because I like our rep, and she really liked this one. But. I just didn’t get it. Davis was bothered by his weight, but it’s not a fat book. Which is a good thing. It’s not one of those books where he has to Overcome Being Fat in order to be happy. But, it’s also not a Accept Yourself and Be Happy book, either. On the one hand, it’s a process, and it doesn’t have a tidy happily-ever-after, which I respect. But I didn’t like the underlying assumption — especially at the end — that Davis was gay. A boy who listens to opera and whose best friends are girls isn’t necessarily gay. (Way to play into stereotypes.) That really bothered me, in the end.

Davis was a decent enough character; a bit lethargic for my tastes, and prone to being a reactor instead of someone who actually participates in his own life. But, it wasn’t a bad thing.

Aside from the stereotypes, I really can’t pinpoint why I didn’t love this book. It just wasn’t my thing.

Gabi a Girl in Pieces

by Isabel Quintero
First sentence: “My mother named me Gabriela after my grandmother who — coincidentally — did not want to meet me when I was born because my mother was not married and was therefore living in sin.”
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Content: There’s a lot here: talk of drug use, sex (off screen, not graphic), and swearing (including multiple f-bombs). It’d be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I didn’t know what to expect when I picked this up. I’d heard good things about it, and it won the Morris Award this year. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of emotions I’d feel while reading it.

It’s Gabi Hernandez’s senior year, and life has gotten more complicated than usual. One of her best friends is pregnant; the other just came out, and has been kicked out of his parents’ house. She’s still struggling with math in school, but she has hopes that she can get into college, the first in her family, since her parents immigrated from Mexico. She wants a boyfriend, but is afraid since she’s a self-proclaimed “fat girl” that she’ll never find love. Then there’s her meth-addicted father, and her punk younger brother. Not to mention a mom who is constantly placing pressure on her to be a “good” girl.

Writing all that down, it both sounds like a lot and not quite enough to hold a book together. One of the things that makes this book shine is the voice. Told in diary form, we get Gabi’s innermost thoughts, her insecurities and feelings, her poems and heartfelt letters to her father (which she never sends). Even though her life is complicated and hard, you can’t help but connect with Gabi on the most elemental level: she’s just a girl trying to live the best she can.

But, it’s also a feminist book, showing us the double standard we have for girls and boys. Which leads me to: oh my gosh, her mom. I wanted to smack her. She was SO hard on Gabi, from nagging her constantly about her weight to lectures about sex (while she tells Gabi’s brother “be sure to use a condom”). I know she was trying and doing the best she could under the circumstances, but I wanted to shake her. Call this another one of those reverse-parenting books, but there is no way I want to have the sort of relationship with my daughter that Gabi had with her mom.

It was Gabi’s awakening to the double standard, and her actively trying to do something about it — which came near the end of the book –which endeared me to the book. There was so much crap going on (if there’s an issue out there that deals with teenagers, it was in the book) going on in Gabi’s life that I found it difficult, initially, to relate. But by the end, I was cheering for Gabi, for her attitude toward her life, and for Quintero’s unflinching portrayal of her.

Fat Boy vs. The Cheerleaders

by Geoff Herbach
First sentence: “Shortly before midnight on June 15, Gabriel Johnson, a sixteen-year-old from Minnekota, MN, was apprehended outside Cub Foods by Officer Rex McCoy.”
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Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a lot of swearing, none of it strong. I put it in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore primarily because I like to keep the YA section toned down. Also, because that’s where all of Herbach’s other books are. I’d say, depending on your kid, it’s good for as young as 7th graders.

In high school, there are two types of people: the jocks and everyone else. Gabe is everyone else.  Actually, Gabe is a band geek, and a mostly friend-less loser. He’s been going downhill since his mom ran off with a Japanese guy a few years back, and his grandpa moved in. It’s not just that he has only two friends, it’s that he’s overweight. Massively so. In fact, everyone (including his friends) call him Chunk. And he’s okay with that.

Gabe spends his days chugging Code Red, primarily because the money in the school’s soda vending machine goes to support the band that is Gabe’s lifeline. He figures he can chug 5 bottles of the stuff, if the money goes to fund his program. Then he finds out that a Super Sekrit school board meeting took away the vending machine money from the band and gave it to the Brand Spanking New dance team. Which makes Gabe mad. Eventually.

There’s more to the plot, of course, but it’s more about Gabe gaining self-respect than any eventual result. You know from the start — the whole book is his confession; a one-sided conversation with a Mr. Rodriguez — that he’s gotten arrested for doing something. You assume it’s for stealing money out of the vending machine. But, things are more complex than that.

Part of the charm of this book is the format; I was entertained by hearing only one side of the conversation, and imagining what Mr. Rodriguez’s side was. But, it was also Gabe. He was such a loser to start with, and it’s empowering to see how he regains control over his life, in spite of the people — from his friends to his father — who are trying to hold him back. Everyone needs a summer in which they find their best selves, and this story of Gabe’s was a truly fun one.

Better Nate Than Ever

by Tim Federle
First sentence: “I’d rather not start with any backstory.”
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Content: There is some bullying, a bit of swearing, and some frank talk about sexuality and alcoholism. I probably wouldn’t give it to a third grader (it just feels more mature than an 8-year-old, but you know your kid), but a 4th or 5th grader would be fine with it. It’s in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore, though the library has it in the teen section (which surprised me).

Nate Foster is a 13-year-old kid living in the blue collar town of Jankburg, PA (just outside of Pittsburg). His dad is a “maintenance engineer” and his mom runs a slowly dying flower shop. They have put all their hopes, dreams, and expectations on Nate’s older brother, Alex, the sports star. Which leaves Nate as the… well… outcast. It doesn’t help that he’s a Broadway musical fanatic, knowing them all, singing away, quoting incessantly. Which leaves his family (and the town) baffled.

Of course, Federle is playing off of stereotypes here: people in blue-collar towns are (obviously) backward and don’t understand Culture. People — boys especially — who like musicals are (obviously) gay. (There is much too much discussion about Nate’s sexuality here. And while his position is “I’m 13, how would I know if I were gay?” it bothered me that musicals are, necessarily, lumped in with being gay. Can we just get over that, now, please?) Boys who are short, overweight, and awkward are (obviously) bullied at school (and by his — jerk is not a strong enough word — older brother).

When Nate finds out about open auditions for a new musical based on the movie E. T. he jumps at the chance. And because he knows his backward parents would never let him, he takes the opportunity (with the help of his friend Libby) to run away to the auditions. He was supposed to go there and back again in a day, but (of course) things don’t quite work out. Which brings us to another cliche here — the kid from the backward blue-collar town has NO IDEA how to make it in New York City. (Which may be true, having never run away to the big city when I was 13.)

Even with all the cliches and stereotypes, this wasn’t a terrible book. And I think what saved it, for me at least, was Nate himself. Federle caught the voice of an awkward, insecure, hopeful kid someone who has been beaten down his whole life, and yet still remains optimistic about everything. He’s adorable, and heart-warming, and just plain fun. It was this that kept me reading, and when I finished, it was this that made the book a good one for me.

Additionally, it’s one of those books that’s good to have out there, if only because it addresses stereotypes. There aren’t that many books out there where the male main character gets to be something other than stereotypically male. Hopefully, boys will pick this up and give it a shot. If only to increase their empathy.

There’s a sequel — Five, Six, Seven, Nate — which just came out. I may even like Nate enough to give that one a shot.

Audiobook: An Abundance of Katherines

by John Green
read by Jeff Woodman
ages: 14+
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I picked this up on a whim,  partially because Laura (all my good ideas come from her!) suggested the YAckers read another John Green book, and partially because I’ve been trying to get this guy at work to read John Green, and I suggested this one. I figured it was due for a reread. Or listen in this case.

After going back and reading my initial review, I realize I don’t have much to add. It’s still a great mix of nerdiness, humor, and Deep Thoughts, though I think John (I can call him that, right? Being a Nerdfighter and all?) has gotten better at meshing the Deep Thoughts into his books  and they come off less as Deep Thoughts and more as, well, just thoughts. I didn’t remember the bit about the footnotes; I’m assuming Woodman read them, but they just came off more as asides, which I didn’t mind at all.  Speaking of Woodman, I thoroughly enjoyed his narration; he got the voices just right, and the girls — always an issue with me with male readers — weren’t simpery. Hassan was still my favorite character, hands down; it was nice to have a religious character — an Islamic one at that — who wasn’t preachy. Not to mention the fact that he was overweight but not obsessive about it.

I do think, in the end, that although this is John’s funniest book (all the fugs made me laugh), it’s not my favorite anymore. (I’ve remembered it that way for the longest time.) It’s charming, it’s sweet, it’s fun, but it lack the depth that he has in his other novels. Perhaps I should try pushing Paper Towns on the guy at work (he’s one of those literary fiction sorts). He might like that one better.

The Second Life of Abigail Walker

by Frances O’Roark Dowell
ages: 9+
First sentence: “The fox had been stepping into stories since the beginning of time.”
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Sixth grade has not been the best for Abigail Walker. Her best friend recently moved away, and she’s been caught up in a group of mean-ish girls because her mother wants Abby to be friends with them. In addition, her parents (especially her dad) are always on her case about eating, since she’s a bit more overweight than they’d like her to be. Between these two things, all Abby wants to do is hide in her closet and eat candy bars.

I’m going to interject here:  I want to give this one to parents. Just so they can see the effect their comments have on their children. The parents in this one earn a great big huge OY, PEOPLE. I want to smack them.

Anyway. Abby starts frequenting the field across the street from her house, and discovers a fox, which bites her (not hard). She also meets a boy, Anders, and his father who is recovering from PTSD from his tour in Iraq. Between Helping Anders with his dad and the fox, Abby begins branching out, discovering a strength in her to make new friends and to begin to stand up to her parents.

Aside from the whole parent-issue thingy, this was just an okay book. Abby is dealing with lots of issues, and I was glad to see her being to make things right. For a while, I was thinking O’Roark Dowell would wrap everything up in a nice bow, and I was quite glad she didn’t. (I should trust her more; she rarely steers me wrong.) The only real misstep in this one was the fox; I was never quite sure why the fox really needed to be there. It seemed like it belonged in a different book, one that was wholly an animal fantasy, rather than a middle grade issue-oriented book.

But aside from the fox, it was a sweet story about a girl who’s trying to figure out who she really is in the face of everyone’s expectations.

The List

by Siobhan Vivian
ages: 14+
First sentence: “For as long as anyone can remember, the students of Mount Washington High have arrived at school on the last Monday in September to find a list naming the prettiest and the ugliest girl in each grade.”
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Review copy provided by my place of employment.

As the title and first sentence suggest, the story centers around The List. The List being an “impartial” judgement of who the prettiest and ugliest (one girl each) of each grade is, along with a short comment about why. We follow the eight girls who were chosen, four “pretty” and four “ugly”, for the week after the post was put up, from Monday morning, when the list was put up until the homecoming dance on Saturday night.

It’s not pretty.

The book is basically an exploration of labels and perceptions of beauty: from the freshman girl, Danielle, who was labeled “ugly” and her desperation to keep her boyfriend who is increasingly uncomfortable being around her; to Bridget, the junior girl labeled “pretty” and her discomfort at that, because she’s always been a bit overweight, and her spiraling into anorexia; to the desperation of Jennifer Biggs, labeled “ugly” all four years of high school, and how that has completely wrecked her psyche, it’s all heartbreaking and disheartening that this would happen.

However, since it’s such an extreme situation, a laboratory if you will, it’s easy to sit back and be clinical, watching it all fall out. While I think Vivian wrote very believable characters, I never really felt like I was given a chance to connect with them, even though I understood motivations behind the actions. As a reader, I felt distanced from the action, even as I was curious to know how it will all play out. I think this one would be a good one to hand to teen girls, along with Uglies and Wintergirls, as a way to spearhead perceptions of beauty and the harshness that labeling and judging others has on our selves, as well as the pressures of society on women.

And for that, it’s worth the read.

Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies

by Erin Dionne
ages: 10-13
First sentence: “‘No way,’ I hissed through the slatted dressing room door.”
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Celeste has never really worried about her weight. That’s not to say she was super-skinny: she’s not. But, she’s comfortable in her track pants and hoodie, and she likes her chips, soda and cookies. It’s not bothered her, and she’s never really thought about it.

Until her cousin Kathleen chooses the Peach Monstrosity for her bridesmaids’ dresses (of which Celeste is one). And then her mom and her Aunt Doreen conspire to enter Celeste into a HuskyPeach — that’s a clothing line for “plus sized girls” — modeling competition. Suddenly, the idea of being a HuskyPeach is too much for Celeste. But how to get out of it? By losing the competition, of course: if she’s too thin, she can’t win. So, Celeste makes the life-altering decision to alter her lifestyle. And with it comes some unexpected consequences.

This book has an interesting balance, walking the line between “fat is okay” and “losing weight will get you what you want.” On the one hand, Celeste isn’t really that obsessed with eating, and her parents aren’t really that hard on her eating habits. What bothers her more is that she’s incessantly teased by the (stereotypical) pretty, mean girl at school. Perhaps it’s just Celeste living up to expectations, because even though she has friends, she schlumps through each school day. On the other hand, once she starts the modeling competition, she’s given role models (no pun intended!) of confident, healthy, pretty overweight girls and women, and she can see her potential. She decides to start keeping a food journal, as part of trying to lose the competition, and she realizes that being healthy is better. She gains confidence, in part through the competition and in part from being healthier, and she’s able to conquer her demons and assert herself in ways she didn’t before.

The writing was a bit clunky, and the characters are overly cliched, but overall, a good book.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Artichoke’s Heart

by Suzanne Supplee
ages: 13+
First sentence: “Mother spent $700 on a treadmill ‘from Santa’ that I will never use.”

Weight is always a tricky subject. Writing about it, talking about it, thinking about it… everyone (read: girls and women) seems to have an opinion on it, obsess over it (or say they don’t obsess over it), or compare themselves to others. It’s a curse of today’s media-saturated age, but that’s a subject for another post.

Rosemary Goode is overweight (she thinks she’s obese, but she’s “only” 200 pounds, which to my mind is not obese, but then again, I’m not a health professional… and it’s mostly about how she thinks of herself anyway… so I tried to go with it). Her problem: food. (Well, duh.) She loves it. Craves it. Eats too much of it. Which is a problem of itself (inner pop psychologist refraining from commenting), but actually (couldn’t contain it. Sorry.) is a symptom of a larger problem: her mom. Rosemary’s mom, Rose Warren Goode, is the owner of Heavenly Hair in Spring Hill, Tennessee. She’s a single mom, getting pregnant with Rosemary when she was 17. She’s worked hard all her life: to be a successful businesswoman, to be a “good” (mom-issues in a YA book. Again.) mom, to be happy. She’s really close to her sister, Mary, and spends most of her free time with her (rather than her kid. No wonder Rosemary turns to food). Rosemary (obviously) resents this. But, because this is the South (I did love the voice in this book; it was very Southern. I felt like was back in Arkansas…), Rosemary just puts a happy face on, and goes through life the best she can. Because that’s what’s expected of her.

Except. She’s not happy. (Duh.)

Then she meets Kyle Cox. Well, “meet” is pretty strong. She reads about him in the school paper — he’s a jock — and he’s in her study hall. And he smiles at her. Which is the first little step she needs to get off her bum and do something about her habits. She goes on a liquid diet (issue: this girl crashed dieted to lose 45 pounds in the end. This bothered me. A LOT.), she starts exercising, she gets counseling (as a “trial experiment”). And when she starts losing weight she starts feeling better about herself… a little at a time. I don’t want to insinuate that it was a sudden, miraculous overnight change, because it wasn’t (something which I did like). But, once the pounds started coming off, she began to come out of her shell. (Are we saying that fat people just need to lose weight to feel good about themselves? That it’s impossible to love your body when your overweight? Rosemary’s target goal is 120 pounds — she’s 5 foot 6 — is that reasonable? See what I mean about weight being a loaded — sorry, no pun intended — subject?)

I did like the characters: Rosemary is a very sweet girl, and Kyle is adorable in his geekiness. But I had issues (being overweight myself) with this book. Not a bad one, but not my ideal fat-girl book either. Then again, I’m not sure there can be a fat-girl book that will please everyone. The issue is just too volatile. Which is too bad. (But that’s a subject for another post.)