Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 4.5/5

Quality of Characters: 5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4.5/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 1 day

A 1 Sentence Summary

Out of Darkness follows four people (African-American teen Wash Fuller, Mexican-American teen Naomi Vargas, her little half-brother Beto “Robbie” Vargas Smith, and his father Henry Smith) in the months leading up to and the days following the 1937 New London School Explosion in New London, Texas, a place and time where racism, segregation, and gender inequality defined and dictated everyone’s lives (and deaths).

My Favorite Quotes

“The dead are not always right. The dead are not saints. But the dead are ours. We carry them with us, like it’s our job. And maybe it is.”

“He needs you, reader. All he asks is that you take the story up and carry it for awhile. This strange song, gathered out of darkness.”

out of darkness

What I Loved About It

Out of Darkness doesn’t feel like a YA novel. It’s gritty and real and deals with very adult subject matter (sexual abuse and rape, racism, murder, etc.) in a very mature way. And though my initial thoughts are that these qualities make it an “adult” book, the fact remains that teenagers and children dealt with these things in 1937 (2 of the central characters are teenagers and one is an 8 year old) and teenagers and children deal with these things today. The YA books that we recommend to them need to prepare them for it. I’m sure you can tell how much I love a good YA coming of age story or a fantasy or dystopian action novel just from the amount of posts on this blog about those kinds of books. And I think kids should read books like that. But I think too often we fall in love with exciting dystopian novels and forget about novels like this, novels that focus on the very dark and dim parts of history and of life.

But Ashley Hope Pérez doesn’t shy away from these dark parts of history and life. No, she shines a spotlight on them. Though many of the events and all of the characters that appear in this novel are fictional, all of them (the racist mob, the African-American scapegoat, the threat of lynching, the lack of autonomy women suffered, the unreachable and unfair gender expectations, the ongoing sexual abuse with no way out, no one to turn to for help) are things people experienced in America in the 1930s, are things people are still experiencing today. Though the characters Pérez has created live in a different time and suffer a tragedy the likes of which few of us will ever experience, they are unfailingly relatable and very human and real. Her ability to weave together a story featuring four central characters with very different motivations, struggles, and experiences in such an expert and well-fleshed out way is unparalleled and makes the story Pérez is telling that much more complex and important.

What My Students Could Learn From It

So. Freakin’. Much.

Out of Darkness opens a window for its readers into another time, another culture, another experience. This window would allow my students to understand a time that was different than ours admittedly and yet has so many similarities to our lives today. This window would allow my students to understand that despite a difference in appearance, all people have the same hurts and fears and experiences, and all people deserve to be treated like people at all times. These lessons might seem simple and yet are so misunderstood and unknown among the youth (and way too many adults) today.

This novel could also teach students about history and give them a glimpse of a historical time period that a textbook could never provide. It could teach my students to never allow this shameful piece of history to be repeated in our time today.

It’s also a complex story containing complex characters in a complex structure and can teach students a lot about text structure and point-of-view and how these elements can shape a text.

I could go on and on for ages about all the ways this novel is good for teens to read, but I have way too much work to do for my Master’s classes to go on any more. I’ll just leave it at this: read this book and tell your students to read it too!

Speaking of my Master’s classes! I’m so busy this summer with school that I’ve asked a (brilliant) friend and co-worker, Savannah Mansour, to do some of my blogging for me. Her blog post(s) should be coming soon! I’m sorry to be off the blog for awhile and will definitely miss it (and you, dear readers!), but you’re gonna love her posts (and her)!

 

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Reality Boy by A.S. King

Reality Boy by A.S. King

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 3/5

Quality of Characters: 3.5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 2.5/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 1 day

A 1 Sentence Summary

Gerald Faust, nicknamed “The Crapper,” struggles to manage his anger and to come to terms with his screwed up family life and his childhood as a reality TV star on a fake nanny show.

My Favorite Quotes

“Isn’t that what fame is, anyway? Being slaves to little people?”

“Do you think they liked watching me suffer because it made them happy to see a little boy suffering? Do you think it’s because it took attention away from their own suffering?”

“I’ll be just another human on a planet full of humans, but better equipped because I have demands. For my family. For my life. For the world. For myself.”

reality boy

What I Loved About It

Once again, A.S. King tells a very honest story in this novel and doesn’t shy away from the tough, disturbing, or just plain nasty aspects of life while telling it. (If you haven’t read my review of my favorite book of hers, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, it can be found here. Go read it. It’s an amazing book.) She has a very unique talent for making her audience cringe and cry and laugh all over the course of reading one small-ish book. While Reality Boy didn’t change me or move me the way Please Ignore Vera Dietz did, it’s still definitely a great book about the teenage experience.

King focuses in this novel on the dangers of reality television and what it’s like to have a psychopath as a member of your family, two things I’ve never really read about before. The romance between the protagonist, Gerald, and his love interest Hannah is extremely realistic and volatile (as most teen romances tend to be), and I enjoyed reading about it. I also thought that Gerald and Hannah’s journey to free themselves from their families and to make certain demands and to set goals for their own lives was an important journey to witness.

What My Students Could Learn From It

Though I don’t feel that there are many traditional lessons students could learn from reading this book (besides maybe not watching reality TV), it’s definitely a relatable book. The novel covers so many different things students can relate to–like bullying, reputation, family troubles, abuse, first love, feeling like you don’t belong, anger management, carving your own path for yourself and your future, etc. A.S. King explores all of these things with honesty and grace, and tells a very moving story about a young man choosing to take action to make his life and future better. My students could certainly benefit from seeing as many stories about teens successfully doing that as possible.

Gem & Dixie by Sara Zarr

Gem & Dixie by Sara Zarr

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Quality of Prose: 4.5/5

Quality of Story: 4/5

Quality of Characters: 4/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4.5/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 1 day

A 1 Sentence Summary

When Gem’s absentee father returns and stashes a backpack full of drug money in the bedroom she shares with her sister, Dixie, Gem wants to take the money and run–finally escape the impoverished, neglected life she’s always led—but she finds it’s not so easy to leave her little sister behind.

My Favorite Quotes

“We lied to ourselves as much as anyone lied to us. You have to, when you’re a kid, if you want to get through it.”

“I wanted a home that felt like home should feel. Safe. A place you go when you know there won’t be any bad surprises and you can be even more who you are, not less.”

“I sensed something like that same freedom, a space opening up inside me where I’d only felt smallness before.”

“I don’t know how or why right then–but I saw. I could belong in the world. There was space for me.”

gem and dix

What I Loved About It

This book though.

I cried like 5 different times while reading it. (And I read the entire book on a plane so it was one of those embarrassing, public book cries.) And I didn’t cry because of some huge dramatic and sad death or loss or something like that. I cried at the real pictures of the human–and, more specifically, the teenaged–experience Zarr depicts in this book. The teenage characters and the trials and realizations and experiences they have in this book are so unbelievably real. And, as a high school teacher reading a book about neglected teen sister runaways, the realness of this book really effected me.

The relationship Zarr depicts between the two titular characters is particularly moving. Never before have I seen a more accurate portrayal of the bond between siblings; they love each other deeply and yet can hurt each other more than anyone else can. Zarr perfectly explained this bond when she wrote Gem saying about Dixie, “She’s the only one who knows…what it’s like to be us.” Shared childhood experiences–good or bad–bond siblings in a way nothing else can, and Zarr does such a good job depicting that.

She also does such a good job depicting Gem and Dixie’s neglectful parents. They are bad parents, involved far more in their own lives and the drugs and relationships they depend on than they are in their children’s lives. They don’t take care of their children. Gem has always taken care of Dixie, but no one has ever taken care of Gem. And even though their parents absolutely suck, there are some good memories Gem has with them.  They have some redeeming qualities; they are neither totally bad or totally good. They are not villains. In fact, there are no villains in this book. Dixie can be cruel at times, their parents can be uncaring and even hateful, but none of these characters are irredeemable. There’s no black or white in Gem & Dixie. Just real actual life. And that’s refreshing for a young adult book.

Another reason I loved this book was that Gem is such a relatable character for me. She is isolated and has been abandoned by everyone she’s ever loved. She is absolutely starved for love and attention. And she suffers from some serious social anxiety, which I (and many of my students) can wholeheartedly relate to. At one point Gem says, “I’d been in bed for an hour without falling asleep, going over my day and all the ways I had been weird at school.” Oh my goodness, no sentence has ever better explained my addled brain.

Despite all of the challenges Gem faces, she pushes through. She does what she needs to survive and to overcome and though all she wants is to flee from her own feelings of responsibility for her mom and sister, she postpones her plans to try and mend her broken relationship with her sister, to finally-even if only for one day-have that love and attention she’s always wanted. Man oh man the feels. So many feels.

What My Students Could Learn From It

Sara Zarr tells a heartbreaking story in Gem & Dixie. And yet it is—unfortunately—a commonplace one. As a teacher, this book especially moved me. How many of my students—how many of your students—have these same experiences? How many have neglectful parents? Parents who don’t make sure their kids have eaten? Who use them as pawns against their spouse or ex-spouse? Who have never taken them on a Ferris wheel or to the park? Who never buy them new clothes? Who don’t know where they are at any given time and who don’t ask? How many of my—and your—students don’t know how to ask for help? Don’t know who to ask for help? How many feel that their problems, their neglectful parents, aren’t bad enough to ask for help? How many feel they don’t deserve help? How many feel like they’re invisible—even to their own families? More than I, who came from a loving home with family vacations and rides on Ferris wheels and a home cooked meal every night, can ever imagine.

Clearly, this book is a must-read for teachers. But it’s also a must-read for our students. Many of my students could obviously relate to the plight of the main characters, and those that can’t could certainly learn a lot about problems that many less fortunate teens deal with.

Gem & Dixie has changed the way I view my students and will hopefully change the way I treat them and talk to them and teach them. And it’ll change you–and your students–too.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Quality of Prose: 4.5/5

Quality of Story: 4.5/5

Quality of Characters: 4.5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 3 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Vera Dietz struggles to cope with the mysterious death of her best friend, Charlie Kahn, and the legacies their parents left for them.

My Favorite Quotes

“The pastor is saying something about how Charlie was a free spirit. He was and he wasn’t. He was free because on the inside he was tied up in knots. He lived hard because inside he was dying. Charlie made inner conflict look delicious.”

“I knew his [parents] wouldn’t believe us or care. There was a reason Charlie was such a bright blazing sun. He came from endless cold, black space.”

“Because with Charlie, nothing was ever easy. Everything was windswept and octagonal and finger-combed. Everything was difficult and odd, and the theme songs all had minor chords.”

“Which Zen guy said, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” That’s how I feel without Charlie. Like one hand clapping.”

please ignore vera dietz

What I Loved About It

Man oh man oh man did I love this book. It’s a coming of age classic in the vein of Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Spectacular Now, and I’m appalled that prior to downloading it from my local public library’s app, I had never heard of it.

Through writing that is equally sharp and beautiful, witty and painful, A.S. King tells the story of Vera Dietz, a girl coping with grief, guilt, and growing up. Though Charlie is already dead at the beginning of the book, King uses flashbacks to create a tragic hero in Charlie, whose abusive father, close and mysterious relationship with a neighborhood pedophile, and impossible love for his best friend, Vera Dietz, make him a tortured, lost boy. And the fact that Vera couldn’t save him in the end, no matter how much Charlie and Vera wanted that to happen, makes this book one of the most emotionally cutting–and realistic–books I’ve read in years. I finished the book during my planning period and sat alone in my classroom bawling about the injustice of life and death and how trapped Charlie felt by his own decisions in the end. You could definitely say this book gave me all the feels.

And then, of course, there’s Vera, whose dad is a former alcoholic and whose absentee mother is a former stripper, and who wrestles with the weight of Charlie’s death, the fact that she didn’t stop it, and the fact that she hasn’t told anyone what really happened the night he died. She’s one of the most complex, relatable, and wittiest characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting in a young adult book.

Through these characters–and with brief asides from the perspective of Vera’s dad (and his many flow charts) and the town pagoda–King is able to write a coming of age story that tackles the big question, “What is your original face, before your mother and father were born?” (this is the book’s epigraph), all while also exploring issues related to alcoholism, reputation, drug abuse, pedophilia, domestic abuse, social responsibility, and identity.

What My Students Could Learn From It

A major lesson this book can teach is about social responsibility. My students’ collective life motto is “snitches get stitches” and A.S. King spends so much time in this book discussing whether it’s actually our responsibility to be a snitch. Here’s a great example of one of the many times the protagonist, Vera Dietz, rants about the problems with this outlook:

“I mean, I ignore plenty of stuff, like school spirit days and the dirty looks I get from the Detentionheads while I try to slink through the halls unnoticed. But there’s something about telling other people what to ignore that just doesn’t work for me. Especially things we shouldn’t be ignoring.

Hear that girl in your class is being abused by her stepfather and had to go to the clinic? Hear she’s bringing her mother’s pills to school and selling them to pay for it? Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. Mind your own business. Don’t make waves. Fly under the radar. It’s just one of those things, Vera. 

I’m sorry, but I don’t get it. If we’re supposed to ignore everything that’s wrong in our lives, then I can’t see how we’ll ever make things right.” (p. 43)

My students have got to learn that it is their responsibility to make the world better than it was when they entered it, that they can and should help each other and strangers and their friends and enemies. Charlie died because no one ever called the cops on his dad, on the pedophile John, because Vera didn’t save him when he asked to be saved, because no one wanted to be the one who told. This is a lesson I don’t want my students to learn the hard way. I also want my students to see that they don’t have to become their parents, a fate Charlie was convinced he couldn’t avoid, that they can forge a new path for themselves, like Vera was committed to doing.