The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Quality of Prose: 3/5

Quality of Story: 4/5

Quality of Characters: 3.5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 3/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 2 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Eight months after she gave up music entirely after her grandmother’s death, former pianist prodigy, Lucy Beck-Moreau, attempts to play again, without being pressured or controlled by her mother and grandfather and the musical legacy of her family.

My Favorite Quotes

“The world was full of beauty. She wanted to grab hold of it and take it all down into her bones. Yet always it seemed beyond her grasp. Sometimes only by a little, like now. The thinnest membrane. Usually, though, by miles. You couldn’t expect to be that kind of happy all the time. She knew that. But sometimes, you could. Sometimes, you should be allowed a tiny bit of joy that would stay with you for more than five minutes. That wasn’t too much to ask. To have a moment like this, and be able to hold onto it. To cross that membrane, and feel alive.”

“They listened and stayed face to face, and the moment was a window, inching up, and she went through it, his eyes pulling her along, seeing her, and seeing her, and seeing her.”

lucy

What I Loved About It

I always love books with musician protagonists. There’s always a musicality to the prose and a depth to the story that I always always love. The Lucy Variations is no exception to this rule.

It is a great and unique coming of age story. True, there are all of the typical coming of age tropes. But Zarr puts a spin on each of them. There’s a first love in this story, but it’s delicate and innocent and inappropriate and more similar to a crush or an infatuation than to actual love. There’s a main character struggling with who she is and what she wants for herself and her life, but the realizations she comes to and the lessons she learns over the course of the novel are not really what you’d expect.

I love Sara Zarr. I discovered her earlier this year when I read Gem & Dixie and it broke my heart and made me full-on weep on an airplane. This is only the second of her books I have read, but it certainly did not disappoint. She has a unique ability to pull on my heartstrings and make me invested in her characters. I also love that she focuses a lot more on family and friend relationships in her coming of age stories than she does on romantic relationships. Her books are definitely a fresh take on YA Coming of Age.

What My Students Could Learn From It

To be fair, there isn’t a ton in this book for kids to learn other than to be themselves and not always bow to the expectations of their parents, to figure out who they want to be and what they want for their own life independent of what their parents or grandparents want for them. This book also does an amazing job of portraying a teen who learns to love life and the world around her, and I think a lot of my students could do with a reminder that life is worth living.

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The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

Overall Rating: 3.75/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 3.5/5

Quality of Characters: 3.5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 3/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 2 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

After a car crash that ruined his chances at the tennis scholarship he had always counted on, Ezra Faulkner begins his senior year, falls in love, and tries to figure out who he really is.

My Favorite Quotes

“And so we sat there in the sickening sillage of the truth, neither of us angry, or upset, just muddling through this shared sorrow, this collective pity. And as much as I wanted to sound my tragic wail over the rooftops, and let go of the day, and crawl back toward that safe harbor, and give in to the dying of the light, and to do all of those unheroically injured things that people never write poems about, I didn’t.”

“She tasted like buried treasure and swing sets and coffee. She tasted the way fireworks felt, like something you could get close to but never really have just for yourself.”

“I read somewhere that the hair and fingernails on dead bodies don’t actually grow, it just looks like they do because the skin contracts as the body dries out. So it’s possible to lie even in death, to deceive people from beyond the grave. I wondered if that’s what this was. If I was staring at the rotting corpse of what Cassidy and I had once had, wrongly convinced there was still life in it, grasping onto an uninformed lie.”

“Oscar Wilde once said that to live is the rarest thing in the world, because most people just exist, and that’s all. I don’t know if he’s right, but I do know that I spent a long time existing, and now, I intend to live.”

beginning

What I Loved About It

While reading the first half of this book, I was completely certain it would be a pleasant but ultimately forgettable high school romance (because, let’s be real, that’s kind of what it’s marketed as), but right around the halfway marker I realized this book was so much more than that. In fact, I wouldn’t classify it as a romance at all–but instead a classic coming of age story. There’s a first heartbreak sure (which most coming of age stories tend to have), but also a main character who is struggling with who he is in the wake of a major life change and as he prepares to enter the real world, and this makes this book so much more interesting and more important than a simple YA romance.

A quote from the end of the book that perfectly encapsulates this is when Ezra, the protagonist, is discussing whether it was falling in love with Cassidy Thorpe that made him grow into the person he is at the close of the novel and says, “I never should have given her so much credit. It all got tangled together, her appearance and Toby coming back into my life and the first time I ever read a book that spoke to me, and the question of who I wanted to be in the aftermath of my personal tragedy. Because I made a decision that year, to start mattering in a way that had nothing to do with sports teams or plastic crowns, and the reality is, I might have made that decision without her.” This book isn’t really about a love story, but really a teenage boy on a journey of self-discovery.

And what an amazing journey it is to watch. I mean, seriously. The biggest thing that impresses me about Schneider’s writing in this novel is the character growth Ezra undergoes. Though you get hints throughout the whole book that Ezra is smart (little scientific metaphors he makes or when he talks about the Great Gatsby–which is literally all the time), he also comes right out and says that he’s no star student, that he could/would never consider going to a university any more prestigious than a state school. And yet, as the book progresses, he embraces his own intelligence more and more and makes bigger plans for his future. It is truly incredible to see him at the end of the book investing in his own intellectual future. I don’t know if I’ve ever loved watching a character grow as much as I loved watching Ezra in this novel.

And though I am not a teenaged male former jock, ladies’ man, and homecoming king, I can relate to Ezra’s journey of finding himself and having that finding being tangled up in falling in love for the first time and not being able at first to determine how much of his new self is him and how much is a result of loving that person he loved. I can also relate to the discovery that high school popularity and the expectations of others don’t matter at all. This book is able to capture and verbalize that ridiculous notion everyone has in high school that they have to hide their true selves from literally everyone or they’ll be shunned and made fun of forever. I’ve never read a book that conveys that feeling as well as this book does. It really brought me back to my high school days (and not in a bittersweet-nostalgia kind of way and more in a man-high-school-is-so-dumb kind of way.)

What My Students Could Learn From It

By reading this book, I think my students could all learn that they shouldn’t hide themselves or dumb themselves down or hold back to seem cool, and that one day (namely, college) the people who are original and never hold back will be the coolest people out there. I also just think my kiddos would relate to it and enjoy watching Ezra’s coming of age journey as much as I did.

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

Overall Rating: 4/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 4/5

Quality of Characters: 4/5

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

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 5 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Math nerd and high school senior Lex struggles to come to terms with her brother’s recent suicide.

My Favorite Quotes

“Forgiveness is tricky, Alexis, because in the end it’s more about you than it is about the person who’s being forgiven.”

“Everything changes, I think. That is the only constant. We all grow up.”

“Brave isn’t something you are. It’s something you do. It comes from action. I appreciate that.”

last time

What I Loved About It

This book is a serious book. When reading it, it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a young adult book at all; The Last Time We Say Goodbye feels like an adult book with a young adult protagonist. That is refreshing. It’s a nice change reading a book that feels more serious, that lacks many of the common young adult book tropes and cliches. This book isn’t centered on a romance (though there is one deep in the background) and isn’t a typical coming of age story (though the protagonist learns many lessons and prepares for college over the course of the book). Though centered on teen suicide (like many other popular YA books) and how the people left behind by suicide cope  (see I Was Here and All the Bright Places), this book lacks the compelling qualities of many other YA books (and YA books about suicide). And while that meant this book took me far longer to read than I Was Here or All the Bright Places did, it is, in many ways, a positive statement about the book.

I wasn’t drawn in to this book by a angst-filled romance or by a protagonist that is so relatable she basically is me. With this book, a couple times I had to take breaks from reading because it was a bit too heavy for me to read for hours at a time. With this book, I had to, at times, force myself to read.

Many young adult books these days (even ones that I absolutely LOVE like All the Bright Places) follow a YA formula, a formula that draws in the most teen readers and ensures a place on the Bestseller list. And while I obviously love the components of that formula (because I love many of those enticing YA books), sometimes it’s nice to read a book that doesn’t prescribe to that formula, that is a bit more original, a bit more fresh, and a bit more adult. And that’s what The Last Time We Say Goodbye is. It’s not a page turner. It’s not a steamy romance or an action-packed dystopian novel or a dark and angsty teen mystery. It’s an adult young adult book.

Hand also does a superb job with putting the reader in Lex’s guilt- and shock-ridden headspace (possibly because she herself lost her teen brother to suicide as a young person). My heart can’t handle many more teen suicide books. They tear me to pieces every time, and this book is definitely no exception.

What My Students Could Learn From It

I think it’s good for students to read more serious YA books. I also do not prescribe to the (unfortunately popular) idea that we shouldn’t discuss suicide with teens so as not to give them ideas. Suicide is something we need to discuss with our teens. To show them that it’s not the right choice, that it destroys many other people than just the one who committed suicide. And this book could certainly serve as a conversation starter.

How to Love by Katie Cotugno

How to Love by Katie Cotugno

Overall Rating: 4/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 4/5

Quality of Characters: 4/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 3/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 2 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Three years after the love (or obsession) of Reena’s life, Sawyer LaGrande, abandoned her and left her pregnant and alone at 16, Sawyer returns to the town, girl, and family he left behind.

My Favorite Quotes

“I wasn’t shy, exactly…I just didn’t know how to do this, is all, the clang and chatter of high school. And, more than that, I didn’t particularly want to learn…I wasn’t unpopular, exactly. I was just…unequipped.”

“The hideous thing is this: I want to forgive him. Even after everything, I do. A baby before my 17th birthday and a future as lonely as the surface of the moon and still the sight of him feels like a homecoming, like a song I used to know but somehow forgot.”

“I am remembering so clearly how he looked when he was eight, when he was eleven, when he was seventeen. Sawyer and I were only together for a few months before he left, but he was my golden boy for so long before that he would have taken the guts of me with him even if we’d never been a couple at all.”

“My whole life a holding pattern, some variation on wait and see.”

how to love

What I Loved About It

I’m not gonna lie: I did not have very high expectations from this book. I got it for free at a book fair type thing at my school and had heard from a colleague that a lot of her students loved it. So I assumed it’d be one of those books teen girls who don’t like to read like but that lacks depth. I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong.

Catugno’s prose is exactly the kind I like, poignant and beautiful. Her prose (and really the entire book itself) reminded me of Sarah Dessen (who, as you probably already know, is one of my favorite YA coming of age/romance authors). Both of her lead characters in this book are interesting but flawed, and the romance between them is electric and sweet, and yet so dang full of angst. (Again, just how I like my YA romances.)

I think what also made me really love this book was how much I related to the protagonist, Reena. While I can’t really relate to the whole falling-in-dangerous-love-with-the-bad-boy thing (though my sixteen year old self would have really wanted to) or the pregnant-at-sixteen thing, I can certainly relate to her loneliness, her high school-related social ineptitude, and her great desire to escape. I thought Catugno, like Queen Sarah Dessen, did a really good job depicting that kind of character.

My main hang-up with this book though is the lack of importance Reena and Sawyer’s baby Hannah had in the story. After his return, Sawyer was completely focused on getting Reena back. There never once was a conversation about him wanting to know his child or him despairing about missing the first two years of her life. While Reena seems to be a decent mother off-the-page, the book doesn’t actually give any evidence that she is a good mother on-the-page. The book is a love story. It focuses on Reena’s feelings about her abandonment and how trapped she feels, how much she feels like her life is over. It’s a coming of age story, with a teen pregnancy thrown in for extra drama, not a story about a mother. While I liked the book this way, I also felt like something was missing because of this.

What My Students Could Learn From It

There aren’t a ton of lessons students could learn from this novel. I do think, however, that it’s a good chronicle of the coming-of-age experience. It shows teen readers that life doesn’t always go the way you planned, that your decisions have consequences, and that you should never forget yourself because of a boy (or a girl, for that matter). And, of course, it’s a book that could teach kids that reading can be fun. And that is one of the most important lessons I want students in my care to learn.

 

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.