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.

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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.

Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day by David Levithan

Overall Rating: 4/5

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: 3 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

For A’s entire life, A has inexplicably started each day in a new body, taking over another person’s life against their will and against A’s as well, but when A inhabits Justin’s body and meets and falls in love with his girlfriend Rhiannon, A starts taking foolish risks to be close to her and wishes for a body of A’s own and a normal life.

My Favorite Quotes

“What is it about the moment you fall in love? How can such a small measure of time contain such enormity?…The moment you fall in love feels like it has centuries behind it, generations–all of them rearranging themselves so that this precise, remarkable intersection could happen. In your heart, in your bones, no matter how silly you know it is, you feel that everything has been leading to this, all the secret arrows were pointing here, the universe and time itself crafted this long ago, and you are just now realizing it, you are just now arriving at the place you were always meant to be.”

“This is the trap of having something to live for: Everything else seems lifeless.”

every day

What I Loved About It

Levithan’s prose is great, beautiful and striking and poignant. Though you’d think A’s incorporeal nature would make A (I’m avoiding gender pronouns because A has no gender because A is bodiless so my wording is necessarily awkward, sorry.) a character that is difficult for readers to understand or relate to, A is an incredibly sympathetic and even venerable character (I’m not sure I’ve ever described a young adult protagonist as venerable, but A’s just a really different, refreshing brand of protagonist–in all the best ways). Though A and Rhiannon’s relationship is incredibly unusual and the trials they face because of A’s amorphous nature are–admittedly–abnormal, Levithan is able to expertly depict the pain and joy of first love through their relationship.

But in Every Day, Levithan’s not just telling the story of first love. He’s telling the story of all of us, of humanity itself. A has lived as every type of person with every type of idiosyncrasy and every type of problem. Through A’s unique life, Levithan is able to address illness, drug and alcohol addiction, sexual orientation, the dangers of being too beautiful or too overweight, the fluidity of gender, grief, reputation, family, love, and most of all (and perhaps best of all), what makes a human human. Is it a mind, a consciousness? Is it our bodies? Is it our genders? All of the above? None of the above? I found myself thinking about gender, consciousness, and humanity in completely different ways while reading it. And yet it never once comes across as didactic or preach-y, or even predictable. Every Day is just such a meaty, thought-provoking, and unique novel.

What My Students Could Learn From It

The biggest thing I (and all of my coworkers) want my students to learn is empathy, and Every Day is uniquely qualified to do that. A book wherein the main character literally walks in the shoes of so many different kinds of people and learns so much about the trials each of them face–and the trials all of us face–is unmatched in its ability to teach students how to have compassion and empathy for those different than themselves. And, like I’ve already said, Every Day can get kids to think about innumerable teen issues in different ways. I just can not praise this book’s quality enough.

 

Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland

Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 3/5

Quality of Characters: 3/5

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

How Long It Took Me To Finish: 3 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Henry Page falls in (mostly unrequited) love for the first time with the mysterious Grace Town, who is in love with someone else, her boyfriend of many years who has recently died.

My Favorite Quotes

“When I look up into the night sky, I remember that I’m nothing but the ashes of long-dead stars. A human being is a collection of atoms that comes together into an ordered pattern for a brief period of time and then falls apart again. I find comfort in my smallness.”

“Because I never realized that you could fall in love with humans the same way you fall in love with songs. How the tune of them could mean nothing to you at first, an unfamiliar melody, but quickly turn into a symphony carved across your skin; a hymn in the web of your veins; a harmony stitched into the lining of your soul.”

ourchemicalhearts

What I Loved About It

Krystal Sutherland’s writing is very John Green-esque. The prose–and especially the dialogue–is incredibly witty and sharp, and it also has a depth to it that many young adult books are lacking these days. It gets you thinking about life, death, and love in a way that you hadn’t previously.

It’s those two things that I really liked about this book. The dialogue, which was chock-full of hilarious references and smart comebacks, was extremely fun to read at times.

Here’s a cool example:

The main character, Henry says, “This is the second straight hour I’ve been listening to Taylor Swift. She’s the only one who understands me…Who hurt you, Taylor? How can one person endure so much heartbreak?” to which his sister replies, “Are you gonna keep this bottled up inside until it manifests as mental illness?” to which he says, “That’s pretty much the plan.” His sister: “How long have you been lying in that bed for, anyway? You’re going to get deep vein thrombosis.” Henry: “Leave, Sadie. Leave me to my heartache and DVT.”

This funny exchange is immediately followed by a deep heart-to-heart covering love and what it means when a love isn’t forever and the chemical reaction in your brain when love fails and your heart is breaking.

The whole book is full of these funny exchanges and cool (and extremely current) pop culture references and quotable quotes about love and death (like the ones I included above under “My Favorite Quotes”).

And while I loved all these things about the book, there were things I didn’t love as well. I didn’t particularly like the characters. I supposed I liked the supporting characters (Henry’s sister and friends, etc.). They were hilarious and endearing and fun in their eccentricity. But Henry and Grace? I just could not root for either of them. Henry was naive to the point of annoyance, and Grace was frustrating and unappealing and even a little cruel. And I guess that’s the point. Doesn’t love make you naive? And doesn’t grief make you cruel? This isn’t supposed to be a love story you root for, but instead a case study on how first love (or really any love) doesn’t usually last, and how do we react when it doesn’t or when we’re in the midst of it but know it won’t last?

What My Students Could Learn From It

Another cool thing about this book is how realistic of a depiction it provides for teenage relationships. Henry’s obsession with becoming Grace Town’s boyfriend even though he practically knows nothing about her and only finds her attractive 20% of the time? Yeah that’s pretty realistic. Take it from someone who spends 8 hours a day with hormonal, relationship and “love”-driven teenagers. The obsession is so real. I think kids can learn from how Henry’s obsession pans out.

Other than that, I don’t think there are many clear cut lessons to learn from Our Chemical Hearts. Sutherland asks a lot of questions and starts a lot of conversations and encourages thought about a lot of things (with those magic John Green-esque quotable quotes), but doesn’t provide many clear “morals of the story.” Her ambiguity is refreshing. I think teens would appreciate the depth of some of the quotes and dialogue found in the novel, and it would get them thinking about a lot of things. And as their teacher, that’s definitely something I want novels they read to do.