Mexican Whiteboy by Matt de la Peña

Mexican Whiteboy by Matt de la Peña

Overall Rating: 4/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 3.5/5

Quality of Characters: 4/5

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

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 4 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Danny, a quiet, half-Mexican-half-white baseball prodigy, goes to stay with his absent father’s family for the summer, where he meets new friends, masters his pitching skills, and comes to term with his father’s absence and his own racial identity.

My Favorite Quotes

“He’s Mexican, because his family’s Mexican, but he’s not really Mexican. His skin is dark like his grandma’s sweet coffee, but his insides are as pale as the cream she mixes in.”

“I came here because sometimes I feel like a fake Mexican. And I don’t want to be a fake. I wanna be real.”

mex white boy.jpg

What I Loved About It

I haven’t read very many sports-related books and have always had to look up books to recommend to my students who only want to read books about sports. I guess I always thought those athletic-teen-boy-protagonist, sports-focused books would be hard for me to relate to (as the least athletic person ever), but after reading this book, I can at least say I was very wrong about Matt de la Peña’s books. The dude is a genius. Mexican Whiteboy is phenomenal. It transcends the sports genre and even the coming of age genre to provide social commentary on race and poverty and identity and how these things are entwined, teaching teen readers so many important lessons and asking them so many important questions.

de la Peña has created an unusually relatable protagonist in Danny Lopez. Danny’s anxiety, loneliness, and confused sense of self are so typical to all teenagers and is, therefore, extremely relatable. But then it’s compounded by his biracial identity, which he struggles with because he feels like he doesn’t truly belong to either race. And de la Peña does such a good job in writing about that internal conflict and creating such a realistic teen character (and in such poignant prose too!).

What My Students Could Learn From It

I already mentioned that all of my students (regardless of their ethnic or racial makeup) could certainly relate to Danny’s struggle to understand his own identity. Many of my students could also relate to the poverty depicted in the book and the trouble each character has with understanding and being understood by their parents. Kids have got to read books they relate to or they won’t want to read, and I think Mexican Whiteboy, with its real characters and exciting baseball scenes and relatable conflicts would definitely capture their attention.

My students also desperately need to read books that give perspectives that are different from their own, racially, religiously, sexually, etc. Mexican Whiteboy is not only told from the perspective of a half-white, half-Mexican teen in Danny, but also in Uno, a half-black, half-Mexican teen. Mexican Whiteboy would certainly serve as a much needed window into these other experiences for my students and for yours too.

 

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Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton

Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Quality of Prose: 3/5

Quality of Story: 3/5

Quality of Characters: 3.5/5

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

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 3 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Adam Petrazelli, a teenager suffering from schizophrenia and the loneliness that comes with having a mental illness other people don’t understand, begins participating in a clinical trial for a medicine he hopes will change his life, starts his junior year at a new school, makes new friends, and tries his best to keep his illness from them.

My Favorite Quotes

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling, when I learned what someone would say if they knew my secret. What they really thought about people with my condition. Not the fake comforting words they’d give that other people would hear. The real words in their heart. If they knew I was a threat, they’d tell me to kill myself. They’d think I was a monster.”

“It’s hard to let someone find you in all the dark and twisty places inside, but eventually, you have to hope that they do, because that’s the beginning of everything.”

“Cancer Kid has the Make-A-Wish Foundation because Cancer Kid will eventually die, and that’s sad. Schizophrenia Kid will also eventually die, but before he does, he will be overmedicated with a plethora of drugs, he will alienate everyone he’s ever really cared about, and he will most likely wind up on the street, living with a cat that will eat him when he dies. That is also sad, but nobody gives him a wish, because he isn’t actively dying. It is abundantly clear that we only care about sick people who are dying tragic, time-sensitive deaths.”

words on bathroom walls

What I Loved About It

I loved that this book gave me, and all its other readers, a brief glimpse into what it’s like to live with a stigmatized and feared mental illness as a teenager. There are a ton of YA books out there about suicide and depression that focus on what life is like for those who loved or knew the person who took their life (and those books are very important), but I haven’t found many YA books out there about protagonists who are living and currently suffering from a mental illness.

Though the main character, Adam, falls in love, this book is not at all a romance or even a traditional coming-of-age book really. It simply tells the story of a teenaged boy suffering from a disease that other people fear, while still dealing with all the normal reasons for teenage angst like family problems, friendships, and relationships.  Life is hard enough as a healthy teenager, but to add in serious mental illness and the fear that people will discover that you have that mental illness, it’s almost unbearable. And Julia Walton expertly conveys that in this novel. She has created a very likable and very troubled protagonist in Adam.  I didn’t care a ton about any of the other characters in the novel (like Adam’s girlfriend Maya or the mean guy at school), but I think Adam, his therapist, and his mother and step-father and the dynamics Adam has with each of those characters are really interesting and well-written parts of the story.

What My Students Could Learn From It

In Words on Bathroom Walls, the protagonist allows readers to walk in the shoes of someone with a misunderstood and feared mental illness. This is something all of my students could benefit from–those who suffer from mental illnesses themselves can certainly relate (and could use a novel with a protagonist they can relate to!) and those who don’t could really use some empathy and understanding with regards to mental health.

The main thing I love about this book is that Walton explores so many common misconceptions and fears people have about mental health through it. By setting the novel in 2012, Walton was able to discuss the Sandy Hook shooting and the hatred, distrust, and fear people around the country who had schizophrenia were faced with after that shooting. Adam’s school almost kicks him out after the shooting because the shooter at Sandy Hook also had schizophrenia, and they didn’t want Adam to do something like that at his school. The pain Adam feels at being viewed this way truly effected me and my own views on mental health and school shootings. Reading this book would make my students think about these things differently too.

I’ve said over and over again on this blog that the main thing I want to teach my students is empathy. In our society today, too many people are without empathy when it comes to mental illness. This book can change that.

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.

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.

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.

 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

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: 4/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 4 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

When her childhood friend Davis Puckett’s billionaire father goes missing while being investigated for fraud, Aza Holmes reconnects with Davis, attempts to find his father, and struggles with her own ever-growing anxiety disorder.

My Favorite Quote

“Your now is not your forever.”

“You’re both the fire and the water that extinguishes it. You’re the narrator, the protagonist, and the sidekick. You’re the storyteller and the story told. You are somebody’s something, but you are also your you.”

Turtles_All_The_Way_Down_Book_Cover

What I Loved About It

All the typical John Green things.

As per usual, his prose is poignant and full of a depth many young adult novels unfortunately lack. (I’ve mentioned before on this blog Green’s quotable quotes–the sentences he writes that cut you right to the heart, his ability to put a feeling or experience you’ve had but were never able to dictate into words in the most beautiful and quotable way possible. The same is certainly true in this book.)

Green is able to chronicle his protagonist’s descent into dark “thought spirals” in a way that is–let’s be real–true perfection. (SPOILER ALERT) There are a couple pages towards the end of the book where the protagonist is fighting against her anxiety-induced need to drink hand sanitizer (to ward off the infection she is sure is festering in her stomach) that just SLAYED me. These pages in particular are incredibly well-written and a great but heartbreaking depiction of anxiety, depression, and mental health problems.

While I loved these things about the book (and all John Green books tbh), there are things about John Green books that always bother me. His depictions of many teen issues like identity, rites of passage, first love, family issues, pain, grief, and mental health are expertly written and extremely realistic, but the actual teenaged characters he creates are not so much.

His characters are always super smart and deep, philosophizing about life and death and the universe, quoting long-dead authors and poets and philosophers. And it’d be okay if one character in each of his books is a little philosophizing genius who has the maturity and literary knowledge of a college senior co-majoring in literature, history, biology, and philosophy and who maybe introduces the other characters to these things. But every single character in every one of his books is that way. The main characters. The love interests. The best friends. Every. Single. One. Of. Them.

I spend all day every day with over a hundred teenagers, and sure, a few of them are extremely well-versed on literature, but none (NONE!) can quote Joyce or Morrison or The Tempest. I guess you could say reading his books could make teens aspire to be as deep or as knowledgable about pop culture and literary references as Davis or Aza are, but for me every time I read a John Green book, the characters just come across as glaringly fake. (The only exception to this for me was in Looking for Alaska. Alaska and Pudge’s knowledge felt organic and believable to me, a stark contrast to that of Hazel Grace’s of The Fault in Our Stars or Aza’s of Turtles All the Way Down.

I also couldn’t really buy into the romance between Aza and Davis in this one. Maybe we’re not meant to. Maybe that’s the point he’s making about Aza’s mental health–that it’s keeping her from experiencing a normal first love experience. I can respect that, but I also didn’t really care about the mystery of Davis’ dad’s disappearance. The only plot points in the story that I cared at all about were those that were associated with Aza’s mental health. While I found The Fault in Our Stars to be extremely overrated, I still cared about the overall plot and characters of the story. And in Looking for Alaska (Green’s one and only masterpiece in my opinion), I had a deep and visceral connection to the plot and characters. The same just can’t be said for this one. I just did not care nearly as much about any of it.

What My Students Could Learn From It

Regardless of its faults, the novel is a great and gut-wrenching depiction of anxiety. And this is something many of my students could really use. A lot of my students struggle with anxiety themselves, and many of the ones that don’t could definitely benefit from living in someone’s shoes who does have anxiety. I’m always trying to find ways to teach them empathy, but it’s hard (understatement of the century). This book is a way to get kids to realize that they’re not alone and to allow them a chance to view life from someone else’s perspective.

Just like any other John Green book, Turtles All the Way Down also introduces students to a lot of authors and quotes they otherwise would not be introduced to (regardless of the unrealistic nature of the quotes in the book) and that’s always a good thing.