I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Nelson_givesunNelson, Jandy. I’ll Give You the Sun. New York: Dial Books, 2014. Print.

Genre: YA

Summary: This story about twins, Noah and Jude, is told through their alternating perspectives from different points in time. Jude tells the “future” when she and Noah are 16 and totally estranged. Noah tells the past, when they are 13 and inseparable. They mystery circles around what drove them apart. The suspense radiates out of the question: will they be able to reconcile and restore their once magically aligned worlds?

(Certainly not the book you want to be reading if, like me, you find yourself estranged from your own soul-twin and mate, forever wondering if your worlds will realign and be even more magical than before.)

Recipient of a few awards you might have heard of: 2015 Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature; 2015 Stonewall Honor Book; YALSA Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults; A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year; A Boston Globe Best YA Book of the Year…to name only a few.

Critique: The broken, fragment sentences that characterize the pulverizing teen voices of this novel are hypnotic. The romances singe and sizzle! The structure will stretch you across the most unbearable tenterhooks of tension as one narrative goes forward while the other probes back until they finally collide. The problem of perspective, its limited scope, our own ability to skew it, to keep ourselves preserved in the best light, is the pulse reverberating through the soul of this book, much as it is for Brian Friel’s Faith Healer. In both texts, devastating tragedies arise when people fail to see, understand, and accept a perspective that is not their own; to accept that they might have played the part of a villain without ever meaning to; that we are all capable (and guilty) of hurting worst the ones we love most; and that forgiveness is not only possible–it’s primal.

Pay the Piper by Jane Yolen

Yolen_piperYolen, Jane and Adam Stemple. Pay the Piper: A Rock n’ Roll Fairy Tale. New York: Starscape, 2005. Print.

Genre: YA fantasy (light)

Summary: Callie, 14, wants to go to a rock concert but her mega-protective parents won’t let her go. As the editor of the school news paper, Callie cooks up a quick scheme to interview the band, thus scoring backstage passes and forcing her parents to let her go cuz…it’s totally for school, right? Turns out the band is really a cadre of banished fairy folk who must make enough money every year to pay the king of the fairies, or else he must be paid in blood (read: human children). When money falls short, Callie’s little brother winds up on the blood list, jump starting Callie’s heroic and defiant side!

Critique: I lovedLOVEDl.o.v.e.d the title of this book! A rock n’ roll fairy tale? Yes, please! Publishers ought to be pushing these out like apples: one a day, to keep the doctor away. I also loved that the premise of the book unfurled from a historical hypothetical: what if what happened to the children of Hamelin in 1284 was true? What if a piper showed up and actually (millennials read: literally) led all the children away to who know where?

According to Yolen and Stemple, that event DID happen and it was because Peter Gringras and his Brass Rat band mates could not make enough money on their musical gigs to pay the king (also Gringras’s father who banished Peter–the piper, or virtuoso flutist–for accidentally killing his brother and heir to the throne).

In practice, the worldbuilding did not fully support the dilemma, which let all the air out of the stakes. Nothing really felt urgent. Peter’s band has been around forever. They are fairies after all, and age super-slow compared to humans. So every good while, when their fans begin to wonder why they don’t ever look older, they disappear and reinvent themselves. New name, new place, new tunes, etc. But by Callie’s time, they are mega-famous. As a result, I was not sure why losing the money from one gig was enough to blow the whole year and send the kiddo’s packing to fairy-folk-land.

Lastly, even though the point of view occasionally alternated between Callie and Peter, the story picked Callie as its protagonist. This also left me puzzled. In the grand scheme of things, Callie’s troubles were not that big. Her need for growth was, correspondingly, not that big. Peter, on the other hand, was a huge mess and had the most to overcome.

On the bright side, this is one of the few fairy books where the girl protagonist is NOT enchanted and idiotically, helplessly, submissively in love with the hot fairy dude. Callie tells Peter straight up, You’re 800+ years old. I’m 14. Gross! As a result, Callie is permitted throughout the story to be smart, resourceful, and autonomous. She thinks. She decides. She acts. And that’s a refreshing change within this popular trope!

Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin

Kuklin_MagentaKuklin, Susan. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out. New York: Candlewick, 2014. Print.

Genre: Nonfiction

Summary: Photographer Susan Kuklin compiles the stories of 6 transgender or gender-neutral teens as they transformed from male to female or female to male. Whichever way they go, these young souls discover that to be happy with who you are on the inside, you must also feel comfortable with what you are on the outside.

Critique: In honor of Caitlyn Jenner’s debut to the world, I just had to share this very excellent book! Whether the former Olympic gold medalist’s gender transformation had you clapping your hands or scratching your head, this book is worth your time and attention. Kuklin profiles six teens and pretty much transcribes their responses to her interview questions. The result is their voice, their take, their experience and profound insight. Photographs fill up other pages, tracking the metamorphic transformation. These photos are more than before-after snaps. They are a revelation of what it looks like when the soul does not harmonize with its shell–and how radiantly it glows when it does!

The stories all revolve around the central question of happiness. What would you be willing to do in order to be happy? It’s a fair question; one we all face.

This book as a lot to teach about the nuances that differentiate gender from sexuality, as well as queer from gay from trans from a million other potential identities. Perhaps the photo-essays from Cameron (who is also featured on the book cover) say it best, likening gender to a spectrum in which some people float while others swim. Unlike floaters, swimmers control where they are on the spectrum at any given time. Is someone in your life learning to swim that spectrum–a friend, a sibling, a partner, a child, a parent? Maybe just you.

Either way, when it comes to achieving happiness, don’t get stuck dog-paddling!

Also, because this is an annotation, it’s worth listing the “few” awards and honors heaped on this book’s shoulders…

A 2015 Stonewall Honor Book
Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for Nonfiction, 2014
Publishers Weekly’s list of Best YA Books of 2014
Kirkus, 10 Best YA Books, 2014
CCBC Choices, Best-of-the-year, 2014
Blue Ribbons, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, 2014
TAYSHAS 10 Best Books, Texas, 2014
The Advocate, 10 Best Books list for Transgender Non-Fiction,2014, Advocate.com
Books for a Better Life Awards, National Multiple Sclerosis Society [Finalist]
Shelf Awareness, Best Books of 2014
Booklist, Editors’ Choice for 2014
Finalist, Lambda Literary Award, a “Lammy”
Finalist, Cybil Awards 2014
Finalist, 2014 Foreword Reviews’ INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award for Young Adult Nonfiction
Notable book, National Council on Social Studies, 2015
ALA Rainbow List, 2015
Top 25 pick for IRA Notable Book for a Global Society

The Savage by David Almond

Almond-The-SavageAlmond, David. The Savage. Illus. Dave McKean. New York: Candlewick, 2008. Print.

Genre: YA Novel Graphic Novel “cocktail”

Summary: Blue’s father dies. To help Blue cope with his grief, the school counselor encourages him to write in a journal. Rather than write about his feelings, Blue delves into a fantastical story about a savage boy who lives in the woods nearby. Overtime, Blue’s life and the Savage’s life begin to overlap with frightful results. Blue might be able to heal from his grief if he can tame the beast within.

Critique: To date, I have yet to find a mixed-format book I did not like. Mary Losure’s Wild Boy, Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, and now David Almond’s The Savage add to a growing list of what I call “cocktail” books because of how they combine and shake up different storytelling mediums. Books that mix novel prose with graphic art panels make for an intense and dynamic means of storytelling. Pictures may or may not play off the words. In some cases, they may strike a direct counterpoint to the text, rambling off to tell their own tale. But the dissonance allows younger readers to become more sophisticated consumers of complex stories.

In this “cocktail” book, Dave McKean’s artwork is bold, splattered, and smeared. It invites the eye as much as it repels and repulses. How appropriate considering how our subconscious mind can have the exact same feel. All at once, it can lure us in with the promise of reckless abandon, while simultaneously disgusting us with its nightmare parades!


The most immersive textual parts of this story come from Blue’s journal entries. In these sections, we find Almond’s masterful ability to capture the perspective, voice, and aching soul of a young narrator. Almond achieves similar brilliance in The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean as Telt by Hisself. But there are other sections of text written from a more mature and knowledgeable Blue. These sections feel less intimate and a little too self-aware.

For those who know Ness’s A Monster Calls, this book will feel indisputably similar. Both deal with young boys undergoing personal turmoil and acrid grief that manifests in monstrous forms. Both boys deal with bullies. Just like Conor in A Monster Calls, Blue transforms into the Savage (his monstrous subconscious) to confront and fight his bully. In both books, fighting violence with violence drains much of the emotional resonance out of the story. There seemed to be a missed opportunity for empathy. For all anyone knows, these bullies endure an abusive life at home more savage than anything Blue or Conor have ever known. What impact would it have on the protagonists to witness their oppressors becoming the oppressed?  Besides, the real fight in either story is not with some external demon, but with the monster that lurks inside the heart of every human.

Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol

AnyasGhostCoverBrosgol, Vera. Anya’s Ghost. New York: First Second, 2011. Print.

Genre: YA graphic novel

Summary: Anya struggles to hide her Russian accent and all the embarrassing signs of “difference.” She is mostly friendless, under-achieving, and burdened with bad habits and poor self-image. A tumble down into an old well presents Anya with a new friend: a ghost who wants to help her. The spirit-girl tells Anya she lost her love when young and wants to ensure Anya lands the man she’s got her heart set on. After discovering the boy is a cad, Anya also discovers her ghost has sinister ulterior motives. To save her family from supernatural harm, Anya must rid herself of her bad habits and her bad attitude!

Critique: Witty, and sharp. Anya’s snarkasm is apt and endearing. Her struggles lead to positive and meaningful outcomes. She learns how to be a better person by befriending a truly awful former person. The artwork is all black and white. Bold, rounded figures. Lots of influential shadows and shading.