Category Archives: **** Highly Recommended

Is it Night or Day? by Fern Shuman Chapman

Farrar, Straus, Giroux     ISBN: 9780374177447

This novel is based on the experiences of the author’s mother who, in 1938, at the age of twelve was sent from Germany to Chicago to live with an aunt, uncle, and cousin. Her older sister had been sent separately a year before. Edith travels with a group of other Jewish children, escorted by a young woman who was part of an American rescue effort that placed 1000 children in foster homes in the United States.

Arriving in Chicago, Edith discovers that her presence is only tolerated because her aunt wants someone to do the chores, and because the family receives a small stipend for taking her in. Kept constantly busy with housework, it is weeks before Edith can see her sister, Betty, who has emotionally replaced her with the daughter of her foster family. Meanwhile, Edith is doing everything she can to raise money to rescue her parents.

Chapman makes effective use of a first person, chronological narrative to develop the story. She chooses her scenes well to reveal Edith’s loneliness and isolation as she tries to adjust to her circumstances, and the reader is quickly engaged, and cares what happens to her. Edith comes across as a complex and realistic young person who has much to struggle with. Dialogue is effective and realistic, sometimes painfully so. The ending leaves the reader wanting to know what happens next, and is perhaps the only part of the book where Edith seems older than she really is in the story.

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Say the Word by Jeannine Garsee

Bloomsbury, 2009     ISBN: 1599903334

Shawna’s mother, Penny, left the family ten years ago to move in with Fran, and neither Shawna, nor her father, has been able to accept her lesbianism. Needless to say, visits to her mother never went well, and finally Shawna tells her mother that she doesn’t want to see her anymore.

When Shawna gets a call from Fran that her mother has had a stroke and isn’t going to make it, Shawna knows she needs to go see her. She is as resentful as ever of Fran, and her two sons, who know and love her mother in a way that she has been unable and unwilling to do.

What follows is the nightmare of any lgbt person estranged from his or her family: Shawna’s father moves in swiftly, wielding a medical power of attorney that her mother created when she was pregnant with her seventeen years before, and never revoked, and has her removed from life support. Ignoring the fact that she was in the process of converting to Judaism, he arranges a Catholic burial. And because Shawna’s mother has never redone her will, everything goes to her father, leaving Fran with so little that she is forced to sell her share of the home they shared and move from New York to Cleveland to live with an aunt.

Shawna’s father is not satisfied to stop there, but gets a court order to have Fran’s youngest son’s DNA checked, and finds out that he is not Fran’s, but his and Penny’s. When he goes to court and gets custody of the boy, with no visitation for Fran, Schmule, or Samuel, as her father insists on calling him, begins to show signs of suicidal intent. Shawna recognizes the seriousness of the situation, finally takes action against her domineering father, and begins to seriously deal with her own homophobia.

If at times it seems as if one more added action of her father’s will move this novel into the realm of melodrama, the writing carries it through, leaving Shawna’s father’s final capitulation as the only flawed note.

How Beautiful the Ordinary edited by Michael Cart

Bowen Press / Harper Teen, 2009      ISBN: 9780061154980

Editor Michael Cart has collected twelve stories about LGBT youth identity in the form of short stories, graphic fiction, and verse, by well-known young-adult, and adult authors including Francesca Lia Block, Gregory Maguire, Jacqueline Woodson, Ariel Schrag, Emma Donoghue, and others.

There is something for everyone in this collection: stories of ghosts and girls trapped in walls serving as metaphors for transgendered teens trapped in the wrong body; handsome highway men and soldiers for a stable boy to lust after; stories of first love; and of first making love. One graphic short story is about two teens who make conflicting wishes when they meet a genie, leaving all three of them tortured; the other is about the San Francisco Dyke March.

While there is some sex, most of it is left to the imagination, good as in Julie Anne Peter’s “First Time,” and unsettling, as in William Sleator’s “Fingernail,” a disturbing story about the sex trade between older western men, and young boys in Thailand. In this particular story, the Thai “boy” is already a young man of twenty and thus technically legal, unlike much of the sex trade that actually takes place there between men and underage boys. But the abusive relationship that he finds himself in is almost equally disturbing.

Some of the stories may actually be of more interest to older readers than to teens: in particular, David Levithan’s “A Word from the Nearly Distant Past,” in which Levithan recounts the experiences of generations past as they dealt with being in the closet, dealing with the AIDS crisis, etc., and exhorts the younger generation to make sure that they live for future generations, as much as for themselves. Emma Donoghue’s “Dear Lang,” is a letter from a lesbian mother who has been denied access to her now sixteen-year-old son by his biological mother, in which she tells the story of how she came to be barred from his life, and how she is just now taking the chance of having another child with a new partner.

One of the best stories is Jacqueline Woodson’s insightful “Trev,” about a transgendered child, and the struggles he has with his family and at school to be who he really is. Trev’s mother both reassures him that he isn’t the reason his father left, and yet whispers her wish to him every night at bedtime, that Trev will wake up “my sugar and spice, and everything nice.”

Recommended for all teens.

The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline, An Enola Holmes Mystery by Nancy Springer

Philomel, 2009     ISBN: 0399247815

Enola Holmes, younger sister of Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes, puts her disguises and brilliance to work when her landlady receives a threatening note that makes no sense to her, and is subsequently kidnapped. Enola is fast off the starting block, but has to avoid her brother, Sherlock, who she is on the run from, and who has also been called in on the case from another direction. Enola rescues Mrs. Tupper, and manages to flee into the night one step ahead of Sherlock who has finally begun to wonder if he and Mycroft are right about wanting to send Enola to finishing school. Budding cryptologists will enjoy the challenge of over a page’s worth of deciphering.

Freaks and Revelations by Davida Wills Hurwin

Little, Brown and Company, 2009

Based on a true story, Hurwin reveals, in alternating chapters covering a period of years, how two teen-aged boys from different, but equally painful backgrounds come to meet in a violent attack in an alley in Southern California.

At ten, Doug’s older brother, Carl, is shot by a black man, fueling the already racist leanings of their parents who have already moved the family to a whiter community. To the fury of their parents, Carl refuses to press charges. Meanwhile, their sister has moved out to live with her boyfriend, with Carl following soon after. Doug begins, at a young age to drink and use drugs, becoming more distant from his inattentive parents, and more disaffected with life in general. It isn’t until he discovers the Punk rock scene that he begins to feel connected to anyone or anything. Unfortunately, it is the more violent and extreme aspects of the scene that draw him in, and combined with the racist attitudes he was brought up with, he becomes a skinhead.

Jason’s family is equally problematic, with an uncle arrested for child pornography, a crazy grandmother, and a runaway brother, all of whom no one mentions. When his parents get divorced, their mother suddenly becomes very pious and strict, leading one of Jason’s sisters to say it seems they’d traded their father for God. Meanwhile, at twelve, Jason is beginning to notice other boys at dance class. He decides that what his family needs is to start being more honest, and comes out at a family meeting. His father walks out, and his mother packs his backpack and sees him to the door, leaving Jason with no idea of what to do other than go to the Castro (San Francisco’s largely gay neighborhood). While he resists turning tricks for a long time, he can’t keep it up forever, and soon finds himself over his head using drugs and getting into dangerous situations with older men. Eventually he heads to L.A. with an acquaintance, only to be abandoned on a street corner. It isn’t long before he gets the lay of the land, makes a good friend, Coco, and begins to scrape by the same way he had been in San Francisco.

One night Doug and his friends, high and angry, decide to go out queer bashing, and find Jason and Coco at a restaurant they consider to be <em>their</em> territory. Jason and Coco run, but Jason ends up trapped in an alley where Doug and his friends beat him and leave him not knowing if he is even alive.

Twenty five years later, the two meet again in surprising circumstances that change both their lives.

Hurwin manages to bring both characters sympathetically to life in this thought-provoking and powerful novel. <em>Freaks and Revelations </em>would make an excellent discussion choice, useful in a variety of classroom settings, or as a book-group read.

Gwenhwyfar: The White Spirit by Mercedes Lackey

DAW, 2009     ISBN: 9780756405854

In this Arthurian novel, Lackey focuses on the Welsh tales of Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), in which King Arthur has three wives in succession, each named Gwenhwyfar. The Gwenhwyfar of this novel  is one of four  daughters of a Celtic King. Intended by her mother to go and serve the Ladies, learning the magic of the old pagan rites and becoming a Priestess, Gwenhwyfar is much more interested in horses and in becoming a warrior. At the encouragement of Braith, one of her father’s warriors, and because she has a sister with the gift, who will go to the Ladies in her place, Gwenhwyfar is permitted to become a warrior.

She works hard at her lessons, and over the years earns the position of leader of her father’s scouts—all talented horsemen and trackers who are physically too small to be of much use in direct battle.

When Saxons invade one winter, King Arthur sends his best tactician, Lancelin (Lancelot) to consult on battle plans, and Gwen is included in the discussion with all the War Lords as they plan an attack. Gwen has already managed to terrify the Saxons by appearing to them as a white spirit, and calling out the names of those she seeks. When the battle finally takes place, the victory comes easily, though not without bloodshed.

Meanwhile, Gwen finds herself attracted to Lancelin, but is forced to accept that he can see her only as a warrior, or as a woman, not both together.

Gwenhwyfar’s life changes dramatically when the second Queen Gwenhwyfar dies, and Arthur is still without a legal heir: she is forced to accept the duty of a princess and serve the land by becoming Arthur’s third wife.  However, her adventures do not end, but rather change, as she is thrust into the midst of intrigue and plotting, and she once again acquits herself as a warrior and meets up again with Lancelin.

As always, Lackey spins a good tale, and her foray into the world of Arthurian legend is a welcome addition.

Angry Management by Chris Crutcher

Greenwillow Books, 2009     ISBN: 0060502479

Using the plot device of an anger management group for troubled teens, Crutcher presents three novellas that explore the reasons why each member has been referred to the group.

There are a couple of familiar characters from Crutcher’s other novels or stories: Angus Bethune, the fat teen with two sets of gay parents from “Athletic Shorts: Six Short Stories,” finds friendship and the surprising possibility of love with Sarah Byrnes, the burned girl from the novel “Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes,” as they take a road trip to Reno to find the mother who abandoned her to her violent father shortly after he purposefully burned her hands and face on a wood stove.

In another novella, Crutcher explores the spiraling damage of a hate crime badly handled by a school principal and superintendent. Matt Miller, a straight-laced Christian teen finds himself speaking out on behalf of Marcus James, the only black, and only out gay teen in their rural high school.

Then there is Montana West, the adoptive daughter of the school board president, a rigid and controlling man. With the help of a teacher, Montana decides to challenge the school’s decision not to run her article on medical marijuana in the school paper. Meanwhile, at home, her father has decided to return a little girl to the foster care system, and Montana faces him down on that issue as well.

These novellas are absorbing, engaging reading, and make a good choice for reading aloud, or recommending to reluctant readers. They would serve very well for classroom or book group discussion, and are likely to lead readers to Crutcher’s other books, as well as to other books about teens facing extremely difficult obstacles.

The device of the angry management group is almost extraneous; it either should have been better fleshed out and incorporated into the book, or left out altogether. However, this is a minor detraction from an excellent book that should be in every teen collection.