Autumns Picks for Young Readersby Jordan B. Nielsen
(Wendy Lamb Books, 2015)
This is the book you are looking for. This is the book that all of us who work in children’s books, who care about the quality of what children read, are looking for. Newbery Medal-winner Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger, a move towards tween readers after her huge successes in Middle Grade fiction, is as authentic as it gets.
Like that winner, When You Reach Me, Stranger uses a looping timeline to explore the events of a pivotal year in the lives of its main characters. Beginning at the start of a new school year, and jumping forward to Valentine’s Day, we’re introduced to Bridge, Emily, and Tabitha, three girls whose easy childhood friendship is showing signs of strain as they enter seventh grade. Their “no fighting” rule might have been laid out with the best of intentions years ago, but with their lives rapidly increasing in complexity, staying loyal to one another is proving all the more difficult.
Bridge is the survivor of a nearly fatal car accident. Multiple surgeries and a year of rehabilitation have restored her body, but inside she carries the understanding that she will always be different—from the person that she was before, and from those who’ve never been through such a trial. Perhaps as a way to show it on the outside, she elects to wear a pair of cat ears from an old costume every day. Tabitha is the glue of this group. Fierce, steadfast, idealistic, her ethos seems to be hardening by the day. But rigid principles have a downside: inflexibility. Soon she finds her staunchness leaves her standing still. Emily is living out the fantasy of most adolescent girls. Over the summer her body developed, and her new figure is drawing attention back at school, not all of it good. With her popularity skyrocketing, Emily becomes involved with an older boy who pressures her for an intimate picture.
Ahead on Valentine’s Day, and removed from the plot of the three girls, is an unnamed character. We spend the day with her as she hides out from school and relations, mired in regret over a betrayal she committed against a friend. Her guilty contemplations mirror the story’s main themes: social pressures, character failings, the impossibility of redemption. But of course, also forgiveness.
There’s so much more, but discovering the intricacies of these characters and their world is a revelation that can’t be spoiled.
Sophistication has never been a problem for Stead. Even when her writing was aimed at younger readers, she approached them with warm respect and commanding intelligence. She’s not the cool babysitter who lets you stay up late and stuff yourself with candy. She’s the favorite teacher who talks to you like an adult, and expects you to rise to the occasion. Stranger illuminates this strength of hers to glorious effect.
This is a landmark in literature on the friendships of young women, a shadowy twin to Anne Brashares’s transcendent Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. While similarly honest and compassionate with its protagonists, Stead’s work is decidedly less idealized—the barbs sharper, the falls more precipitous, the victories cloaked in ambiguity. Because of this, Goodbye Stranger packs a wallop of emotion that’s a true pleasure to be leveled by.
(Scholastic Press, 2015)
Whenever challenging social issues break into the public dialogue, a common exasperated refrain from parents is, “How will I explain this to my children?” Alex Gino has answered in part with George, a tender, glowingly hopeful story about a little boy who knows in her heart that she’s really a girl. As both a story and an introduction to transgenderism for young readers, George is a triumph.
For as long as she could remember, George has felt a disconnect between what she looks like on the outside and who she feels she is on the inside. While initially lacking the language to articulate it, the discovery of a discarded magazine called Girl’s Life, a veritable trove of all things feminine, began to give focus to this sense that haunts her. Now in fourth grade, George has done enough internet research to understand that she’s not alone in her feelings, but the prospect of making this identity public, and of what such a life would entail, is overwhelming and terrifying.
In spite of her best efforts to keep this disparity a secret, it is readily apparent to her classmates and family that she is somehow different. She encounters every sort of hostility, from cold dismissal to outright violence. In a cruel turn, her male classmates attempt to insult her by calling her a “girl,” unwittingly turning the very word that she finds unity with into a jeer. While kids will be kids, the adult reactions to George’s nature are less than enlightened. After reading Charlotte’s Web, a story that moves her deeply, the teachers announce that the class will be performing it as a play. Horrified by the notion of playing Wilbur or one of the other male roles, or seeing the part of the beloved spider handed off to someone else, George feels she’s destined to play Charlotte. Her well-practiced audition comes as a shock to the teachers and is written off angrily as an intended mockery of the proceedings. Most painfully, even her mother, an otherwise sympathetic character, insists this is either just a phase or some sort of messing around. George is crushed, but she knows it’s up to her to find a way to stand in her truth, and in the spotlight.
The age at which children should be informed of such issues is, of course, left to the discretion of the parents, but such decisions seldom consider that a child would be curious about the matter because it’s happening to them, and not merely a misunderstood comment heard passing in the hallway. The feeling of isolation and otherness that Gino portrays is heartbreaking; the sad, tattered magazines that George clings to a poor stand-in for useful information and compassion. George is an opportunity both to speak to those kids who might ridicule someone they don’t understand, and to embrace the children who might not yet understand themselves. While the subject matter is occasionally quite frank, it’s handled with such straightforwardness and kindness that it shouldn’t preclude its suitability for young readers.
Told simply and earnestly, perhaps as a way to leave room for the bigness of the issue it highlights, George is every bit as courageous as its eponymous hero.
Nova Ren Suma
The Walls Around Us
(Algonquin Young Readers, 2015)
A shattering, wicked, and fiercely original novel, The Walls Around Us takes no prisoners in its ruthless exploration of guilt and justice. Author Nova Ren Suma has stated, “I don’t write for teenagers necessarily. I write books about teenagers,” and while it’s true that the content of Walls pushes the upper limits of what’s considered YA, this bracing, merciless dazzler is not to be missed.
Told through an affecting, disorienting fog of magical realism, Walls picks up in the aftermath of a double murder. Orianna was sent to prison for allegedly killing two girls who had been the constant tormenters of her best friend, Violet. Dubbed “The Bloody Ballerina,” Orianna was a naturally gifted dancer and ebullient friend, while Violet toiled in the shadows, prone to torrents of rage and envy, training endlessly for a stardom that was never to be hers. Such traits made Violet an easy target for the pair of vicious, hyper-competitive bullies in their dance company, but Orianna was always there to defend Violet and bring her down from her fury. Until that night it all spun out of control and the two harpies were slashed to pieces, sealing Orianna’s fate. The way cleared, Violet is now the star she’s always dreamed of being, bound for Juilliard, but can she move forward with the weight of her own culpability still hanging from her neck?
Upstate in the juvenile detention center that is to become Orianna’s prison, Amber awakes in the night to find all the doors suddenly unlocked. Pandemonium breaks out as all forty-one inmates burst from their cells. Some try to escape, some simply wreak havoc, but Amber finds herself having an out-of-body experience, seeming to possess a foreknowledge of the night’s events she can’t explain. The prisoners are eventually wrangled, the locks restored, but the eerie feeling persists and intensifies with Orianna’s arrival. After three years in jail for purportedly murdering her stepfather, Amber has found a rhythm within the penitentiary, a oneness with its rules and residents. She can usually tell who’s guilty and who isn’t, but something about her new roommate is uncanny and unpeggable. A momentum is building, but towards what, Amber doesn’t know. Time and reality seem to be breaking down around her, visions and waking nightmares slicing through her as they barrel towards a reckoning that will lay the truth of all three young women bare.
The vengeance and damnation wrought in Walls are positively Shakespearean. Too, its permeable wall between the living and the dead, its fixation on notions of innocence and guilt, destiny and predetermination vibrate with strains of Hamlet. But for all its ethereal strokes, Walls isgenuinely raw and fearless in its depiction of prison life. There may be a poetry to Amber’s voicing, a detachment reminiscent of the narrator of The Virgin Suicides, but readers are denied flights of fancy. Hope and forgiveness are not Suma’s priority. Instead she digs deep into the bottom of the barrel to expose what becomes of those who must inhabit it. The truth might not set them free, but it’s the most valuable currency these women hold, and they prove far more efficient at evening the scales than the criminal justice system.
Savagely suspenseful, with a stellar payoff, this gorgeous, mind-bending thriller is sure to haunt.
ContributorJordan B. Nielsen
JORDAN B. NIELSEN received her master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Edinburgh. She has been reviewing children’s literature since 2008, and is currently the children’s book buyer for The powerHouse Arena, an independent bookstore in Dumbo, Brooklyn.