My Favorite Book(s) of 2017

favorite read of 2017

2017 has been a great year for Young Adult fiction.

I’ve read a wide variety of books—from contemporary romance to fantasy to dystopia. YA authors have tackled important social issues, created new and exciting worlds, and spurred fandoms and film franchises.

It’s been such a great year for YA fiction that I simply couldn’t narrow my favorite 2017 read down to one. It was a struggle, even, to narrow it down to two.

So, without further ado, I am pleased to announce my favorite books of 2017: John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down and Sarah Tolcser’s Song of the Current.

Green’s newest book is all about vulnerability. Turtles All the Way Down presents the gritty reality of mental illness, a reality that extends beyond the narrator’s adolescence. The pacing is perfect, the dialogue smart and funny. During my entire read, I just kept thinking, “Yes. I’ve missed this.”

Tolcser’s pirate adventure manages to weave in moments of humor and fantastic feminist themes. The surprises and plot twists felt genuine. The characterization in Song of the Current was so well done that I was sad to leave Caro and company. As I am normally not a fan of pirates nor fantasy, Tolcser’s novel has been my most pleasant surprise of the year.

Honorable mentions include Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Julia Walton’s Words on Bathroom Walls.

I will, unfortunately, have less time for reading in 2018. I will be working on the completion of my thesis for my MFA, and this coupled with full-time teaching will mean that a once-per-week book review might be a bit of a stretch. I am still planning on reading and reviewing plenty of YA books; however, the blog posts might not be as frequent. I still hope you’ll continue to read my little blog.

Here’s to plenty of great books in 2018! What were your favorites this year?

Book Review: Children of Eden

children of eden cover

Graceffa, Joey, and Laura L. Sullivan. Children of Eden: A Novel. Keywords Press/Atria, 2017.

As has already been insinuated on this blog, I love dystopias. But even my favorite dystopias can be a bit formulaic. A power-hungry dictator rises to power and dismantles society. A lone, disobedient protagonist challenges the powers that be, and an epic struggle ensues.

In many ways, Joey Graceffa’s Children of Eden fits neatly into this formula; however, it has an added facet that I found intriguing—the inclusion of many environmental and global warming issues.

In Children of Eden, human beings polluted the Earth and burned through resources at a breakneck speed. This led to a mass extinction: most humans, animals, and plants perished. Only a handful of human beings persevered and were placed in a community known as Eden, a haven devised by the benevolent visionary Aaron Al Baz. In Eden, everything is carefully monitored, recycled, and regulated, lest society slip once more into wastefulness and gluttony. This stringency is seen even in reproduction: couples are allowed only one child, and must terminate any subsequent pregnancies.

This is bad news for the protagonist, Rowan, as she is a second child. While her twin brother, Ash, enjoys going to school and socializing with friends, Rowan must stay hidden within her home. Rowan’s information about the outside world comes from Ash’s stories and careful peeks over a tall stone wall. Venturing out into Eden would be extremely dangerous—all citizens have eye implants that verify their identity, lenses that Rowan doesn’t have. But Rowan’s mother shares some shocking news—she has found a doctor who will implant Rowan’s lenses. Afterward, Rowan must live with a different family and begin life anew. Will Rowan go through with her mother’s plan? Will she ever be permitted to freely roam the streets of Eden? Is she the only second child in existence?

Children of Eden is a book with extremely strong imagery. Readers never lack for a description of Eden’s intricacies or operations. There were several exquisite details that quickly burrowed into my brain—the electric footprints left by citizens of Eden, the kaleidoscope eyes of human beings before the implantation of their lenses, and the glittering rock and crystal formations that exist underground.

That said, I found the narration dizzying. The conflict begins immediately, within the first chapter, and I felt as though I had no chance to get to know Rowan or to care deeply about her. Rowan experiences some major trauma early in the story, but she reflects on it very little. In short, I wanted to see more ways that Rowan was affected by the secrecy and shame that permeated most of her young life.

This book would be a perfect fit for a dystopian unit because, as I mentioned, it hits many standard dystopian attributes. Furthermore, the author, Joey Graceffa, is a popular YouTube personality, making Children of Eden a smart addition to a classroom or school library. As the book discusses the after effects of environmental pollution and global warming, it might be of interest to Science teachers as well.

Book Review: Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies

models dont eat chocolate cookies cover

Dionne, Erin. Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies. Penguin Group, 2014.

I’ve struggled with my weight my entire life. When I was a teenager, book heroines were typically described as being like the women I saw on television and in movies—slim and effortlessly beautiful.

Thankfully, teen readers have a lot of plus-size protagonists to admire these days. Eleanor from Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park and Willowdean Dickson from Julie Murphy’s Dumplin immediately come to mind. I can now add an additional name to the list: Celeste Harris from Erin Dionne’s Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies.

Celeste has always been round, sporting a body type that makes shopping for clothes and participating in PE class less than enjoyable experiences. Additionally, Celeste must deal with cruel remarks from a bully, Lively, who seems to relish calling Celeste a cow each school day. Suddenly, Celeste’s life gets much worse—her best friend Sandra becomes Lively’s new best friend, and Celeste’s pushy aunt enters her in a plus-size modeling competition.

Celeste can’t think of anything more mortifying than the thought of being Miss HuskyPeach. She strategizes various ways to lose the contest, from dropping twenty pounds to being as unfriendly as possible in her interview with the judges. But, as the contest continues, she finds that her confidence grows. Will Celeste take a shine to modeling and become Miss HuskyPeach? Will Sandra come to her senses and become Celeste’s friend once again? Will Celeste ever stand up to the vicious Lively?

There are great moments of humor in Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies. From a gym class puking episode to a bursting water bra to a “peach monstrosity” junior bridesmaid dress, Dionne expertly weaves funny moments throughout the narrative. And the overall message of the novel is an important one. Celeste’s most powerful moments don’t come with weight loss or the implementation of makeup or stylish clothes, but when she makes the decision to stay true to herself.

With that said, I found the characterization of both Celeste and Lively a bit off. Lively, like many YA school bullies, is so thoroughly mean that she loses all depth. Celeste, for most of the book, is an extreme, unbelievable pushover.

Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies would be a great way to springboard conversations about body image and gender. This would be the perfect book to recommend to young female readers. It’s a nice reminder that confidence and kindness are beautiful attributes that do not go out of style.

Book Review: Truthers

truthers cover

Girard, Geoffrey. Truthers. Carolrhoda Lab, 2017.

I should preface this review by admitting that I’m not fond of 9/11 conspiracy theories. I usually find them far-fetched, so much so that I initially resisted reading Geoffrey Girard’s Truthers despite the many Instagram posts and glowing reviews I found online. I was then able to meet Girard at the Books by the Banks Festival in Cincinnati. Not only was he friendly and personable, but I also learned that he was a fellow teacher. This latter bit of information persuaded me to give Truthers a try.

Sixteen-year-old Katie Wallace has spent much of her adolescence caring for her mentally ill and drug addicted father. When police and a social worker inform Katie that her father has been placed in a psychiatric hospital, she isn’t surprised. During her first visit with him, Katie’s father shares shocking information—he claims that Katie isn’t his biological daughter, and, even more staggering, her mother was a victim of a government orchestrated 9/11. He claims he took Katie from her mother’s arms before officials sent plane passengers to their certain death.

His claims spur Katie to frantically seek the help of an attorney. A high-profile lawyer says she’ll take Katie’s case if she’s able to prove that some of her father’s radical ideas have merit. What follows is a spiral of researching and investigating, leading Katie to uncover facts and coverups that surprise her. Amid her research, she meets teen prodigy Max, who challenges many of the theories while providing his hacking expertise. But Katie can’t shake the feeling that she’s wading into dangerous territory. Is she being watched? Will her actions have repercussions? Will she find the right information to free her father? Where is her biological mother?

Girard’s prose is masterful and suspenseful. From the beginning of the Truthers to the end, I felt a growing paranoia for Katie and many of the other characters in the novel. I was truly invested in the mystery at the core of Truthers, and my determination to uncover the next big plot twist kept me up late at night. Girard has obviously done his research as evidenced by the inclusion of many court cases, theories, and timelines; there’s even a works cited page at the book’s end.

Along the same vein, the abundance of information is perhaps the book’s weakest attribute. There are moments the text feels dense with figures, facts, names, and events. I would assume that teen readers, largely unfamiliar with some of the specifics of 9/11, might find themselves overwhelmed.

Most students are interested in conspiracy theories, so I could predict that Truthers would be a popular choice in a classroom library. No matter your feelings on the Truther movement, Katie’s end goal is admirable and involves something we ask our students to do every day—to back up claims with evidence.

Book Review: The Radius of Us

the radius of us cover

Marquardt, Marie. The Radius of Us. St. Martins Griffin, 2017.

I’ve never been a fan of traditional romance novels. This is not a slight against romance authors or the genre—I just find romance the least appealing aspect of a well-written story. But there is one attribute that will always compel me to root for a fictional couple. I love it when a broken character finds another broken character and a relationship ensues. There is perhaps no better example of this than Marie Marquardt’s The Radius of Us.

Gretchen’s life was irrevocably changed when she was assaulted and robbed on a dark Atlanta street. Since then, she has suffered from anxiety attacks, and is weary about going out in public or interacting with others. Now homeschooled, Gretchen spends her days working out complicated calculus problems, hanging out with her friend Bree, babysitting her two cousins, and trying alternative therapies to alleviate her trauma. When Gretchen sees a young man who bears a slight resemblance to her attacker, she panics, but later makes an effort to speak with him. She learns that his name is Phoenix, and she is surprised when she feels an immediate comfort and ease while in his presence. Will her feelings of peace turn in to something more? Can Gretchen work up the courage to rejoin society?

Phoenix’s young life has been full of heartache. He grew up in an area of El Salvador saturated with gang activity. He never knew his father; his mother became a nanny in the United States and left Phoenix and his brother in the care of his grandmother. Fearing for the safety of his family, Phoenix reluctantly joined a gang. When his brother was approached by the same group, Phoenix fled, and his journey eventually led him to Atlanta, and to Gretchen. Will he be able to protect his brother? Can he tell Gretchen the truth about his past? Will he be allowed to stay in the United States?

The characterization of Gretchen and Phoenix continually pulled at my heart as I read The Radius of Us. Their traumas have made them brave and selfless—Gretchen overcomes fear to help Phoenix and Phoenix gathers his own courage to help his brother. Almost every character in the novel displays a degree of kindness beneath a weary or tough exterior. The novel highlights the worst of humankind, but it leaves the reader believing in the goodness of his fellow man.

My complaints about the novel were mostly small. A character is named Ty Pennington, which is the name of an actual television personality. This threw me as I read, and I was surprised it wasn’t caught in editing. I also felt the narration became heavily focused on Phoenix and showed less of Gretchen’s perspective as the novel progressed; however, his story is so complex there is perhaps no way around that.

Most students are aware of the divisive ideas that exist when discussing illegal immigration. This novel could perhaps present a new perspective worthy of discussion. Furthermore, The Radius of Us encourages readers to consider their fears and ambitions, and to take risks that enrich their life and the lives of others. The inclusion of Marquardt’s novel in any classroom or curriculum would certainly be a positive addition.