Book Review: Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index

Juniper Lemon Cover

Israel, Julie. Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index. Kathy Dawson Books, 2017.

I select books in many different ways. I heed recommendations from my co-workers and students, pay attention to the covers I see on my Instagram feed, and check out the new releases from authors I’ve enjoyed in the past.

Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index is perhaps the first book I’ve selected based on its title alone. I was immediately curious—what kind of name was Juniper Lemon? What was a happiness index? I was excited to receive the book for Christmas so I could begin reading and find out.

Juniper, a high school junior, is grappling with life following the abrupt and tragic death of her older sister Camilla. There are holes everywhere Juniper looks: her parents are quiet shells of their former selves and teachers and adults are awkward and bumbling in her presence. Perhaps most devastating, Juniper’s former best friend, Lauren, has drifted away simply because she doesn’t know how to handle Juniper’s grief. Juniper carries on a tradition that Camilla instituted—a daily “happiness index”. On an index card, she writes the positives and negatives from that day, with an overall rating from one to ten. Since Camilla’s passing, most of these ratings have been dismal. But a discovery gives Juniper a renewed sense of purpose. She finds a handwritten break up letter from Camilla to a mysteriously addressed “YOU”. Juniper is puzzled—to her knowledge, Camilla wasn’t seeing anyone at the time of her death.

As Juniper attempts to untangle the mystery of the breakup letter, she also must begin her friend circle anew. More discoveries lead to her befriending the often-bullied Kody and the dreamy Angela. A new student, Nate, also strikes up a friendship, though Juniper struggles to understand his motives. Most surprising, Juniper finds herself enjoying the company of Brand, the resident school bad boy who spends most of his time in detention or vandalizing property. With the help of her new friends, will Juniper be able to find the “YOU” her sister was addressing? Will the resolution of this mystery alleviate her grief? Will she find a way to heal her family and keep Camilla’s memory alive?

I found this novel particularly poignant in its portrayal of grief. Anyone who has ever suffered a deep personal loss will likely agree that Juniper’s account is painfully accurate. The most heart-wrenching moments were unintentional—for example, a teacher starts to ask if Juniper is Camilla’s sister before remembering Camilla’s death and awkwardly stopping herself. The characterization of Juniper and Brand Sayers was particularly strong. Juniper is vulnerable, devastated, but darkly funny. Brand is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the entire novel, a layered character who carries his own share of sadness.

In a largely perfect novel, I only wish that two of the characters—Nate and Morgan—were given detailed characterization as well. Nate is important, but his role in the book nearly diminishes as the story unfolds. And Morgan, the resident school bully, is thoroughly mean and flat. She even pokes fun at Camilla’s death, a taunt that is overheard by adults who do not intervene.

Overall, Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index is well-written and gritty and sure to be loved by teenage readers. As silly as it may sound, I thought the book could perhaps aid students in journaling. I loved how Juniper kept track of each day and rated them accordingly. This could perhaps inspire students to create indexes of their own and write about the highlights and disappointments of their day-to-day life.

Book Review: The Love that Split the World

love that split the world cover

Henry, Emily. The Love That Split the World. Razorbill, 2016.

Kentucky isn’t a glamorous state. The weather changes frequently–you can go to work sporting a cardigan on a frigid morning and find yourself sweating as the temperature rises at day’s end. While there are certainly beautiful natural landmarks and caves and hiking trails, there are none of the big tourist attractions you might find in other states.

I’ve lived in Kentucky my entire life. While I love to travel and experience the bustle and chaos of larger, notable locations, I have a profound love for and loyalty to the Bluegrass State. That’s why I felt both proud and giddy as I began Emily Henry’s The Love That Split the World. Set in Union, Kentucky, the novel highlights many Kentucky and Appalachian attributes–rich cultural history, oral storytelling, and strong familial ties–without falling into overused tropes and stereotypes. And the Kentucky native in me squealed at the sprinkling of Kentucky-specific details: mentions of the University of Kentucky, Northern Kentucky University, and Ale-8 One (a soft drink sold only in Kentucky and a small number of surrounding areas).

Natalie Cleary is closing the book on her high school career. While she participates in the traditional parades and Senior Nights that the end of the school year entails, she is also looking to what lies ahead. She has been admitted to Brown University where she hopes to study history and learn more about her heritage. Adopted at birth by doting parents, Natalie is Native American and feels out of place beside her blonde, blue-eyed siblings. She is also feeling a lack of connection toward the activities and people she once loved–her ex-boyfriend, Matt, friend Rachel, and her high school dance team.

Natalie’s race isn’t the only thing that makes her feel different. Since childhood, she’s had nightly visits from a phantom–an elderly woman she has come to call Grandmother. Grandmother imparts wisdom in the form of fables and tall tales, and Natalie is comforted by her presence. After a visit with a psychologist, Natalie fears Grandmother has finally disappeared; however, as high school ends, Grandmother reappears with a chilling message: Natalie has just three months to save him. She doesn’t specify who him is, and Natalie is on-edge. Shortly after the visit, Natalie’s world begins to change. Sporadic flashes reveal a second, strikingly different Union than the one that Natalie has known her entire life. While her friends and family exist in the new Union, she does not. While in this new world, Natalie encounters Beau, a boy who does not exist in her world. As she and Beau try to sort out their unique predicament, Natalie is frantic to decipher Grandmother’s cryptic warning. Will she be able to save the mysterious him?

The transition from high school to adulthood is a complex time, and Henry does a fantastic job capturing all of Natalie’s angst and confusion. Natalie wants to maintain relationships with the people and traditions she has come to love while, at the same time, she knows she must assert her own independence and find her place in the world. All the characters are round and multi-faceted. I especially enjoyed NKU professor Alice Chan, Natalie’s twin siblings Jack and Coco, even Natalie’s Saint Bernard, Gus.

While the characterization, imagery, and plot in The Love that Split the World were all fantastic, I often found the rules and nuances of Natalie’s time-bending abilities confusing and difficult to follow. Perhaps this will be clearer for readers who are more familiar with time travel fiction or media. In my case, I simply had to accept Natalie’s abilities as the story unfolded.

I would love to introduce this book to my students–positive portrayals of Kentucky are increasingly difficult to find. That aside, this book would be relatable to graduating seniors, adopted students, or anyone who is facing a big transition. The Love that Split the World discusses what it means to love deeply and unconditionally, a topic worth thinking about and discussing.

 

Book Review: Evil Librarian

evil librarian cover

Knudsen, Michelle. Evil Librarian. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2016. Print.

During the instructional day, a high school is a lively place. The halls are filled with chattering (or yelling, depending on how close you are to the end of the year), the thud of feet, and the metal clank of lockers opening and closing.

But there’s something incredibly creepy about being in a school alone at night.

Perhaps it’s the long, vacant halls, or the unexpected silence, or the flicker of the red “EXIT” signs. Whatever it is, I’m always determined to make my rare nightly visits as short as possible.

Therefore, a high school is perhaps the perfect setting for a horror novel like Michelle Knudsen’s Evil Librarian.

Cynthia “Cyn” Rothschild is having an ordinary but relatively happy junior year. She spends each school day pining over her long-time crush, Ryan, and joking around with her best friend Annie. After school, Cynthia has finally landed the coveted position of tech director for the school’s drama program. She’s determined to make the sets and props for Sweeney Todd the best they can possibly be.

Annie’s odd behavior, however, momentarily distracts Cyn from the musical. Annie admits to being head-over-heels for the new librarian, a young and attractive man named Mr. Gibson. This crush results in some uncharacteristic and alarming actions—Annie skips class to spend time with Mr. Gibson, and is spacy and unresponsive when outside the library. And she’s not the only one—other students who spend time with Mr. Gibson are also in blank, zombie-like states. Panicked investigating leads Cyn to the cause: Mr. Gibson is not human, but is instead a demon. Cyn knows she must find a solution before her best friend and the rest of the school become soulless monsters or worse. Will she find allies who believe her story? Why are Mr. Gibson’s powers ineffective on Cynthia? And how will this demon invasion affect the highly anticipated school musical?

A premise as over-the-top as the one found in Evil Librarian would certainly be ridiculous had Knudsen not balanced it out with perfectly timed and dark humor. Cynthia is a plucky heroine whose internal dialogue is knee-slappingly funny. It’s difficult, even, to decide what’s more humorous—Cynthia’s frantic lusting over Ryan, or the demons’ excitement over the school production of Sweeney Todd. The characterization, too, is very strong. The demons are deliciously evil; Cynthia and company are brave and determined to save their school and friends.

As with most horror or thriller novels, the book ends with a final showdown. Although Knudsen paints a vivid picture, it’s a short battle that encompasses only a single chapter of a lengthy novel. With so much build up and anticipation, I was left craving more. It’s worth mentioning that there is a sequel to Evil Librarian, so I’m hoping Knudsen will reveal more of the demon underworld in the next volume.

With an abundance of suspense and mystery, Evil Librarian would be a fitting addition to a unit on literary horror elements. Don’t be deceived by the funny moments, either—the book asks some deep questions. How far would you go to save your best friend? What things or people in life are worth the ultimate sacrifice? What hobbies or passions do you turn to when life becomes difficult? Evil Librarian is a fun read—students will alternate between sitting on the edge of their seat and laughing out loud.