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.

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: 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.

Book Review: Panic

panic cover

Oliver, Lauren. Panic. Harper, 2015.

There’s a truth universally accepted by gray-haired parents and teachers everywhere: teenagers can be fearless. This attribute is blamed on everything from still developing brains to a lack of understanding about the finality of rash decisions. No matter the cause, the thought of my students endangering themselves by engaging in risky behavior puts me immediately on edge. Perhaps that was why I found Lauren Oliver’s Panic such a suspenseful, engaging read.

In the small, downtrodden town of Carp, there are few opportunities for young people to thrive. Drug addiction runs rampant and leaving for college is a rarity. The town’s desolation led to the creation of Panic, a game reserved for recent high school graduates. The game features a series of increasingly dangerous dares until one lone victor remains. The winner is awarded a handsome cash prize—a little over sixty thousand dollars gathered from mandatory weekly dues. There’s a shroud of secrecy around the organizers and judges of the event, and the stakes are high. A past participant has even been paralyzed.

Dodge and Heather are two participants in Panic. Heather doesn’t know why she joined in—emotional after a split from her boyfriend, she impulsively leaped into the festivities. Dodge, on the other hand, has a clear motive for participating: thoughts of his sister, Dayna, at home in a wheelchair motivated him to seek revenge. As the challenges grow in difficulty and danger, Dodge and Heather bandy together. Will either of them win Panic? Will Dodge secure justice for Dayna? And when Panic causes a death in Carp, will the game shut down for good?

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this book kept me on the edge of my seat. Oliver continually increases suspense and anticipation throughout the narrative. In fact, during a silent reading period at school, a student walked by me as I read Panic and remarked, “Wow. You look intense.” Oliver’s language and description are also masterful. There are so few novel ways to describe fear or anguish, but Oliver’s descriptions are visceral and gritty, contributing to the overall mood of the book.

If there are any flaws in Panic, they perhaps lie in its believability—the idea that a large group of teens could get away with such a dangerous activity year after year with minimal attention from the police. I was bothered, too, by the pot of money in the game, and the fact that high school students are required to contribute to it. This detail felt far-fetched.

Still, Panic is quite possibly one of the most thrilling novels I have read in some time. Excerpts from this novel could teach students a great deal about literary suspense. Panic would also be helpful in showing students how an author can create a certain mood through sensory details and diction. If you’re looking for a book that would appeal to your students’ adventurous natures, Oliver’s novel is perhaps the perfect fit.

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: Girl Online

girl online cover

Sugg, Zoe. Girl Online. Keywords Press, Atria. 2014.

As an adult, I like to pretend that I was never an awkward pre-teen or teenager. The proof is inescapable, however. My mother recently found an old photo from a glamour shot session–sequined blazer, big hair, and too much rouge.

So, in short, I know a little something about being awkward.

That’s why I found the synopsis of Zoe Sugg’s Girl Online appealing. The protagonist is clumsy, unsure, and very relatable.

Fifteen-year-old Penny Porter seems to continually find new ways to embarrass herself, whether it’s falling in a pothole, knocking over a display, or inadvertently telling the boy she likes that she has fleas. And there’s an alarming new development in Penny’s life–following a serious car accident, Penny has panic attacks. Her only moments of true peace and security come from being with her family, best friend Elliot, and sharing her thoughts in a blog entitled Girl Online. Despite her lackluster popularity in the “real world”, Penny has a slew of readers who encourage and uplift her.

After a particularly painful incident at Penny’s school, her parents make an announcement–they will be traveling abroad to New York City to help coordinate a wedding at the Waldorf Astoria and they want Penny and Elliot to come along. The distance and glamour of New York are just what Penny needs to heal from her embarrassment. While helping her mother with wedding preparations, Penny meets Noah, the grandson of the wedding’s caterer. With his dimples, Brooklyn accent, and ability to calm her when she is anxious, Penny begins falling for Noah almost immediately. But she knows that soon she will have to return home to the UK. Will she and Noah be able to maintain a long-distance relationship? Why does Noah rarely go out in public? And as the popularity of Girl Online grows, will Penny be able to keep her identity a secret?

There were great little details and moments of humor that endeared this book to me–Sugg’s descriptions of New York at Christmastime, the contrast between UK and America, and Penny’s tendency to say the wrong thing in times of duress. Although relationships in YA romances sometimes feel forced, Noah and Penny’s chemistry was palpable and believable. Blog posts and text messages are interspersed throughout the chapters, and they provide a nice break from the narration. Overall, Girl Online is a quick, enjoyable read.

I felt the immense popularity of Penny’s blog was somewhat far-fetched; the insertion of more blog posts would have possibly helped the reader see what made it attractive to so many readers. And Megan, Penny’s “frienemy”, was so thoroughly evil that she felt flat.

This will be a beloved addition to a classroom library–not only is it a high interest text, but the author, Zoella, is a popular vlogger on YouTube. More importantly, this book could possibly provide comfort to students struggling with their own anxiety. Girl Online is a nice reminder that the teenage years can be awkward, but they can be amazing, too.