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: All Rights Reserved

All Rights Reserved Cover

Katsoulis, Gregory Scott. All Rights Reserved. Harlequin Teen, 2017.

When teaching poetry, my students and I pause and discuss our favorite (school appropriate) words. There doesn’t have to be a deep, philosophical reason behind the favoriting of a word—perhaps it’s simply fun to say. Some of my favorite words include umbrella, melancholy, and cacophony.

If I lived in the dystopian world of All Rights Reserved, I would likely pay a hefty sum of money for using any of my favorite words.

Speth Jime lives in a world tightly controlled by greedy corporations, litigation happy lawyers, and stringent copyright laws. In Speth’s society, citizens receive a cuff they must wear around their wrist from their fifteenth birthday onward. The cuff records the words they speak and the gestures they make and charges the wearer appropriately. The phrase “find me”, for example, costs over eleven dollars. Citizens are also charged for hugging, holding hands, nodding, and kissing. Corporations own every word and gesture, and debt is seemingly unavoidable. Most teens live alone as their parents enter indentured servitude to pay the money they owe.

On Speth’s fifteenth birthday, her friend Beecher commits suicide moments before Speth is due to give her first speech and plug various sponsors. His actions convince Speth to keep silent and not engage in any gestures or actions that would cost money. Speth’s guardian, friends, and siblings are shocked—Speth will be unable to work or purchase goods if she chooses not to speak. This is further complicated when Speth’s older sister and the family’s bread winner, Saretha, is barred from working outside the home. As Speth strategizes various ways to save her family, she notices a growing movement of “Silents”—fellow adolescents who have chosen not to speak. Will Speth be blamed for their disobedience? Will she find a way to keep her family afloat? Will she be able to maintain her silence?

In a genre saturated with dystopian books, All Rights Reserved manages to stand out as a unique read. I was drawn into Speth’s world immediately, as the various nuances and rules seem eerily similar to today’s world. For example, Speth cannot ring her friend’s doorbell as she would be required to watch and react to an ad beforehand. This reminded me a great deal of watching an ad before a YouTube video or logging onto a website and dealing with many pop up ads. And, as an English teacher, I couldn’t help but smile at the references to classic dystopias sprinkled throughout the novel—Ayn Rand and 1984 are both subtly incorporated.

I had few complaints about Katsoulis’ novel—it was engaging and fast-paced. There were moments, though, where I hungered for more detail and explanation. Some areas of Speth’s world—the park at the book’s opening, for example—seemed to lack sensory detail. And some characters were briefly touched on, then forgotten. I was particularly captivated by Speth’s rebellious teacher, Mrs. Soleman, who is given a pivotal scene and then never mentioned again.

I plan to recommend All Rights Reserved to my students as we prepare for our upcoming dystopian literature circles. Even if you don’t teach dystopia, there are plenty of reasons to include All Rights Reserved in your classroom library or curriculum. The novel can start great conversations about rhetorical devices and advertising techniques—how do advertisers attempt to manipulate Speth and other citizens? How do advertisers manipulate us today? Students will come away from the novel with a greater appreciation for words and our ability to communicate freely, which is an extremely positive side effect.

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.