Book Review: Words on Bathroom Walls

words on bathroom walls cover

Walton, Julia. Words on Bathroom Walls. New York: Random House, 2017. Print.

Although I have read some amazing fantasy books this year, YA contemporary fiction continues to be my favorite genre. As a teacher, there’s nothing more satisfying than locating a book for a student that deals with the same issues they might face in their day-to-day life. I love that today’s contemporary authors don’t shy away from tough topics, including mental illness. A great example of this is Julia Walton’s Words on Bathroom Walls, which centers on a teenage protagonist struggling with schizophrenia.

Sixteen-year-old Adam has entered a clinical trial for a new schizophrenia drug, ToZaPrex. This trial requires regular visits to a psychologist, but Adam refuses to engage in conversation during his appointments. He reaches a middle ground with his psychologist: he will answer the doctor’s questions in a journal. Within this journal, Adam chronicles his transition to a new, Catholic high school. Along with typical high school issues—classes, homework, making friends, dealing with bullies—Adam must also deal with the constant presence of his hallucinations. They range from Rebecca, a quiet, reassuring woman, to a group of mobsters who fire weapons into the ceiling.

Adam notices slight improvement while on ToZaPrex, and this is coupled with an exciting development: he meets and begins dating one of his classmates, Maya. A smart and attentive girl, Maya notices Adam’s twitching and grimaces. As their relationship intensifies, Adam considers telling Maya about his schizophrenia, but fear of her reaction keeps him silent. Just when things seem relatively calm, Adam receives some bad news: he isn’t making progress on ToZaPrex, and he will be dropped from the clinical trial. How will the lack of medication change Adam’s symptoms? Will he be able to function during the school day? Will he ever reveal his secret to Maya?

Words on Bathroom Walls is a quick, smooth read. Adam’s narrative voice is authentic, and the reader will feel as though they are privy to his private thoughts and struggles. There is truly no way to read this novel and not come away with a different point-of-view regarding mental health issues. In one of the most poignant sections of the book, Adam compares his life and illness to that of the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook Massacre. He knows that his illness will always scare and appall others, and that sort of loneliness and ostracization is difficult to imagine.

There is a pivotal moment in the book when Adam’s illness is revealed to his classmates. Without giving too much away, this scene is described in a quick, choppy manner, and I wanted more clarity regarding such a large reveal. It can be argued that the ambiguity speaks to Adam’s mental illness, but I still wished the entire scene was considerably slower.

Teachers who tackle psychological issues in their curriculum or teach a psychology class will want to check out Words on Bathroom Walls. It can serve as a springboard for discussions about a variety of issues—witch hunts, modern medicine, honesty, blended families, and religion. Students will be drawn in by the easy, conversational language and the vulnerability behind Adam’s tale.

Book Review: The Upworld

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Frantz, Lindsey S. The Upworld. Line by Lion Publications, 2017. Print.

Appalachia is my home, but depictions of the area in movies and books haven’t always been kind.

In recent years, I’ve been happy to see a surge of writing that celebrates Appalachia by acknowledging its flaws but also highlighting its beauty, knack for storytelling, and strong community ties. That’s why I was excited to begin reading Lindsey Frantz’s debut YA novel The Upworld, set entirely in Kentucky.

In a dystopian future, Appalachia has been divided into three distinct factions: those who dwell above ground in communities, those who dwell in caves below ground, and the Wylden, dangerous savages who travel in packs. Erilyn spent her early life below ground until a shameful accident wrought by her telekinetic abilities forced her to move “up world”. There, she met and befriended a woman named Rosemarie who taught her to forage and live off the land. After Rosemarie’s death, Erilyn lives alone in a pine tree with only her large feral cat, Luna, for company. Everything changes when a boy from one of the communities, Finn, runs into the forest, pursued by Wylden.

After assisting Finn via her supernatural abilities, Erilyn nurses him back to health. The two develop feelings for one another, but as Winter looms closer, Erilyn knows that she cannot forage enough food to sustain two people. She convinces Finn to return to his community of Sunnybrook, but Finn refuses unless she accompanies him. It’s been so long since Erilyn was around others—will she adjust? Will the citizens of Sunnybrook discover her abilities? Does Finn’s ex, Morrigan, have it out for Erilyn? Is the mayor of Sunnybrook, Cillian, as innocent and friendly as he seems? And will Erilyn ever face the damage she caused below ground?

Frantz masterfully builds tension and suspense in The Upworld. Whether Erilyn, Finn, Luna, and company are running from Wylden, fighting their way out of Sunnybrook, or crawling through underground caverns, a sense of urgency is continuously present. Erilyn’s abilities are plainly stated and readers can easily put themselves in her shoes. The characters are multi-faceted—like Erilyn, we aren’t entirely sure who to trust. And the cover is beautiful—this is certainly a book you’ll want to display on your bookshelf and photograph for Instagram.

I desired more spark between Finn and Erilyn, perhaps more scenes of them growing together during their time alone in the forest. I also didn’t care for the nickname “Eri”—but I’m never a fan of shortening a main character’s name.

This novel would be a perfect addition to a dystopian unit. I’m using the prologue of this story (found in this anthology) with my classes this school year. Students who are fans of The Hunger Games and other books featuring powerful female protagonists will certainly be enthralled with both Erilyn and The Upworld.

Book Review: Song of the Current (June Uppercase Box)

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Tolcser, Sarah. Song of the Current. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. Print.

Sometimes, being wrong is a good thing.

I’ve never been a big fan of pirate stories. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies admittedly lull me to sleep. Novels set at sea or within a boat have never been my first choice of reading material. So, when I saw a copy of Sarah Tolcser’s Song of the Current in my June Uppercase Box, I steeled myself for disappointment.

And I’m happy to report I was wrong. Very wrong. Tolcser’s novel is quite possibly the best book I’ve received from Uppercase and one of my favorite reads of 2017 (so far).

Caroline “Caro” Oresteia has spent her life on the river aboard her father’s wherry, Cormorant. She assists her father in delivering cargo and the occasional shipment of smuggled weapons. Caro’s father converses heavily with the god of the river, and Caro hopes that someday she too might have an experience with the divine. In the meantime, Caro’s focus is singular: she wants to take the reins of Cormorant upon her father’s retirement.

Caro’s life changes when she and her father sail into the town of Hespera’s Watch. There, the duo learns that a group of outlaws known as the Black Dogs have destroyed wherries in pursuit of an important piece of cargo. When officials in Hespera’s Watch cannot convince Caro’s father to carry this cargo to the intended recipient, he is jailed. Caro, in exchange for her father’s freedom, decides to sail Cormorant on her own and make the delivery. Caro is given a letter of marque and strict instructions not to open the box she is transporting. But, after a close scuffle with the Black Dogs, Caro can no longer resist—she has to open the box. What is inside? Why are the Black Dogs determined to confiscate it? Will Caro free her father?

Song of the Current’s strengths lie in its pacing and characterization. Whereas most novels that take place at sea tend to feel slow, the urgency behind Caro’s mission keeps the action moving. And Caro Oresteia is an intriguing, multi-faceted protagonist. Her love of the water, fierce loyalty to her family, and desire to converse with the gods will have the reader rooting for her from the book’s very beginning.

There is little to dislike in Tolcser’s tale. Those unfamiliar with sailing (like me!) might struggle with the nautical terminology, though Tolcser’s website contains a glossary. There is also an undefined though clearly burgeoning romantic relationship at the book’s end, and I wanted a bit more clarity. There is a sequel slated for next summer, though, so I’m hoping to receive answers then.

I am excited to recommend this book to my students, particularly those who enjoy novels with lots of action and suspense. Song of the Current makes some great social commentary as well—there are themes of political coercion, class warfare, and revolution. I can only hope that discussing Tolcser’s novel with my students will hold me over until the release of the sequel.

Book Review: If You Feel Too Much

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Tworkowski, Jamie. If You Feel Too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped For.    New York: TarcherPerigee, 2015. Print.

As I am writing this, I am merely weeks away from a brand new school year. The days to come will be filled with lots of work—setting up my classroom, writing and printing my syllabus, deciding what to cover in those important first days and weeks and months. Amid the back-to-school mania, I must pause and remember that my goal should be to provide a safe, caring space for my students, to tell them that they are valuable and loved and that they can live their best possible life.

That is why I am glad to have recently read Jamie Tworkowski’s If You Feel Too Much.

At last month’s VidCon, I spotted a booth from the suicide prevention organization To Write Love on Her Arms. Like all educators, I know students who have struggled with self-harming behaviors and attempted suicide. I am always looking for resources to place in my classroom that might be of some help to a struggling student, so I eagerly purchased a book at the booth written by Tworkowski, the organization’s founder.

If You Feel Too Much is a collection of short prose and blog posts that Tworkowski has written throughout his journey with TWLOHA. The collection spans nearly ten years and follows Tworkoski from his early years selling surfing equipment to his heavy responsibilities spearheading an important charity. Tworkowski doesn’t hide from tough topics—he discusses his growing distance from his father, his own battle with depression, his messy break-ups, and his fights with close friends and business partners. He talks of his grief after losing friends to suicide and cancer, and his uncertainty that he will ever find love or fulfillment. By the book’s end, Tworkowski urges the reader to examine their own story and find the strength not to give up. As he says in the collection’s last piece, “We will see you tomorrow.”

For those familiar with To Write Love on Her Arms, the book will reaffirm all of the positive work Tworkowski has done bringing awareness to mental health issues. His honesty is both refreshing and impactful. Some self-help books can be preachy, but since Tworkowski’s advice is dispensed from his own struggles, it is more relatable and easier to swallow. The pieces are also beautifully and lyrically written. Some could easily double as poems or songs.

My biggest struggle with If You Feel Too Much is that the pieces are presented without context; therefore, some parts of the book made me feel a little lost. Jason Russell is my Friend, for example, talked about the very public meltdown of Jason Russell, the founder of an organization called Invisible Children. I had to research Jason Russell and Invisible Children before I could continue reading, which certainly lessened the impact of the piece.

Overall, this book is a valuable resource that every classroom teacher should consider purchasing for their bookshelves. I’m planning to photo copy and display Towrkowski’s piece “There Is Still Some Time” in my classroom, a reminder to my students to seek help and comfort in moments of hopelessness.

Book Review: Caraval

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Garber, Stephanie. Caraval. Flatiron, 2017. Print.

As an aspiring author, I am always eager to hear how today’s popular writers overcome rejection and adversity.

I was fortunate to see many great young adult authors at this year’s BookCon, among them Stephanie Garber. Sitting on a panel with other YA authors, Garber talked about the sacrifices she made while penning her novel Caraval, including moving back in with her parents and dealing with various rejections from publishers. This surprised me as I’d seen Caraval’s beautiful cover on bestseller lists and Instagram posts. The humility and friendliness Garber displayed made me even more anxious to get my hands on Caraval.

Scarlett Dragna and her sister Donatella have grown up hearing fantastical stories of Caraval. A mixture between a carnival, scavenger hunt, and circus, Caraval takes place at a different location each year and is orchestrated by a mysterious man named Legend. Although Scarlett has longed to attend the event since childhood, she remains planted on her home island of Trisda, carefully watched by her cruel and abusive father. When her father orchestrates a marriage between Scarlett and a mysterious Count, Scarlett feels the remainder of her life has been mapped out. She might not ever get to see Caraval, but the marriage will present her with the opportunity to get away from her father and take Donatella with her.

Just as Scarlett has accepted her fate, she receives a personal letter and invitation from Legend himself. She at first resists the idea of attending, but after some forceful persuasion from her sister and Julian, a mischievous sailor, Scarlett finds herself heading to Caraval. Participants are tasked with solving a mystery using various clues spread throughout the island. After Scarlett and Donatella are separated, Scarlett is horrified to learn that, this year, the game will revolve around locating her missing sister. Scarlett must work quickly in order to locate Donatella and return to Trisda before her upcoming wedding. Will the sisters ever be reunited? Can Scarlett trust Julian? And why did Legend request Scarlett’s presence?

Although fantasy is not my favorite genre, I have read a few novels with such fantastic world building that I’ve suspended my disbelief: the Harry Potter series, Alice in Wonderland, and now Caraval. This novel is drenched in imagery—rich descriptions of clothing and jewelry, vivid landscapes and interiors, various magical items and people, etc. Like all well-written fantasy novels, readers will believe the possibilities are endless for Scarlett. It is feasible that she would find a hidden passageway or take a potion that turns her world black and white or bring the dead back to life.

There are moments, however, when the descriptions in Caraval teeter toward ridiculousness. For example, a book in the novel is described as being “the color of dark fairy tales”. Two of the main characters are also extremely flat: Scarlett’s father and Scarlett’s fiancé.

Still, Caraval is a truly magical read from beginning to end, and students will be enraptured by Scarlett’s tale. There are a variety of ways to use this novel in the classroom. I’m planning on having my students annotate passages from Caraval when teaching imagery. With such lush, fantastic writing, there are few texts better suited for the job.

Book Review: Autoboyography

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Lauren, Christina. Autoboyography. Simon & Schuster , 2017. Print.

Note: This is a review of an advanced, uncorrected proof.

There are few things as terrifying as sharing your writing with a workshop group. I kept my short stories and novels-in-progress private until I decided to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing. Staying completely silent as strangers combed through each paragraph and pointed out every unnecessary adverb and grammatical error felt like nettles scraping across my heart. Pain aside, I emerged from these sessions a better, stronger writer. Nowadays, I look forward to writing workshops.

Students, of course, have the same feelings of vulnerability when they share their writing, particularly writing that describes or stems from personal experiences. I’ve seen kids tremble, flush, clam up, or become defiant when they are called upon to read their work aloud. Christina Lauren’s latest novel, Autoboyography, describes the process of writing alongside your classmates, but it goes far beyond the procedures of writing workshops and editing. In many ways, Autoboyography examines how writing is an extension of ourselves and how putting pen to paper helps the writer archive some of life’s most precious and heartbreaking moments.

Tanner Scott lives in an area of Utah saturated with Mormon churches and devout followers. This makes Tanner somewhat of an anomaly—his dad is Jewish, his mother a defected Mormon, and, unbeknownst to anyone outside of his immediate family, Tanner is bisexual.  By flying under the radar, Tanner carves out a happy life for himself. He does well in school, has a smattering of close friends, and is looking forward to attending college and leaving Utah behind.

At the urging of his best friend Audrey, Tanner enrolls in a class known as Seminar his senior year. Students in Seminar are expected to write and polish a fifty-thousand-word novel under the direction of their teacher, Mr. Fujita. The class will have a special addition—Sebastian Brother, a student who graduated the previous year. Sebastian’s novel was so exceptional that it was quickly purchased and slated for publication, making Sebastian something of a celebrity in their small community. Tanner feels an immediate pull to Sebastian despite his knowledge that Sebastian is both an extremely devout Mormon and the son of the local bishop. He decides to pour his conflicting emotions into his novel-in-progress. Will he work up the nerve to turn in his extremely autobiographical work? Does Sebastian share Tanner’s feelings? Will Tanner find the courage to be honest with his closest friends?

As the novel is told mostly through Tanner’s POV, it would have been easy for the book to spiral into a dislike of all Mormons and, larger, a dislike for all organized religion. Tanner, despite his occasional snarky comments, is open minded and curious, and seeks out information about the Mormon religion not in a desire to convert but to understand Sebastian’s world. In doing so, he shatters many stereotypes and misconceptions. Tanner is also a great multi-faceted character with an authentic voice.

The narration shifts to Sebastian’s vantage point mere chapters before the book ends, then back to Tanner’s, then back to Sebastian’s, then back to Tanner’s, alternating between third and first person. As most of the book was told in Tanner’s first person narrative voice, this stylistic choice rattled me. I understand that the bulk of the novel was meant to be Tanner’s book, and the writing that followed was simply the fall-out; however, it seemed too late to leave Tanner’s head and enter Sebastian’s.

Autoboyography would be a great addition to a classroom library, and especially popular among students who enjoy romance novels. The book also encourages readers to take painful and confusing moments in their life and allow those things to seep into their writing. I’m always encouraging my students to “write what hurts”, and Tanner is an excellent example of a student who used writing to sort out his emotions and make sense of his world.

Book Review: Evil Librarian

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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.