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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Adventures in Angst

So, this past year I was one of ten Michigan Librarians serving on the Thumbs Up committee. Most of you have probably never heard of the Thumbs Up, but it is an award given by the Michigan Library Association to the most outstanding teen book of the year. The MLA also gives out the Mitten and YouPer Awards for the best picture book and juvenile chapter book of the year. Obviously, Michigan librarians are really into super corny state puns. What sets the Thumbs Up apart (besides being for teens) is that the targeted audience actually gets to vote. Rather than outright choosing the winner the committee selects a top ten and then teens are encouraged to read those books and vote for their favorites. Personally, I think that this is awesome because what is the point of giving an award to a teen book that no teens will actually read. I think that too often with literary awards librarians, teachers, parents, etc. choose winners that they think kids should be reading rather than what they would actually enjoy. That being said the committee still strives to select a top ten that exhibits quality story telling with exceptional setting, characters, style, and plot.

I have to confess that reading books for the Thumbs Up was not always easy. Sexual assault, homophobia, gang violence, suicide, eating disorders, drug abuse, racism and that was just in the first five books I read. Throw in a whole lot of angsty, hormonal, and often whiny teen protagonists and there were days that I wanted to scream "Can I just read something happy????" All joking aside, I really did enjoy being on the Thumbs Up committee and it forced me to read some spectacular books that I probably never would have picked up on my own. Here (in no particular order) are the top ten nominations for the 2018 Thumbs Up Award.

1. Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
All I can really say about Long Way Down is WOW!!!! Jason Reynolds has written a novel in verse that is so unique and powerful you will feel like you have been punched in the stomach (but in a good way). There are three rules in 15 year old Will's neighborhood: don't cry, don't snitch, but always get revenge. When Will steps into his building's elevator with a gun in his waistband, he has every intention of shooting the boy who killed his older brother, Shawn. On the way to the lobby, though, the elevator stops at every floor and someone from Will's past gets on. Are they ghosts, angels, or figments of imaginations created by Will's conscience? All we know is that they are all dead victims of gun violence. Long Way Down is a beautifully written story that uses the supernatural to convey the futile and tragic nature of gun violence.

I absolutely adore Jason Reynolds!!! Seriously, I had the privilege of hearing him speak last year and he is just a phenomenal human being and such an amazing ambassador for writing, reading, and children. I have blogged about a few of his other books so please check out Long Way Down and also some of his other books (his track series for middle grade readers is awesome and he even wrote the new Miles Morales Spiderman book!). I couldn't help but including a couple of videos. The first is an excerpt of Long Way Down read by Reynolds with stunning illustrations by Chris Priestly and the second is an episode of Meet the Author in which Reynolds is interviewed by a librarian and a group of middle school kids.

2. One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus
The Breakfast Club as written by Agatha Christie. What better hook could I give you. Five kids are put into detention: the jock, the beauty, the trouble maker, the future valedictorian, and the outcast who knows everyone's secrets. Would Cooper, Addy, Nate, or Bronwyn really kill Simon, though, to keep him from divulging information that could ruin their lives on his notorious gossip website? I love a good mystery and there are not a lot of them targeted at teens. This classic locked room whodunnit was immensely entertaining while also tackling modern teen issues.

3. Who Killed Christopher Goodman? by Allan Wolf
This one may sound like a murder mystery but it really isn't since you already know who dies (Christopher Goodman) and the killer is one of several narrators. I know it sounds so anticlimactic to even read it now, right? Who Killed Christopher Goodman? is unlike anything I have ever read before, though. Allan Wolf actually based the book on a real murder that occurred in his hometown when he was a teenager.The story is set in the seventies, the author repeatedly mentions the title character's bodacious bell bottoms. In addition to the murderer the story is narrated by multiple teens that all have peripheral interactions with Christopher Goodman the hours surrounding his death. Each teen wonders if they had done something differently, if the timeline had been altered even slightly would Christopher have not been in the wrong place at the wrong time and been spared? The book uniquely examines the ripple effects that a murder has on an entire community.

4. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Angie Thomas's debut novel, The Hate U Give, is probably one of the most talked about books written last year. It has already won a ton of awards and with good reason. The book is an unabashedly honest look at police violence, gang culture, racism, and inner city life. Okay, I am going to mention Jason Reynolds again. One of the things that Reynolds has mentioned in multiple interviews is the importance of "all the stories". Starr's story is one that has not been told in a teen book before and that is what makes The Hate U Give so incredibly important. Not only for kids that can relate to her circumstances but also for those who cannot. Patrick Rothfuss is a fantasy author who stated: Reading can almost be viewed as empathy training. Movies have better action scenes, sure. But books are uniquely suited to showing you the inside of another person's head. That is the root of empathy.  That's the first step to understand that you are not alone in the world.  Let me jump on my soap box for a second and say that a lot more reading or as Rothfuss puts it empathy training could solve a lot of the world's problems.

5. Bull by David Elliott
I have heard Bull described as Hamilton meets Greek mythology. This ingenious retelling of the myth of Asterion the Minotaur is hilarious, tender, and also heartrending. The story is told in verse with each of the characters being given their own individual poetic form. It makes my head spin to imagine how difficult it must have been for Elliott to write the novel in seven different meters but the effect is absolutely fantastic. When you are reading Bull you can hear the sarcastic wit of Poseidon and the desperation and loneliness of Asterion.

6. Solo by Kwame Alexander
Ok, this is another novel in verse. You may think that no teens want to read poetry, but novels in verse can be a great option for reluctant readers or kids (or adults) who have too much homework or too many other books to read. In Solo Kwame Alexander tells the story of 17-year old Blade Morrison, the beleaguered son of an aging rock star. Wealth, fame, and endless parties may seem like a dream come true to most teens but life has not always been easy for Blade. His mother died when he was nine and his life-of-the-party father has been in and out of rehab more times than he count. When Blade discovers that he was adopted he sets out to Africa to find his birth mother. Music is such a significant component of Solo so having story told in verse makes it read more like lyrics. Alexander also peppers the story with multiple classic rock lyrics that music lovers are sure to appreciate.

7. Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia
This one got the vote of  my teen daughter who spends 99% of her free time drawing anime fan aft.  Unbeknownst to her family, classmates, teachers, etc. reclusive teenager Eliza Mirk is the anonymous creator of the hugely successful web comic Monstrous Sea. Nearly crippled by social anxiety (unless she is at her computer) Eliza is petrified of anyone learning her identity. When she falls for Monstrous Sea fanboy, Wallace, though, maintaining her anonymity becomes more like lying. Eliza and Her Monsters is a great spin on the traditional coming-of-age book. I would definitely recommend it to your manga or graphic novel readers or any fandom obsessed teen. My one criticism of the book is that the illustrations were not very dynamic. It just seems that since Monstrous Sea is so successful (in the novel) that the brief glimpses we are shown of it should be more extraordinary.

8. The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
I will confess that of the top ten nominees for the Thumbs Up The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue was probably my least favorite. It was not bad in any way it is just historical romance is not really my favorite genre and that is what this reads like.  Henry (Monty) Montague is going on a grand tour of Europe before returning to England to assume his responsibilities on his family's estate. Determined to make the most of his time away from his disapproving father and in the company of his best friend and longtime crush, Percy, Monty's reckless decisions get them into all sorts of mischief.  I did love the humor in the novel. Lee's characters all have a witty snarkiness that was incredibly entertaining.

9. Landscape with Invisible Hand by M.T. Anderson
Some of my fellow Thumbs Up committee members thought that Landscape with Invisible Hand was a bit too weird. That is probably why I loved it so much. The story is set in the future and aliens called Vuvv (that look like walking coffee tables with lots of suckers) have come to earth with advanced technology that has eliminated most jobs (scary). With no money and few prospects Adam and his girlfriend, Chloe, sign up to make their relationship a reality show for the human-culture obsessed Vuvv. Since the Vuvv prefer the idyllic era of fifties doo wop Adam and Chloe spend a lot of time strolling hand in hand and saying things like "swell" and "golly gosh" all for the viewing pleasure of the Vuvv. When the couple breaks up they can either pretend to still be madly in love or be sued for breach of contract. I am probably doing an incredibly bad job of explaining Landscape with Invisible Hand but, like I said, it is more than a little bit strange. If you enjoy black comedies or eccentric science fiction I would give it a try.

10. Warcross by Marie Lu
All you have to do to get kids to read Warcross is ask them if they liked Ready Player One. Not saying that Warcross is an exact copy. It is definitely a unique story but it has that gamer/virtual/dystopian vibe that Ready Player One fans will love. Similar to the Oasis in Ready Player One Warcross is not just a game, the virtual world has become a way of life for most people. Orphan, Emika Chen, is a gaming and computer prodigy that accidentally hacks her way into the opening game of the International Warcross Championships. Instead of being arrested Emika is asked by the creator of Warcross, Hadeo Tanaka, to go undercover and and investigate a sinister plot within the game. This book was just a blast to read and I cannot wait for the sequel, Wildcard, to come out next September (why do authors have to take so long between books in a series????).

For those of you interested the teen vote for the 2018 Thumbs Up will continue through May 31st. I know that it is not a lot of time but whether you vote or not be sure to check out some of the exceptional books on this list. I really feel like the committee chose a great variety of books from science fiction and realistic drama to fantasy and mystery.