24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Tag: 3 hearts (page 2 of 3)

Abby Reads: Witch Child by Celia Rees

Witch Child by Celia Rees
Candlewick, 2000, 288 pages
YA Historical Fiction

After her grandmother is accused of and executed for witchcraft, young Mary is left to fend for herself in Celia Rees’s Witch Child. A mysterious woman collects Mary following her grandmother’s execution advises Mary to make a journey to the New World and start a new life there. With the means to do 803120so and nothing left for her in England, Mary strikes out across the sea. But the suspicions which plagued her grandmother follow her and the relationships she fosters across the community aren’t helping to assuage any fears in her town.

Told in a sort of diary format, Witch Child details its narrator’s life with quite a bit of detail, often straying to the mundane aspects of the characters’ lives even as they make a perilous and fraught journey across the sea and develop a new community from scratch. With Mary being a rather passive character who says little but observes frequently, her narrative is somewhat uneventful. While the potential for much is there — and certainly, action happens in subtle ways — little actually seems to happen on the page that is capable of holding the reader’s attention. The prose is fairly aimless, as real diaries often are, and makes for slow and sometimes frustrating progress.

The conflict around Mary and her relationship with her mother is compelling. Much of it is an enigma, and perhaps it is the lack of information Mary gives about the backstory and what else she learns along the way that makes it especially intriguing, but in a book that is otherwise fairly devoid of riveting narrative, this plot point feels like a missed opportunity. Beyond the first quarter or so of the novel, Mary barely considers her mother or the lack of her mother’s presence, even as she is surrounded by women giving birth, it seems, and families. While another woman steps in to play the role of mother in Mary’s life, this relationship never quite passes as the same thing and, in fact, the woman in this role seems to fade in and out of the narrative. This, I think, is again typical and realistic for the diary format in which the novel is written, but it means potentially interesting thematic elements are, at best, weak.

In another show of dedication to realism, Mary meets many, many people on her journey. As several of them are beholden to Puritanical ideals and their primarily personality traits are condemning those who are different from them, telling each apart can be a challenge. This is especially difficult when the pace of the story moves slowly and the narrative offers few moments of conflict or action to hook the reader’s attention and give them a reason to keep track of so many names.

While I expected something atmospheric and witchy (that cover!), or something similar to Ann Rinaldi’s A Break with Charity, what I got was something rather disappointing. Bland with probably an abundance of subtlety I was too lazy to pick up on, Witch Child was not the late-October kind of read I was looking for when I slogged through it. Mary’s lack of personality and adherence to quiet inaction makes the novel a tough one to be excited about while the strict realism reinforces monotony (real life is boring: that’s why I read). Witch Child is probably one you can skip, but it might be worth the money just for that stunning cover.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: First & Then by Emma Mills

First & Then  by Emma Mills
Henry Holt and Co., 2015, 272 pages
YA Fiction

Obsessed with Jane Austen and dealing with the new presence of her cousin in her home, Devon of Emma Mills’s First & Then doesn’t want a whole lot to do with anyone. With her cousin Foster comes local superstar football player Ezra, and it doesn’t look like he’ll be out of her life anytime soon, no matter 23310751how much she may want him out. But Ezra perhaps does not have the perfect life everyone believes he does.

With a plot and structure that mimics Austen to some degree, First & Then follows Devon and her mild obsession around the famous author. Mills struggles to define Devon, however — for all of Devon saying she loves Austen, it’s rarely demonstrated in action and the origins of her interest are never explained. It feels, instead, like a symbolic character trait: Devon loves Austen, so her story — at least in this novel — will be one about love and commentary on societal contentions. You know, like an Austen novel.

Despite Devon being somewhat bare bones in the personality department, her love interest is rather interesting. Genuinely mature (as opposed to the fake mature that you often see in YA literature — Edward in Twilight comes to mind first: seemingly mature and experienced, but really just brooding and quite emotionally immature when it comes down to it), the character provides a refreshing example. Though a revealing detail (see more on that at the end of the review, if you don’t mind major spoilers)* ends up being half-baked and underdeveloped, the character overall is fascinating as an individual.

Other folks in Devon’s life make the novel a touch crowded. Too many characters come in and out, which is a mark of real life, but ultimately makes First & Then harder to follow, canceling out any of the realism this aspect provides. Meanwhile, Mills’s plot is a bit slow and subtle, which adds to the vague lack of readability. Furthermore, if you’re not a fan of football and know nothing about it, several football-heavy scenes will again make this book a bit more of a chore than you might expect.

Finally, Devon’s tendency to call other girls at her school “prostitots,” or “PTs” for short, is a frustrating one. She never grows out of this, which I found disconcerting for a number of reasons. While main characters need not be perfect by any stretch, there seemed no real reason for this inclusion, except perhaps some dislike of girls typically deemed as pretty, popular, and perhaps promiscuous (alliteration unintended) by the author in her high school years.

First & Then is not something I’d go out of my way to read. It needed a bit more polishing and a stronger structure to hold my attention. While the prose style was sufficient, the overall concept was in places too subtle or otherwise underdeveloped to be gripping.


Ultimately, the love interest holds a secret to avoid attention he doesn’t want. This “secret” is that his younger brother died in a car crash. This felt terribly gimmicky and, from someone who lost a brother to fatal injuries in a car crash, I was mildly insulted. The love interest never even gives his brother a name, suggesting that the crash only matters in so much as it is connected to the love interest and his life, as opposed to just being an important event on its own. Though everyone grieves differently, I found this portrayal strange, off-putting, and generally tone deaf to what it’s actually like.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Beast Is an Animal by Peternelle Van Arsdale

The Beast Is an Animal by Peternelle van Arsdale
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2017, 352 pages

With a dark and witchy feel akin to the Salem Witch Trials, The Beast Is an Animal is a debut novel by Peternelle van Arsdale (and what a name — both the title and author!). I first heard of the YA fantasy in an episode of Book Riot’s All the Books with Liberty Hardy and Rebecca Schinsky and it sounded amazing. After two sisters and their mother are banished from a town for suspicion of witchcraft, the town feels the effects. Years later, seven-year-old Alys is found wandering in the fields by a traveler. When he returns her to her home, he finds her parents — along with all townsfolk over the age of fifteen — have perished. Alys and her young townmates are adopted by families in a nearby town, but the suspicion grows over the newcomers and Alys, especially. While Alys resists the pull of the two sisters who have found their way into her life, she must reconcile her murderous feelings with her love for her adoptive family.

The Beast Is an Animal begins with a fascinating and atmospheric concept, but it’s an atmosphere that just can’t be sustained for hundreds of pages — at least, not the way van Arsdale tells it. Alys spends a good portion (nearly half) of the book as a child and, consequently, her thoughts and understanding of the world around her are limited by experience and knowledge. Though there is so much potential to dive into various ideas about human nature and cruelty, van Arsdale can barely scratch the surface with her young character. Even as Alys ages, something about her lack of exposure to the world outside her village seems to limit her ability to consider the deeper implications of her actions and the actions of those around her.

Van Arsdale is, perhaps, just being subtle. There are moments in the novel that reach a deeper understanding and payoffs here and there. These often come in the form of meticulous prose. As a book editor by trade, van Arsdale’s strength is very obviously in the language, which is fairly consistently beautiful, interesting, and haunting. Her prose, however, cannot carry the basic lack of plot alone. Though Alys clearly has a predicament, what she really wants is unclear throughout the novel. A last-minute love interest seems to be a thing of plot convenience and motivation more than something natural, and Alys hardly has enough personality to warrant a realistic relationship.

Alys isn’t alone in having little personality. Few characters in the book do, the primary of which being Pawl, who discovers her as a young girl wandering in the fields. It is later in the novel, especially, that he and his wife feature in an especially poignant way, driven by their taste for alcohol and drunkenness. This particular trait makes Pawl one of the most interesting characters as it is so at odds with his cheery personality. Not many characters qualify as prime players — instead, a blurry mish-mash of villagers make up the antagonistic forces in Alys’s life, along with the sisters and the beast itself, who, while a fascinating idea, is not well developed and instead rather superficial and without much impact.

Ultimately, van Arsdale has something here, both in concept and in ability to write. The Beast Is an Animal falls short with a plot that doesn’t stand strong in its structure nor urges readers forward with momentum, purpose, or stakes. My expectations for The Beast Is an Animal — and I still can’t get over that striking title — were, admittedly, high. This might be better read around Halloween and might even make a fascinating class assignment alongside The Crucible or A Break with Charity. Fans of All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry might find similar elements in The Beast Is an Animal and enjoy it, to an extent, but van Arsdale’s first attempt is not quite a hit.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Free to Make by Dale Dougherty

Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing Our Schools, Our Jobs, and Our Minds by Dale Dougherty
North Atlantic Books, 2016, 336 pages

Emphasizing the importance of the maker movement in modern society, Dale Dougherty sets out to meet makers, describe makerspaces around the world, and convince his readers that makerspaces are here to stay. The book’s opening chapters imply Dougherty will also explore what makes a good makerspace and an all-around how-to when it comes to implementing a makerspace or maker program at, say, a public library. This was one of my main motivators in reading the book. As someone in the library science field, I’m naturally interested in emerging trends therein.

Unfortunately, Dougherty doesn’t really deliver in that arena. While some digging in the book might bring out some gems as to what makes a good makerspace and how to go about successfully designing a maker program, there was nothing deliberate in the text that got at this concept. Instead, Dougherty focuses on stories of individuals making things independently — often inspired by, but not necessarily directly involved in, makerspaces and making. He describes the origins of Arduino and as sous-vide machine, for example. And, while these kinds of projects are certainly attainable for many makers, the concepts are simply too advanced for most makers. The individuals in these stories essentially dropped their lives to work on their projects, which isn’t a thing that can happen in reality for most people. Although Dougherty discusses how making is a thing of democracy and equity, I wasn’t convinced. It takes a lot of time and often money to develop these projects, which makes them inherently inaccessible to many.

While readers may draw their own conclusions from that path of thought, Dougherty does little to emphasize the implications of the maker movement beyond the first couple of chapters and his conclusion. Instead, the book reads like a lengthy article profiling a handful of makers who, excuse the pun, made it. And while that’s interesting to some folks on its own, it doesn’t make the work especially useful, particularly in the context of its subtitle, “How the Maker Movement Is Changing Our Schools, Our Jobs, and Our Minds.” Another point toward the article-esque feeling of the work is the writing style. Dougherty’s background with Make: magazine means this writing style makes sense, but it doesn’t serve the nature of the thing he’s writing. What is perhaps readable and even interesting in small amounts becomes tedious in a book-length piece.

Dougherty’s focus suffers as he notably emphasizes making that revolves around technology and what you traditionally think of when you think tools. There’s a brief moment in which Dougherty nods to crafters (and we can go on about how “making” is masculine and “crafting” is feminine, but that’s for another time), but despite the fact that crafting is making, its sadly absent from the pages of Free to Make. To be sure, it does not fit neatly within the maker movement. Craft fairs, with pre-made and made-to-order items available for sale have been around for years, taking up booths in high school gymnasiums and boasting the skills of their crafters (read: makers). And yet (and, I’ll return briefly to this, because I do think it’s important, if not strictly relevant — I think this may be because crafting is feminine and making is masculine so we as a society, Dougherty included, place more value on making than we do crafting), crafting is not a thing in Dougherty’s maker universe.

All said, if you’re a librarian, teacher, educator, or maker looking for information on how to go about building a makerspace or even making a case for a makerspace, you likely won’t find much of use here. Free to Make is full of fascinating case studies, but it doesn’t deliver what it advertises. Though easy to read and inspiring in many places, the contents are not what I’d lean on for any research on the topic.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #13, “Read a nonfiction book about technology,” and I leave it behind with three hearts.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Great Hunt by Wendy Higgins

The Great Hunt by Wendy Higgins
HarperTeen, 2016, 432 pages
YA Fantasy

When a great beast begins terrorizing the world of Eurona, the king issues a challenge: he that can defeat the animal will win his daughter’s, Princess Aerity, hand in marriage. Resigning herself to do what is best for her kingdom when the king’s resources are limited, Aerity watches at people from her own kingdom and beyond are destroyed by the beast’s terror. During her visits to the fighting men (and few women) who try to defend Eurona, Aerity meets one contender who, while he has no interest in marrying Princess Aerity, feels he must do what he can to protect his homeland and family. Paxton and his brother hunt alongside the others and there’s no doubt they are good — but Paxton is drawn in by Aerity’s self-assuredness, causing an internal conflict over why he is actually fighting. In a tale that recreates the Grimm Brothers’ “The Singing Bone,” The Great Hunt by Wendy Higgins is the first in the Eurona duology.

The Great Hunt came into my life because I was asked to review its sequel, The Great Pursuit. In many ways, especially after having read both books, The Great Hunt felt more like a large prologue to The Great Pursuit rather than its own book even as part of a duology. The Great Hunt lays out the foundation for The Great Pursuit but doesn’t have much of a story of its own. In fact, characters in the first novel are severely underdeveloped. This is especially obvious with the book’s main character, Princess Aerity. With little nuance, Aerity’s primary characteristic is the clichéd defiance many-a-fictional princess exhibits. The slight difference with Aerity is her willingness to go along with her father’s decree for the sake of her kingdom; this is not enough, however, to flesh her into a full being. Aerity’s one hobby — something that might help to better form her personality if done well — is merely a plot device which ultimately serves in one small scene to remove characters from trouble. Its presence in her life has no other purpose and feels, therefore, disingenuous. Other flat areas include the villain and the villain’s motivations, which otherwise begin with promise but ultimately fall.

Also troubling is the level of sluts-haming in the novel. Wyneth, who watches her betrothed die, begins to move on with other characters and one hunter in particular. She is not only seemingly punished for daring to kiss her betrothed before he dies, but is on the receiving end of sneers and other mistreatment and judgment as she develops a relationship with the hunter. The importance of monogamy in this fictional society is emphasized to the extent that it makes me wonder if the author was trying to make a point with this. While I’m on the fence as to whether we should portray humans and reality strictly as they are in fiction or condemn actions that are, in our society, generally seen as unacceptable, the fairly frequent talk of monogamy and consequences for stepping outside those boundaries in one way or another (of course more severe for women) was a bit much for me.

Higgins does a decent job with romantic moments despite her characters’ lack of personalities and even pulls off a surprise ending, but the entire premise of the book doesn’t quite add up for me. The king makes excuses for not rewarding land to the winner of the hunt by saying he needs it for his son and his other daughter’s dowry. There’s apparently no money to be had. And so he turns to…selling off his oldest daughter? Surely there were more options and, because Higgins does not explore other potential options (which causes some deficit in the world building area), readers are forced to accept that this is truly the only way.

And while a beast terrorizes the kingdom of Eurona, the stakes never felt quite high enough to warrant the tense action-adventure atmosphere Higgins tries to create. Plenty of moments in the novel are overly drawn out and slow while others are completely unnecessary, adding nothing to the plot or character development. Pursuit was certainly better, giving Hunt more of a payoff than it probably deserved, but I can’t necessarily recommend Hunt beyond that, which is why I leave it with two-and-a-half hearts.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson

Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2015, 480 pages
YA Fiction

I picked up Morgan Matson’s Since You’ve Been Gone as a little piece of escapism after one of the family cats had to be put to sleep following a stroke. In the young adult novel, Emily’s best friend, Sloane, has disappeared and left nothing for her but a list of things Emily ought to do. Not terribly adventurous, Emily blanches at the list which includes things like going skinny dipping, riding a horse, and sleeping outside. All Emily wants to do is to find Sloane, but Sloane isn’t answering her phone and can’t be found at her house where she and Emily first met. Befriending a Image result for since you've been gone morgan matsonfamiliar face over the love of running, Emily finds support in unexpected places as she tries to finish the list with the hope that Sloane will be waiting for her at the end.

Since You’ve Been Gone is a bit more far-fetched than I find a lot of the fiction in this genre to be. There was something off about the emotional color of the book, and much of the plot felt a bit outlandish. Although Emily is pursuing something like the extraordinary in her tasks, that a teenager would have the resources to do these things felt unrealistic. And certainly Emily has her help throughout the events, but things line up just a tad too neatly for the book to feel entirely natural. (Plus, I’ve done the equivalent of the drive Emily takes toward the end of the book. I suppose it could be done as it’s described, but it would be a stretch and you better be praying to the traffic gods.) The pacing, meanwhile, was realistic to the point of being slow, so the disconnect between the events and this other aspect of hyperrealism left me confused about how realistic the book really was.

Like so many other stories in which young women come into themselves after facing some difficult tasks, Emily was shy, mousy, anxious, and bland. Though she got points from me for at least having the distinctive characteristic of being a dedicated runner (and a good trainer), I never got the sense that Emily was fully formed and she certainly wasn’t fully formed without Sloane. I’m the first to advocate for female friendships that transform, but Emily’s lack of character felt extreme and, by the end, I wasn’t convinced that she could now be her own person without Sloane’s constant presence and pushing.

On the flipside, these stories often feature a Bad Boy™ love interest. Frank is decidedly not such a boy, but instead a student-government-do-gooder who doesn’t do so much good so as to make him totally boring, but does provide a somewhat refreshing subplot that typically features someone of an opposite personality. He’s a bit snobby about his music preferences – but, I ask, who isn’t in high school? – and the resulting playlists sprinkled throughout the book are a bit gimmicky (though not as much so as other books I’ve read).

For all of Emily’s hard work through her summer without Sloane, I found the ending to be lackluster and anticlimactic. This was the hyperrealism I was missing in the other pieces of the story, but it felt misplaced and more like a letdown here. Though the fun and modern cover for the book has provided plenty of bloggers with great material for their bookish photography, the story has a 90s/00s shade to it that makes it feel a bit slow and a bit dated.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2015, 320 pages
YA Fiction

With guilt sitting on his shoulders over the circumstances behind his sister’s near-homelessness, James Whitman of Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos copes with his mental illness by hugging trees. As he navigates life with depression and anxiety, James does what he can to mitigate the effects of his condition from talking to the ever-present Dr. Bird, to reciting the poetry of Walt Whitman, to getting a job to help pay for the therapy he goes to without the knowledge of his parents. Handling his own challenges isn’t enough and when he thinks he has an opportunity to bring his sister home, James goes all in. But there’s more to the story than he realizes and it’s going to change everything.

I am all for the psychological explorations of depressed and privileged straight white boys. I am. I even wrote a few blog posts on that very topic and why it’s one of my favorite genres. The Catcher in the RyeThe Secret HistoryPaper Covers Rock. (Any other recommendations? Please, send them my way.) So I felt a bit let down at how Dr. Bird’s didn’t enrapture me the same way as others. He exhibits a regressive speech pattern, which, combined with some actions that are nearly deplorable, makes James a less sympathetic character than some of those in my favorites. Despite acknowledging knowing the things he’s doing are wrong and even articulating why they’re wrong, James willingly mistreats others. I could never get behind James and really care for him.

Roskos tries, I think, to blend character- and plot-driven fiction. In the end, it doesn’t work out so well for him. Though such a balance can be achieved, Roskos does not quite hit the mark here. James’ character development moves along predictably as he goes from the state of a boy to a man and learns to communicate with others, manage his depression, and accept the things he cannot change. Meanwhile, the conflict of his sister’s expulsion serves as a foundation to a plot that feels underdeveloped and, by the end, somewhat abandoned in favor of scenes that better show James’ growth. Adding to the sometimes-sharp realism of the novel is the ending. Though James does not meet a fate the Grimm Brothers might have prescribed him, neither does he have a Disney-perfect end. Many of his troubles are without resolution, only to be solved a few years down the road when he moves out of his parents’ house. There’s hope in Roskos’ ending, sure, especially now that James has more tools and skills to deal with the challenges he faces, but things are otherwise more-or-less the same.

I think that’s a large part of why the plot/character-driven fiction aspect of Dr. Bird’s breaks down. The end is somewhat gimmicky: It was inside you all along, kid.

So, despite the raves this book has been getting thus far, I’m just kind of eh about it. It’s not bad, but I don’t think it really achieves what it wants to achieve, either – and it didn’t particularly strike anything special in me despite that. If you’re a fan of Catcher and similar works, this might be worth the read just for the sake of interest and comparison.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham

Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016, 384 pages

In the extraordinarily patriarchal world of the 1920s, young Henrietta Bingham used her charm and family’s money to influence society both in the United States and abroad. With friends such as those in the Bloomsbury Group, Bingham seduced men and women alike with her charisma but with retrospect drawn from relatives’ memories and Bingham’s own documents (including letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, and psychological reports on the subject), a darkness which shadowed Bingham’s life emerges. In Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham, Bingham’s grand-niece, Emily, collects the artifacts of her great-aunt’s life in an attempt to gain a better understanding of her family history while bringing to light the great impact Bingham had on her family, friends, acquaintances, and the world beyond.

As a student of history, Emily Bingham’s (I’ll use the author’s first name going forward to avoid confusing her with the subject of the biography) strength is clear. Her historical account of Henrietta and the world around her brings the reader into a detailed sepia world. Deeply disturbed by the loss of her mother before her eyes in a car accident, Henrietta lives a bold and rash life, unafraid to take charge. And while the author often paints this unashamed character as a point of pride, she does not shy away from pointing out the damage Henrietta brought to those around her. Emily’s smart to acknowledge that she is, indeed, related to the subject of the work though she had no memory of contact with Henrietta and the majority of her family viewed her unfavorably up to Henrietta’s death. Emily also notes that the book began as a project for her degree.

Though an interesting character, Henrietta seems to feature less than the title of the biography would suggest. Instead, the effect Henrietta had on the world around her takes the main stage. Relationships with Henrietta, platonic or otherwise, clearly caused the partner and other relevant individuals a good deal of grief. They were so often tied up in themselves and their feelings for Henrietta that they seemed to forget that she, too, was human and not the goddess they made her out to be. Though this is somewhat a reflection on Henrietta herself, the readers are still left with a greater impression of Henrietta’s impact than of Henrietta herself, which serves to perpetuate this vision of Henrietta as greater-than-human.

By the end of this chronicle of Henrietta’s life, I felt somewhat abandoned. Sure, Henrietta’s boom of cultural impact certainly had its ripples beyond her intimate circle, but what of the woman herself? She is left behind in Emily’s narrative, leaving the world with a whimper, so contrary to her life prior. Though certainly Emily could not dictate the events of her great-aunt’s life to provide a more structurally sound narrative that better reflects what we’ve come to expect in fiction and the bioflicks we all seem to love so much, I couldn’t help but feel that, “I read all of this for what, exactly?” Its anticlimactic end is the true show of how this book was more a personal project for Emily which happened to make a decent enough story that it was worth selling, to some publisher, than it was a true work of biography.

But we’re given other bits that perhaps make the time invested worthwhile – the discussion of LGBTQIAA individuals in the early-to-mid twenty-first century gives new insight to the hostile climate to those less familiar with the nuanced challenges of the time. Henrietta’s relationship with her father provides an extraordinarily interesting look into the grief of a widower and his unwillingness to let his daughter into the world. The influence of money alone rears itself as a powerful force in Henrietta’s world. All-in-all, Irrepressible isn’t the most riveting, but to the right reader will have some excellent passages worth the time.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
Balzer + Bray, 2016, 352 pages
YA Realistic Fiction

Jeff Garvin’s Symptoms of Being Human tells the story of Riley, a genderqueer* teen who struggles with their identity especially as they deal with their father’s political campaign, a new school, and all the usual challenges of being an American adolescent. To help deal with some of these challenges, Riley starts an anonymous blog about their life as a genderqueer teen. It’s not long before their identity is discovered by someone at school, though, and Riley has to contend with the harassment and bullying surrounding them.

Jeff Garvin uses masculine pronouns on his website and I saw him speak at the NoVa Teen Book Festival, so based on what I heard there and his site, I believe he is cisgender (which means he was born and assigned male at birth and identifies as a man). There’s quite a bit of contention around the majority writing about the minority. This is especially true when the content of the writing focuses on the specific issues involved with the identity at hand. It’s one thing to write, as a white man, for example, about a black man who is working through the grief of the death of a pet. It’s another thing to write, as a white man, about the specific racial oppression he encounters as a black individual in the throes of job searching. So, right off the bat, Garvin stats off with the deck stacked against him because Symptoms isn’t just about a teen who happens to be genderqueer. It’s about how at teen lives their life as a genderqueer individual.

That said, I don’t want to tear Garvin down for writing about a genderqueer teen when he is not one. He’s brought into the world a representation of someone who is rarely represented. And while we certainly can and should be doing a better job of representing all kinds of people, there’s something to be said for at least making a start of it, even when it might be misguided. Some readers who are genderqueer have weighed in on Garvin’s book, and I highly encourage you to read their thoughts rather than rely on my own above. Like Garvin, I’m cisgender and really don’t have the authority to speak at length on this. I’ll leave it at: this is potentially problematic and Garvin certainly gets some things wrong according to some readers who would know better. I think that’s valuable information to have going into the book, especially if you might find that content triggering.

But I’m never one to slam a whole book based on one aspect (I see that as an attack on intellectual freedom), so moving on from that one admittedly large issue – one of the main concerns Garvin had writing the book was how to make the lack of pronouns feel natural in Riley’s story. Garvin does not ever reveal Riley’s biological sex – nor does he need to. Garvin even avoids letting the perception of characters around Riley interfere with the lack of gender the readers experience with Riley. There are only a handful of lines where the lack of gendered pronoun feels obvious and unnatural from a writing perspective. Garvin avoids using the non-gendered “they,” too, which works well, most of the time.

None of this takes away from the rawness of Riley’s story. In a scene which graphically depicts an assault (warning, for readers who might want to avoid sexual assault content), the immediacy of the moment makes for a powerful passage that demands the reader’s attention and investment. The authenticity with which Garvin describes this scene helps bring it home and achieves an extraordinary amount of empathy in the reader. At the same time, the scenes following this one tend to be toned down in the authenticity and, frankly, basis in reality. The change which takes place in Riley as a growing human seems too stark a change for them (or most humans), and left me a bit disappointed in the conclusion.

One final piece is this: I did not find Riley a very compelling character overall. They lacked a personality I could get my hooks into. I suspect this has something to do with Garvin not wanting to inadvertently favor one set of traditional gender expectations over another and therefore vaguely indicate Riley’s biological sex one way or another. I can see how doing so might hurt the narrative, but with enough balance and editing, I think that could have been avoided. Still, Riley is a person who makes mistakes and, when they do have a personality, isn’t always reasonable or likable. This was a nice twist on the typical YA character who often cannot do wrong.

For an exercise in empathy and an opportunity to read about a group of people who are too-frequently overlooked, Symptoms of Being Human isn’t the worst place to start. I’d still recommend reading accounts from people who aregenderqueer. But sometimes, we’ve got to work with what we’ve got. In this case, Garvin’s novel seems to be fairly well-researched and he clearly is dedicated to giving these voices a platform.


*I am using this specific terminology because that is how Riley describes themselves in the book. I recognize this is potentially problematic due to the issues discussed in the second paragraph, but I hope with this note, readers will understand my intent.


❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2015, 320 pages
YA Fiction

In March, I had the pleasure of attending the Northern Virginia Teen Book Festival in Arlington, Virginia. One of the sessions was Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely talking about their book, All American Boys. When I heard a book about police brutality was in the works early last year, I was so excited to get my hands on it. Too many adults are afraid to talk about what they see as adult issues with teens — but the fact of the matter is, police brutality is an issue that is affecting people of all ages. I’d even take a guess that it affects young people more so. Reynolds and Kiely’s talk was honest, open, and blunt, as they spoke to a room of people of all ages.

I found the book to be less direct and far less complex than even the surface conversation Reynolds and Kiely held in the hour-long session. Rashad is minding his own business in a convenience store when a woman trips over him, causing a police officer to believe he’s stealing from the store. The officer takes Rashad outside and begins beating him to the point where Rashad ends up in the hospital for a week. Quinn, a white teen who goes to school with Rashad, witnesses the brutality and has conflicting feelings over the event, especially when he realizes the officer is his friend’s brother and his own father figure of sorts. While Rashad heals in the hospital and handles the media and community fallout, Quinn struggles with his own feelings on racism, police brutality, and justice.

Like Quinn, I have a lot of conflicting feelings. On the one hand, this is absolutely a topic that must be discussed with greater regularity, honesty, and compassion. The book does a great job in starting that conversation. I recognize that this conversation will likely not happen in schools and, if it does as a result of the book, pockets of society will challenge that. On the other hand, as much as I wanted to love this book, I just didn’t.

I’ll continue with the theme of conflict — the language used in the book is adult, no doubt. You’ll see profanity used, realistically, by teenagers and adults alike. But the language is not mature in the sense that it uses the complex language necessary for this topic. As a result, a lot of the nuances of the issue of police brutality are never brought up. Because it’s a book intended for teens, I’d expect some glossing, but the extent of surface material exceeds what I’d expect for this topic and its intended audience. I got the sense that Reynolds and Kiely (and the publisher) were so eager to get this out before it was “irrelevant,” that they rushed through it to hit the very main points without going into details. Ultimately, I think this was a huge loss for the book. I believe Reynolds and Kiely believe their audience is mature and intelligent enough to absorb more complexity, but it simply wasn’t there. And I recognize that these issues ARE complex, making them inherently difficult to write about, especially as the writing is just that — text. But I also want to acknowledge that they chose to approach a difficult topic to begin with.

The language, in another sense, lacked maturity. The reading level for this book, while I haven’t looked it up myself, felt lower than much of the other YA material I’ve read. This might have been intentional so as to make the book more accessible to a larger group of people, but given the subject matter, I felt it didn’t work.

Overall, I found Rashad to be far more interesting a character than Quinn, although he was in many ways more passive (mostly due to him being stuck in a hospital, though his reluctance to make his experience with brutality into a “thing” contributed, too). Wishy-washy, Quinn spends most of the book going back and forth on his feelings about what is happening in his community, the officer, his friendships without making much progress. Everything with Quinn is one step forward, two steps back, up until the very end, which left me with little confidence he’d really changed permanently or even far beyond the last pages of the book.

Speaking of the last pages — the final two pages of All American Boys are kind of what saved the book for me. With an astounding amount of well-done drama and tension, the last two pages pack a punch that I so wish the rest of the book had emulated. The last moments and words of this books are so powerful, and begin to dig into the realities of police brutality. I worry, though, that the impact is fleeting. I hate to give it away, so I’ll just say that there are dangers of using specific current events in books that cause the books to fail to age well. While I loved how these last pages made me feel now, I worry the impact will be severely lessened within just a few years’ time. The conflicting feelings with All American Boys seem endless, and not in a way that serves the book.

Reynolds and Kiely are wonderful, wonderful speakers. Knowing that Reynolds wrote for Rashad while Kiely wrote for Quinn, I can confidently say I strongly prefer Reynolds’ writing over Kiely’s. There was more texture to Reynold’s passages than Kiely’s, more emotional depth, more investment.

Perhaps, as a very early conversation starter, All American Boys does what it sets out to do. But I think the people reaching for this book are people who have already started that conversation and have the basic understanding of modern police brutality. Those who haven’t yet started the conversation probably won’t have the interest in All American Boys, despite the good it could do for them and their communities. I’m disappointed to say I was disappointed, but I do hope this book will open the door for similar works in the near future and have a great deal of respect for both authors and the book itself.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤


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