#SummerofYA Book Review: Saint Anything by @SarahDessen

 There’s no question why Sarah Dessen is called the Queen of YA. If you read any of her books, it’s clear that she’s a master at crafting a story with relevant plots, engaging dialogue, and characters that seem to have been plucked from real life. PS – I’m biased. She’s my favorite author. I’m grateful when someone reads one of her books for the first time and says they understand why I admire her writing so much.
According to confessions made on Twitter, Saint Anything was a challenge to get out into the world. In the time since her last novel, The Moon and More, came out, she started a manuscript that she ultimately put aside, meaning she worked hard to develop a completely different story BEFORE Saint Anything. As an aspiring author, I found her discussion of this and the struggle she endured so honest and helpful – it makes sense how she can so deeply relate to characters who struggle with their own issues of insecurity. Okay, enough Dessen talk. Let’s get to the book.
Sydney feels like an invisible girl. Her older brother has always stolen the spotlight; for being charming, and now, for his criminal behavior. She is “seen” by a new friend Layla, who comes with a complex, but loving family. Sydney is used to blending in the background, but the Chapman’s refuse to let that be the case when she’s around them. I loved that the friendships involve a bit of betrayal, because that’s so often true between friends. The conflict in the story is one not many may relate to, and yet, the pain of a broken family and sibling rivalry is so pertinent, and romance isn’t the central theme. All these factors blend together to make Saint Anything a truly great read – for teens and adults.
Our theme this month is The New Normal. The other two books I read have a clear “normal” factor, but this read was different. Sydney isn’t struggling with mental health, sexuality, racial tensions, or other “major issues” – she’s a suburban white girl. I think there’s often a misunderstanding that this demographic has it easy, when in truth, there can be just as much insecurity, questioning, and suffering. It tends to be more invisible because they “shouldn’t” have anything to complain about. It’s worse when they come from rich families – “can’t money solve every problem???”
Sydney shows that nearly everyone faces some identity crisis that forces one to ask, “am I normal?”
I would have loved to know how it felt, just once, to have something fall apart and see options instead of endings.
– Sarah Dessen, Saint Anything

Currently reading: The Maze RunnerEvery Day

#SummerofYA Review: Finding Audrey

9b668-finding2baudrey2bcover2bjpegFinding Audrey is an important book in the discussion of “The New Normal.” I knew this book was about mental illness before I started it, but I didn’t realize how honest it would ring true. As a former teen whom once struggled with “episodes of depression,” Audrey’s thoughts are so revealing of what it’s like in the brain of someone battling depression and anxiety.
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It’s a serious topic, that doesn’t need to be depressing to talk about! Audrey has a very humorous voice and deals with topics that any “normal” kid would: helicopter parents, obnoxious brothers, swoon-worthy boys, and Starbucks. The difference with Audrey and your average teen protagonist is her depression is the reason her parents hover, she struggles to connect with her brothers and boys because of anxiety, and even leaving the house takes an extraordinary amount of courage. Still, the novel has a special way of showing her growth in a realistic, raw approach. And like I said, at times, so funny:
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I’ve read the Shopaholic series by Kinsella so my expectations were for something lighthearted and female-oriented. Instead, this novel serves up authenticity when it comes to mental health and I would encourage readers going through similar issues to pick it up, but more importantly, family, friends, and peers who need to gain some helpful insight and empathy need to read it, or at least, something that deals with questioning “the norm “when it comes to mental health.
Resources/books on mental health in teens:
If you only read ONE article, let it be this one – stats on mental illness in teens, discussion of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, great recommended titles; highly encourage Laurie Halse Anderson’s “The Impossible Knife of Memory”
This is what depression looks like – “It isn’t just the gloomy kids…”

Currently Reading: Saint Anything

Jenny Han: The YA Minimalist… #SummerofYA Review

Why is being a minimalist author a compliment? How can that even be a thing? Well Jenny Han is the queen of using few (but just the right) words and  still gets the reader to tap into some deep emotions. A minimalist might sound like an odd way to describe a writer, but  she’s able to convey her story and evoke her readers on memories of love and friendship and family, with out bogging it down. I so hope to do the same in my own writing some day.
I started to read Jenny Han’s books when The Summer I Turned Pretty first came out. It was excruciating to wait for the next two in the series, because I devoured the first one so fast – I knew I needed the entire story before I could keep going. Well, I should have learned from that experience! When I read To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, it wasn’t enough.  She is so great at sucking you in to the story, engrossing the reader in her world. In the first book, letters that Lara Jean wrote to her 5 crushes get sent out accidentally. When the boys start confronting her, she realizes that sometimes the idea of relationships that we cook up in our heads are not the same as what could really happen IRL. The first book has a satisfying end, but you’re dying to know what will happen next with Lara Jean.
Romantic relationships is not the only theme in To All The Boys I’ve Looked Before; she is also navigating the difficult role of being a middle sister. It is a delicate balance to act like a normal high school girl, caring for her youngest sister, dealing with her older sister at college in Scotland, and the drama related with the letters.  The plot is very believable, and Han does a great job of placing the reader in the midst of the bumpy emotions of a 16-year-old girl.
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P.S. I Still Love You follows up where the previous story leaves off with Lara Jean and her romantic encounters. She continues to navigate similar themes from the first book, but I felt that the action/conflicts in the sequel are even more relevant than To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. For example, she deals with the impact of social media on girls’ reputations in high school. She is also going through a disconnect of friendships, which is a theme I think it’s often overlooked in YA lit. With about 20 pages left, I was worried that it would leave me hanging, and perhaps unsatisfied. But I should’ve trusted Jenny Han, because that lady knows what she’s doing! I recommend either series, but I am smitten over the way Han writes a female protagonist who questions if she’s normal with a truly authentic voice.
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Currently Reading: Finding Audrey

Articles on #SummerofYA July Theme

I’m loving this theme for July! It’s extremely relevant and what, I believe, draws most young readers to literature – to learn that they aren’t alone in their feelings and situations.

There were loads of articles I read about identity in YA Lit when I was in library school, but using the lens of this book club + the specific theme, I wanted to dig up some more recent ones to share. If you explore this topic with teens in your classrooms, libraries, or at home, maybe you’ll get some use of these articles. Or, if you’re still looking for a title or two, these might lead you in a good direction.

What Is Normal Anyway? By Lisa Williamson at Guardian
Last year I spent an afternoon hanging out with a group of teenage boys and girls. When I asked them what they worried about most, they all agreed “image” and “self-esteem”. These kids were bright, witty and articulate but also clearly struggling to balance the desire to fit in whilst maintaining their individuality. The main source of peer pressure may have moved online, but the preoccupation with aspiring to “normality” still looms large.

Coming of Age Online. By Molly Wetta at YALSA
These novels explore teen identity through the juxtaposition of online identity and “real life” personas.

Diversity in Young Adult Literature: Where’s the Mexican Katniss? By Ashley Strickland at CNN
“There is an evolution within our own work,” de la Peña said. “When you are writing with race as one of the elements of the story, early on, you write about race. As you do more work, the race becomes part of the story and not the story. I think that will be the biggest boost for multicultural literature.”

Why YA Fiction Needs to Tell The Stories of Mental Illness. By Imogen Russell Williams at Guardian
To me, seeing anxiety, depression, OCD and other mental health disorders on the printed page, being struggled with, surmounted, lived with and accepted, and examined in empathetic and enlightening ways, is enormously important, especially when mental health issues among teenagers are on the rise.

#SummerofYA July Theme: The New Normal

We hope everyone had a great time spending June immersed in YA lit all about survival!

If you’re new to #SummerofYA, you can find more information on the purpose of the virtual book club, the importance of YA Lit and our modes for discussion and connection over the course of our reading in our post from June.

At the end of the month, we will host a #SummerofYA Twitter chat to discuss our reading of July’s theme. However, we don’t want to wait until the end of the month to start sharing our thoughts about what we’re reading. We’d like to encourage all of you to use both the comment section of this post and Twitter as a means to facilitate discussion throughout July.

Now onto July’s theme!

July’s Theme: THE NEW NORMAL

What does the normal YA reader look like? What does it even mean to be normal in the first place?

Being a young adult brings with it many challenges, among these are figuring out who you are and where you fit into the world. During July, we will be reading books that honor all types of “normal” and reach all types of readers. All of our readers deserve books that they can connect with, which is why we will use this month to celebrate diversity and the “new normal.”

what is realistic fiction   Google SearchFor July, we will have a spotlight genre; Realistic Fiction. Check out this awesome list of realistic fiction to help you get started with your July book choice.

You may also want to begin your search for realistic fiction that celebrates diversity by checking out authors such as Sharon Draper, Rainbow Rowell, David Levithan, John Green and Matt de la Peña.

#SummerofYA Book Review: I Am Malala

When I picked Survival as the June theme for #SummerofYA, I knew this book would push me out of my comfort zone. The two others I read were selected based on authors/genres I had been meaning to explore, but I Am Malala has been sitting on my shelf, taunting me to tackle its tough topic. Malala is the teenager from Pakistan that so strongly believes in the right to education, it nearly cost her her life. I’m not a big nonfiction reader, but knew this one was important – I underestimated the impact it would have on me.

As an educator, there’s no question that I highly value education. After reading the experiences Malala has endured as a girl seeking education, I’ve come to realize how much we take education for granted in Western civilizations. I also must admit how this book made me realize the lack of empathy I have for war torn nations and the deprivation of those children who live in places like Pakistan. I listen to the news and read about whats happening in places like Syria and Nigeria, but never have I thought that I could do anything about it – Malala’s perspective is the opposite. She refers to a poem written by a German during the Nazi regime, and that her father used to carry it in his pocket – it inspired her to stand up for what she believes in, first in Pakistan, and now, around the globe:

“I knew he was right. If people were silent, nothing would change.” -Malala, p. 140

Much of the focus of Malala’s story is the importance of schooling for her, and her peers. When the Taliban invaded, she used her voice so that others would understand why boys AND girls needed to be allowed an education. When the Pakistani army tried to force the Taliban out of their region, school was a refuge for her, even under the threat of bombings. Malala explains throughout the text how the Qur’an calls for knowledge and that no where does it say only boys should be educated – the Taliban misinterpreted that, and yet, Malala kept going to school, despite the dangers, because “our school was a haven from the horrors outside” (137).

“My father used to say the people of Swat and the teachers would continue to educate our children until the last room, the last teacher and the last student was alive. My parents never once suggested I should withdraw from school, ever. Though we loved school, we hadn’t realized how important education was until the Taliban tried to stop us. Going to school, reading and doing our homework wasn’t just a way of passing time, it was our future. The Taliban could take our pens and books, but they couldn’t stop our minds from thinking.” – Malala, p. 146

I realized, about 100 pages into this book, that Malala is not just the girl that was shot by the Taliban – she is a passionate advocate for education, a devout Muslim who wants others to understand her religion, and a Pakistani patriot who has a duty to represent her country fairly. The history you learn about her nation, her religion, and her people is just as important as the event for which most people know her. When I associated this book with the Survival theme, I made the assumption it would be about her traumatic shooting and recovery. Instead, I learned that she had a overcome many other obstacles as a young girl, long before the fateful October day.

Malala was aware of the threat against her, after years of doing interviews, publishing a diary much like the notorious Anne Frank, and seeing the danger other male, adult education advocates faced: and yet, she continued to use her voice. When her father suggested she be less public for awhile, she replied, “How can we do that? You were the one who said if we believe in something greater than our lives, then our voices will only multiply even if we are dead. We can’t disown our campaign!” (224-5). Because she refused to fold to the threats, her voice continued to be heard. When she was shot, millions of people around the world were drawn to her cause.

I believe educators need to read this book. I also believe many teenagers would learn a new perspective from reading this book (there is a Young Readers version available). With that said, I’ll admit it was difficult: the world she describes is SO different from ours; the young, violent history of her country is a lot of information to take in; the way Pakistani people view Americans is challenging; reading about a religion that is so misreported on makes you question what you really know about it… all these factors pushed me hard out of my comfort zone, but the message Malala sends is still loud and clear:

Beyond reading her book, I recommend exploring:

The Malala Fund: A foundation that promotes education around the globe
He Named Me Malala: A documentary coming out this October about her life
Address to the UN Youth Assembly: On her 16th Birthday, less than a year from being attacked
Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech: From December 2014; the youngest nominee and winner
Her Father on TED Talks: The man who celebrated having a daughter, in a culture that celebrates sons
The Daily Show in 2013: Discussing global need for education
The Daily Show in 2015: Hear her remarks on the day of the Charleston Shooting (pt 1) and part 2

In honor of her birthday on July 12, please consider going on Social Media and using #BooksNotBullets

Tips for Tweeting: #SummerofYA Twitter Chat

We are lucky to introduce several of our peers to Twitter chats thanks to #SummerofYA ~ but we don’t want you to be anxious! Below are some tips and advice on how to best participate in our upcoming chat.

  • Mollee and Tavia will be your moderators. Be sure to be following @molleebranden and @tavia_clark on Twitter before we start
  • We will ask questions using the format Q/A
    • For example, we may ask Q1: Where do you live?
    • You would respond with A1: Town, State
  • Make sure to use #SummerofYA to “tag” your tweets, retweets, and replies
    • This allows us all to be connected and searchable
  • Since you may not already be following all the participants, instead of watching your “feed”, be sure to search #SummerofYA and follow/refresh there.
    • For more ways to follow the chat, check out the article below
    • If someone posts a response to which you want to directly reply, make sure to “tag” them using @personsname so there isn’t any confusion (for example, from Mollee: “@tavia_clark I’ve read that book too! Great choice for this theme”)
  • Don’t be too worried about reading every answer by every participant – we will archive the chat. That means, you can visit the blog on July 9 (and beyond) and the entire “script” will be available to read, jot down book ideas from, find new people to follow, etc.

Lastly, we want to encourage more use of the blog! A Twitter Chat is just a single, one-hour discussion but we’d like to keep the YA chat going all summer long!  Please be sure to make comments on the blog book reviews, and especially the monthly theme post! That’s where we should ignite the discussion prior to the Twitter chat at the end of the month 🙂

For more advice on participating in a Twitter Chat, check out this Great Twitter Chat 101 Guide by Nicole Miller.