By Amy Cheney on May 13, 2013
Many years ago I was at a crucial point in my life that I often revisit. I was offered two jobs, both of which I wanted. One was in publishing, at Chronicle Books. If you don’t know Chronicle, it creates some of the most beautiful and innovative books on the planet. The other job was in the library, serving people in jails and prisons. I chose the library. I often imagine what life had been like had I chosen the other path, especially when I am reading and reviewing books—wishing the author/editor had done that or the cover looked like this.
And if we are talking “underground” books, we have to mention Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy; it is the best book I’ve seen and read this year. The stark black cover with a bullet blazing through the title draws the reader into this clean, tightly written, and explosive story. Short sentences and realistic dialogue pack a punch and create a visceral and immediate understanding of the characters and their world. Nikki—the daughter of a drug addict mother, with her stepdad in jail—is living at Bird’s. As much as Bird and her daughter Jamelee mean to Nikki, fellow teen Dee has her heart and soul. She finds purpose in being the one who understands him. He needs her to be there for him, and she is, until she puts everyone, including herself, in irreversible danger. One-, two-, and three-page chapters with nice sized type, filled with action and insight, make reading effortless. McVoy is able to distill the complex lives of at-risk girls in general, and in particular, addresses Nikki’s love/sex addiction and low self-esteem issues. This is a book teens won’t want to put down.
If it’s possible to have a best Bluford book (they are all good), Promises to Keep by Paul Langan might be it. No one likes Tyray Hobbs, including himself. He is a bully. Once outwardly respected, he recently lost his fear factor, and is now a complete outcast after a beat down in the school where he was ridiculed. Things are not good at home, with a strict father who lectures him and a brother in jail. On the streets, it’s not much better—Londell’s crew is stealing from him and threatening him. But he still has Lark. She’s not the cutest girl in the class, but she seems to like him, and even sticks up for him after everything he’s done. He feels guilty for how he lied to her and stole her money—can he make anything right? Langan has created a book from the bully’s perspective that is compassionate, insightful, and educational, along with being action-packed, realistic, and emotionally and psychologically accurate. There’s not a false note in the title.
April Henry has it down with her taut mysteries, and The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die is as good as her other works. Suspense and tension build from the first page—in which men are taking Cady out to kill her—to the last, as she uncovers the secrets in this eco-thriller.
If I was a designer I would have created a much better cover and interior for Chloe Shantz-Hilkes’ Hooked: When Addiction Hits Home. It has a challenging opening for reluctant readers—an introduction and foreword that don’t make for kid-friendly reading. Many won’t get through those first pages, or know that they can skip the opening materials (stick that stuff in the back, editors!). Still, this title won me over and is being quietly checked out.
Ten young people are profiled in the book, all of whom have parents dealing—or not dealing—with some form of addiction: alcohol, sex, work, crack, gambling, etc. Jermaine kicks his crack-addicted dad out of the house. Nicola’s brother becomes a drug addict like their dad. Carmella shares her mom’s struggle with bulimia, but is able to recover. Section titles like “My Reaction,” “Looking Back,” “How I Coped,” and “A Code of Silence” provide signposts of how the disease impacts these young people and their families. There are pull-out quotes that give a general overview of the issue, and help pull readers along. It’s free from any dogma—no 12-step sayings like “Let Go and Let God.” The title is clearly focused on key events and the experience from these events. No overt mention of race or class makes this book a great equalizer for all teens dealing with addiction in their families.
Always looking for a rare find, I was hoping Clare Griffin’s Nowhere to Run might be it, in spite of the dull cover. Calvin is a track star, so when he goes to confront hustler Norris, he’s not afraid because he knows he can outrun him. He didn’t think about Norris having a baseball bat as well as his buddies with him, which seems improbable. Deej, Calvin’s best friend and Norris’ cousin, intervenes and Calvin gets a temporary pass. Life gets good. Calvin and Deej hang out, Calvin starts going out with a “hard to get” good girl, and he gets a job. But as Deej gets more deeply involved with Norris and his crew, Calvin struggles with issues of loyalty. He has some tough decisions: should he stand up for Deej like he stood up for him? Even when his friend is doing something illegal and it might jeopardize Calvin’s job? Besides the slow moving plot with spurts of action, the book also suffers from too light type face and not enough gutter space. I wanted to like this book, I really did. It will be good for some kids—but Matt de la Peña’s titles would make for better reads.
B.A. Binns’ first book, Pull, was on the 2012 YALSA Quick Picks list. Westside Books has since gone out of business, and as a result, inner city school teacher and author Binns turned to self-publishing for Being God. Seventeen-year-old Malik is determined to be the worst of the worst. Bi-racial, he’s the son of a Catholic mother and Jewish father. Assigned to community service, he gets paired with an angry ten-year-old who hates the world. His crush, Barney, watched her father murder her mother. The story holds promise. However, the face on the book cover looks too young and not mad enough. The language and voice is inconsistent and the story is extremely slow going, very much in need of those editors at Westside.
Ed Hardy’s recounting of his life becoming an iconic tattoo artist in Wear Your Dreams: My Life in Tattoos is nicely designed—great art, lots of space, big type. The writing is totally scattered but who cares? There’s a history of tattooing, lots of name dropping, travels throughout the underbellies of Japan and American cities, passion for art and individuality, entrepreneurship, and getting sober—there’s nothing too dicey and it will work in any teen section, even censored lockdowns.
Susan Nussbaum’s Good Kings, Bad Kings is getting great press and for good reasons. The book highlights, through multiple perspectives, the ups and downs, abuses, and kind moments between multicultural teens and staff at a home (institution/dumping ground) for physically and mentally disabled teens. It’s a fast and intense ride with characters that stay with you and make you wonder what they are doing long after you close the book. I wish the cover reflected the characters—maybe we’ll just have to wait until the movie (that should be made) comes out!
BINNS, B.A. Being God. All the Colors of Love. 2013. 222p. pap. $ 9.95. ISBN 9780988182110.
HARDY, Ed and Selvin, Joel. Wear Your Dreams: My Life In Tattoos. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne. June 2013. 304p. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9781250008824.
HENRY, April. The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die. Holt. June 2013. 224p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780805095418.
GRIFFIN, Clare. Nowhere to Run. Namelos. 2013. 110p. pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781-608981458.
LANGAN, Paul. Promises to Keep. Townsend Pr. 2013. 151p. pap. $5.95. ISBN 9781591943037.
McVOY, Terra Elan. Criminal. S & S/Simon Pulse. 2013. 288p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978144242622.
NUSSBAUM, Susan. Good Kings, Bad Kings. Algonquin Bks. 2013. 304p. Tr $23.95. ISBN 9781616202637.
SHANTZ- HILKES, Chloe. Hooked: When Addiction Hits Home. Annick Press. 2013. 120 p. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9781554514748.