The American Library Association will announce the winners of the 2014 Youth Media Awards Monday morning. This probably doesn’t mean a whole lot to you (other than you might get assigned to read some of these books), but for us librarians, it’s a BIG DEAL. It’s ridiculous how excited some people get over these awards. If you’re interested, @alayma will be live tweeting the announcements, but that’s 7 a.m. our time, guys. I’ll post up the winners later that day.
In the meantime, I’ve spent the past several weeks reading the nominees for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, and now that I’m finished, I’ll review them all in one fell swoop.These books are all by authors writing for teens for the very first time, and these nominees are supposed to be the best this year. I’ll go ahead and warn you: some of them (okay, a lot of them) are intense and sometimes depressing. I’ll start with my favorite, Sex and Violence.
I would say don’t let the name fool you, but unfortunately, it’s an accurate description of what happens in the beginning of the book. Evan’s stuck in yet another boarding school while his dad travels all over the place for his job. He gets, ahem, intimately involved with the wrong girl and is almost beaten to death. When he’s finally released from the hospital, his dad brings him up to the old family homestead by a lake in Minnesota where he spends the summer making the first real friends he’s ever had, connecting with his dad, and trying to figure out how to live with what happened to him. He doesn’t start out as a great guy, certainly not the type to bring home, but he’s working on it by the end.
Here’s your warning: this book is realistic. It has all those things that happen in real life, and it doesn’t pull any punches.
After my favorite, the order gets a little fuzzy, so I’ll go with In the Shadow of Blackbirds next.
Set during World War I and the Spanish flu, In the Shadow of Blackbirds explores the craze of Spritualism. When everyone around you is dying, why not try to reach them in the afterlife? Mary Shelley Black (yes, named after that Mary Shelley)doesn’t believe in any of that, but when she starts seeing visions of her sweetheart who went to war, she starts to change her mind. Something is very wrong with the way he died, and it’s up to her to put his spirit to rest.
Cat Winters deserves to be a Morris finalist. Her descriptions are incredibly vivid, and she doesn’t pull any punches in her imagery of the dead and dying. Her blend of history and the supernatural are reminiscent of The Diviners by Libba Bray, but her story isn’t as long and convoluted.
And I agree with everything I just said. I’ll add that there are a few gruesome scenes, but I think Winters was just being accurate in her depictions of the Spanish flu epidemic.
I didn’t like these last three books nearly as much, so I’ll be brief.
Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross is about a girl who takes the entire book to do the right thing. Here’s my Goodreads review:
Set in Paris during the building of the Eiffel Tower, Belle Epoque is the story of a girl who strikes out on her own only to find that reality doesn’t always live up to one’s expectations. Maude Pichon runs away from home to avoid a dull life (and a marriage to the local butcher), but when she gets to Paris, she quickly realizes that the meager funds she stole from her father’s shop won’t get her very far. After an unsuccessful career as a laundress, Maude ends up working as a repoussoir, a girl hired to make her client appear more beautiful. Maude is hired by a countess to be a companion to her daughter, Isabelle, but to complicate matters, the daughter can never know Maude is the hired help. As Maude is swept up in the life of the aristocracy, she becomes Isabelle’s closest friend, and her secret becomes harder and harder to keep. Belle Epoque is a quick read, but it feels like as Maude alienates everyone who really knows her, the reader is alienated as well. It’s hard to be sympathetic towards her plight, and when she does the right thing at the end, I wanted to shout “Finally!”
Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos is about a boy trying to deal with an abusive father and uncaring mother who kicked his older sister out of the house and are making his own anxiety and depression even worse. James attempts to cope by talking to his pigeon therapist, Dr. Bird, and by literally hugging trees. He’s obsessed with Walt Whitman (I don’t know if that really helps or hurts him more). If you liked The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Ned Vizzini’s books, you might like this one, too.
The last one, Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn, was my least favorite. Again, my Goodreads review:
For being such a short book and for only covering a short time both in the present day and in the flashbacks, the beginning was really slow. You spend pages and pages thinking Win/Drew has a mental handicap, and then his childhood trauma is finally revealed, and then the book ends. I wished there had been more to his treatment at the end. I feel like the book drops the bombshell, and then he’s better a few pages later since those few pages span a significant amount of time. Anyone who could relate to this book isn’t given the benefit of his road to recovery, so by the time you turn the last page, you’re still reeling with hopelessness and despair.