It’s Veterans Day, and we want to remember that some of our veterans are barely out of their teen years. In 2012 a number of new teen books came out where a major character served in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Each book is compelling in different ways, and are all quick reads.
In E.M. Kokie’s Personal Effects, 16-year-old Matt’s life is not easy. His brother, JT, was recently killed while serving in Iraq. His mother is gone, too, so he has to deal with his terrifying father all on his own. His father expects him to enlist if he can’t get into college. But Matt isn’t sure he wants to be a solider like his brother. He becomes fascinated by a small bag of his brother’s belongings the military gave to him. His father keeps them hidden after finding some kind of medallion he didn’t approve of. Matt becomes obsessed with finding those personal effects to learn what his father may be hiding about his brother. This book is gritty, and young readers, especially boys, will relate to Matt’s tough choices and how he tries to wrestle with his anger. This is Kokie’s debut novel for young adults.
Another new YA writer, Trish Doller, tells the story of Travis, who just returned from a tour in Afghanistan, in Something Like Normal. Like Matt, he also has an overbearing father he does not particularly like. Travis comes home for a month-long leave to find his brother with his old girlfriend and his parents’ marriage breaking apart. Travis is haunted by nightmares of his best friend dying in front of him. While trying to make sense about how life has changed, he runs into a girl named Harper whom he has known since junior high. He ruined this girl’s life back then with a rumor that destroyed her reputation. She lets him know how much she remembers by slugging him. After a while they grow into a relationship that is quite beautiful as she helps Travis find his new normal. Doller gives a very realistic sense of what it is like to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and how different the world looks when soldiers return home from war.
Ben is a talented singer and performer who stars in the school musicals. His family and friends are shocked when he tells them that instead of going to college right away, he plans to join the Marines. In Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I Am, Harry Mazer and Peter Lerangis tell Ben’s story about why he makes this choice and what happens after a traumatic brain injury. The point of view changes with each chapter. Sometimes we hear Ben’s voice when he is not able to communicate. Other times it is the voice of his high school sweetheart-turned-fiancée. She is also a singer and goes to the college she hoped they would attend together. She tries to make sense of his decision to enlist. Now that he seems broken, she has to change her plans for the future. Ben has a younger brother, Chris, who is on the Autism Spectrum. Like Doller in Something Like Normal, the authors do a fantastic job of putting us in the mind of a young soldier as he relives the horrific moments that changed him forever.
Celia Rees’s This Is Not Forgiveness begins with a teen talking to a container of ashes. We are unsure of whose remains are in that box at first, only that the person did something unforgivable. Jaime is drawn to a dangerous girl named Caro who has a bad reputation. He is thrilled when she wants to be with him and gets caught up in her mysterious world. His other brother Rob, a British soldier, was injured in Afghanistan and has all kinds of problems adjusting back to civilian life. Rob also becomes involved with Caro and her extreme political beliefs. The storyteller changes with each chapter. The author uses different fonts and types depending on the storyteller to help readers keep this complicated story straight.
I was struck by the beauty of the cover of Mary Sullivan’s Dear Blue Sky. Seventh grader Cassie’s beloved brother Sef is fighting in Iraq. As he leaves, the family seems to fall apart. Her special needs brother Jack stops speaking because of a neighborhood bully. Her sister Van becomes emo over a boyfriend and starts drinking. Her mother flirts with her best friend’s father. Now her best friend has dumped her and Cassie feels lost. Her 7th grade social studies teacher assigns the students to read the blog of a person their age from another county. Cassie discovers a blog by a young girl who lives in Iraq. She calls herself Blue Sky. Cassie begins to see a different side to this war through the eyes of Blue Sky. This starts Cassie on a journey of self discovery. She finds new friends. I love that this character does not have to change who she is or hide her pain to make those new friends. The bond of this grieving family is interesting to watch. Even with their pain and personal struggles, they find a way to come back to each other. What comes out of that is a very real portrait of a family dealing with the “new normal” as they miss a loved one they may never see again.
— Kris Hickey is STILL trying to read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.