Morris Award Finalist: Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian

Carrie Mesrobian is a finalist for the 2014 William C. Morris Award for her debut novel, Sex & Violence.  The award Photo Dec 03, 4 17 40 PMhonors previously unpublished authors with the year’s best books for young adults.

Evan Carter has moved around from one town to another his entire teenaged life. His father, a Ph.D in math and computer science, is hired by clients all over the country and he drags Evan along. Not since Evan’s mom died when Evan was 11 has his dad really been present in Evan’s life in any sense. Evan, nearly 18, is used to his dad’s distance because he’s got other preoccupations – girls. Even though he might be the new guy at all his schools, he’s never had any trouble meeting and hooking up with them. He even has a strategy and can profile a girl as “The Girl Who Would Say Yes.” That’s worked well for him until he hooks up with the wrong girl named Collette at his Charlotte, NC school and finds himself nearly killed after her ex-boyfriend and another guy savagely assault him in the school’s communal showers. Afterward, Evan and his father move to the family lake in rural Pearl Lake, Minnesota so Evan can recover from a multitude of injuries, including a broken nose & ribs, hearing loss in his left ear and the removal of his ruptured spleen.

During the spring and summer at the lake he has the chance to hang out with other local teens his age. They are celebrating their last summer before college doing “last things” they haven’t done before. Evan tries to fit in with them and pretend everything’s okay but he’s quiet and withdrawn and is suffering from PTSD. Therapy helps but he’s still unable to shower inside so the lake becomes his nightly bathtub. He’s also obsessed with having short hair since when he was beaten up it was long and easy for his attackers to grab. Continue reading Morris Award Finalist: Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian

Nonfiction Award Finalist: Courage Has No Color, by Tanya Stone

CourageHasNoColorHistory and biography are among my favorite types of nonfiction to read. There is something extra powerful about a story that reads like fiction, is filled with the same themes that make the best fiction unforgettable, but rests on a foundation of truth and having actually happened. Even the most exciting fiction asks the reader to eventually think “what if this was real?” while nonfiction brings me to constantly reflect on how amazing humans are, and what can be accomplished in the face of incredible odds.

So in some ways I was predisposed to enjoy the YALSA nonfiction nomination Courage Has No Color, The True Story of The Triple Nickles: Americas’ First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone from the title alone. I should probably also admit here to a paralyzing fear of heights, so the idea of jumping out of a plane voluntarily is pretty unimaginable to me. Choosing to face prejudice, train independently, and jump out of a plane in the context of military combat is even more incredible, but that is just what the brave members of the “Triple Nickels,”  U.S. army’s 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, did.

During World War II, the U.S. military service remained deeply segregated. As the book introduced me to the men who would go on to become the Triple Nickles, it was humbling to me how many enlisted in the army when the war began through a deep desire to serve a country that would not fully accept them and afford them the same privileges as their white counterparts– a feeling reinforced as I learned that for most black men enlisting in the service at that time, the only jobs available were service jobs, such as oiling machinery, working in mess halls, or in the case of the founding members of the Triple Nickles, working as night guards at the paratrooper training grounds of Fort Benning, GA. Walter Morris noted that morale among his men was low, and formed a plan to start training in secret with the same drills that paratroopers practiced by day while on their night watch. This sets the tone of the whole incredible story: men who chose to become the best they could be at a job that was both dangerous and thrilling, in spite of receiving little or no support.

Continue reading Nonfiction Award Finalist: Courage Has No Color, by Tanya Stone

Nonfiction Award Finalist: Imprisoned by Martin W. Sandler

ImprisonedThis finalist for YALSA’s 2014 Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award focuses on the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II in a bold and compelling way. It’s vivid in detail and doesn’t hold back in its telling of a dark part of America’s history.

In my reading of many other books on the same topic, I’ve learned that the vocabulary used to describe this event holds a great deal of weight. The official term most of us learn in history class, “internment,” is considered sanitized and inaccurate by many who actually experienced this disruption and trauma in their lives. Japanese-American advocacy groups such as Densho tend to use the term “incarceration.” Therefore, Sandler’s choice to use the word “imprisoned” for the book’s title and “betrayal” as part of the subtitle immediately informs the reader that this book holds a strong position about the injustice of the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II– and the text most certainly supports that position.

Sandler’s clear, well-organized writing draws on personal narratives of Japanese-Americans who lived in the “internment” camps and is accompanied by a wealth of black & white photographs. The narrative is thorough; Sandler not only details life in the camps, but also puts the incarceration in context by touching upon the prejudice against Japanese-Americans before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He also addresses the aftermath of the incarceration during the following decades. The reader will come away with a clear understanding of this piece of history and its significance.

Reading this book brings to mind the dystopian fiction trend in YA lit. A government-sanctioned incarceration of innocent citizens, with little warning or a valid explanation? It sounds like the latest Divergent readalike, but sadly, it’s our history. Sandler’s book comes at a time when teens can make a clear connection from the futuristic fiction they love and the stark recounting of true-life events.

I think this book is an example of nonfiction that teen readers will really connect to. Kudos to YALSA’s Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction Award committee for recognizing Imprisoned.

-Allison Tran, currently reading an ARC of The Shadow Hero, by Gene Luen Yang & Sonny Liew

Morris Award Finalist: Dr. Bird’s Advice For Sad Poets by Evan Roskos

I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical about a love letter to Walt Whitman with a heterosexual protagonist. I spent so much time in college dissecting the content of Whitman’s poetry that I graduated with the conviction that he is gay literary icon and that his often muddled poetry will only make real sense to gay readers. However, James Whitman, our narrator in Evan Roskos’ debut novel, Dr. Bird’s Advice For Sad Poets, is anything but a typical straight teenage boy.

Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos
Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos

Whitman (like his famous counterpart) deals with depression and anxiety. In James’ case it is the result of his abusive parents, who have kicked his older sister Jorie out of the house for getting expelled from school. Of course, Jorie acted out at school because of the trauma she endured at home, and the novel does an excellent job of reminding us that broken homes might look like happy ones on paper.

The darkly comic points of the novel are James’ imaginary therapy sessions with Dr. Bird, who is a large female pigeon. James does not always follow the imaginary advice Dr. Bird dispenses. He is almost unbelievably self-aware, but his desire to live inside his head rather than confront outside problems will be familiar for a lot of readers. A romance with Beth, a girl on the school literary journal, feels hollow and adds dead weight to the novel’s already slow pace. First-person narration also means that we have to take what James says at face value, but the bits and pieces we see do support his belief that his family life is toxic.

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is about self-assertion, and without giving too much away, by the end of the novel James starts to see the value of self-assertion. This goes beyond the ability to be self-aware, but the ability to articulate himself as he relates to the world around him. This is a skill many adults have yet to master, and I suspect it will hit home for readers.

-Chelsea Condren, currently reading The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Teen book trailers: Two ways

There are so many ways to get excited about reading and books and there isn’t a right way to do it. Everyone has their own sources for learning about new books to read and one of my personal favorite sources is YouTube. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good NY Times book review, but sometimes actually engaging with a person telling me their opinion of a book is that much more compelling. Since I regularly scour YouTube for new book reviews, I happened upon the video below which I really like because it’s honest and comes right from a teen voice. She talks about why book reports aren’t her preferred way to review a book and gives some interesting thoughts on two titles: I am Number Four by Pittacus Lore and the ubiquitous favorite, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.


Teen Book Talk on YouTube
The second video takes a different take on book reviews by sharing a slew of titles that she wants to read this year and setting it to music. I really like this video because I can learn about a bunch of new titles and, in essence, it’s a musical booklist. Sure, I don’t get to hear her reviews of the books (especially since she presumably hasn’t read them yet), but it’s an engaging way to learn about new titles.


Book Music Video on YouTube

Interestingly, there is a major dearth in males (adults or teens) giving video book reviews and I wonder if the readers have either some links to share on that or thoughts on the matter. Enjoy!