YA Realistic Fiction

MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine

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Devon’s Eagle Scout project, a large wooden chest he was building with his father, sits in the corner of the living room covered with a sheet.  Caitlin fears it will never be finished now that Devon is gone, one of the three victims of the Virginia Dare Middle School shooting.  Caitlin’s father hasn’t smiled since the tragedy, and she can often hear him crying.  Mrs. Brook, the counselor at James Madison Elementary School, tries to encourage Caitlin to talk about what she is feeling, but Caitlin doesn’t know what she is feeling.  She has Asperger’s and doesn’t always understand emotions–either other people’s or her own.  But at Mrs. Brook’s prompting, Caitlin tries to “work at” understanding emotions and to develop empathy so that she can make friends.  And when she learns that there is something called Closure which might give the tragedy an “emotional conclusion” for herself, her father, and her new friend, Michael, she is determined to figure out how to get it.

This is one of those books that other people might describe as depressing but that I see it as uplifting–sad and tragic, but heartwarming in the end.  The focus of the story is on families and friendships and dealing with loss as a community.  For Caitlin, the journey toward Closure is closely tied to her efforts to build friendships.  Despite the tragedy that set the plot in motion, there is a lot of love and hope in this story.  School Library Journal recommends Mockingbird for 4th-6th graders.  I think older middle schoolers and possibly high schoolers would enjoy it as well.  It is a very complex story and the themes of friendships, family, and coping with loss will be relevant to teens and even adults.

If you liked Mockingbird, you might like Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper and Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

AMERICAN BORN CHINESE by Gene Luen Yang

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The monkey king masters the disciplines of kung-fu but cannot earn the respect of the gods because he wears no shoes.  Jin Wang moves from China to America and tries to adjust to the new culture while dealing with the prejudices–not all of them ill-intentioned–of his classmates.  Danny lives in a world similar to a sitcom where his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee constantly embarrasses him with his unusual behavior.

Yang weaves these three stories together to highlight the challenges of moving to a new culture and struggling to develop one’s identity as an individual.  The graphic novel earned him the Printz Award in 2007.  It may seem disjointed at first, but it comes together in the end.  It will probably appeal most to teenagers, especially high schoolers.

LOOKING FOR ALASKA by John Green

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In sixteen years of life, nothing interesting has ever happened to Miles Halter.  When he leaves his home in Florida to attend boarding school in Alabama, he hopes that something remarkable will happen.  But he never could have imagined anything as remarkable as Alaska Young.  Alaska is beautiful, funny, reckless, and charismatic; Miles is drawn to her instantly, and finds himself in awe of the girl-goddess.  But through their friendship, adventures, and late-night pranks, Miles begins to discover that there is more to Alaska than meets the eye.  When tragedy strikes their lives, Miles will be forced to question everything he has assumed about Alaska, the world, and his own life as he tries to come to terms with his grief.

I have extolled the virtues of John Green’s YA novels in the past, and I will continue to do so here.  He approaches realistic and difficult subject matter with a snarky sense of humor and a touch of philosophy that makes his characters believable and enjoyable to read about.  Looking for Alaska won the Printz Award, and fully deserved it.  I highly recommend this book, especially to high school and college-age readers.

THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie

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Junior was born with “water on the brain,” an excess of spinal fluid which caused brain damage and physical problems, including having an abnormally large head, occasional seizures, and very poor eyesight.  Despite these disadvantages and the poor treatment he receives from many of the other kids on the Reservation, however, Junior has a witty sense of humor and great talent at expressing himself through his cartoon drawings.  He is also very intelligent and frustrated by the inferior education he receives in the poverty of the Rez.  When he has the opportunity to attend a school off the reservation, Junior suddenly finds himself in an unfamiliar environment where everyone else is white.  As he struggles to fit in with his new classmates and make peace with the traditions, pressures, and familial dysfunction he faces on the Reservation, Junior comes to a better understanding of his own identity and the new potential he sees in his future. 
 
Alexie’s novel is a perfect balance of comedy and tragedy.  Based on his own experiences growing up on an Indian Reservation, he paints an harsh and unapologetic portrait of teenage life amid poverty, alcoholism, and racism.  But it is the narrator’s endearing and sarcastic sense of humor that makes the novel irresistible.  I highly recommend this book to teens and to adults!
 
There is an audio book read by the author; the story is enhanced by Alexie’s great performance, but also somewhat lacking, since the cartoons illustrations which appear throughout the novel cannot be experienced in the audio format.

JERSEY TOMATOES ARE THE BEST by Maria Padian

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Henry and Eva have been best friends since childhood, and they have bonded over their intense, over-involved parents.  Eva’s mom, Rhonda, is classic nightmare stage mother whose idea of supporting Eva’s ballet career sometimes involves slashing the tires of a director who didn’t cast Eva as the lead.  Henry’s father, Mark, works her hard practicing tennis and doesn’t hesitate to trash-talk her opponents in tournaments.  But when both girls have opportunities to attend summer camps–Eva at the New York School of Dance and Henry at a tennis school in Florida–they leave their parents behind and get to do the activities they love full time, with no one looking over their shoulders.  Although the girls work hard to maintain their friendship across the distance, Eva begins struggling with an eating disorder, and Henry can tell that her friend is hiding something from her.  Henry must decide which is more important: her development as a tennis player and her new boyfriend in Florida or the friendship she left behind in New Jersey.

Although this book has a somewhat awkward, fluffy beginning, it ends up painting an accurate picture of tense relationships with parents, competitive sports, dating, and eating disorders.  The chapters alternate between Henry’s and Eva’s perspectives and sometimes the chronology can be a little bit confusing.  But if you like chick-lit about sports and friendship, it is an engaging story.

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon

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Seven minutes after midnight, Christopher John Francis Boone found a dead dog outside of Mrs. Shears’ house, stabbed straight through with a garden fork.  Since Christopher’s teacher had encouraged him to write a story, he decides to write a murder mystery: an account of his own investigations into the dog’s death.  Despite his father’s command that he “stay out of other people’s business,” he sets out to detect who killed the dog—and ends up uncovering a host of family secrets in the process.

Christopher has Asperger’s syndrome.  The entire novel is told in his voice in a stream-of-consciousness style which gradually reveals the details of his life to the reader.  The book examines both the challenges that Christopher faces in relating to his family and those around him and the beauty of his world and his unique and brilliant perspective on life.  Mark Haddon, who has worked with children on the autism spectrum, crafts the story masterfully around the murder mystery framework.  Christopher’s voice is believable and clear, and his experiences range from humorous to heartbreaking.  I highly recommend it!

AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES by John Green

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Most people have a “type.”  “Types” are often superficial, based on a few physical characteristics, or a particular type of personality.  Former child prodigy Colin Singleton’s type is linguistic: girls with the name “Katherine.”  He has dated and been dumped by nineteen of them.  And Katherine XIX truly broke his heart.

Colin and his friend Hassan decide that a roadtrip is just what Colin needs to forget his troubles and his Katherines.  They wind up in a rural town which is like a different world from their Chicago homes.  They also meet Lindsay, a girl their age who challenges all of Colin’s preconceived notions about the type of person who reads “Celebrity Living” magazine.  As Colin and Hassan join Lindsay in interviewing the locals about their personal histories and participating in local cultural activities (like hunting wild Satanic pigs), Colin tries to analyze his love life the only way he knows how: mathematically.  Who knows; if he gets this particular Theorem right, he might be able to predict the future, or maybe find a way to get K-19 back.

(If you like John Green, check out the vlog he keeps with his brother, Hank:  http://www.youtube.com/user/vlogbrothers.)