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Staff Picks: Books

Not All Comic Book Characters Wear Capes

Graphic novels have a reputation for being all about superheroes and explosions, but they can be a really great format to tell more nuanced stories as well. I’d like to shine a spotlight on two evocative, character-focused, slice-of-life stories that really shine in a graphic novel format.

The first is a manga called Solanin by Inio Asano. The story follows Meiko, a recent college grad, and her friends a group of 20-somethings living in the background of a Japanese city. Over the course of the summer they grapple with all of the challenges of new adulthood: starting careers, finding their purpose in life, and how to break it to their parents that they’ve moved in with their boyfriend. Though the characters are Japanese, the themes are universal. Solanin is a novel with fantastic art work, and a story that will stay with me for a long time.

The second graphic novel is called Token by Alisa Kwitney, with illustrations by Joelle Jones. Token is a story about fifteen year old Shira Spektor, living in Miami, Florida in 1987. She lives with her father in an apartment building on South Beach, and spends most of her time with her best friend, a spunky 80-year-old woman who shoots straight from the hip. When her father starts dating his secretary, and the girls at school turn decidedly nasty, Shira turns to shoplifting. Just when she feels that there’s no one she can talk to, she meets a tall handsome stranger. She is falling in love for the first time just as everything else in her life seems to be falling apart. Token is fun, flirty, and timeless.

Both books have a lazy summer vibe perfect for the upcoming warmer months.

This Raging Light

The best books offer a window into the lives of others through which we can learn and discover. They also offer a mirror through which we can see ourselves more clearly. This Raging Light by Estelle Laure is a recent teen favorite of mine that features the mental health of it's chracters. Seventeen-year-old Lucille is left alone with her little sister to struggle through each day, paying bills and going to school. Her father is institutionalized after a breakdown and her mother is "on vacation", maybe permanently. Lucille is forced to grow up faster than she expected and to learn to rely on others and accept their limitations. She is ultimately triumphant, learning much about forgiveness, grace, and her own strength.  

May is Mental Health Awareness month and there are many great teen books where mental health is a significant part of the story. Books about mental illness can help remove stigma, educate, and advocate for understanding and improved services for those who need care. It's so important that teens have access to these books! Some of my other mental health favorites for teens include: It's Kind of a Funny Story, The Impossible Knife of Memory, The Unlikely Story of the Hero of Room 13b, and The Rest of Us Just Live Here.

For more books focused on mental health and teens, visit the lists at YA Highway and School Library Journal or ask your local librarian for suggestions. 


Teens' Top Ten Nominees!

Calling all Teen readers! The nominees for the 2016 Teens' Top Ten award were just announced and there's a lot of great books to read! The Teens' Top Ten is a "teen choice" list, where teens nominate and choose their favorite books of the previous year! Nominators are members of teen book groups in fifteen school and public libraries around the country, and they've made their choices. It's a long list this year- there's a ton of great titles to choose from, including titles by Marcus Sedgwick, Scott Westerfeld, Holly Black, and many more! You can find a PDF of the nominees here, and voting will happen later this summer. Get started reading today!

The Head of the Saint

I love magical realism, and this book is filled with it. Set in a small town in Brazil, Samuel finds himself newly orphaned and homeless. When his grandmother turns him away, he takes up residence within the head of St. Anthony. Supposedly the saint had brought the town only misfortune, but when Samuel starts to hear singing and prayers inside the head, life in the town changes. With all the attention being turned to the small town, the secrets of the past begin to be revealed, and Samuel’s life in the small town is threatened. The characters are all so wonderfully written, and the story is filled with a magic that will stick with you long after you’ve closed the book.

The Graveyard Book(1)

Neil Gaiman is a favorite author of mine for a few reasons. First, whenever you read something of his, he sets the mood and the scene so well, you feel like you are in the book. Sometimes he transports you to a magical, fantastic place where you feel like you are on a great adventure. Other times it's a place of darkness and horror. 

Surprisingly, The Graveyard Book feels more like a magical adventure. An orphan named Nobody Owens is raised in a graveyard by the ghost and a mysterious guardian. As he grows up, Nobody learns about the magic of the graveyard, while wondering about the world of the living. Think of it like The Jungle Book, but in a graveyard.


Everything, Everything

One of my favorite books of 2015 was Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. I don't buy into that whole "don't judge a book by it's cover" thing as a rule. I think we all pick up books sometimes just because something grabs us about the cover. That's how it was for me with this one. The cover grabbed me, the premise was interesting, and I was hooked. I did almost threw it across the room towards the end and then I picked it back up, finished it, and now haven't stopped talking about it. 

This is the story of a teenage girl who's literally allergic to everything (everything). She has never been anywhere because she might die. Of course she meets a love interest who she communicates with through web messages. And everything (everything) gets more complicated from there. To really live her life, she will have to challenge everything (everything) she's ever known. As a mom, this book made me cry good tears thinking about the utter joy and grief of raising children to grow up and make their own choices. As a person who loves teens and teen books, it made me soar. I've recommended it to every teen book reader I know. It's quick and has everything (everything) I like in a teen book. Angst. Romance. True Love. Meaning of life questions. Voice. Compelling characters. To quote School Library Journal, it's just "wonderful, wonderful."   


All American Boys

Stop everything you are doing and read this book. Then, share this book with someone else. If you know a high school teacher, tell them to have every student that crosses their path read this book. Need a book for a book discussion, reader’s theater, or classroom read aloud? Here is your choice! Let all of the teenage youth in your life read this book. Parents - read this book and talk with your children about racism in America. Talk about violence and the moments that change you forever. Talk about the small things, like stopping for a bag of chips; that lead to big things like a protest with a die in. This unforgettable story of two teenagers is an opening to essential conversation. All American Boys takes place over one week in the lives of Rashad and Quinn, told in alternating voices from award winning authors, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.

“Rashad is absent again today.” – The graffiti is a reminder of what has happened and a call to action for students and teachers at Springfield High School. This short phrase will stick with the reader long after the end.

The Walter Award

Jason Reynolds

2016 gives us the inaugural winner of the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature – Youth Literature Category. The Walter Dean Myers Award, also known as “The Walter,” is named for prolific children’s and young adult author Walter Dean Myers (1937 – 2014). Myers was a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature as well as a champion of diversity in children’s and YA books. We Need Diverse Books announced on Monday that All American Boys is the first winner of this prestigious award! Congratulations to Jason and Brendan! The American Library Association also awarded All American Boys the 2016 Coretta Scott King Honor Award earlier this month. When Walter Dean Myers visited Kalamazoo Public Library in August 2013, he told us that “Reading is Not Optional.” Take his advice, make reading All American Boys not optional for you!

Congratulations, Gene Luen Yang!

Congratulations to Gene Luen Yang, the newly inaugurated National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature! I love his ideas about reading without walls. The first graphic novelist to be named Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and the first to be awarded the Printz AwardGene Luen Yang has an impressive body of work. Favorites of mine are Prime Baby and American Born Chinese. With a background as a high school computer science, math, and art teacher, Yang's new Secret Coders, about school-age-kids solving mysteries with coding, makes sense. Many are familiar with his very popular Avatar, the Last Airbender series, as well. You can keep up with Yang on his blog, too! 

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

I would have checked out this book based on the clever title and premise alone. But I was so impressed with the story. Patrick Ness is always great but The Rest of us Just Live Here is a new favorite of mine. It's funny and moving. The characters are so real and the humor is witty and charming. It's a quick and powerful read that reminds us that we all have a part to play. We are all a hero to someone even if we aren't the "Chosen One."

I don't want to say much more or I'll ruin it. Even this review from the New York Times is a bit of a spoiler so only click over if you must. Otherwise, just pick up this book and enjoy! 

I Will Always Write Back

I Will Always Write Back is the true autobiographical story of pen pals, Caitlin and Martin, shared through alternating letters. Caitlin is an Pennsylvania teenager who is paired with Martin from Zimbabwe. As the reader, we glimpse what life is like for both teens as they reach across the ocean to learn more about each other, eventually becoming true friends who promise to "always write back."