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Posted in Book Review

Review: Riptide Summer by Lisa Freeman

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Riptide Summer by Lisa Freeman, Sky Pony Press, 288 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥

In order to fully discuss this book, I had to include some spoilers. You’ve been warned! Also please note that I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 🙂

When I look for the perfect “summer” book, I try and find books with a few recurring motifs on the covers: sunny skies, ocean waves, seashells, footprints in the sand and girls in bathing suits. Lisa Freeman’s latest novel Riptide Summer, the sequel to Honey Girl, fits the bill. I read this sunny story about surfing, friendship and heartbreak and paving your own way on the beach and enjoyed its historical setting, Hawaiian MC and raw setting. I loved Freeman’s first novel, but had some issues with the sequel that I will discuss below.

In Riptide Summer, Nani has become an official member of the Sisters of Sand, a clique of girls who own the State Beach scene in sunny Southern California. However, after Nani’s illicit relationship with fellow Sister of Sand Rox implodes in the wake of a shocking secret, Jean’s alcoholism spirals and

One of the most effective parts of this book was its setting in the 1970s. There aren’t many historical fiction stories in YA that also read like a fresh and relevant summer contemporary novel. I loved Freeman’s descriptions of the clothes that Nani would wear and the general cultural attitudes of the time like women’s liberation. In fact, I wish that Freeman had brought this rich culture more to the forefront of the novel.

I also loved the book’s characters. Riptide Summer features a diverse set of girls with different attitudes and experiences. I liked Nani’s journey through her confusion and insecurities towards taking a step to becoming the girl she was meant to be. Rox wasn’t my favorite character, but she felt real, like girls I’ve known and had falling outs with. I loved Ellie (aka Ms. ERA) and her sassy feminism, and I hope I’m not wrong in her name being a reference to Eleanor Roosevelt. I loved Windy/Wendy and the way she connects to Nani through queer female writing. There were cute book boys too, but they all seemed like caricatures at times. The girls stole the show in this one.

There were parts of the plot that worked for me and part that didn’t. I definitely wish that Nani surfing had been a more major part of the book. I felt like some of the scenes with the girls on the beach were a little repetitive. I would have liked to see Nani’s relationship with Jean fleshed out more and more scenes with her and Windy during the end of the book. Overall, it was a summer book. It was a quick, breezy, drama-packed novel.

My biggest issue with this book is that it didn’t feel at times like it treated serious issues with the gravity and significance that they deserved, particularly domestic violence, abortion and sex. I wish that Freeman had taken a few more paragraphs or sentences to outline what is okay in these situations and what is not. That extra clarity would have been appropriate in a book targeted to young readers, and girls in particular.

I was also really disheartened when, at the end of the novel, it takes Nani losing her virginity to Jerry in order to fully realize that she likes girls. I feel that this scene, while only two pages, presents a dangerous idea that a girl has to have sex with a guy, a major, major emotional event, in order to confirm her sexuality for herself. Girls reading this review. Please know that you NEVER have to do that. What you label yourself as is valid. Your confusion is valid. But you never need to have sex with a guy to “confirm” your sexuality. While I recognize that the novel takes place in the 1970s, the idea that this scene gives young queer girls reading this book for its representation is potentially dangerous.

The scene also omits any mention of protection (again, this book takes place after women’s liberation so I find it unlikely the idea of birth control wouldn’t have at least passed Nani’s mind at some point, especially after her friend gets pregnant). The scene also rests on a very shaky, murky notion of consent. Nani even refers to sex with a guy as being like a riptide, a comparison I found, as someone who has been sexually assaulted in the past, as problematic and potentially harmful for young readers who aren’t getting the significance of this moment from this scene. Young adult authors have a certain level of responsibility when writing about certain issues for their readers, sex being one of them.  

Overall, this novel felt like a transitional one in both content and style for this series. The writing style was choppy at points and beautiful in others. While the ending felt a little rushed and a bit too neatly tied up, I am anxiously waiting to hear if Freeman will be continuing Nani’s story. I would definitely love to where she takes her and the other Sisters of Sand after the end of this book.

Posted in Books

#31DaysOfMHYA Day 3: Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes

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Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, HarperTeen, 382 pp.

This book was a game changer for me. The novel is about Maguire, who believes she is unlucky and thus avoids any situation where she might put other people in danger. She undergoes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help her confront the challenge of flying to Ireland for a family reunion and finds love, friendship and a new sense of life along the way.

Book Twitter is a series of garbage fires, but one that went around in the past year hit me particularly hard. Someone, I don’t know remember who and I don’t really care because they are a jerk as far I’m concerned, said that a mentally ill person could never be the MC in a Chosen One narrative because mentally ill people can’t even function in everyday life. So…yeah. That’s bullshit.

Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes isn’t a chosen one narrative, but it’s a book that falls into another category: the romantic comedy. Through Maguire and Jordy’s romance, Stokes shows that it’s possible for mentally ill (specifically anxious) teens to have healthy relationships and be the star in a romantic comedy. It’s a narrative about teens with mental illness that is ultimately more happy and hopeful than almost any book I’ve read.

I read Girl Against the Universe at a crossroads in my life. I was just beginning to confront the reality of my own mental illness and accept it. I was finding this community of like-minded people on Twitter and then I found this book and devoured it in one sitting. I NEEDED this book and instantly connected with it. It gave me hope about therapy and what therapy could do. This book helped me accept myself and laugh about it along the way. It will always be a book close to my heart. If you’re looking for a cute, therapy positive book about mental illness, this is it.

If you want to know more of my thoughts about Girl Against the Universe, you can read my post here.

Posted in Books

#31DaysOfMHYA Day 2: Libraries and Mental Health

CW: books with and discussions of eating disorders, suicide, self harm, depression and anxiety

Libraries, and more specifically the books on their shelves, have had a profoundly positive effect on my mental health. This isn’t to say that libraries were the magic bullet for me when I was growing up. I was the kid with perpetual late fees and I grew up in a small town, so going to the library inevitably meant running into someone who I didn’t want to see. However, the book’s inside them were magical.

I recognize that I’m privileged. I grew up in a small, predominantly white and affluent town in the New York City suburbs of Northern New Jersey. We had more resources and funding than most. It is my hope that one day all libraries will have the resources, facilities, funding, staffing and anything else they need to make sure that every child and teen that walks through their doors can find stories and programming that truly help them like my library did in the ways I am about to tell you guys.

I grew up in the library. When I was a child, our library was dark and small. I remember my favorite part being the chance to play with the foam bricks in the children’s area. I also loved the colorful books I could take out there. Taking out David McKee’s Elmer the Elephant books and reading them over and over again are still some of my fondest memories.

When I was around nine years old, they started renovating the library and when I was eleven, I was introduced to the brand new teen librarians Kate and Sandy (this was before middle grade was really a thing and YA was just starting to really explode). All of sudden, there was this new room of books in my world. Two people who seemed friendly enough to help me find the books I needed. A brand new room that was all for US…with couches, computers and a fish tank. I remember my first meet and greet with them when this was all happening. I was SO there for it.

I should also mention that around the same time, my grandfather passed away. I didn’t talk at all for a while after it happened so books became my world. Books didn’t need me to be normal or okay. They just needed me to read them (although I should mention as an aside, at the expense of dating myself, that I was also SUPER into Nintendogs on my new Nintendo DS at the same time). I also went through a crappy sexual assault when I was in seventh grade and guys, books that I read in the library literally saved my life.

It was there in the library (or my eighth grade classroom library which was equally important and funded by a grant my phenomenal teacher Ms. Ohle got but either way it still counts) that I began to fall in love with the writing of the YA authors I still love today. Laurie Halse Anderson. David Levithan. Libba Bray. Ned Vizzini. Stephen Chbosky. Sara Zarr. The library introduced me to ALL of them. I can still remember exactly where their books were in the shelves (I logged hundreds hours of community service in the library from middle school to high school so I was around the shelves A LOT. I folded a lot of pamphlets and shelved a lot of books, guys. My folding skills are still on point).

It was also in the library that I started to learn about mental health and other wellness issues. Kate always kept these really corny pamphlets on top of the new non-fiction cart that I actually read and brought home. The non-fiction books about sex and identify were in the YA room and it was a safe space. It was in that room that I started to develop the vocabulary to question my identity (I totally glossed over the few and far between parts about asexuality though, but it was there nonetheless, even if it didn’t quite sink in). It was also where I learned about mental health. I read Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson on that couch and I cried my eyes out. I read Sonja Sones’ books and cried my eyes out. I read I Don’t Want to Be Crazy by Samantha Schutz and cried my eyes out, even though it would be years still before I learned what anxiety actually was and another few beyond that before I walked into the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services in college and said, I quote, “Hi, I need help. Can you just give me the forms to fill out or whatever?”

I also found Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story in that room. I found it because I went to the space between the last shelf and the window because I wanted to hide from everyone that day and I saw the cover on a display and instantly connected with it. It sounds so serendipitous but I swear it’s true. I brought that one home and devoured it after sitting on the floor and reading half right there and then. That book legitimately saved my life. I’d just stopped self harming and was very quickly spiraling. That book gave me hope and I only knew it existed because Kate the librarian made sure it was available and had it on display.

And here’s where I get to my real connection between libraries and mental health. Libraries, if run by kind, compassionate and open-minded librarians, can be a safe haven for teens to find themselves in books. For confused and mentally ill teens like I was this, this was crucial. The Internet is helpful too and so much more prevalent now than I was a teen to find books, but I still would have gone to the library to check them out or request them from another library.

As a librarian, you almost definitely do not know who all of your teen patrons are. I didn’t check out all of the books that I read. I would slink by the reference desk and into the YA room to read books while I waited for a ride. Some of them I was too paranoid to bring home. But the point is, please be open minded. You don’t know whose life you might be affecting by what books you select. Please be committed to ensuring that, within the resources you have available, there are a wide variety of diverse voices for teen readers to find themselves and learn about and empathize with others. About neurodiverse teens. About queer teens. About disabled teens. About teens of color. About teens of all cultures.

Posted in Books

#31DaysOfMHYA Day 1: Intro and Kickoff

Today is the first day of Mental Health Awareness Month. I have decided to dedicate this month to recognizing works of young adult literature touching upon themes of mental health with which I connected and discussing themes, topics and concerns I have about the representation of mental health and illness in young adult lit.

To give an overview, this is what the month will look like:

  • Posts about individual works that made me think about mental health in new ways or that I connected to for a specific reason
  • Posts about debates about mental health rep in young adult lit and what I hope to see more of in the future
  • Posts about authors that I’ve read multiple books of where they touch upon mental health
  • Topical posts about specific mental health issues in young adult

Now, for the disclaimers: I know that not all of you are going to agree with the books I’ve selected, and that’s okay. I’m coming at this topic from my own experiences and difficulties with mental health. These experiences will probably not reflect yours. I’m also not necessarily recommending any of the books I’m discussing. I’m just spotlighting them for helping me through a tough time.

If you want to do the same thing on your blog, just be sure to tag your posts #31DaysOfMHYA. I hope you all will join me on this emotional journey.

Note: #31DaysOfMHYA is on hiatus May 4-May 14 in light of self care to deal with the news and my college graduation. I’ll be posting soon. 🙂

Posted in Guest Post

“Moments of Depression” by Jessica Tate

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Now You Can See by Jessica L. Tate, available as e-book

Earlier this week, Jessica Tate (You might also know her as Lilly Avalon or Jessica Sankiewicz) released her first collection of poetry, Now You Can See, which you can find on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can also find Jessica on Twitter. I have known Jessica for a few years and have always found her to be a kind and compassionate friend, storyteller and advocate for mental health. I invited her to talk a little bit about the connections between Now You Can See and mental health awareness. Enjoy!

 

When I started reading through my poetry to get it ready to publish, it was exciting. I was rereading my words from all those years ago, reconnecting with them all over again. Gradually the excitement wore off as the reminders of the past came at me.

These poems were written during a tough time in my early twenties. My family disapproved of my boyfriend at the time, forcing me to either break up with him or be kicked out of the house. Now back then, I thought he was The One. I loved him and thought he and I were going to get married. The idea of breaking up with him was devastating to say the least.

So he and I “broke up,” but secretly kept in touch. We mistakenly thought if we gave it time, my family would change their mind. The more time went by, the harder everything got. There were tensions between my family and I, between me and all the mutual friends my boyfriend and I had. I was caught in a whirlwind of frustration that appeared to have no end.

The only way I could cope was writing. It was the only place I felt safe enough to express myself since I couldn’t have honest conversations with anyone out loud without upsetting somebody.

My recent reread of these poems struck me pretty hard. At first it was nice, then when I remembered the reason and the circumstances behind each poem, it brought that pain right back.

I knew I struggled with depression during that time. I used to call it “situational depression” because I wasn’t “100%” depressed. The more I think about it now, the more I’m realizing how extensive my battle with mental illness has been. I’ve learned a lot over the last few years about depression, anxiety, and PTSD from friends and reputable online sources.

I was officially diagnosed with anxiety summer of 2015. When the nurse asked me questions to see if I had anxiety, I noticed a lot of them were similar to textbook depression questions. There is a fine line between them, and for myself, there are times it feels like I’ve fallen into depression because of my anxiety, and vice versa.

It’s easy to ignore these feelings, especially when they gradually seep in or we consider them normal. Reading through my old poems has caused me to come to the conclusion that writing saved me. I may have normalized what I was feeling, but I coped the only way I knew how. These “moments of depression” that I’ve faced over the years were often helped by getting it off my chest, even if it was just to myself.

Finding ways to get through the tougher times can make us a little stronger. It doesn’t make the depression or anxiety or anything else simply disappear or become immediately better, but it does help in its own way. And hopefully with that little bit of strength we can carry on and learn how to live with our mental health battles in a constructive and healthy way.

Thank you so much for this inspiring post, Jessica! I definitely agree that learning to cope with mental illness through healthy, expressive outlets is essential. I’m so glad that you have shared your experience and poetry with us. 

Posted in Book Review

Review: Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

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Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer, Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 400 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

There are some tropes I will never get tired of in YA. One of them is the trope of secret communication bringing unlike-minded people together. It’s even better when they exchange handwritten notes or letters. The use of that trope as the keystone in Brigid Kemmerer’s new novel Letters to the Lost made me super excited to read it, and I was not disappointed.

Kemmerer’s novel is about Juliet, a teen girl grieving the loss of her famous warzone photographer mother, and Declan, a boy assigned to community service after one tragic night that spiraled out of his broken past. At its heart, the novel is a beautiful, complex, funny and sad story about loss, grief, redemption and love. I also want to note that, in service of not spoiling anything because this is a book that truly reveals itself over time, my review might come off as a little bit vague.

I loved these characters. Juliet wasn’t the most “likeable” character but as someone who has lost a very close relative and spends a great deal of time with their gravestone I was really able to connect to her emotion and pain. I was also able to connect to Declan’s regret and pain over his past. I really loved how Kemmerer showed that the reckless actions and irresponsibility of adults have heartbreaking consequences on their children, which I think she captures with great complexity, depth and skill in his narrative.

I was also really able to connect to Juliet’s realization that the adults we look up to in our families aren’t always what they seem. This turned out to be a theme in the novel that connected Juliet and Declan’s story. I thought that was a great lesson to be inserted into a YA book and one that I wish more books would tackle.

Interestingly, one of the best parts of this book for me was the relationship that Juliet and Declan had with the adults around them. I was rooting for Juliet to sort out her emotions with not only her dead mother, but also her father who she’d been having difficulty communicating with since her mother passed away. Seeing their relationship unfold was one of my favorite parts of this book. I also loved seeing the friendship between Rowan and Juliet, and would have liked to see that developed a little more.

In Declan’s narrative, I found myself pleasantly surprised at how intricate and not-surface level his relationship was with his mother and stepfather. Kemmerer really pushes Declan beyond the trope of the “secretly sensitive bad boy.” His emotions towards his family and his best friend, Rev, came off the page. In short, Declan is one of the most complex male characters in YA that I’ve read in a while.

I also really, really loved how Kemmerer developed Declan and Juliet’s relationships with the teachers who helped them. I still remember the teachers who I felt saw and understood me in high school, the ones who helped redirect my path as a somewhat troubled teen into the success I’ve had today. It was a joy to see that unfold on the pages of this novel. I found myself hoping that teachers will pick up this book and understand how important it is to have empathy and understanding for students, especially the ones with a “reputation.”

Of course, Letters to the Lost was not without its faults. The writing style was a little clunky throughout, which occasionally took me out of the story. I also really wish that Kemmerer had been more specific and paid more attention to Juliet’s panic attacks and the specific symptoms of her complicated grief, as I felt that would have added more dimension and emotion to the novel. Honestly, this is the type of book where I keep realizing new things that I love about it.

However, these minor issues were largely easy to look past and admire all the beauty and strength that this story contains. Fans of Kasie West’s novel P.S. I Like You, who also enjoy the darker side of YA, will love this book that explores romance, friendship, family, grief and more. I could go on and on about it more, but I think it would be better if you read it or picked it up right now. You won’t regret it.

Have you read Letters to the Lost? Do you also like stories where the main characters get to know each other through secret messages? Let me know below!

Posted in Book Review

Review: You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner

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You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner, Knopf, 304 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

We should all know by now that diversity and accurate representation are super important in YA. However, diversity in books also makes for kickass storytelling and is a way to start learning about and understanding various types of people. Also, intersectionality is key, meaning showing layered diverse experiences. If you’re looking for a place to start, I can’t recommend Whitney Gardner’s diverse debut You’re Welcome, Universe enough.

Julia, the main character, is a Deaf Indian girl with two moms. Oh, and she’s a kickass graffiti artist. After tagging her school to defend her best friend Jordyn’s honor, Julia is expelled and sent to public school in  where she struggles to make friends and relies upon Casey, an interpreter, to communicate with those around her. Her only outlet is graffiti, which she must keep a secret, and even that seems like it may be taken away from her by a rival.

One of the parts I loved best about this book is its representation of Deaf culture. I can’t speak to its accuracy because I’m a hearie and thus not Deaf, but I felt like I learned a lot about the experience of being Deaf, signing and some of the struggles of living without hearing through reading this book.

Building off of that, I loved Julia’s voice. She’s a teenage girl who doesn’t take any shit, but she’s also vulnerable and still coming into her own. I loved her descriptions of working with her art and her sarcasm. Her personality jumped off the page and I liked feeling like I was going on this journey with her, as she learned what it meant to be both a friend and an artist, no matter the cost.

If you’re looking for a contemporary read where romance isn’t the central plot line or even a sub plot line and isn’t totally sad, this is the book for you. It has so much heart and at its core is a tale of friendship and reaching one’s potential, whatever that might mean.

The other characters were all depicted in a way that was nuanced and intriguing. YP was one of my favorite characters. I found Jordyn and Donovan to be super annoying, but I can relate to having a fallout with a friend who you felt closer to than they did to you. I also loved Mr. Katz, as I found that my art teachers were always some of the most supportive when I was in high school. Mee and Ma, Julia’s moms, were also highlights.

Gardner spun a tale that was pieces funny and sad, but always honest and unflinchingly real. I loved the little details that exposed some of the character’s struggles in a way that was impactful even if they were only a sentence or two. From the discrimination Mee and Ma face to comments Julia must endure at her job at McDonald’s,

The design of this book was also phenomenally done. The girl on the cover actually matches the description of Julia in the book, down to her signature yellow Docs. I also liked that the cover uses Julia’s tag in the book and shows that she’s a WOC. The chapter headings were adorable emoticon faces, which Julia uses throughout the book as well. Finally, the illustrations are gorgeous. I just wish there were more.

This isn’t to say the book was without its flaws. A little bit more background on graffiti culture was needed, as Julia’s concerns didn’t always seem to line up with the situation. Additionally, there were some parts of the book that fell flat for me. Julia should’ve just ditched on Jordyn right away and the drama between Kyle and Julia didn’t come to any kind of satisfying conclusion. The bad guy who turns out to be kind of a good guy trope is getting old. Parts like this felt a little forced, but they didn’t overpower what was otherwise a very strong book.

This book is super worth the read. It’s quick, it’s fairly light and it’s super good. You’re not going to want to miss out on this gorgeous contemporary. Plus, the last scene is super, super cute, but you have to read it yourself to find out why. 😉