I invited my fellow Walden Committee member Mark Letcher (Mark has previously contributed to the blog as well.) to talk about these with me as he and I discussed and debated them during the 2015-16 award. While the novels are not official runners up to the 2016 winner and honor books, they are titles we think deserve attention. What you see below are our collective reflections on these wonderful titles. My thoughts are in black, and Mark’s comments are in red.
OMG. This book. I loved it so much I read it twice in a row. Yes, we have a lot of “fat girl” novels out there recently, some better than others (I will not name any). Julie Murphy’s novel tells the story of small-Texas town teenager, Willowdean, “fat” daughter of a former beauty pageant queen (who can still wear her gown) who does not go on some diet to lose weight and get the guy. The guy seems to like her just as she is. However, that is not to say things go smoothly. We do not always like Willowdean, which is what makes her real and likeable. Murphy transcends the weight issue to also include situations such as jealousy, body-shaming (of other kinds), family relationships, and drag queens, which add so much to what could have been a standard formula. Readers will find that Willowdean’s concerns transcend body image, and can resonate with anyone who has ever felt different. Although it could be perceived as a “girl” book, it is not. As some Walden committee members noted, boys like the book, too, and that is due to the author’s deft inclusion of the male perspective through strong characterization. There are strong, well-drawn characters throughout this book, major and minor, which can help with wider appeal. This is also a novel that deals with serious issues with a deft sense of humor.
Let me start by saying up front that I loved this book. When Carol Jago writes about choosing novels for whole class instruction one criterion she has is the book should have places for laughing and for crying: this book fits that perfectly. Adam attends group therapy sessions for people with OCD, and then enters new member, Robyn, who he falls head over heels in love with immediately. The problem? She is even “worse” off than he is. Adding to Adam’s own problems are a younger brother who has terrible meltdowns and a mother who had it together until a divorce: now she’s a hoarder who he tries to protect. With the assistance of an eclectic support group, author Teresa Totten manages to give what could be a depressing novel lots of humor, which will keep readers interested.
When I first read the premise of this novel, I wondered how Sarah Benwell would pull it off: a teenager in Japan suffering from ALS. Given the popularity of terminal illness novels (The Fault in Our Stars, Before I Die, etc.), I was curious to see how this tale might be different. I was pulled in immediately and kept reading until the end. I do not want to give away the exact ending, but I was impressed with how the author balanced the cruelty of this disease with a sense of optimism and joy. Although not as common among teens as cancer, Abe’s story of ALS can resonate due to the aspects of friendship—both face to face and through social media. Additionally, readers get a glimpse into another culture through the inclusion of Samurai poetry integrated into the novel. On a personal note, this story really resonated with me because a high school classmate died from ALS in his early twenties.
VOYA’s review on amazon.com sums up (better than I can) this compelling novel: “Rape culture, class prejudice, and bullying are all handled sensitively and powerfully in this novel… Readers will definitely be compelled to find out whether Romy breaks free from her demons or implodes from the pressure.” Reminiscent of Speak, but with an added level of suspense, Courtney Summer’s novel chronicles the aftermath of rape. Set in a small town where money and power control truth and facts, Romy Grey is fighting against an entire town that does not believe she was raped. However, when a female classmate goes missing everyone is forced to face Romy’s truth. But will Romy pay an even more disastrous price? Our Walden committee found this to be a raw, unflinching novel, which does not shy away from tough topics. It’s one that should be read by a wide range of students.
Tim Wynne-Jones’ novel combines the past, present, suspense, and elements of horror in a most powerful way. The novel set up as a story within a story, with readers trying to solve the mystery in parallel tales. The novel opens with present day teenager Evan grieving the death of his father, whose own estranged father (Griff) is flying in—a family member that Evan has never met. While going through his father’s things, Evan finds the diary of a Japanese solider, which tells the strange tale of his being stranded alone on an island during World War II. The chapters alternate between the present and past, pulling the reader to solve the mystery of the soldier and his connection to Griff and Evan (whose meeting and interaction is another nail-biting element to the novel). Because of its setting, this book could be paired with any novel set during World War II.
Winner of several book of the year honors, Martha Brockenbrough’s innovative novel weaves a Romeo and Juliet-esqe tale but combines it with fantasy and historical fiction. Set in Seattle during the Great Depression it tells the (tragic) love story of Flora, an African-American girl who sings in jazz clubs at night but really dreams of being the next Amelia Earhart, and Henry, a white male adopted into a wealthy family. Their fated meeting is not by chance: Love and Death, eternally in a battle with each other, are using Flora and Henry in their game. But, will Love and Death have all the control? This book blends history, romance, and magical realism skillfully, with a diverse cast of characters, and a unique prose style.
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