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Youthful Exploration Found in YA


Young adulthood is an exploration. So it makes sense that YA books are often about discovery and adventure, to mirror their audience. From self reflection to quests, these six YA books, reviewed in our September/October 2017 issue show their readers a reflection of themselves and take them on a journey.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

Book Cover
Karina Yan Glaser
HMH
Hardcover $16.99 (304pp)
978-0-544-87639-2
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

Karina Yan Glaser’s The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is a thoroughly charming book.

For six years, the Vanderbeekers have made their home on the bottom two floors of a brownstone in Harlem. Mr. Vanderbeeker grew up in the neighborhood, and this is the only home that his five children have ever known. But just as Christmas approaches, their landlord, Mr. Beiderman, tells Mr. Vanderbeeker that he will not renew their lease. The family will have to move by the end of the month. The children do not want to accept this; they begin to plot ways to convince Mr. Beiderman to let them stay.

All of the children are written with unique personalities and characteristics; each adds an interesting element to the book. The family is appealing, and their household is filled with chaos, creativity, and love. Mr. Beiderman is a mysterious figure, one the children have never seen, and their attempts to charm and impress him are sweet and innocent, though they seem to fail each and every time.

The book offers a wonderful lesson about sympathy, and that the reality of a situation may be far different from what is imagined. The children assume that their landlord is simply a mean old man, but as they try for the first time to learn more about him, they discover that that may not be the case.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is a delightful story about a delightful family. It is a thoroughly enjoyable book that will undoubtedly find a place of honor on many bookshelves.

CATHERINE THURESON (August 27, 2017)

Ludlow Lost

Book Cover
Kate Robinson Dunne
Two Pigeons Press
Softcover $12.99 (322pp)
978-0-9918161-6-3
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

Ludlow is a bright young man who, on his eleventh birthday, is kidnapped by a fairy. He is taken aboard a ship called the Anathema, which is captained by a screaming banshee named Morag and crewed by smelly, and very forgetful, goblins.

Morag is intent on kidnapping twenty-five children, though her purpose in doing so is a mystery. With no allies and no resources, and trapped in the middle of the ocean, Ludlow must plan his escape.

Ludlow Lost is a fantastical adventure that is a great deal of fun to read; it is written in a crisp style with a wonderfully dry sense of humor. The story is full of mythological creatures, or “creatures human beings don’t believe in but exist just the same,” and provides amusing facts to describe each—fairies are generally selfish and untrustworthy, goblins are affable but possess very poor memories, and mermaids scare every other creature that lives in the ocean.

Important underlying themes include friendship, trust, and, perhaps most significantly, dealing with loss. Ludlow often dreams that he is back home on his birthday, but there is no cake or presents, and everyone around him is sad. He simply cannot remember why. He awakens too soon to make sense of the sadness, but the curiosity of these dreams lingers in the background of this otherwise lighthearted story.

Ludlow Lost is a charming debut, sure to entertain and delight those who appreciate wit and humor in their fantasy.

CATHERINE THURESON (August 27, 2017)

Rise of the Jumbies

Book Cover
Tracey Baptiste
Algonquin Books
Hardcover $16.95 (256pp)
978-1-61620-665-9
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

Based on the myths of West Africa and the Caribbean, Tracey Baptiste’s Rise of the Jumbies is an engaging story full of danger and discovery.

When children begin to disappear from their island home in the Caribbean, Corrine’s friends and neighbors are quick to suspect her. They all know that her mother was a Jumbie. To prove her innocence and save the children, Corrine contacts Mama D’Leau, queen of the ocean Jumbies, and asks for help to find them.

Mama D’Leau agrees to help, but only if Corrine and three of her close friends will travel across the ocean with four mermaids to retrieve her opal.

This highly enjoyable story captures the culture and the atmosphere of the small island community with beautiful descriptions and natural, flowing dialogue.

Family themes tie in. Corrine must face her Jumbie aunt, and her friends Bouki and Malik come to understand that Corrine’s uncle is their father, though they are not biologically related to him. Prejudice is another very important theme, as Corrine faces the mistrust and hostility of her community based entirely on who her mother was.

The Jumbies are a welcome addition to the juvenile menagerie of mythological creatures, lit with the culture and stories of the Caribbean.

CATHERINE THURESON (August 27, 2017)

Kiska

Book Cover
John Smelcer
Leapfrog Press
Softcover $12.95 (192pp)
978-1-935248-93-4
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

Kiska is the heart-wrenching story of a fourteen-year-old girl living on the Aleutian Islands of Alaska at the beginning of World War II. Her ordinary, happy life in a small hunting village quickly changes when, after Japan invades neighboring islands, she and the rest of the islands’ inhabitants are rounded up by United States soldiers and sent to internment camps.

Kiska and her neighbors are moved into an abandoned cannery and given only an army blanket each. There is no electricity, no plumbing, and little food. The American soldiers assigned to detain them are unsympathetic and often cruel.

Though the conditions are harsh, Kiska learns to survive. She becomes friends with a boy named Sasha and an old man named Agafon. Agafon teaches her to fish, though it is forbidden for girls, so that she can secretly help feed her people.

The fear and horror felt by the interned Aleutian people comes through clearly in Kiska’s story. So, too, does their will to survive, to hope, and to try to do good even in the darkest circumstances.

Even though the injustices described are difficult to accept, Kiska is hard to put down. Photos in the back of the book offer a window into Kiska’s time and place, while discussion questions with each chapter will help young adults process the story and its lessons.

Though it is a work of fiction, Kiska is based on very real events from a tragic and nearly forgotten time in American history. Its lessons are ones that all would do well to remember. Smelcer’s beautifully written story of Kiska, and of the misery she faced with hope and love, is nearly impossible to forget.

CATHERINE THURESON (August 27, 2017)

The Girl with the Red Balloon

Book Cover
Katherine Locke
Albert Whitman & Company
Softcover $9.99 (256pp)
978-0-8075-2937-9
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

The Girl with the Red Balloon is a thought-provoking look at modern German history through a lens of magic and time travel.

Ellie’s class trip to Germany is supposed to be a fun spring-break adventure. When visiting the Berlin Wall she sees a red balloon, unattended, and decides to get a photograph with it. Her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, often talks of the girl with a red balloon who saved his life.

As soon as Ellie touches the balloon, she finds herself in 1988 in East Berlin. She is rescued by Kai, a young Romani man who works for a secret organization that smuggles people over the Wall through the use of magic red balloons.

Ellie, Kai, and Kai’s partner, Mitzi, soon discover that someone is using forbidden magic to attempt time travel, and people are dying as a result. This must be stopped, even if it means that Ellie can never return home.

The complex story is handled seamlessly, from Ellie’s grandfather’s time in a ghetto to Ellie’s experiences in West Berlin. Characters are well developed and compelling, each facing obstacles based solely on prejudices that they are able to overcome through thoughtfulness and positive action.

Locke’s is an enthralling story. It exposes the cruelties inflicted on minority populations under authoritarian regimes, but counterbalances such pain with magic, friendship, and even a little romance.

CATHERINE THURESON (August 27, 2017)

Before I Had the Words

On Being a Transgender Young Adult

Book Cover
Skylar Kergil
Skyhorse Publishing
Hardcover $22.99 (224pp)
978-1-5107-2306-1
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

Skylar Kergil was born female, but he identified with males before he could even understand what that meant. As he grew, he became increasingly uncomfortable living as a girl, and as a young teenager began exploring his sexuality and questioning his gender identity. Before I Had the Words is his honest, thoughtfully told memoir.

As Skylar’s story starts, he is living in California as a little girl. A very active child, Skylar was involved in sports and wanted to be just like his older brother. At a young age, he dealt with challenges including a move east, his parents’ divorce, his mother’s cancer diagnosis, and his brother’s substance abuse issues.

Middle school and puberty were the next challenges, followed by high school, romantic relationships, and a growing understanding that living as a boy was a more comfortable natural fit. Throughout his story, Skylar faces each challenge with grace.

Though he writes primarily about the resources he discovered and the support he received, the fact that the book offers so much hope after a clearly difficult childhood is truly remarkable. Skylar’s story will be incredibly helpful to young people who may be struggling to understand their own gender or sexual identities, and who may feel very alone.

Skylar’s story will also benefit anyone who is curious about what it means to be transgender. Written with openness and honesty that conveys much about Skylar’s struggles, the book does a wonderful job of demystifying identity and normalizing differences. It is a beautiful book.

CATHERINE THURESON (July 26, 2017)

Catherine Thureson

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