When Hank wakes up in Penn Station, the only clue to his identity is the book he’s clutching, Walden, so he adopts Henry David Thoreau’s name and iconic work to guide him on his journey to self-discovery.
After a stabbing ends his brief stint as a homeless teen, Hank flees to Walden Pond, where he meets Thomas, a gentle park docent, and bonds with a girl, gifted singer Hailey. His festering knife wound forces him to confide in Thomas and accept help, but Hank's pleasant discoveries (he’s good-looking, a runner and a musician) are overshadowed by returning memories that evoke dread and shame. What’s driven him, Hank realizes, is desperation to escape his past, not to recover it. Accepting and moving on is hard for Hailey, too; she is afraid to enter a band competition since her last experience ended badly. Thomas, who’s made peace with his own closet skeletons, mentors Hank but can’t spare him the tough choice: whether to keep running or face the music. Hank earns sympathy and respect from readers, but Armistead doesn’t let him off easy. Rescue is not an option, but Thoreau’s spare words, focusing on what truly matters, lighten the darkness.
This compelling, suspenseful debut, a tough-love riff on guilt, forgiveness and redemption, asks hard questions to which there are no easy answers.
(Fiction. 13 & up)
After the untimely death of her parents, an artistic girl living with her aunt must face her fears.
Willhemena Huckstep—Will for short—is planning on spending a perfectly quiet summer working at her aunt’s antiques shop, making lamps and spending time with her friends. Two fateful events quickly steer her plans off course: a chance meeting with a group of teens who are putting together an eclectic carnival and a savage summer storm named Whitney that will plunge her town into a prolonged blackout in its wake. Offbeat Will is scared of the dark (her lamp-making skills came from her grandfather, who taught her how to make her first night light). In confronting the darkness, both literal and figurative, though, Will finds herself stronger and happier than she could have imagined. Peppered with pop-culture references from Doctor Who to The Hunger Games and supported by Gulledge’s stylish black-and-white illustrations, this sophomore offering shines as bright as the lamps Will surrounds herself with. Will is an intensely likable character, as are her funky group of friends. With its emphasis on a world wonderfully unplugged, maybe this will jar some readers’ memories about how excellent and exciting a life without Facebook and Twitter can be.
Quirky, clever and insightful; a must-read for fans of Raina Telgemeier
. (Graphic fiction. 12 & up)
An eye-opening, autobiographical account of growing up waiting for the rapture.
Since birth, Hartzler has been taught that any day, Jesus could scoop his family off to heaven. To prepare, his mom leads his youth group in a song called “Countdown,” in which they sing “BLASTOFF!” at the tops of their lungs and jump as if they’re being taken into the sky. Religion shapes every aspect of Hartzler’s life, but love is also at the heart of his work. That’s what’s at stake when he starts making left turns in both his activities and his belief system in high school. He sneaks to movies his parents would never approve of, illicitly listens to popular music, and plans wild, drunken parties. He has his first kiss, and eventually he begins to think that he might like boys (but that’s not the main point). His story emphasizes discovery more than rebellion, and the narrative is carefully constructed to show and not judge the beliefs of his family and their community. That said, he’s constantly under close surveillance, and readers will wince in sympathy as they experience his punishments for what they might deem trivial actions. Hartzler’s laugh-out-loud stylings range from the subtle to the ridiculous (his grandmother on wearing lipstick: “I need just a touch, so folks won’t think we’re Pentecostal”).
A hilarious first-of-its-kind story that will surely inspire more
. (Memoir. 14 & up)
A school assignment to research his family tree sends Vee (named for the letter) on a journey of discovery, real and metaphorical, hilarious and moving, that’s as much about the future as the past.
Future anthropologist and basketballer-wannabe Vee knows he’s an underachiever, thanks. Unlike his best friend Madison (Miao-ling at home), Vee doesn’t conform to the Asian-nerd stereotype. (He blames his heritage: Chinese immigrant dad and tall, blonde Texan mom.) They’re great parents, but their families are a taboo topic. Life’s not all bad—managing the girls’ basketball team has a lot going for it, like gorgeous but inaccessible senior Adele. Still, frustrations mount. Obsessed with digging up his roots and stonewalled by his parents, Vee enlists Madison’s help. She can’t help it if she looks like his father’s child more than Vee does and speaks Mandarin at home. (In Vee’s family, English is the common language.) Like the rounded characters, the plot avoids cliché and oversimplification. Life is a balancing act, Vee finds, in this book that belongs on every multicultural reading list. Knowing where we come from matters, but assigning too much power to ancestry can be more limiting than illuminating.
While characters with mixed heritages are increasingly visible in teen literature, their experience in a rapidly shifting cultural landscape is seldom explored in depth. This first-rate debut does exactly that.
(Fiction. 12 & up)
An intelligent, wry 17-year-old is brutally beaten in a communal shower by two classmates after he hooks up with one of their former girlfriends, setting the stage for a difficult recovery.
Evan knows he’s sort of a dick when it comes to girls, but being constantly uprooted to various boarding schools by his emotionally inept dad has caused him to eschew relationships and focus on honing his knack for identifying Girls Who Would Say Yes. After the assault that leaves Evan in the hospital, his father whisks him off to his own boyhood home in Minnesota, where he’s uneasily sucked into a tightknit group spending their last summer at home getting high and hanging out before going off to college. Evan’s intense, often-discomfiting first-person narration will deeply affect readers, and his darker side is troubling—in an aside about girls with eating disorders, he thinks, “I’d known some of those barf-it-up girls, and they were the worst. So crazy. So clingy. The first to get deleted from my phone.” Packed with realistically lewd dialogue that is often darkly funny, this is a pitch-perfect, daring novel about how sex and violence fracture a life and the painstakingly realistic process of picking up the pieces. Evan’s struggle is enormously sympathetic, even when he is not.
A boarding school is the setting for life-changing experiences in this smart, wickedly funny work of realistic fiction from the author of The Marbury Lens (2010).
Self-proclaimed loser Ryan Dean is a 14-year-old junior at Pine Mountain, where he plays wing for the tightknit rugby team. In a magnificently frenetic first-person narration that includes clever short comics, charts and diagrams, he relates the story of the first few months of the school term as he’s forced to room with an intimidating senior on the restricted, euphemistic Opportunity Hall, due to transgressions from the previous year. He’s completely head over heels for Annie, an older classmate who insists she can’t be in love with him due to his age, and lives in fear of the “glacially unhot” teacher Mrs. Singer, who he’s certain is a witch responsible for cursing him with a “catastrophic injury to [his] penis,” among other ailments. He’s also navigating letting go of some old friends and becoming closer to one of his teammates, Joey, who’s gay. Smith deftly builds characters—readers will suddenly realize they’ve effortlessly fallen in love with them—and he laces meaning and poignantly real dialogue into uproariously funny scatological and hormonally charged humor, somehow creating a balance between the two that seems to intensify both extremes.
Bawdily comic but ultimately devastating, this is unforgettable.
(Fiction. 14 & up)
Having publicly abandoned a promising piano career after her grandmother died while Lucy Beck-Moreau was a continent away preparing to perform, the 16-year-old struggles to figure out the place of music in her life apart from her family’s expectations.
What makes Lucy’s story especially appealing is the very realistic way this “entitled brat” (as grandfather called her) acts out as she experiments with new identities. Prone to adolescent crushes, she obsesses about an English teacher, impulsively kisses a serviceman met in a candy shop and falls hard for her brother’s new piano teacher, Will Devi. Lucy is impressively privileged: Old family money makes it possible for her to wear expensive clothes and attend an exclusive school; the family housekeeper provides important support. She also hurts. As the book opens, eight months after the death of the grandmother she still misses, she’s futilely performing CPR on her brother’s former teacher, dead of a stroke in the middle of a piano lesson. The third-person narration focuses entirely on Lucy but allows readers enough distance to help them understand her behavior in ways Lucy cannot. Occasional flashbacks fill out the back story.
The combination of sympathetic main character and unusual social and cultural world makes this satisfying coming-of-age story stand out.