Looks may not be everything, but few high-school students would deny that physical appearance is connected to self-esteem and social standing. Zephaniah (Refugee Boy, p. 814) explores this theme wherein Martin, a good-looking, confident youngster, is burned and facially disfigured during a car crash. After a prolonged, somewhat tedious setup that introduces Martin and his world and then delineates his hospital stay, Zephaniah gets to the meat of his story—how Martin’s altered face affects his feelings about himself and his relationships with others. Martin proves to be a champion survivor, attending classes as soon as he’s physically able, then joining and becoming the captain of the school gymnastics team. A devastating experience—he’s surrounded by group of younger kids who viciously taunt him about his looks—temporarily drives Martin off the team and back to the safety of his room. But he soon finds the courage to soldier on, leading his team in a freestyle gymnastic routine of his own devise. By showing up and competing at the tournament, he learns that, “It’s not the winning that matters . . . it’s the being here.” It’s a strong idea, but the story, which is set in Britain, never feels like it’s plumbed the depths of the situation fully. The exposition is stilted, Martin’s adjustment is too easy, and the author, by over-explaining how Martin feels and what he’s learned, doesn’t allow the reader to experience his situation viscerally. Nonetheless, a worthy subject that should give kids plenty to think about. (Fiction. 10+)
On the day Michelle Peña wins in the qualifying rounds for All-American track and earns a spot on her school’s academic decathlon team, she and her best friend, Kiki, are kidnapped. Michelle knows her kidnappers: They’re members of the gang run by her mother, Reina. Reina is serving time in prison, but her name still strikes fear in the hearts of members of the 99’s. With Reina’s capture, the gang collapsed, and Michelle, just 12 at the time, went to a misguided, gay, overworked but ultimately loving foster father. Despite Reina’s imprisonment, the 99’s are still operating, but they need royalty in the form of Princess Michelle. There’s salty gang talk, an urban setting and plenty of violent action. Readers will see adult language and situations, but the focus is on a smart teen character with growing-up issues, not the adult world of gang politics. Michelle talks tough but has a soft heart for her friends and family. This may not be great literature, but it holds strong appeal for teens who can’t get enough street lit. (Fiction. YA)
The historically freighted match between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling forms the backdrop for this compelling coming-of-age novel. Fourteen-year-old Karl Stern has never considered himself Jewish. His father is an atheist, his mother an agnostic. He grew up in a secular household, has no religious background and even has a religiously neutral name. But in 1934 Berlin, with the rise of the Nazis and the newly entitled bullies at school, Karl is Jewish. He gets beaten up and, eventually, expelled from school. Enter Max Schmeling, heavyweight champion of the world, who offers Karl boxing lessons in exchange for a portrait from Mr. Stern’s art gallery. Karl’s journey to manhood, from 1934 to 1938, is a rough one for a Jewish boy in Nazi Germany, but Sharenow weaves a colorful tale from the cultural context of the mid-1930s: the Holocaust, Kristallnacht, degenerate art, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Picasso and Matisse. Besides being an up-and-coming boxer, Karl is a cartoonist, and his cartoons and drawings add visual depth to the novel, effectively delineating Karl’s growing sense of himself and his purpose, inspired by his beloved Action Comics hero, Superman. A brief author’s note continues the story beyond 1938, relating the postwar friendship between Schmeling and Joe Louis. A fine one-two punch with the author’s previous powerful work, My Mother the Cheerleader (2007). (sources) (Historical fiction. 12 & up)
Veteran fantasist Yolen introduces the utterly charming and sassy Aliera, a quirky tenth-grade loner who’s both color-blind and an expert fencer, in this charming graphic novel. Aliera slinks her way through high school, focusing on fencing practice, reading and engaging in role-playing games with her cousin. When hunky Avery Castle arrives at her school, all the girls are immediately smitten, and Aliera also falls for Avery’s good looks and charm, though she tries to downplay her feelings for him. An odd turn of events throws Aliera’s routine off balance, and everything in her life she knew to be real—from a practice foil her mother bought her at a tag sale to the lothario Avery to the entire world as she knew it—is suddenly not what it appears to be. This fantastic change brings color into her life, and the drab grays that wash over Cavallaro’s panels now burst with vibrantly hued blasts. An enchanting tale, with hints of a possible continuance. For fantasy lovers, this is an absolute must-read. (Graphic fantasy. 12 & up)
This viscerally funny story of one boy’s attempt to impress his ladylove by finishing four laps of the dreaded butterfly stroke in a swim competition by summer’s end is sure to please fans of Pete Hautman’s Rash (2006) and Randy Powell’s Three Clams and an Oyster (2002). Fifteen-year-old Matt has two summer goals: attract his crush Kelly’s attention by learning to “swim the fly” and see a real girl naked. Matt and pals Cooper and Sean cook up several plots to catch a betty in the buff, but all attempts fail, usually due to an errant bodily emission (Matt’s explosive BM in the girl’s bathroom is one of the novel’s most foully comic moments). Meanwhile, it becomes clear that Kelly’s best friend Valerie is more likely to return Matt’s affections. Can Matt swim the fly and get the girl in spite of his spaghetti arms and rebellious colon? Fully realized secondary characters, realistically raunchy dialogue and the scatological subject matter assure that this boisterous and unexpectedly sweet read will be a word-of-mouth hit. (Fiction. 14 & up)
Fourteen-year-old Flora struggles with her dual role as star soccer player at her rural Maine high school, dreaming of playing for the U.S. Soccer Girl’s National Team, and her family’s centuries-old tradition of potato farming. The need to succeed at soccer and honor the memory of her mother, a fellow soccer enthusiast, engulfs Flora in the two years following her mother’s death from cancer. When the invitation to attend a two-week National Team Identification Camp for her age group at the International Sports Academy in Colorado arrives, Flora eagerly accepts. Once there, she quickly realizes that being the best player at her high school is completely different from working and competing with equally skilled peers. Flora must deal with bullies, a fledgling crush and demanding coaches. Choat’s examination of the dedication, effort and sacrifice needed to become a national-level player is riveting and inspiring. She explores barriers to success a young female athlete can face, from coping with competitors’ taunts to self-esteem and family issues. Readers will be rooting for Flora as she struggles to achieve her goals. (Fiction. 12 & up)
For Cadnum (In a Dark Wood, p. 55, etc.), there’s nothing like a little uncertainty to throw a top athlete—or a father- daughter relationship—off, headed for a permanent setback. There’s no question that Bonnie Chamberlain will be an Olympic-level competitor in platform diving; then she hits the platform during a routine practice and is not only seriously injured but fearful of ever diving again. Encouraged by an understanding coach, Bonnie forces herself into the water and steels herself to keep on diving. Then comes a blow almost worse than the accident. Her divorced and recently remarried father is arrested for bilking his law clients out of large sums of money. Bonnie, devastated, believes he is innocent, despite the hints from her mother, older sister, and best friend that he is guilty as charged. As the truth sinks in, Bonnie comes to understand that the money that built her mother’s business and paid for her own private-school education (and her hopes for diving) is part of her father’s past schemes—that she is not entirely excluded from his guilt. In this gripping look at family relationships Cadnum finds painful shades of gray for Bonnie to face for the first time; in her will to grasp the manner and timing of her healing is evidence that she is one of Cadnum’s most complex and enigmatic characters. (Fiction. 12-14)
This strong debut, set in a small Pennsylvania town where local sports rule, pits a senior wrestler against both a close friend and the prospect of a dead-end, beer-and-factory-work future. Ben and Al have been friendly rivals for years, but as school's end looms, new tension enters their relationship: Al is being groomed for a shot at the state championship; Ben, discovering that he wants something for himself besides the role of second stringer, is coming closer and closer to beating him in practice. Ben also yearns to escape the claustrophobic confines of life in a one-street town, though he realizes that ``it's a pit only the strongest crawl out of.'' He tells his story in a spare way appropriate to his undemonstrative, nonverbal nature, recording fast and furious wrestling action, the steady burn of his own anger and frustration, and brief but telling glimpses of the people around him—especially of his loving but even less demonstrative father, a factory worker and part-time burglar. In the end, Ben gets not what he wants, but what he needs, losing the qualifying match to Al by one point, and falling for Kim Chavez, a beautiful classmate who knows him better than he knows himself. The young characters here, male and female, are all athletes, but not stereotyped jocks, and Wallace limns the pleasures and limitations of small-town culture with a sure hand. (Fiction. 12-15)
Against the odds, 13-year-old, 6’2” Savvy, the psychologically tough heroine of Mackel’s engrossing story, makes it onto a competitive basketball team for older girls. To boost her level of proficiency so that she can battle the more experienced players, she must practice, and practice hard. Besides the pressure of basketball, Savvy, whose family has had to move from their large house in New Mexico to an aunt’s sheep farm in Rhode Island, must begin a new school and help her injured aunt with the sheep. It’s a demanding schedule, and Savvy is determined to meet all challenges. But her biggest test in this basketball novel, which features play-by-play action and deals empathetically with both the pleasure and pressure of athletic competition, comes when her integrity is called into question with accusations of steroid use. Although the author tries to muddy the waters with an undercooked subplot that involves possible past malfeasance on the part of Savvy’s coach, the final revelation is heavily foreshadowed, making the most surprising thing how readily Savvy forgives. (Fiction. 12 & up)
“If you drink some wine and there’s no one around to see it, does it still count against you?”
Katie’s counting that it won’t. A promising field-hockey player entering her senior year, an athletic scholarship is her ticket out of crummy little Deerfield, Maine. But she also loves the feeling she gets after three beers—and margaritas. That summer, handsome Alec romances her with deep conversation, sweet gestures and tequila. When he’s drunk, though, his sweetness disappears, and in trying to get away, Katie, also drunk, jeopardizes both her athletic career and their lives. She also gives him a very dangerous hold over her, one that sends her into an alcohol-fueled despair. There’s little subtlety to this book, from the title and cover to the “scared straight” descriptions of Katie’s vomiting jags. Debut author Luedeke gives the likable Katie sound psychological underpinnings to her alcoholism—her beer-swilling father abandoned them, her wine-drinking mother is hardly ever at home—and a truly hellish bind with Alec. She also gives her staunch friends, a supportive field-hockey coach, an awesome little brother and, eventually, a caring therapist. Add up the pieces, and the result is an above-average problem novel that will have readers flipping the pages in a literary version of rubbernecking.
Katie’s tale is so clearly a cautionary one, though, it may not reach the audience that most needs it
. (Fiction. 14 & up)
Asha would rather be burning bras, studying psychology and playing tennis like Chris Evert (she’s that good). Instead, the 16-year-old, her older sister and her mother are leaving Delhi and heading to her uncle’s house in Calcutta, where they will stay while her engineer father searches for work in New York. Only Asha’s diary, S.K. (Secret Keeper) 1974, and Jay, a young painter next door, know her true feelings when an unexpected tragedy strikes, leaving her at the mercy of a strapped uncle, her mother’s depression and rigid gender expectations. Perkins weaves descriptions of Indian food, clothing, government and customs into Asha’s quest for freedom. Although some references are forced, together they help explain the teen’s startling choices and the price she and her family must pay for a better life in this achingly realistic story. An author’s note adds more details about the time and the changes (e.g., women in the workplace) that have occurred in India since then. Asha’s struggles will enlighten and inspire young women, and encourage them to value their own freedom. (glossary, map) (Fiction. YA)
This sequel to The Georges and the Jewels (2009) is Smiley at her finest—detailed, nuanced, absorbing. Abby Lovitt's eighth-grade year starts out feeling less tumultuous than the year before: Her school life is more settled, her parents more at peace and Ornery George, a horse she struggled with, has been sold. Though she continues to ride several horses a day, two in particular fill her heart: Black George, who will jump anything, and Jack, her beautiful orphan foal. Suddenly it seems she will lose them both. Black George is so talented he's sure to attract an offer Abby's Daddy won't refuse, and, though her father bought Jack's dam in good faith, she may have been stolen, which means Jack may have to be returned. Abby, though, is learning to separate the gold from the dross, to see her family, friends, the rich people on the horse-show circuit and especially her horses with unflinching, compassionate truth. Black George and Jack are good horses, in every sense of the word; Abby will be good, too. Rich, real and utterly engrossing. (Historical fiction. 10-14)
A general indictment of apartheid is thinly wrapped in a tale about a young Zulu marathoner who runs for his country in the Olympics.
When police fire into a crowd watching a peaceful demonstration, they orphan young Samuel and his two older brothers, radicalizing the latter. In later years one brother loses his mind on Robben Island, and the other is killed in a gun battle. Samuel, though, grows up to leverage his love of running barefoot over his dusty tribal “homeland” into a spot on South Africa’s Olympics team after apartheid collapses and Mandela is freed. Riordan loosely bases his disconnected main plot on the experiences of Josiah Thugwane, the first black gold medalist from South Africa. He begins his book with the graphically depicted opening massacre, closely followed by a disturbingly gruesome hospital scene. To these he adds angry rhetoric (“Where was British justice now?”) and ugly words when Samuel goes to get a passbook and later boards a “Whites Only” train car by mistake. For readers who still aren't with the program, he provides infodumps about South Africa’s racial history and the African National Congress and a triumphant set piece when Samuel casts a vote in his first national election. Samuel runs (and wins) the climactic race with a letter from Mandela tucked in his shoe.
This potentially inspiring tale staggers along under the weight of a worthy agenda.
(Historical fiction. 12-14)