Original, hilarious, thought-provoking and wicked smart: not to be missed.

ZERO FADE

Kevin Phifer, 13, a black seventh-grader in 1990s Richmond, Va., and hero of this sparkling debut, belongs in the front ranks of fiction’s hormone-addled, angst-ridden adolescents, from Holden Caulfield to the teenage Harry Potter.

Kevin wants a fade, thinking the stylish haircut will bolster his shaky standing in the cutthroat world of middle school, where he’s just one friend away from eating lunch alone. But his mother, a church secretary and solo parent studying for a nursing degree at night, won’t even try. Expressing his frustration leads to a week’s grounding. Tyrell and his entourage of bullies make Kevin’s life miserable at school. In science lab, Aisha, girl of Kevin’s dreams, points out his “mushy tushy.” Sandbagged by dizzyingly abrupt mood shifts, Kevin hurtles from altruism to craven self-interest, mature self-knowledge to wild fantasy. His anchor in rough seas is Uncle Paul, a quiet, manly museum security guard. Weary of hiding his sexual orientation, Paul’s recently come out to family and friends but has yet to tell Kevin, for whom “faggot” is the worst insult there is. Paul’s perspective, with its temporal and social context, enriches and deepens the narrative, offering an effective contrast to Kevin’s volatile reality, where “now” is all that counts.

Original, hilarious, thought-provoking and wicked smart: not to be missed. (Historical fiction. 12 & up)

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-9884804-3-8

Page Count: 294

Publisher: Curbside Splendor

Review Posted Online: July 8, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2013

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A painful story smartly told, Benjamin’s first solo novel has appeal well beyond a middle school audience.

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THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH

In middle school, where “Worst Thing” can mean anything from a pimple to public humiliation, Suzy “Zu” Swanson really has a reason to be in crisis: her former best friend has died unexpectedly, and the seventh-grader is literally silenced by grief and confusion.

A chance encounter with a jellyfish display on a school trip gives her focus—for Zu, the venomous Irukandji jellyfish, while rare, provides a possible explanation for the “how” of Franny’s death. And Zu is desperate for answers and relief from her haunting grief and guilt. In seven parts neatly organized around the scientific method as presented by Mrs. Turton, a middle school teacher who really gets the fragility of her students, Zu examines and analyzes past and present. A painful story of friendship made and lost emerges: the inseparable early years, Franny’s pulling away, Zu’s increasing social isolation, and a final attempt by Zu to honor a childhood pact. The author gently paints Zu as a bit of an oddball; not knowing what hair product to use leaves her feeling “like a separate species altogether,” and knowing too many species of jellyfish earns her the nickname Medusa. Surrounded by the cruelty of adolescence, Zu is awkward, smart, methodical, and driven by sadness. She eventually follows her research far beyond the middle school norm, because “ ‘Sometimes things just happen’ is not an explanation. It is not remotely scientific.”

A painful story smartly told, Benjamin’s first solo novel has appeal well beyond a middle school audience. (Fiction. 12 & up)

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-316-38086-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

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Those preparing to “slay the sucktastic beast known as high school” will particularly appreciate this spirited read.

MOMENTOUS EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS

From the Life of a Cactus series

In the sequel to Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (2017), Aven Green confronts her biggest challenge yet: surviving high school without arms.

Fourteen-year-old Aven has just settled into life at Stagecoach Pass with her adoptive parents when everything changes again. She’s entering high school, which means that 2,300 new kids will stare at her missing arms—and her feet, which do almost everything hands can (except, alas, air quotes). Aven resolves to be “blasé” and field her classmates’ pranks with aplomb, but a humiliating betrayal shakes her self-confidence. Even her friendships feel unsteady. Her friend Connor’s moved away and made a new friend who, like him, has Tourette’s syndrome: a girl. And is Lando, her friend Zion’s popular older brother, being sweet to Aven out of pity—or something more? Bowling keenly depicts the universal awkwardness of adolescence and the particular self-consciousness of navigating a disability. Aven’s “armless-girl problems” realistically grow thornier in this outing, touching on such tough topics as death and aging, but warm, quirky secondary characters lend support. A few preachy epiphanies notwithstanding, Aven’s honest, witty voice shines—whether out-of-reach vending-machine snacks are “taunting” her or she’s nursing heartaches. A subplot exploring Aven’s curiosity about her biological father resolves with a touching twist. Most characters, including Aven, appear white; Zion and Lando are black.

Those preparing to “slay the sucktastic beast known as high school” will particularly appreciate this spirited read. (Fiction. 12-14)

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4549-3329-8

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Sterling

Review Posted Online: June 10, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2019

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