Debbie Harry Sings in French
Meagan Brothers
ISBN 0-8050-8080-5
Holt, 2008
Grades 8 to 12
Realistic Fiction/GLBTQ/Music

Johnny is a big Debbie Harry fan, she becomes a mantra for him. But what does it mean when Johnny wants to be Debbie Harry?

Summary:

Johnny’s dad dies in an accident when he’s twelve. Over the next four years Johnny numbs himself with alcohol and music. After he’s slipped Ecstasy at a Goth club, his mother send him to rehab where he is introduced to Debbie Harry’s music. Debbie Harry becomes his idol, he loves her music and her style. More and more, though, he’s finding that he wants to be like her, to have her power and her grace. When it looks like being at home isn’t going to work out, Johnny’s mom ships him off to South Carolina to live with his uncle Sam and cousin Bug. At his new school he meets beautiful Maria and is harassed for being gay. But Johnny isn’t gay, he has a crush on Maria. Johnny and Maria start dating and he tries to explain how he feels about women: he wants to have sex with women, but he also wants to harness their beauty, toughness, femininity, and gentleness for himself. Maria is surprisingly understanding and encourages Johnny to participate in a drag show as Debbie Harry, she even creates the perfect Debbie Harry dress. Johnny doesn’t win the drag show but he does achieve the feelings of beauty and power he has been reaching for.

Critique:

An excellent book, I was pleasantly surprised, and I absolutely loved the ending. I thought that Johnny’s gender identity was handled very nicely, although it came out of the blue. I love that he isn’t gay. I would recommend this as a queer story that isn’t really about being queer. The integration of the 80’s goth/industrial/punk music was awesome! I wish Johnny was my friend.

Curriculum Ties:

Can be used with other GLBTQ titles to explore identity and literature in English classes.

Controversy:

Sexuality and gender discussions.

Let challengers know how important it is for teens to see themselves reflected in books, etc. Ask challengers to read the whole book and refer them to positive reviews.

Selection Rationale:

This is a great story that takes a different look at gender and sexuality. I can’t remember the last adult book I read about transvestites, let alone a young adult book. This is an important addition to library and bookstore shelves.

“…this compelling and ultimately uplifting novel fills a niche in the growing body of GLBTQ literature for teens.” – Booklist

“This hip work by newbie author Meagan Brothers encourages readers to explore the meanings of all the shades of gray that exist between gay and straight.” – ReadingRants.com

ALA Best Books for Young Adults, 2009

Booktalking:

Describe Johnny’s desire to be beautiful, powerful, sexy, gentle, and tough all at the same time… just like Debbie Harry.

Author Information:

This is Meagan Brothers’ first novel.

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How I Live Now
Meg Rosoff
ISBN 0-553-37-605-5
Random House, 2004
Grades 9 to 12
Science Fiction/Survival/Post-Apocalyptic

Sent to her cousin’s country home an ocean away, Daisy quickly learns about love, loss, and survival when war breaks out.

Summary:

Daisy is sent to her cousin’s in the English countryside. While there, England is attacked and Daisy is stranded, unable to get back to her native New York or contact her parents. Her aunt is lost to them as they become more and more isolated. But the children are happy. In this fleeting idyll, Daisy begins to fall for a younger cousin, Edmond, and they embark on a secret romance. Their happiness does not last, however, when the war comes literally to their doorstep. They children are separated and shipped off when their house is taken over for army operations. Daisy is sent off with her cousin Piper, nine. She is bent on finding Edmond and her other cousins, Isaac and Osberrt, from the first. When gunfire sounds the girls seize the opportunity to find their family. Arriving at the house where the others are supposed to be, they find only death and destruction. Although they are starving and exhausted Piper and Daisy make their way back to Piper’s house. The girls continue with their struggle to stay alive and the knowledge that they have had no news from or of Edmond or the other boys. Out of the blue the phone rings and on it is a voice Daisy recognizes. Daisy is sent back to New York, where she lives for the next six years, waiting for the war to end. Daisy receives a letter from Piper when the war finally ends and is one of the first people let back into England. The family is reunited but all is not as it was. Everyone is older, and Edmond seems permanently damaged from the trauma of the war and the shock of losing Daisy. But this is Daisy’s home, her family. Despite the hardships, the brokenness, the silence, these are the people Daisy lives and how she lives now.

Critical Evaluation:

This is a heartbreaking story about struggle, survival, love, and finally, acceptance. I enjoyed every moment of this book. Rosoff created characters that are mysterious and, at times, supernatural while still remaining real. Daisy’s voice is perfect.

Curriculum Ties:

Integrate into a unit on war for a history class.

Challenge Issues:

Teen sexuality, incest.

These elements really lend to the tone of the story and show how Daisy and Edmond are growing up too quickly. Ask challengers to read the entire book and see if their opinions change. Refer challengers to reviews and awards won by How I Live Now.

Selection Rationale:

How I Live Now is both highly touted and one I was very interested in reading. It definitely lived up to the rave reviews, which is why it is included here. Daisy’s personal development makes this an important read.

“This riveting first novel paints a frighteningly realistic picture of a world war breaking out in the 21st century.” – Publishers Weekly

Michael L. Printz Award Winner, 2005

Booktalking:

Use a passage where Daisy discusses how her approach to eating has changed.

About the Author:

Meg Rosoff is an American who has resided in London since 1989, she worked in advertising for years. How I Live Now was her first novel. Rosoff followed the book with Just in Case (2006) and What I Was (2007). Her next novel, The Bride’s Farewell is planned for release in 2009

Homeboyz
Alan Lawrence Sitomer
ISBN 978-142310030-0
Hyperion, 2007
Grade 9 and up
Urban Fiction

Violence is a part of life when you live in T-Bear’s neighborhood, but when the street hits close to home and he decides its time for pay back, T-Bear’s life start to unravel.

Summary:

T-Bear’s little sister, Tina, is the victim of a drive by shooting. Everyone thinks it’s a case of RP, RT – wrong place, wrong time. The only thing on T-Bear’s mind is revenge on the gang that committed the crime. T-Bear is a computer genius who has no interest in gangster politics, but getting back at the people who took his sister away from his family. T-Bear comes up with a foolproof plan, but a storeowner gets in the way and T-Bear gets caught. He ends up on probation under the supervision of Officer Mariana Diaz, a product of the tough streets herself. Diaz is implementing a mentoring component as a part of her rehabilitation program and T-Bear is assigned to twelve-year-old Micah, an aspiring gangster. T-Bear pretends to play along with his probation program, all the while he is designing his revenge via computer hacking. Micah and T-Bear begin with a tense relationship, but make great strides as T-Bear realizes the obstacles Micah faces. Impoverished and held back by dyslexia, Micah struggles with hunger, discomfort, and reading difficulties. Micah and T-Bear’s relationship ends up growing, Micah spends time with his family, proving to be the balm that winds up healing the grieving group.

Critique:

I greatly enjoyed this read, I found it thoughtful, sad, engaging, and ultimately, uplifting. Sitomer’s characters are often complex and invite the reader to care about them. The language was appropriate and helped to evoke the mood of the story. The emotions felt real.

Curriculum Ties:

Use in discussion about the juvenile justice system.

Controversy:

Language, violence, gang activity, illegal activity.

Refer challengers to reviews, and ask them to read the whole book. Note how T-Bear undergoes changes in his point of view. Also, his books are backed by Disney!

Selection Rationale:

This book will find popularity with a wide variety of readers. Many will find themselves able to relate so some element of the story.

ALA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2008

“…Sitomer uses lean, mean street-speak and dark urban landscapes to emphasize the cycle of violence that Teddy is on the verge of getting caught up in. For the most part, true-grit reality takes precedence over an occasionally preachy subtext, and readers will find themselves riveted with every turn of the page. A frighteningly real story of survival, brotherhood, and friendship.” – School Library Journal

“In this decidedly unsubtle sequel to Hip-Hop High School (Hyperion, 2006), sullen computer wiz Teddy sets out for revenge after gangbangers gun down his sister, Tina, in a drive-by shooting… Still, the tale’s violent, rough-hewn plot and street inflected language supply sufficient intensity to carry the heavy agenda.” – Booklist

Booktalking:

Is revenge the answer? Reflect on using violence to get revenge from T-Bear’s point of view.

Discuss T-Bear and Micah’s relationship from Officer Diaz’s point of view.

About the Author:

Alan Lawrence Sitomer is an inner-city high school English teacher and professor of Education at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author of four young adult novels and two non-fiction books.

Bang by Sharon Flake

August 7, 2009

Bang
Sharon G. Flake
ISBN 078681844-1
Hyperion Books for Children, 2005
Grade 8 and up
Urban Fiction

BANG! It seems like everyday the count gets higher on Mann and Kee-Lee’s running tally of neighborhood deaths. In an attempt to save the boys when the odds are stacked against them, Mann’s father sends the two alone into the “jungle”, emulating an African tradition.

Summary:

Mann’s younger brother was killed two years ago, an innocent bystander in a shooting. The family is having a difficult time healing from the loss; the process isn’t made any easier by the constant threat of violence and death in their neighborhood. Mann  is a good kid who enjoys riding horses at a rundown stable and painting, but Mann and Kee-Lee’s innocence is threatened more and more every day.

As a last resort to save his son and his friend from the dangers that surround them, Mann’s father sends the boys on a survival quest of a sort, abandoning them in the woods to find their way home. After days of thirst, hunger, humiliation, frustration, anger and sadness, the boys make their way back to the city. Unwelcome in their own homes, the pair finds a place at Kee-Lee’s aunt’s house. There, they find themselves even more wrapped up in illicit dealings, as they become the aunt’s errand boys and are rented out as house painters to earn their keep. Through their trials art keeps them sane. Ultimately, Mann and Kee-Lee become victims of their environment when Kee-Lee is shot in a devastating moment. Mann flees the scene. He has a decision to make: continue on his downward spiral or learn the meaning of his name and reclaim his life.

Critique:

Bang caught me off guard. Significant elements of this book confounded me: a stable in ‘hood or a father sending his son on a quest to become a man with no warning? I didn’t buy these plot devices, more the stable than anything else. Mann’s father is so broken by his son’s death that his seriously insane act of desperation is almost plausible. Despite the odd decisions about the plot, Flake’s writing style and characters really shine through. Bang was heartbreaking, I had to put this one down. Flake beautifully conveys the torment that Mann’s family daily experiences as a result of their family member’s death.
Curriculum Ties:
Bang would be an interesting inclusion in a World Culture’s unit exploring various traditions where boys and girls are initiated into adulthood.

Controversy:

Child abuse, violence, illegal activity, language.

Ask challengers to read the entire book if they have not already, refer them to reviews and awards won by the author.

Selection Rationale:

This is a very unique story in which everything is not tied up neatly, a realistic quality that many readers will appreciate.

ALA Best Books for Young Adults, 2006

“This disturbing, thought-provoking novel will leave readers with plenty of food for thought and should fuel lively discussions.” – School Library Journal

Booktalking:

Page 291, Mann begins his “Last Supper” painting of all the men lost to the streets.
In Mann’s voice, reflect on the quest your father sent you on.

About the Author:

Sharon Flake has written six books for young adults, has a degree in English and has lived in Pittsburgh for thirty years. Her books have received two Coretta Scott Kind Awards.

Dope Sick
Walter Dean Myers
ISBN 978-0061214776
Amistad, 2009
Grade 9 and up
Urban Fiction

What if you witnessed your death before it happened? What if you got a second chance? Lil J re-lives the drama of his past and looks into the trauma of the future to discover where he went wrong.
Summary:

Lil J is broke sick. He is beaten down. He heads out to apply for a job at the Home Depot and get his prescription filled. He feels confident, looks good. But the line for interviews stretches out the door and his mom is addicted to the painkillers he’s picking up.

When the opportunity arises to get in on a high paying drug deal, Lil J seizes the opportunity. Rico, his partner in the deal is a heroin addict, skimming off the top of the bags before the sale. When Rico and Lil J meet the buyer something doesn’t feel right – he’s a cop. Rico shoots the cop, leaving him in critical condition, and the two run.             Lil J is shot in the arm by a second undercover cop.

The cops are after Lil J. Rico was caught and named Lil J as the shooter. Injured and on the run, Lil J seeks refuge in a crack house. He timidly strikes up conversation with a man named Kelly who he takes to be a crackhead. Lil J soon learns that things are not always what they seem.

A TV in Kelly’s room shows the street scene outside – cops searching for Lil J. Kelly has a remote control and a TV that can show Lil J’s future, and its not looking so hot. Shocked by the image of him poised on the building’s rooftop, surrounded by police, holding a gun to his own head, Lil J wishes he had the power to change the past to fix this future. According to Kelly, he can alter the past and create a new beginning. He just needs to figure out what to change.

Most of the book is Lil J reflecting on his life and the decisions he has made. Initially, Lil J makes it seem like he’s led a life free of missteps, but over the course of the book the truth comes out. Lil J is a father, a drug user, a minor criminal, he went to jail, and failed at school. As Kelly fast forwards and rewinds with Lil J, Lil J becomes more self aware.

Critique:

Dope Sick is a stunning addition to Walter Dean Myers’ works. This novel is a breathtaking read. Incorporating both harsh realities and the supernatural, Dope Sick will resonate with readers who have ever wished they could take something back. I cannot say enough good things about this story, the writing is impeccable, the is story universal, and the emotions are real. Watching Lil J watch himself about to commit suicide is heart wrenching.  I loved this book from beginning to end.

Curriculum Ties:

Use Dope Sick in a unit on magic realism or the literary device of flashbacks.

Controversy:

Violence, violence against law enforcement, drug use, teen sex.

Indicate to challengers the importance of Walter Dean Myers in the field of young adult literature. Have challengers read the entire book and refer them to reviews.

Selection Rationale:

A new book from Walter Dean Myers is too important to overlook in a list like this. I found Dope Sick to be an extraordinary contribution to young adult literature. I think this is a title that could be used in advanced English classes as well as one to lure in reluctant readers.

ALA Quick Pick Nomination, 2010

Booktalking:

Summarize Lil J’s situation, and the decisions put before him.

What does Kelly think of Lil J?

About the Author:

Walter Dean Myers was born in 1937 in West Virginia. He was raised by adoptive parents in Harlem. After dropping out of high school at the age of seventeen, Myers joined the army. He has written over fifty fiction and non-fiction books for children and young adults and is one of the most critically acclaimed young adult authors around.

Broken China
Lori Aurelia Williams
ISBN 0-689-86878-2
Simon & Schuster, 2005
Grades 8 and up
Urban Fiction

China thought being a mother at fourteen was tough, now she’s about to face something even harder.

Summary:

China Cup Cameron is fourteen and a mother to two-year-old Amina. She has trouble keeping up in class, with keeping up with life. After experimenting one time with her best friend, Trip, China is pregnant. She isn’t a regular kid any more, but she loves her daughter. With the help of her wheelchair bound uncle, Simon, China provides a safe and loving home for little Amina. Unfortunately, tragedy befalls the family when Amina suddenly dies at the babysitters’ due to a heart condition. Both China and Simon are heartbroken by Amina’s death. China is ruined by grief; she drops out of school and falls deeper and deeper into depression. Wanting to provide the best for her daughter even in death, China pulls out all of the stops for Amina’s funeral (egged on by a sketchy funeral director). Of course, the funeral puts China into massive debt, so she has to find a job. The job market is tough for a fourteen year old high school dropout, but eventually China gains employment at a kind of coat check girl at a strip club named Obsidian Queens. Life gets even rougher as China’s relationships with her family and friends change as a result of her employment. She makes new connections, befriending women in trouble and discovering the manipulations she has become the victim of. China is damaged by the death of her daughter and her experiences at Obsidian Queens, but her story ends on a hopeful note.

Critique:

Watching China sink into the hole of both her and society’s making is difficult. At the beginning of the book China is truly trying to make the best of a tough situation, and is finding wonderful support (it takes many different forms) in her friends and family. Her depression and ways of dealing with the tragedy are evoke real emotion, but the plot is burdened by too many setbacks and hardships. Williams developed an interesting cast of characters, who I found myself rooting for.

Curriculum Ties:

None.

Controversy:

Portrayal of teen sex, prostitution, and drug use.

China reflects at the beginning of Broken China: “Before I had Amina I had seen pregnant girls on TV that were only a little older than I was when I got a big belly” (p. 4). Teen pregnancy is a reality and this story does little to romanticize or glorify the life of a teen parent or even teen sex. China was obviously not ready to have sex, experiencing no pleasure or sense of emotional bonding with her partner, Trip. Sex was weird and awkward for China, and she didn’t keep doing it. Likewise, prostitution and drug use are frowned upon through the tone of the book. Broken China is loud and clear regarding these issues.

Selection Rationale:

China’s age at the beginning of this novel will help it appeal to younger readers, will more mature content will still make it relevant to older teens. This would be an excellent selection for a mixed ages book group. I found myself emotionally involved with the characters in this book.

American Library Association’s Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2006

“…the emotional life of the story rings true. Readers will be drawn in by the portraits of strong individuals working hard to re-shape their lives.” – The Horn Book Magazine, March/April, 2005
“Williams is a master of character development and genuinely realized emotional growth. Her plotting almost boils
over with big problems, but China is so compelling and engaging in her responses to situations that readers will care more about cheering her along than about the author’s operatic predilections.” – School Library Journal, March 2005

Booktalking:

Why is China broken?

According to China why was it so important to have a beautiful funeral?

About the Author:

Lori Aurelia Williams, an avid reader as a child, holds a Master’s in English from the University of Texas. She is the author of two other young adult books: When Kambia Elaine Flew In from Neptune (2000) and Shayla’s Double Brown Baby Blues (2003). She received a James A. Michener scholarship while in school.

Bluford High: Summer of Secrets
Paul Langan
Scholastic, 2008
Grade 6 and up (Summer of Secrets is written for 5th or 6th grade reading levels, but has content sophisticated enough for high school students)
Urban Fiction

Darcy Wills is being eaten up by her secret; but when everyone else seems to have a secret too, the load becomes too much.

Summary:

It seems like this summer is definitely the summer of secrets to Darcy Wills. Darcy has her own secret, but it seems like everyone else is keeping secrets, too. Darcy is still dealing with a sexual assault that only her parents know about. The near rape happened with a boy she’d been warned about by her former friend. After losing her good friend and boyfriend, Hakeem, when he moves away, Darcy starts dating another boy. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a predator. This secret is getting in the way of Darcy’s relationships and prohibiting her from moving on after her break up with Hakeem. She is finding it difficult to heal, developing a lot of rage and suspicion as a result. Darcy sees danger signs everywhere, sometimes in the right places. When her old friend starts dating a questionable new guy, Darcy gives her a heads up about the situation and it turns out she was right. Summer of Secrets ties up relatively neatly, Darcy takes steps toward recovery and rebuilding the relationships she lost, her parents let her in on their secret: they’re pregnant, and learns to stand up for her friends and her beliefs even when its difficult.

Critique:

This is an excellent hi-lo read, although I suspect it would have been more enjoyable had I read the book that precludes this story (Until We Meet Again). Summer of Secrets addresses the complicated emotions of rape in a competent manner, in particular stigma that can generate secrecy. I really appreciated the way that female friendship and looking out for each other was highlighted in this story.

Curriculum Ties:

None.

Controversy:

Addresses rape, teen sex, and domestic violence.

Highlight to challengers the manner in which these issues are addressed in the book. Point out the popularity amongst students and librarians.

Selection Rationale:

The Bluford High series is a perfect example of Hi-Lo readers; these will engage students who may have a difficult time with fiction.

Highly recommended by many librarians and teachers as a hi-lo read to get reluctant and low-level readers into fiction.

Booktalking:

Reflect on the dangers of keeping secrets from Darcy’s point of view.

About the Author:

Paul Langan was born in Philadelphia in 1972, he studied creative writing in college. After working as an Assistant Editor at Townsend Press for awhile, he began writing and editing for the Bluford series.

Street Pharm
Allison van Diepen
ISBN 1-4169-11154-5
Simon Pulse, 2006
Grade 9 and up
Urban Fiction

This life is in Ty’s blood, but times are changing and Ty has to think on his feet to survive.

Summary:

Ty took over his father’s business at age sixteen. The life of a dealer is the only life he knows, even if it did put his dad in jail. Ty tries to do everything right and keep under the radar, keep safe. He has a fake job, doesn’t spend excessively, and only lets a couple people in on his business. Even with all his precautions, life takes a turn for the worse when a new dealer, Darkman, moves into town. At the same time Ty starts seeing a new girl, Alyse, who is different from the rest of his world. Ty has to keep much of his life secret from Alyse, which becomes increasingly difficult when someone blows the whistle on his operation. Ty is hospitalized after a drive by shooting, and he has to make decisions about the type of man he wants to become: will he follow in his father’s footsteps or clean up his life?

Critique:

A good read. I found the central characters to be likable and well-formed. Street Pharm did not have the most believable voice at times. This should be a popular novel with reluctant readers, there is plenty of action and a lot of material for teachers and librarians to introduce in discussions. Overall, an excellent addition to the genre complete with positive message.

Curriculum Ties:

Street Pharm would be a good choice for an English class discussion book.

Controversy:

Drug and alcohol use, drug dealing, crime, language.

These elements of the novel are not glamorized, rather, everyone’s life is made more difficult by decisions to engage in illegal activity. Things start looking up for Ty when he decides to distance himself from that life. The language is necessary to provide an authentic feel. Refer to inclusion on ALA “best of” lists and reviews. Ask challengers to read Street Pharm through the conclusion and see if they change their mind.

Selection Rationale:

A positive book, with an ultimately uplifting ending.

ALA Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2007

“There is plenty of swearing, violence, and raunchy topics scattered in the dialogue and the action because this book takes a realistic look at life in a dangerous urban neighborhood. The author researched this story while working in a perilous inner-city Brooklyn high school. It is an eye-opening account of a nice kid who is caught between two worlds and has to make some tough decisions. It also conveys a poignant message for reluctant readers.” – VOYA

Booktalking:

Read the newspaper article about Ty’s shooting, pages 190-191.

Read page 278, about the business taking everything away from Ty.

About the Author:

Allison van Diepen is the author of three young adult novels: Snitch, Raven, and Street Pharm. Van Diepen received a BA in History from Carleton and then moved on to teaching school. She got her inspiration for Snitch and Street Pharm from her experiences as a teacher in Brooklyn. She is a high school teacher in her Canadian hometown, Ottawa.