Librarians and publishers like to use the phrase coming-of-age to describe books with protagonists growing into adults, but I don’t think it’s a strong enough phrase for what’s going on in my house right now. My daughter is almost finished with eighth grade, and, oh, the drama! As a librarian who thoroughly enjoys working with teens, I can’t help but find the humor in her “OMG” situations, while wondering what particular events are shaping her. Middle school years are significant, and teens and adults alike appreciate a young narrator (think—Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). In this column, we’ll take a look at five more adult titles that feature young narrators—one Shakespeare retelling, two historical fiction novels, and two contemporary stories.
In Miranda and Caliban, Jacqueline Carey revisits Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Lyrically and expressively told, the fantasy is a coming-of-age tale of young Miranda and her only friend, both at war with magic-wielding Prospero. Familiarity with the original play isn’t necessary, but the starred review means that this book could easily be added to a school library’s collection of Shakespeare adaptations for use by AP English instructors.
Twelve-year-old Kiran arrives in rural New York from India in the 1980s in Rahul Mehta’s debut No Other World, and his maturation is a constant struggle to establish a sense of belonging. Like many immigrants, he straddles two cultures, but he also grapples with his sexuality. Kiran finally finds peace when he returns home and develops a close relationship with a hijra, someone who identifies as a third gender in India—neither male or female.
Our reviewer compares the next historical fiction novel with a work by Jean Shepherd, who wrote the classic holiday essay collection A Christmas Story. Alex George’s Setting Free the Kites lightly tackles friendship and summer jobs at a Maine amusement park. Robert and Nathan have been friends since they met in eighth grade in 1976, and their friendship supports them through punk music, the death of immediate family members, and first loves.
What animal lover wouldn’t pick up Annie Hartnett’s Rabbit Cake? The whimsical cover sets the tone, and the 12-year-old narrator of the contemporary debut novel is sweetly naive. Elvis is part of a quirky family in Freedom, AL—as evidenced by her first name. Her thorough awareness of her family’s grieving process after the death of her mother is poignant yet never cloying, and readers will appreciate seeing how her love of animals helps her cope with the loss.
From eccentric to dark—Susan Perabo’s The Fall of Lisa Bellow focuses on Meredith, a young seventh grader, who suffers from survivor’s guilt after witnessing a classmate’s kidnapping. Her coming-of-age is strongly influenced by an event that she couldn’t prevent or predict; readers will hope that Lisa is found and Meredith finds solace.
CAREY, Jacqueline.Miranda and Caliban. 352p. Tor. Feb. 2017. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780765395047.
The events of Shakespeare’s The Tempest serve as the climax to a coming-of-age story that imagines Miranda’s lonely life growing up on an island and the deep friendship between her and the wild child Caliban. Miranda’s father, Prospero, relies on magic to punish and bind, while the sprite Ariel uses cruel words. Miranda and Caliban find kindness in each other as they discover more about the world around them, but even they cannot thwart Prospero’s larger plans. In Carey’s hands, Shakespeare’s characters take on new dimensions, and his happy ending turns devastating. Very short chapters propel the story forward, and perspectives alternate between Miranda and Caliban, both of whom have unique voices that deepen as they age and begin to rebel. While teens will know more than the protagonists, they will empathize with their confusion and innocence and bristle when Ariel uses Miranda’s and Caliban’s lack of knowledge against them. Familiarity with the source material will foreshadow the conclusion, but even those who haven’t read The Tempest will feel the lingering pain of the characters long after putting down the book. VERDICT While it fully stands on its own, this beautiful and heartbreaking tale adds new depth and perspective to a timeless Shakespearean work—perfect for fans of the classics.–Jennifer Rothschild, Arlington Public Library, VA
GEORGE, Alex. Setting Free the Kites. 336p. Putnam. Feb. 2017. Tr $27. ISBN 9780399162107.
It’s 1976, and on the first day of eighth grade, Hollis Calhoun is flushing Robert Carter’s head down the school’s toilet. Enter new boy Nathan Tilly, and the scene changes as a friendship forms. Robert and Nathan bring out the best in each other just long enough to cope with the deaths of Nathan’s father and Robert’s brother. Despite the tragedies, readers won’t feel weighed down. Like the kites Nathan sets free, the prose soars as the author tackles first loves, best friends, and clever acts of revenge. George employs a style similar to that of Jean Shepherd (author of A Christmas Story), conjuring up a run-down amusement park, a man with a toe for a thumb, a dead mongoose, a chain-smoking dragon, and more. Also included are an oddly placed World War II flashback story and an unnecessarily long epilogue, but neither will detract from readers’ enjoyment. The humor and poignancy of the boys’ parallel experiences will give teens something to consider and discuss. VERDICT A wonderful tale that’s full of boyhood charm and meaty enough to engage fans of literary historical fiction.–Pamela Schembri, Horace Greeley High School, Chappaqua, NY
HARTNETT, Annie. Rabbit Cake. 344p. Tin House. Mar. 2017. Tr $15.95. ISBN 9781941040560.
Rabbit cake, made with a special aluminum mold, was for special occasions in the Babbitt family. Looking back, Elvis thinks that the first sign of danger was when her mother burned the ears of the rabbit cake meant to celebrate Elvis’s 10th birthday. Six months later, Elvis’s mother drowns, ostensibly by sleepwalking into the river. The scientifically minded protagonist investigates her mother’s death, making sense of the taxonomy of death and grief with curiosity and wry humor. Her guileless observations are often hilarious: hints of her mother’s promiscuity emerge, pieced together from a memory of her mother “pretending to milk” a man and the mystery of a parrot that perfectly imitates her mother’s voice. Meanwhile, Elvis’s father begins wearing his dead wife’s makeup, and Elvis’s 16-year-old sister Lizzie’s sleepwalking grows ever more dangerous. When a sleeping Lizzie is discovered climbing into a hot oven, their desperate father sends her to a mental institution. Elvis’s salvation comes through volunteer work at a local animal sanctuary. While she is an accurate, observant narrator, with an abundance of knowledge about the natural world, she has little success in understanding people; she puzzles over psychology texts and consults a telephone psychic. Hartnett adeptly conveys a full picture of this family’s emotional turmoil, tinged with the sincere hope of a child and the rising anxiety of an adolescent. VERDICT Teens who enjoyed the engaging voice of 11-year-old Flavia in Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie will love Elvis Babbitt.–Diane Colson, City College, Gainesville, FL
MEHTA, Rahul. No Other World. 304p. HarperCollins/Harper. Feb. 2017. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780062020468.
Having moved halfway across the world, the Shahs contend with life in western New York in the 1980s and 1990s. A father, mother, brother, and sister all grapple with secrets and desires that draw them toward their American neighbors, while their Indian culture and the family they left behind maintain a hold on them. At the center of the family is Kiran, a young boy coming to terms with his sexuality. Told in third person, this is an intimate meditation on the occurrences that shape us as people and the immigrant experience in the United States. Tiny details—the print on a bedspread, the tassel on a pristine loafer—fully immerse readers in the Shahs’ world. Mehta deftly draws each perspective, carefully laying bare the distance between the characters’ desires and their actions. While this novel focuses on Kiran’s growth, it also illuminates the points of view of his family members, ultimately providing a more complete picture of the protagonist’s childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Though there is some explicit content, it is never prurient, and mature teenage readers will see it as simply a piece of the puzzle that is Kiran. VERDICT The meticulously detailed tale of one Indian family, this is at once a character study and a universal immigrant story. Add to literary, multicultural, and LGBTQ collections.–Erinn Black Salge, Morristown-Beard School, Morristown, NJ
PERABO, Susan. The Fall of Lisa Bellow. 352p. S. & S. Mar. 2017. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9781476761466.
Meredith is a typical seventh grader teetering between the innocence of childhood and the worldliness of adolescence. Her adored older brother Evan sustained an injury months earlier, ending his college scholarship hopes and blinding him in one eye. Meredith, as the second child, is unsure of her role in the family. At school she is also in between: not in the popular group (though she obsesses over the girls who do rule the middle school halls) but not a total loser, either. Mean-spirited and sharp-tongued Lisa Bellow is the undisputed queen of the junior high elite, and Meredith and Lisa have little in common. Then Meredith stops into a deli after school for a soda and sees Lisa there getting a sandwich. A masked man enters, looking for money, and abducts Lisa. The popular kids, Lisa’s young single mother, and others in town join the search for the missing girl. At this point, Perabo introduces her strongest conceit: artfully cutting between scenes in which Meredith has been left behind and those in which Meredith was kidnapped along with Lisa. The true nature of these seemingly contradictory sections is left intentionally vague and should keep readers intrigued. Readers will empathize with Meredith, while older teens will also be drawn to Meredith’s mother, Claire. The pairing of typical family life with the ripped-from-the-headlines drama results in a thoughtful, unforgettable story. VERDICT A hypnotically suspenseful novel dissecting the effects of a young girl’s trauma. Purchase where trendy psychological thrillers are popular.–Tara Kehoe, formerly at the New Jersey State Library Talking Book and Braille Center, Trenton
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