September 21, 2017

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Rocky Roads: 8 Coming-of-Age Tales | Adult Books 4 Teens

Last time I put together a column of coming-of-age stories, I discussed how difficult it can be to pin down exactly what we mean by the phrase. One of the books in this column grapples with this issue. Andrew Forsthoefel’s Walking To Listen chronicles his trek across the United States as he spoke to (and, more important, listened to) as many people as he could. As our reviewer notes, the author “hoped to discover what it means to come of age,” just as we’re trying to do in this column. Mixed in are Forsthoefel’s takes on geography and the significance of walking and side trips into some of the key issues facing the country today.

The rest of the books today are novels, all of which offer varied spins on the idea of maturation. Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine focuses on a protagonist who comes into her own later than many characters we’ve seen. The titular Eleanor is in her 30s, and the story recounts her delayed grappling with her sense of self, much of it tied to recovering memories of childhood trauma.

We also have two novels that take place in a typical coming-of-age setting: summer camp. Nickolas Butler’s The Hearts of Men and Mandy Berman’s Perennials examine the male and female perspectives respectively. Both titles start with the burgeoning friendships of two campers, then revisit their characters, who later assume positions of power. In Berman’s selection, two young women return to a beloved camp as counselors, while Butler moves his characters into adulthood, with one of them now taking the reins as the camp director.

In its last chapters, The Hearts of Men unexpectedly adopts the pace of a thriller, which makes it a perfect bridge to Jordan Harper’s suspenseful She Rides Shotgun. Polly, 11, practically meets her ex-con father for the first time as they go on the run, pull off a few robberies, and try to stay alive one day at a time. It’s not the most common way to come of age, but Polly certainly matures in a hurry.

Like The Hearts of Men and Perennials, Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl examines a common theme of coming-of-age stories: an intense youthful friendship. Messud explores the connection between Julia and Cassie, who do everything together until seventh grade, when Cassie takes a detour. The rest of the narrative tracks Cassie’s thrilling life through Julia’s distant point of view. This tense, dark work should have teens thinking.

Our next title is a work of historical fiction. Emma Kennedy’s Shoes for Anthony follows 11-year-old Anthony, a young Welsh boy who unexpectedly encounters and agrees to shelter a Polish prisoner of war who has escaped from a downed German plane. This is a fast-paced, plot-driven novel from British actress Kennedy.

Finally, Benjamin Ludwig’s Ginny Moon centers on a newly adopted 14-year-old who has autism and was taken away from her abusive mother at nine, leaving behind her beloved doll. Much of the plot revolves around Ginny Moon’s attempts to recover Baby Doll and the tragic story that unfolds. This is powerful and moving stuff that will resonate with teens, especially fans of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World.

FICTION

BERMAN, Mandy. Perennials. 288p. Random. Jun. 2017. Tr $27. ISBN 9780399589317.

Rachel and Fiona are as different as friends can be. Rachel, the result of an affair, is a city girl, scrappy, self-possessed, and confident. Fiona struggles in her suburban life, unsure of her place in her family and among her friends. Yet when the two spend summers at Camp Marigold, they fall into an easy rhythm. Several years later, the young women return to Marigold as counselors. Rachel and Fiona grow apart as the rest of the camp changes around them. But when tragedy strikes, they are thrown together once more. This coming-of-age narrative touches on themes of body image and fitting in. The book is rich with detail, bringing to life the daily rhythms of the camp from lakeside to stable, all the way to the lurid after-hours activities of the staff. Debut author Berman successfully incorporates a varied supporting cast that includes the protagonists’ parents and siblings as well as camp directors, horseback instructors, and others. VERDICT This compelling, immersive look at summer camp life will appeal to anyone who appreciates tales of friendship.–Erinn Black Salge, Morristown-Beard School, Morristown, NJ

redstarBUTLER, Nickolas. The Hearts of Men. 400p. HarperCollins/Ecco. Mar. 2017. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780062469687.

In this novel set in 1962, Nelson is an unpopular boy who is bullied at his Wisconsin Boy Scout camp, but he plays the bugle and pleases the head of the camp. He makes one friend, Jonathan, who becomes financially successful later in life. However, Nelson never entirely recovers from his experiences fighting in Vietnam. Years pass, and Nelson becomes the camp director, ready to help the son of his old friend. This well-crafted and complex but immensely accessible title proceeds slowly until the thrilling final fourth of the book, when Nelson must find the courage to prevent a tragedy. Readers willing to undertake such a long tome will be rewarded with an insightful and entertaining gem. VERDICT A rich, beautifully wrought work that will resonate with fans of coming-of-age tales.–Karlan Sick, formerly at New York Public Library

HARPER, Jordan. She Rides Shotgun. 272p. HarperCollins/Ecco. Jun. 2017. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780062394408.

Eleven-year-old Polly knows little about her father, Nate, who has been in prison for most of her life. When he suddenly appears after school, in a car that doesn’t belong to him, she is wary but goes with him. Nate isn’t a man of many words, but watchful Polly learns that she can never return to her mother’s house. Thanks to Nate’s actions in prison, Polly isn’t safe, and the next few weeks are a whirlwind of robberies, strength training, and brainstorming ways to survive the hit that the prison gang Aryan Steel has put out on the two of them. As in an episode of Breaking Bad, disaster constantly looms on the horizon. Readers will race through this nail-bitingly suspenseful novel as the duo wreak havoc on Aryan Steel establishments around Los Angeles. Harper’s portrayal of the California underworld rings true, and the loving connection that develops between Polly and Nate is full of hope and promise. VERDICT This emotional and fast-paced tale will stick with mature teens who appreciate gritty contemporary fare.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

HONEYMAN, Gail. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. 336p. Viking/Pamela Dorman Bks. May 2017. Tr $26. ISBN 9780735220683.

Office worker Eleanor adheres to a strict routine that has insulated her from the memories of her traumatic childhood but has not shielded her from loneliness. But after she meets Raymond, she attempts to rediscover her memories and in the process learns how relationships (including those with friends, lovers, and colleagues) operate and that other people can be a source of joy rather than destruction. Readers may find Eleanor odd at first but will feel compassion and root for her as she grapples with severe depression and her painful childhood. Though the novel deals with dark themes, quirky Eleanor’s firm bond with Raymond and their adventures lighten the tone. Teens will be spellbound as Eleanor unravels the mystery of her past and develops a sense of self. VERDICT For those seeking a dramatic page-turner combined with a whimsical love story.–April Sanders, Spring Hill College, Mobile, AL 

KENNEDY, Emma. Shoes for Anthony. 400p. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne. Jan. 2017. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9781250090966.

Eleven-year-old Anthony, better known as Ant, is living in South Wales, far removed from the front lines of World War II. Money is scarce in this coal-mining town, and the boy’s only shoes are a pair of oversize Wellingtons. As the villagers eagerly await the rumored arrival of American troops, a plane carrying German soldiers crashes into the side of the mountain upon which the town sits. Ant and his friends discover that an escaped Polish prisoner of war has survived the accident, and they bring him back to Ant’s home. The book reads like a film script, with action and dramatic plot twists—appropriate, considering Kennedy’s acting background. The writing is simple, and the sprinkling of Welsh words throughout give it a realistic feel. The author balances humor and intrigue in this perceptive tale of a boy’s maturation. While the novel is marketed for adults, even young teens will appreciate it. VERDICT Though titles on World War II are plentiful, this is a solid choice for those seeking to add to their historical fiction shelves.–Krystina Kelley, Belle Valley School, Belleville, IL

LUDWIG, Benjamin. Ginny Moon. 368p. Park Row Books. May 2017. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780778330165.

When Ginny Moon was nine, she was removed from her abusive mother Gloria’s custody and placed in foster care. Before she left, however, she put Baby Doll in a suitcase located in Gloria’s apartment to keep her toy safe. Now Ginny is 14 and has been adopted by a loving couple who help her deal with her autism. But she is tormented by concern for Baby Doll. Is Ginny’s cherished possession still in the suitcase? Her well-meaning parents have repeatedly offered to get her a new doll, which only exacerbates the teen’s isolation and despair. Ginny’s first-person narration reveals the gulf between her rich internal life and her ability to communicate with the outside world. Misunderstood and at odds with those around her, Ginny begins her quest to rescue Baby Doll while seemingly oblivious to the protections in place that prevent her from returning to Gloria, creating turmoil within her new family. Like any tale with an unreliable narrator, the book relies on details that gradually coalesce and make sense. Ludwig’s debut novel incorporates his personal experience as the adoptive father of a teen with autism. The result is an enthralling, suspenseful, and heartfelt work. VERDICT A go-to choice for those seeking fresh, compelling storytelling, particularly those fascinated by Mark Haddon’s now-classic The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.–Diane Colson, formerly at City College, Gainesville, FL

MESSUD, Claire. The Burning Girl. 256p. Norton. Aug. 2017. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9780393635027.

In Julia’s first memory of her best friend, Cassie is standing in the middle of their preschool playground, looking like a sprite with her shiny white hair and tiny stature. From that moment on, they belong to each other. Fast-forward through years of imaginative games and adventures to the summer before seventh grade. That summer a pit bull shreds Cassie’s arm, necessitating a visit to Dr. Anders Shute, who comes to play a terrible role in the girl’s life. That same summer the girls discover Bonnybrook, an abandoned asylum for women. But seventh grade brings change. Cassie finds a new, wilder friend, and the girls grow apart. Julia, whose life is filled with opportunity, attempts to reconstruct the series of events that led to Cassie’s ultimate tragedy, relying on hearsay and her presumption that she can still intuit her friend’s thoughts and emotions. From Julia’s perspective, Cassie is surrounded by danger: men driving cars in the dark, boys piling into bathrooms at parties, and the creepy Anders Shute, who married Cassie’s mother. Teens who love novels taut with psychological tension will be intrigued by Cassie’s downward spiral and Julia’s curious role as storyteller. Much more than a tale of friendship gone awry, this dark work explores the roles we accept, those we reject, and those we thrust upon others. VERDICT A gripping coming-of-age narrative that will appeal to fans of Emma Cline’s The Girls or Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.–Diane Colson, formerly at City College, Gainesville, FL

 NONFICTION

FORSTHOEFEL, Andrew. Walking To Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time. 400p. maps. bibliog. Bloomsbury. Mar. 2017. Tr $28. ISBN 9781632867001.

At 23, with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, Forsthoefel was uncertain about his future. To find some answers, he decided to walk from his suburban home in Pennsylvania to the California coastline. Taking minimal possessions (including a tent and some Snickers bars) and wearing a sign reading “Walking To Listen,” Forsthoefel sought to clarify his own sense of self through the act of walking. By listening to others, he hoped to discover what it means to come of age. Featured throughout this lyrical adventure memoir are transcripts of conversations between the author and those he met on the road. Passages from his favorite writers (Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Kahlil Gibran) enhance the text. Each state Forsthoefel traversed receives some time in the descriptive spotlight. He considers weighty issues, such as race, privilege, religion, and family, and offers a fresh spin on familiar themes as he ponders how to approach the world and all its beauty and pain and how to listen to others. VERDICT This title will appeal to thoughtful teens and may serve as a tie-in to history, literature, and philosophy discussions.–Tara Kehoe, formerly at the New Jersey State Library Talking Book and Braille Center, Trenton

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Mark Flowers About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens cocolumnist and a supervising librarian at the Rio Vista (CA) Library.

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