November 20, 2017

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Can’t-Miss Titles from Jillian Tamaki, Marissa Moss, and More | Adult Books 4 Teens

In putting together our yearly Adult Books 4 Teens Best list, I’m always troubled by the relative lack of graphic novels and nonfiction titles. My desire for more of these books is partially a matter of personal preference—I happen to love comics and nonfiction and tend to turn to them before I reach for a prose novel these days. But it’s also because I want to be sure this column is giving teens a wide range of choices. So though none of the below selections made it onto our final list, I’m very happy to have five graphic novels and four nonfiction works to recommend.

The graphic novels start off with an example of a common publishing ploy that frequently yields disappointing results: the graphic “classic.” Smacking of the old “Illustrated Classics” series, these books often seem like glorified CliffsNotes. But when they succeed, as with Christophe Chabouté’s Moby Dick, they are glorious. Chabouté imbues Herman Melville’s seminal work with new life, using the form to focus on the physicality of the novel, particularly the ocean that so draws Ishmael.

We reviewed Mimi Pond’s graphic memoir Over Easy back when we were in blog format, and we loved it. Pond’s new memoir The Customer Is Always Wrong picks up where Over Easy left off, but with little to no recap. Customer doesn’t quite stand alone, but since everyone who reads this column has already devoured all of the books we review here (right?), that shouldn’t be a problem. Joking aside, fans of the first book will love this fantastic follow-up.

We haven’t reviewed any of Jillian Tamaki’s previous graphic novels, because they are usually marketed as YA. Her new work, Boundless, is being published as adult, perhaps because the characters are grown-ups and the tone is more philosophical. But there’s no question that teen fans of Tamaki’s work, including the Printz Honor book This One Summer, should check out Boundless, for its thoughtful themes, certainly, but also for more of Tamaki’s superb illustrations.

Our next graphic novel is by another old hand at YA and children’s literature, Marissa Moss. I’m a fan of her Egypt-based mystery The Pharaoh’s Secret, but she’s written dozens of books for the younger crowd. Her latest, Last Things, is a memoir (which bridges us to our nonfiction titles below) that chronicles her husband’s battle with ALS and its effects on her whole family. This is a powerful and moving story from a fantastic author.

Though Iasmin Omar Ata’s Mis(h)adra is fiction, it feels like a memoir in many ways, like Customer and Last Things. Ata has an amazing author bio on their website: “Iasmin Omar Ata is a Middle Eastern/Muslim/epileptic comics artist, game designer, illustrator, and curator who creates art about coping with illness, understanding identity, dismantling oppressive structures, and Islamic futurism.” Certainly Mis(h)adra fits beautifully into this description, as it mines Ata’s experiences with epilepsy.

The first of our nonfiction titles is One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, a cheerily titled collection of essays from BuzzFeed writer Scaachi Koul, who presents funny, tender takes on her life as an Indian Canadian, comparing the two cultures in terms of gender, racial, and social dynamics. Similar issues play out in Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s Technically Wrong, which examines how apps, websites, and social media platforms assume that users have the same backgrounds as their white male heterosexual cisgender creators. An example in the book that that resonates with me is the ubiquity of forms with no option for hyphenated names or multiracial backgrounds. There are many—too many—more examples in this disturbing and important book.

For a (possibly) more positive take on technology, check out E.S. Thomson’s Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything. As the subtitle makes clear (and as we saw with Technically Wrong), we often don’t know the problems with technologies until they are already here, but Thomson charts 10 possible advances and what they may bring, for good or ill.

Our final book explores death. Caitlin Doughty’s From Here to Eternity is a round-the-world summary of death and burial practices. Doughty sensitively examines a wide array of practices, from keeping bodies in their beds for years to composting, and casts a critical lens on U.S. practices.

GRAPHIC NOVELS

redstarATA, Iasmin Omar. Mis(h)adra. illus. by Iasmin Omar Ata. 272p. S. & S./Gallery 13. Oct. 2017. Tr $25. ISBN 9781501162107.

The title of Ata’s semiautobiographical graphic novel, a mash-up of the Arabic words misadra (or “seizure”) and mish adra (“I cannot”) is fitting. The story follows Isaac, a college student who feels obstructed at every turn by his epilepsy. Condescending doctors, an unsympathetic father, failing grades, and inconsiderate neighbors (whose loud parties interfere with his sleep and trigger more seizures) only compound his problems. Afraid of being a burden, Isaac keeps most of his fellow students at arm’s length, but after losing an eye during a seizure, he meets Jo, who pushes him to open up. Ata skillfully conveys Isaac’s solitary anguish at coping with a body that betrays him. The protagonist’s expressive inner monologues contrast with his terse conversations with other students, in which he attempts to deflect attention from himself. The color scheme is appropriately discordant, and the manga-style images are haunting, frenetic, and beautiful. Even the placement of the panels at times is chaotic, and during Isaac’s seizures, beadlike ropes and daggers with eyes menace him. VERDICT Ata expertly depicts the experience of living with chronic illness. Readers of intimate examinations of physical or emotional conditions, such as Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow, will appreciate this unforgettable title.–Mahnaz Dar, School Library Journal

MELVILLE, Herman. Moby Dick. tr. from French by Laure Dupont. adapt. & illus. by Christophe Chabouté. 256p. Dark Horse. Feb. 2017. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781506701493.

With three words, “Call me Ishmael,” Melville boldly opens his epic novel in the first person. This suits French graphic novelist Chabouté just fine: his Ishmael becomes both sympathizer and adversary to the obsessed Captain Ahab—his foil as well as his conscience. Second billing goes to tattooed harpoonist Queequeg, who agrees to join Ahab’s vengeful quest to kill the white whale, despite knowing the risks to the crew. Chabouté balances their extreme behavior by portraying the day-to-day work of carpenters and blacksmiths aboard the ship Pequod. If he reinvents Ishmael a bit, depicting him as a young man craving adventure rather than as a poor farmer who signs away three years of his life—perhaps to die—to seek his fortune on the high seas, it’s only to draw readers in. Each of the graphic novel’s 30 chapters begins with its own title page, featuring an apt Melville passage. Only the sea captures Chabouté’s imagination more than Moby-Dick itself, in its overwhelming vastness and as a metaphor for the great unknown. Black-and-white frames rock and sway like the ocean deep, splashing their inky waves the way water might wet the lens of a camera. It’s up close and personal—as Melville intended. VERDICT A beautiful rendition of the classic, available for the first time in English since it was first published in France in 2014. An inspiring addition to graphic novel collections.–Georgia Christgau, Middle College High School, Long Island City, NY

MOSS, Marissa. Last Things: A Graphic Memoir About ALS. illus. by Marissa Moss. 176p. Conari. May 2017. pap. $18.95. ISBN 9781573246989.

This graphic novel follows one family’s struggle with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Harvey, a university professor, enjoys traveling and has a loving wife and three sons. He typically takes charge of things at home, but when he is diagnosed with ALS, life changes dramatically for everyone. Though the story is told from the point of view of Harvey’s wife (Moss), who becomes his primary caretaker while juggling work and childcare, readers gain tremendous insight into how everyone, including extended family members, deals with the diagnosis. Moss’s illustrations convey the intensity of the decisions and occurrences, painting a picture of this trauma that words alone cannot. Additional graphics, such as charts and lists, shed light on the reality of life with ALS. VERDICT A valuable offering for anyone preparing for or coping with the loss of a family member to disease.–April Sanders, Spring Hill College, Mobile, AL

POND, Mimi. The Customer Is Always Wrong. illus. by Mimi Pond. 448p. Drawn & Quarterly. Aug. 2017. Tr $29.95. ISBN 9781770462823.

In Pond’s autobiographical Over Easy, Madge left art school in the late 1970s and started waitressing at Oakland’s Imperial Cafe. Where the first volume was a look at the characters she worked with and waited on, the sequel is grittier, the darker content belied by the pale turquoise and white watercolor illustrations. As the narrative moves into the 1980s, the hedonistic drug experimentation turns to the dangerous realities of dealing and overdosing. Madge struggles with the deaths of friends, unwanted pregnancy, and teenage runaways, and she worries about becoming stuck at the Imperial as she becomes a player in the drama instead of sardonically observing from the sidelines. Familiarity with the first volume is essential, as Pond does not provide context for the large cast of characters. VERDICT A realistic and moving look at what happens when the veneer wears off and the party goes on too long. Recommended for collections that hold Over Easy.–Jennifer Rothschild, Arlington Public Library, VA

TAMAKI, Jillian. Boundless. illus. by Jilliam Tamaki. 248p. Drawn & Quarterly. Jun. 2017. pap. $24.95. ISBN 9781770462878.

Could you shrink to become nothing but an idea in the air: alive, but with no body or voice? Could bedbugs ruin your life while simultaneously strengthening your marriage? What do fans of Radiohead and the author’s earlier Sex Coven have in common? The answers are not supplied in these fleeting yet haunting stories told through art and spare text. Tamaki allows readers to interpret this book for themselves while slipping under the skin to scratch the icky spots many of us don’t wish to see. In “1.Jenny,” for instance, a woman questions the alternative and more interesting version of her life when it appears on the mirror site of Facebook. She grows uncomfortable with the dichotomy of the life she is living vs. the one 1.Jenny is posting about. Beneath each character’s plight we see vulnerable version of ourselves. Tamaki’s characters grapple with adult issues that demand time for reflection. VERDICT A thoughtful choice for older teens and college students who question the idea of a single linear path.–Pamela Schembri, Horace Greeley High School, Chappaqua, NY  

NONFICTION

DOUGHTY, Catlin. From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World To Find the Good Death. 272p. Norton. Oct. 2017. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9780393249897.

Doughty, founder of the Order of the Good Death, a nonprofit organization that advocates for natural burial and reducing the stigma around death, describes funereal rituals around the world while stopping to reflect on U.S. practices. In Indonesia, for instance, the Toraja keep the dead at home for several months or years until the funeral. The author also explores the North Carolina’s FOREST facility, which composts corpses, and the Crestone End of Life, a Colorado nonprofit that performs open-air cremations. Doughty shares her reverence for the dead while poking fun at our fears (“gross as it sounds, I’d come back from the dead for a Diet Coke”). She forces U.S. readers to confront the secretive and profitable mortuary business and sheds light on cultures that celebrate death. If death is inevitable, she asks, why are we afraid to address it? As the Bolivians look to their natitas (special human skulls), we can look to them for a level of comfort and familiarity with death. “How would your ancestors deal with tragedy?” Probably not with a $10,000 check to take a dead body away. VERDICT Recommend this fascinating and well-written book to fans of Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.–Pamela Schembri, Horace Greeley High School, Chappaqua, NY

KOUL, Scaachi. One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter. 256p. Picador. May 2017. pap. $16. ISBN 9781250121028.

This debut collection of essays from BuzzFeed writer Koul is at once insanely funny and vulnerable. Koul discusses her Indian family and her break from their social norms (as when she introduced her parents to her boyfriend, who was white) and prejudice encountered both in her Indian culture and her life in Toronto, among many other anecdotes about womanhood, fears, gender roles, and positive body image. In one memorable entry, the author talks about how lighter skin is prized in India. Koul, who is fair-skinned, is revered for her beauty in India, but she discusses how in Canada the color of her skin matters in a different way. She says, “I’m not white…but I’m just close enough that I could be, and just far enough that you know I’m not. I can check off a diversity box for you, but I don’t make you nervous.” She injects her blunt outlooks on life with hilarity. Koul’s work for BuzzFeed give this volume added YA appeal. VERDICT An extremely teen-friendly series of writings on important subjects.–Tyler Hixson, Brooklyn Public Library 

WACHTER-BOETTCHER, Sara. Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech. 240p. notes. Norton. Oct. 2017. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9780393634631.

Those with hyphenated names often encounter difficulty when filling out online forms, and there’s usually no option in the drop-down menus for those who are multiracial. Social networks show us the year in review with jaunty music and animation, without acknowledging that some of our most popular posts may be about tragic events we don’t want to remember. In straightforward prose, Wachter-Boettcher lays out a convincing and damning argument about the small daily failures and large systemic issues that stem from Silicon Valley’s diversity problem. With plenty of examples and studies, she illustrates how systems are designed to be used by people like the creator—usually privileged cisgender heterosexual white men. Anyone else is seen as an “edge case” and not worth worrying about. Along the way Wachter-Boettcher thoroughly deconstructs many of the excuses offered for technology’s lack of inclusivity, including the pipeline issue (or the idea that outside of white male demographics there isn’t enough talent) and the concept that an algorithm can be neutral. VERDICT This engrossing volume is important for readers of all ages, especially the next generation of developers.–Jennifer Rothschild, Arlington Public Library, VA

WEINERSMITH, Zach & Kelly Weinersmith. Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything. illus. by Zach Weinersmith. 368p. bibliog. index. Penguin Pr. Oct. 2017. Tr $30. ISBN 9780399563829.

A book about physics, economics, or biology might not get very far with most teens. But a book about constructing robots that can climb over walls, embedding microchips that waft smooth ocean sounds directly into your ear, and creating 3-D printed food might be the way to spark an interest in STEM. This title offers 10 possibilities for potentially life-changing scientific advancements. Complicated subjects are broken down into readable chapters, each with a description of a different topic (augmented reality, fusion power, etc.), its current status, concerns, and how it would change the world. Teens who like to build or figure out how things work; fans of science, math, or medicine; gamers; and those who love the weird and wonderful will gravitate to this volume. Science teachers will find much to appreciate here, too, as they can use the volume to create inspiring, imaginative assignments. The math isn’t easy, but the authors explain it with humor and informative science, using entertainingly outlandish examples. VERDICT Give this to teens interested in STEM and those who don’t quite understand the science they’re studying—both will find much to interest them here.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

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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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Comments

  1. Thank you, Mark, for the insightful review of a tough story! I’m hoping teens and young adults will read this book since more than you might think experience death of a loved one, often a parent.

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