April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The ‘Red Band Society’ and Beyond: YA Novels About Life, Death, and Love

Get the latest SLJ reviews every month, subscribe today and save up to 35%.

redbandsocietyRed Band Society, Fox’s newly launched dramedy series, is set in the Ocean Park Hospital in Los Angeles, where a group of teens with life-threatening illnesses—their unique bond represented by the red hospital bands they wear—navigate the ordeals of adolescence with the help of caring adults. Filled with humor and heartbreak, poignant emotion, and amazing instances of courage, the following young adult offerings are sure to captivate fans of the new series, and will also be appreciated by teens who have been swept away by John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton, 2012) in book or its film version.

Yellow WorldIn the heartstrings-tugging TV program, Charlie (Griffin Gluck), a 12-year-old who is in a coma but able to observe the world around him, serves as narrator, and Octavia Spencer plays Nurse Jackson, who runs the pediatric ward with a strong hand and loving heart. Teens can access episodes, photos, and more at the official website . The show was inspired by Polseres vermelles, a Spanish television series written by Albert Espinosa, who was hospitalized with an osteosarcoma in his left leg at age 13 and spent 10 years battling the disease until finally declared cancer-free. His upbeat memoir, The Yellow World: How Fighting for My Life Taught Me How to Live (Ballantine, 2014) blends reflections about his experiences with advice about conducting one’s life.

A stellar life

This Star Won't Go OutEsther Grace Earl (Esther means “star”) always intended to be a writer and began keeping a diary at age eight. Her love for words and her creative spirit became even more essential and efficacious when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 12, a disease that took her life shortly after her 16th birthday. This Star Won’t Go Out (Dutton, 2014; Gr 7 up) conveys her experience through her journal excerpts, letters, blog entries, short stories, and drawings. Full-color photos, essays written by family members and friends, CaringBridge website entries posted by her parents as her illness progressed, and contributions penned by John Green (the two struck up a friendship after meeting at a Harry Potter convention in 2009 and he dedicated The Fault in Our Stars to her) round out this engrossing offering. Whether pondering the possibility of a first kiss, bemoaning the debilitating headaches caused by her treatment, determining to deal with a bad mood by getting her haircut (“short and angleafied. Because that’s a word. And…dying it with orange with purple streaks. That’s right”), or making good on her unfailing desire to do something positive for others despite the challenges of her circumstances, Esther’s voice shines with unforgettable candor, deep-rooted compassion, and quiet courage.

Falling for the girl (or guy) next door

Zac & MiaRecovering after a bone marrow transplant, Zac, 17, has been relegated to the adult oncology ward where he is counting the hours (and crunching the survival statistics) until he can escape the enforced isolation and boredom of his small room. When a new patient arrives next door, the resulting explosion of shouting voices and blaring Lady Gaga (“the newbie’s…got cancer and bad taste?”) makes it clear that the occupant is not one of the “oldies.” In fact, Mia, also 17 and seriously stunning (and only playing Gaga as “a mum-repellant”), is the kind of girl who would never give Zac a second look in the outside world. Beginning with tentative taps on their adjoining wall, the teens strike up an unexpected friendship that develops and deepens over time and beyond hospital boundaries, as each finds in the other the strength, understanding, and fight needed to face the future—no matter what it might bring. Zac & Mia (Houghton Harcourt, 2014; Gr 9 Up) take turns narrating A. J. Betts’s tender novel, and the characters are distinctive and deftly sculpted: Zac, the apple of his family’s eye, armors himself with Google-found facts and ceaseless wisecracks, while Mia, used to being the beauty in the room, struggles with accepting her condition as well as her mother’s love. This Australian import is an enthralling mix of solid storytelling, droll dialogue, and profound emotion.

Somebody Up There Hates You

Biding his time in the hospice unit of an upstate New York hospital, Richard Casey, almost 18, refers to himself as “the Incredible Dying Boy” and explains to anyone who asks that he is suffering from SUTHY Syndrome—as in Somebody Up There Hates You (Algonquin, 2013; Gr 9 Up). Since “Dying is pretty boring,” he’s determined to pack a whole lot of living into his final days, “mad stuff” that includes pulling of a ward-disrupting Halloween prank, escaping into town for a wanton night out with his sketchy Uncle Phil, and falling head over heels for fellow patient Sylvie, a 15-year-old firecracker who wants to be much more than friends. Filled with wry humor, irreverent observations, expletives, and occasional raunchiness, Richie’s first-person narrative could be that of any teenage boy; however, events and perceptions are always colored by hard truths and awareness of the inevitable. His feelings for Sylvie intensify over the course of 11 momentous days in an honest and achingly touching way. Striking an eloquent balance of laughter and tears, Hollis Seamon’s novel is a moving and memorable testament to keeping hope alive.

Side Effects May VarySide Effects May Vary (HarperCollins, 2014; Gr 9 Up) centers around two well-drawn individuals and the evolution of a relationship complicated by volatile emotions and harrowing circumstances. Entering the final stages of leukemia, 16-year-old Alice enlists the help of her childhood friend Harvey to complete a “Dying To-Do List” that includes exacting cruel and dramatically public revenge on the ex-boyfriend who cheated on her. As Alice grows weaker, she and Harvey grow closer, and the “L” word looms large on the tips of both of their tongues. When Alice learns that she has unexpectedly entered remission, she is totally thrown for a loop. How can she make plans for the future—or commit to a relationship with Harvey—when the possibility of reoccurrence haunts her? Struggling to adjust, forced to deal with the outcome of her bridge-burning actions, and reluctant to face up to the person she has become, Alice lashes out and alienates everyone around her. Meanwhile, endearing-nice-guy Harvey wants to move their relationship to the next level, but his patience and caring can only last so long. Utilizing a narrative style as wonderfully complex and enthralling as her characters, Julie Murphy relates events in the alternating voices of both protagonists and switches back and forth between “Then” (before Alice’s remission) and “Now” (after remission). A satisfying story of love, forgiveness, and learning to live again.

Unexpected friendships

Two Girls Staring at the CeilingRushed to the emergency room with intense stomach pain, Chess, almost 17, spends days undergoing invasive tests, reeling in and out of a medicated stupor, and obsessing before she’s diagnosed with Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease. Though her health slowly improves, she struggles to accept the realities of her condition (“How do you know who you are/when you can’t trust your own body?”) and its embarrassing symptoms (a kiss with her first-ever crush was ruined by a mortifying event). Lucy Frank’s candid free-verse novel employs an effective format: Chess’s thoughts are presented in columns on the left-hand side of pages divided by a line—like the curtain that separates beds in a hospital room—while the perceptions of her not-much-older but much-more world-wise roommate appear on the right. A long-time sufferer of Crohn’s, antagonistic tough-talking Shannon wears a row of earrings to represent each of her surgeries. Though they believe they have little in common aside from their illness, their interactions gradually turn from caustic to caring, as Shannon helps Chess find the strength and self-confidence to begin to move forward and Chess reminds Shannon how to open herself to others. Pared-down language, undiluted emotions, and believable from-the-bed perspectives make Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling (Random, 2014, Gr 9 Up) a potent read.

Me Earl and the Dying GirlSocially awkward and aggressively self-deprecating, senior Greg Gaines is determined to ride out the supreme sucky-ness that is high school by skating along the surface of Benson’s various cliques (though this strategy limits him to having only superficial acquaintanceships, it also guarantees that he won’t be ostracized by anyone). Spare time is spent making mediocre movies in secret with Earl, a foulmouthed and generally hostile pal from childhood (and the wrong side of Pittsburgh). When Rachel, his sort-of girlfriend for several weeks in sixth-grade, is diagnosed with leukemia, his overbearing mother bullies him into re-friending her. Greg reluctantly muddles forward. He does not magically rise to the moment as might be expected, but remains as clueless and inept at this relationship with Rachel as any other. He finds himself even more at a loss when pressed into making a movie about her life, and despite his sincere efforts, creates “the worst film ever made,” a bomb that after Rachel’s death ends up being shown to the entire student body (and hated equally by all, no matter their clique) and detonating his hard-won invisibility. Crammed with crude humor, sexual references, laugh-out-loud snark, and the occasional film script, Greg’s first-person narrative subtly reveals an individual who is empathetic to Rachel and changed by their relationship (though he would never admit it). Jesse Andrews’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Amulet, 2013; Gr 9 Up) is irreverent, inventive, and surprisingly affecting.

The aftermath of loss

BelzharIt’s been almost a year since the death of her boyfriend, and Jam Gallahue just can’t seem to move on. In fact, she’s still so mired in grief that her parents have sent her to the Wooden Barn, a boarding school in rural Vermont for “emotionally fragile” teens. She’s been handpicked for an exclusive English class, where she and four other students will be studying the work of Sylvia Plath and recording their thoughts in identical red leather journals twice a week. Jam honestly doesn’t care about much of anything aside from daydreaming about the 41 days spent with her beloved, but when she begins to write in her journal, she finds herself transported to the past and right into the warmth of Reeve’s arms. One by one her classmates reveal that they have made similar all-too-brief journeys to the time before a devastating event forever altered their lives, begin to open up to one another about their personal tragedies, and vow to keep their time in what they have dubbed Belzhar (Dutton, 2014; Gr 9 Up) secret. However, as the journals fill up, Jam and the others begin to worry about making the final entry. Will they have to endure their crushing losses all over again? Meg Wolitzer’s novel is compulsively readable, as the sometimes-surprising realities of each teen’s past are divulged, tragedy balances against magical possibility, and truths about resiliency and redemption are revealed.

I'll Give you the SunTwins Noah and Jude, both aspiring artists, are inseparable until jealousies, betrayals, and a calamitous loss tear them apart. Mirroring this fractured relationship, the story is told in separate voices and from different points in time; Noah’s intervals are set when they are 13 and Jude’s when they are 16, and their mother’s fatal car accident serves as center point between the two narratives. Socially awkward and often bullied, Noah, an talented painter, describes his growing attraction to Brian, a boy spending the summer in their Northern California coastal town, and the breathless ups and downs of first love. Jude, onetime risk-taking party girl, has sworn off boys and tries to make herself invisible with oversized clothing; she struggles to find release in creating sculpture, and with her undeniable feelings for a dangerously magnetic college student. Always visually inclined, Noah peppers his fast-flying account with freeze-frame paintings (complete with artsy titles) that trumpet his emotional state and unique worldview. Jude’s more thoughtfully molded entries incorporate tidbits from her grandmother’s “bible” of quirky superstitions and advice. Both viewpoints are somewhat skewed, and readers must turn the final page in order to unravel close-held secrets, discover the truth behind events, and relish in the prodigious power of love. Brilliantly plotted, radiantly written, and incandescently romantic, Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun (Dial, 2014; Gr 9 Up) shimmers with the message that everyone—artist or not—has the ability to move beyond tragedy and remake their world.

Publication Information

ANDREWS, Jesse. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. 304p. Abrams/Amulet. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781419701764; pap. $7.95. ISBN 97814197-0532-8.

BETTS, A. J. Zac & Mia. 304p. Houghton Harcourt. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780544331648; ebook $17.99. ISBN 9780544453272.

EARL, Esther. This Star Won’t Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Earl. 384p. with Lori and Wayne Earl. Dutton. 2014. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9780525426363.

FRANK, Lucy.Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling. 272p. Random/Schwartz & Wade. 2014. lib. ed.  $19.99. ISBN 9780307979759; Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780307979742; ebook $9.99. ISBN 9780307979766.

MURPHY, Julie. Side Effects May Vary. 336p. HarperCollins/Balzer & Bray. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062245359; ebook $9.99. ISBN 9780062245366.

NELSON, Jandy. I’ll Give You the Sun. 384p. Dial. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780803734968; ebook $10.99. ISBN 9781101593844.

SEAMON, Hollis.Somebody Up There Hates You. 256p. Algonquin. 2013. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781616202606; pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781616204549; ebook $16.99. ISBN 9781616203139

WOLITZER, Meg. Belzhar. 272p. Dutton. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780525423058; ebook $10.99. ISBN 9781101600276.


SLJTeen header

This article was featured in our free SLJTeen enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a month.

Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

Empowering Teens: Fostering the Next Generation of Advocates
Teens want to make a difference and become advocates for the things they care about. Librarians working with young people are in a unique position to help them make an impact on their communities and schools. Ignite your thinking and fuel these efforts at your library through this Library Journal online course—April 24 & May 8.