April 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Diverse Debuts | Adult Books 4 Teens

Last year, we looked at two different classes of debut novelists—those who had experience in other areas of writing and those publishing their first major works of any kind. Today, we turn our attention to another batch of “pure” debuts (or, to paraphrase Casino Royale’s Vesper Lynd, there are debuts and debuts). But far more interesting than their role as debut authors (and heartening, given that many of them come from the often predominantly white world of university-trained writers) is their fearless examination of different cultures and, especially, the intersection between conflicting cultures, represented by this cross-section of debuts.

Ann Y.K. Choi, for instance, is an MFA student from the University of Toronto and National University in San Diego, while Lynne Kutsukake is a longtime librarian also at the University of Toronto. Both mine their cultural heritages to great effect in their debuts. Choi’s boldly written coming-of-age novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, explores the intersection between Korean and Canadian culture, which Choi has had to balance in her own life. Meanwhile Kutsukake’s The Translation of Love takes place in post–World War II Japan, focusing on the interaction between the American occupiers and the Japanese residents trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. One particularly potent character is 13-year-old Aya, a young Canadian girl who has been “repatriated” to Japan despite having never lived there.

Two more MFAs, Mona Awad and Amy Parker, take slightly different approaches to the theme of diversity. Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl addresses one of the newest hot-button issues of cultural sensitivity in America, fat-shaming. The novel is structured as 13 short stories, which collectively tell the coming-of-age story of Lizzie, an overweight teen who struggles with her self-esteem, relationships, and identity in (as our reviewer says) “shockingly accurate” prose. Parker, who was born on a military base in Okinawa, Japan, would probably have a fascinating take on Kutsukake’s novel. Her own short story collection, Beasts and Children, takes readers from America to Thailand and in between in a series of dark, interconnected stories about broken family relationships and the replacement relationships forged between the “children” and the “beasts” of the titles.

Our last two novels bring us back home to America’s two most enduring cultural issues: race and class. Kaitlyn Greenidge’s We Love You, Charlie Freeman tells the story of an African American family brought to a research institute in the Berkshires, ostensibly to try to teach sign language to chimpanzees (specifically the title chimp, Charlie Freeman). The institute, though, has a dark history of racial experimentation, and the family, particularly teenage daughter Charlotte, becomes increasingly affected by the racial politics of the institute itself as well as the surrounding town. The careful details—the last name “Freeman,” for example—make Greenidge’s points abundantly clear. Finally, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest looks at America’s darkest secret: class. The novel is centered on four siblings waiting for their inheritance, only to be brutally awakened to reality when the promised inheritance never comes. Following these four privileged, selfish adults as they enter a new adolescence—coming of age all over again—proves to be a surprisingly moving journey and may show teen readers how money shapes so much about the cultural issues that permeate the other novels reviewed here.

awadAWAD, Mona. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. 224p. Penguin. Feb. 2016. pap. $16. ISBN 9780143128489.

A shockingly accurate portrayal of fat culture and female body-shaming, this brief novel comprised of 13 short stories is like a grittier Bridget Jones’s Diary mashed up with Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle. Lizzie obsesses over her weight. She believes that her thighs are too big and that no one could love her, and so she willingly allows her friends and boyfriends to control her. Lizzie is into online dating until the older man she meets wants a full-body shot, and she always takes what she can get when it comes to romance. When she finds a good man, she loses weight to keep him (even though he doesn’t care about her appearance) and changes her name, but her self-esteem doesn’t improve. The truths revealed in this work make it a difficult read, but most teens will identify with Lizzie in at least one of these tales. Some were previously published, but Awad has arranged them artfully to create a thought-provoking account of a young woman growing awkwardly into adulthood. VERDICT A brash, realistic, and much needed look at body culture and self-esteem. Pair this with Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, a Girl in Pieces.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

KaysCHOI, Ann. Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety. 288p. Touchstone. May. 2016. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781476748054.

In this book set in 1980s Toronto, Mary’s family’s life revolves around their small convenience store. In her final year of high school, Mary tracks the comings and goings of the prostitutes on the corner who buy cigarettes and condoms, harbors a crush on her English teacher, and spends time with her friends. When university starts, Mary balances extra part-time work with her studies and relationships. But when she tries to juggle romantic relationships with her former English teacher and a nice Korean boy her family adores, things spiral out of control and turn violent. Mary tries to balance her Korean and Canadian cultures. Her parents have high expectations, but they are not nearly as strict and demanding as those often depicted in narratives about bicultural families. Mary’s descriptions of her life tend toward the matter-of-fact, downplaying some of the novel’s darker elements. Her family’s resilience keeps the story ultimately hopeful despite several tragic elements. The pace and plotting pick up in the second half as Mary enters university and starts striking out on her own and making mistakes. The drama of her two relationships is particularly gripping as it grows creepier. VERDICT A strong balance of character and plot make this a compelling addition for coming-of-age collections.–Jennifer Rothschild, Arlington Public Library, VA

weloveyouredstarGREENIDGE, Kaitlyn. We Love You, Charlie Freeman. 336p. Algonquin. Mar. 2016. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9781616204679.

Teenager Charlotte Freeman isn’t thrilled when her mother uproots the family to the Toneybee Institute. All of the members of the family know how to speak in sign language and were hired to live at the Institute and teach Charlie, a chimpanzee, how to communicate. Every moment is filmed, and Charlotte is confronted with racism everywhere— the town is geographically divided by race. She soon discovers the wrongness of it all—an African American family raising an ape as one of their own. Back in the 1920s, the Toneybee Institute conducted racist, Tuskegee-like experiments, which readers learn about from the point of view of a black woman and from the perspective of the institute’s rich white founder. Charlotte’s coming-of-age story will ring true with teens, who will cringe at the blatant and subtle racism she encounters. Her sexual identity as a lesbian is never the center of the story, and neither are the apes. This is a literary yet easily approachable novel about race, family, and relationships, making Greenidge an author to watch. While the similarities to Kenneth Oppel’s Half-Brother and Sara Gruen’s Ape House are obvious, this volume would also pair well with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. VERDICT This strong debut novel is perfect for book clubs and will initiate discussion about race, stereotypes, and microaggressions.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

translKUTSUKAKE, Lynne. The Translation of Love. 336p. Doubleday. Apr. 2016. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9780385540674.

Beautifully written, this novel examines the complexities of post–World War II Japan for the Japanese and the Americans living there as part of the occupation. The citizens face shortages of food and medical supplies. Discrimination and mistrust are everywhere—especially toward Japanese Americans who have been forced to repatriate, the women who became romantically involved with American soldiers, and the biracial children who resulted from those liaisons. Despite difficulties, the characters find the inner strength and resilience  they need to survive. Teens will relate to the complex friendship that develops between 13-year-old Aya, who was born in Canada yet was sent “back” to Japan, and her tenacious classmate Fumi, who enlists Aya to write a letter in English to General MacArthur asking for help in finding her missing older sister. Other translators in the novel include the girls’ teacher, Sensei Kondo, who supplements his income translating letters, and Corp. Matt Matsumoto, who finds himself haunted by Fumi’s letter. Both men appreciate the hope behind each missive and believe their role is to give a voice to those who have none. Readers seeking more in-depth details about this dark period will want to read Charlotte Taylor’s The Internment of Japanese Americans and Yoshiko Uchida’s Picture Bride. VERDICT An engaging piece of historical fiction highly recommended for leisure reading and to support the history curriculum.–Sherry J. Mills, Hazelwood East HS, St. Louis

9780544370135_hresPARKER, Amy. Beasts and Children. 320p.  HMH/Mariner. Feb. 2016. pap. $15.95. ISBN 9780544370135.

In America, a lonely immigrant mother drives her car into a river, drowning herself and her two children. In Thailand, a teenage girl convinces her younger sister to cruise and drink with grown men. A father forces his son to kill a kitten, desiring only that the boy “be smarter than me.” Gruesome? Perhaps. Indelible? Definitely. Readers may not immediately experience a taste for the darkness of some of the family relationships, but after a few stories, they will bite down hard. Parker writes too well to be forgotten and displays a talent for unearthing aches readers have attempted to bury. After Jill, the neglected daughter of a diplomat, finds herself in the apartment of an opiate addict, her remorse is so stark that many teenagers will strongly identify (“She understands this about herself—that her shame will endanger her again and again.”). The pieces share characters and are connected. It’s comforting to meet the characters again, but there’s also the pain of realizing how badly their lives turned out. How do young people recover from the traumas of childhood? Why do some adults carry their pain so deeply? There are no comfortable answers, and this is not a collection for those who cry easily. VERDICT A collection for teens who love to look at the darker side of life. It will have a special lure for ex-pats and will command a strong audience in international schools.–Pamela Schembri, Horace Greeley High School, Chappaqua, NY

SweeneyNestSWEENEY, Cynthia D’Aprix. The Nest. 368p.  HarperCollins/Ecco. Mar. 2016. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780062414212; ebk. ISBN 9780062414236.

The four Plumb siblings are waiting for their inheritance (affectionately called the nest) to be dispersed once the youngest sister turns 40. The nest has been growing exponentially since their father’s untimely death when they were all adolescents, and each one of the Plumbs has been making poor financial decisions in the hopes out of being bailed out by the nest. Instead, the oldest brother is allowed to withdraw the majority of the money early to be used as a payoff for an unfortunate accident he causes. The story develops as the remaining siblings begin to navigate life and the consequences of their decisions without a safety net, but the plot is much more complex than a look at four dysfunctional and often selfish siblings. Teens will initially be pulled into the story by the shocking events in the prologue, but they will connect with the siblings as they recognize aspects of themselves in each of them. The epilogue goes beyond a typical happy ending, illustrating how the siblings have changed and learned more about themselves. YA readers will enjoy immersing themselves in the trendy side of life in New York, as well as coming to understand how adult life may not be all it seems on a well-crafted surface. VERDICT A strong choice for demonstrating how adulthood is as much of a discovering process as adolescence. Purchase where coming-of-age tales are needed.–April Sanders, Spring Hill College, Mobile, AL

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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