February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Familiar and Fun: Literary Classics Reimagined for Teens

Featuring freshly envisioned settings, revved-up story lines, reconfigured characters, and still-timeless themes, these recent and soon-to-be-published retellings of well-known works are well worth exploring. Though each of these inventive and entertaining iterations stands solidly on its own, readers just might be inspired to seek out or revisit the source material to make contrasts, comparisons, and new discoveries.

Something Is Rotten in the State of Oregon

The Steep and thorny way cat wintersCat Winters’s riveting reimagining of Hamlet is set in 1923 Oregon, where 16-year-old Hanalee, daughter of a white mother and African American father, travels The Steep & Thorny Way (Amulet, Mar. 2016; Gr 8 Up) to seek the truth about her father’s death. Hank Denney died a year ago after a boozed-up teenager struck him with a car, and now Joe is out of jail and telling Hanalee that Hank was in fact killed by the doctor who tended him that evening, the man who is now her stepfather. Desperate for answers and aided by her father’s often inscrutable ghost, the protagonist tenaciously works to unravel a mystery that ultimately reveals the bitter racism and prejudice that simmer beneath the surface of Elston and places her in great danger. Reproductions of early 20th-century photos add to a historical backdrop already densely layered with well-researched details of time and place. Prohibition-era Oregon is brought to vivid life, complete with the harrowing realities of the recently arrived Ku Klux Klan, attitudes toward homosexuals and the eugenics movement, and the dead-end prospects offered to a young woman descended from Georgia slaves. Armed with her trusty two-barrel pistol and steely determination, the often heedlessly headstrong Hanalee is a spectacular heroine, and the supporting characters are equally well drawn and multilayered. The richly conceived plot provides fast-paced action, relentless suspense, and a touch of the supernatural, while exploring themes of survival, the power of truth to fight injustice, and hope for a better future.

Holmes and Watson Together Again

a-study-in-charlotteRecently transplanted from his London home to Sherringford, a tiny Connecticut boarding school, James Watson (yes, the great-great-great-grandson of that Watson) is feeling a bit out of sorts. Then he meets a most enigmatic (and equally infamous) fellow student and finds himself conducting A Study in Charlotte (HarperCollins, Mar. 2016; Gr 9 Up)—as in Charlotte Holmes. Drilled from birth in the detective arts, she is every bit as brilliant, audacious, and volatile as her celebrated great-great-great-grandfather, and despite their family connection, she treats James with barely veiled contempt. That is until a student is found dead at school. Not only is there motive (the boy sexually harassed Charlotte and publicly angered James), but the case also seems to bear numerous similarities to a Sherlock Holmes story, and the two are soon prime suspects. As they join forces to solve the crime, narrator James becomes just as enthralled with exploring the often unfathomable Charlotte and the attraction that sizzles between them. Brittany Cavallaro’s characters are multifaceted and delightfully flawed (Holmes uses opiates, plays the violin with passion, and has an inability to connect with others, while would-be writer James has a penchant for punching before thinking). The emotional twists and turns of their relationship are just as satisfying and red herring–filled as the well-thought-out meanderings of the plot. An epilogue, told from Holmes’s point of view, assures readers that the duo will return to take on another Arthur Conan Doyle–inspired adventure.

Road Trip Redux

sometimes-we-tell-the-truthIn Sometimes We Tell the Truth (S. & S., Sept. 2016; Gr 10 Up), an update of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, 21 field trip–bound high school seniors load onto a yellow bus for the six-hour journey from Canterbury, CT, to Washington, DC. In order to keep the calm en route, Mr. Bailey challenges his charges to a storytelling competition—fantasy, fiction, based-in-truth, or whatever—and whoever tells the best story earns a free A in civics. Would-be author Jeff, constrained by easily triggered asthma as well as social insecurities, serves as narrator, while obsessing about his own turn (he recently published a story in the school literary journal that earned him accolades—even from the popular kids—and hasn’t been able to write a word since) and his proximity to Pard (once best friends, the two have been estranged for years, and Pard came out of the closet sophomore year, and suddenly Jeff just can’t stop thinking about him in unexpected ways). Like the original characters, Kim Zarins’s cast represent a cross-section of society and are drawn with rather broad strokes, and their stories and interactions cleverly echo, reinterpret, and allude to the source material (an appended list pairs contemporary individuals with their 14th-century predecessors). These tales reference other works of literature (classics and current young adult fare) and often unwind with bawdy content, raucous language, and scandalous sex scenes. Whether zombie war epic, love story between an angel and a devil, or “Harry Potter” fan fiction, the tales entertain and elucidate, bestowing upon Jeff and his classmates the ability to see into, empathize with, and possibly understand the lives of others as well as their own.

Matters Dark and Deadly

tell-the-wind-and-fireSarah Rees Brennan’s seeped-in-the-supernatural retelling of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities recasts the action in a fantastical New York City divided by opposing—and interdependent—magical forces. Light magicians use their energy to power the world, but their blood must be emptied of excess magic to avoid being consumed by it; Dark magicians do the draining, an act that also enhances their own abilities. The relationship is symbiotic, but that hasn’t stopped the Light magicians from subjugating the Dark. Born in the Dark half of the city, Lucie Manette, 17, has managed to make a place for herself in Light New York, earning celebrity status for saving her father, a Light magician imprisoned for trying to help the oppressed, and falling in love with Ethan, nephew of the Light Council’s leader. When Ethan is accused of being a resistance fighter, Carwyn, Ethan’s secret and supposedly soulless doppelganger illegally created with Dark magic, steps forward to save him. So begin a series of revolutions and revelations that force Lucie to open her eyes to the cruelties of the ruling class, question the loyalties of her heart, and consider just how far she will go to save the people she loves. Tell the Wind and Fire (Clarion, 2016; Gr 8 Up) features complex plotting and world-building along with characters who grow and mature while spouting magnetic charisma and scrumptiously witty dialogue.

teen-frankensteinTeen Frankenstein (Feiwel & Friends, Jan. 2016; Gr 8 Up), Chandler Baker’s riff on Mary Shelley’s 19th-century classic, is fueled by an electric blend of spine-tingling horror elements, heartfelt high school angst, and rib-tickling humor. The setting is small-town Texas, where scientifically canny but socially clueless Victoria “Tor” Frankenstein and her best friend, electronics geek Owen, spend their evenings working in her tornado cellar lab experimenting with dead rats and galvanic reanimation. When she accidentally hits and kills a teenage boy who looms suddenly in front of her car one stormy evening, she decides to take her research to the next level, with shockingly successful results. He has no memory of his past, so Tor dubs her creation Adam and attempts to integrate him into the student body of Hollow Pines High School, no small feat since she and Owen are both social outcasts. With his good looks and natural football skills, Adam is embraced by the popular crowd despite his oddball (and often chuckle-inducing) behavior. Meanwhile, there’s a killer on the loose, and as murdered boys begin to pile up, Tor wonders about Adam’s past and what he might be capable of. Tor’s narration is an alchemy of cold clinical description, mad-genius ambition, and the unacknowledged need of a loner to connect with others. Gradually unwinding mysteries, gruesomely graphic details, and scintillating suspense keep readers hooked right up to the last page of this series opener.

Once Upon a Time, Again

MG-GN-Phelan-Snow WhiteSet in early 20th-century New York City, Matt Phelan’s powerful graphic novel telling of Snow White (Candlewick, Sept. 2016; Gr 5 Up) is fundamentally familiar and dazzlingly unexpected. It’s 1918, and Samantha White is devastated when her loving mother succumbs to tuberculosis. Ten years later her wealthy financier father (the King of Wall Street) falls under the spell of a mesmerizing chorus girl–turned–star (the Queen of the Ziegfeld Follies), the two marry, and Samantha is sent away to school. Lives are shattered when the stock market crashes. Samantha returns home upon her father’s death (a demise aided by his wife), and when the will reveals that Samantha will inherit the bulk of the estate, her stepmother seethes with hatred, envy, and ambition. Filled with art deco–influenced details, flapper-inspired fashions, and stunning interpretations of Depression-era New York City, Phelan’s atmospheric artwork sets both time period and mood. Here, a stock ticker machine takes on the role of magic mirror, a starstruck stagehand substitutes for the huntsman, and the little men are a street gang of tough-talking orphan boys who identify themselves only as “the Seven.” Traditional themes of jealousy, beauty, and finding one’s place in the world are seamlessly intermixed with the excesses and deprivations of the Roaring Twenties. It’s magnificent, right up to a tear-jerking ending that trumpets the power of love (not just that of Detective Prince but also the “fellas,” who tenderly whisper their names into the sleeping Snow White’s ear).

forbiddenwish_Jessica Khoury’s The Forbidden Wish (Penguin/Razorbill, Feb. 2016; Gr 7 Up) retells the “Aladdin” story from the point of view of the spirit in the lamp, a girl transformed long ago into a jinni and imprisoned ever since. Zahra has had dealings with humans before, and in fact addresses her narrative to “Habiba,” her term of endearment for the human queen and sister of her heart who last possessed the lamp (the complex tale of their doomed relationship, which resulted in accusations of betrayal and Zahra being interned beneath an ancient city by her own kind, is revealed throughout the telling). Now released by 17-year-old Aladdin, a strong and spirited boy of the streets, Zahra takes human form to grant his wishes and is once again embroiled in the dealings and emotions of their world—injustice, rebellion, revolution, intrigue, ambition. Meanwhile, the King of the Jinn has promised her freedom if she rescues his son from captivity, but this will mean betraying Aladdin, for whom her feelings are beginning to grow dangerously profound (jinn are forbidden to love humans). Will she trade an eternity of freedom for a moment of love? Strong female characters, complex world- and plot-building, compellingly depicted relationships and emotions, and the occasional steamy kiss make for a lyrically written, soul-satisfying tale.

Before Heads Rolled

queen-of-heartsTwo books sculpt gripping origin tales for an intractable and infamously bloodthirsty literary villainess. Set in Lewis Carroll’s fantastical world before the arrival of Alice, Colleen Oakes’s series opener introduces the future Queen of Hearts (HarperTeen, May 2016; Gr 9 Up). Dinah, 15-year-old Princess of Wonderland, is far from perfect. Clumsy, socially bumbling, and a bit spoiled by the kindhearted yet twitchy-as-a-rabbit guardian who has looked after her since her mother’s death, she desperately longs for the affection of her coldhearted father, the ruthless King of Hearts. She reacts with jealousy and hatred when the King unexpectedly presents his illegitimate daughter to court, a girl as delicate and golden as Dinah is dark and brooding, and makes her part of the royal family, usurping Dinah’s place in his heart and perhaps in the succession. Meanwhile, she’s not sure if her longtime friend Wardley Ghane, dashing young Heart Card in training (protectors of the royal family), shares her desire to share kisses; she worries about the fate of her mentally ill younger brother Charles, known for his obsession with creating hats; and her father’s malevolent adviser Cheshire seems to be up to no good. When a secret message leads her to the Black Towers, a dark and depraved prison, Dinah begins to unravel a web of sinister secrets that reveal awful truths and threaten her future. In this dark and richly reimagined rendition, the very walls of Wonderland Palace drip with tension, political unrest, and unbounded cruelty and violent betrayals make for tough choices and compelling character development.

heartlessLady Catherine Pinkerton would rather spend her time baking delectable treats and planning for the sweet shop she hopes to one day open with her best friend and maid Mary Ann than attending royal balls. Her mother is thrilled that she has caught the eye of the King of Hearts, but Cath finds the rather “round-bodied and rosy-cheeked” King a bit too sweet and simple for her liking. However, the mysterious joker who has just arrived in Hearts is another story. Handsome and charismatic, Jest seems able to effortlessly concoct a perfect ballad, pull off feats of magic, occupy her dreams…and even steal away her heart. Her parents expect her to accept the King’s marriage proposal and be happy about it, but Cath is determined to forge her own destiny. Refusing to give into the rigid societal mores that rule the land, she dives into a secret romance with Jest, but tensions build as she discovers the details of his enigmatic past and present-day purpose in Hearts. Meanwhile, the kingdom is being terrorized by the savage Jabborwock, and no one seems willing or able to do anything about it. As events unfold, tough choices must be made along with sacrifices; will true love conquer all, or will Cath end up Heartless (Feiwel & a Friends, Nov. 2016; Gr 8 Up)? Characters, events, and even phrases from the original story (as well as a few others) abound in Marissa Meyer’s tale. Packed with pulse-pounding romantic dalliances, breathless action, fanciful creatures, and magical happenings, this tale poignantly explores the perils and passions of a very real-seeming protagonist.

Neverland Nuances

everlandTwo fantasies present fresh takes on J.M. Barrie’s early 20th-century novel. In Wendy Spinale’s postapocalyptical steampunk thriller, London, now called Everland (Scholastic, May 2016; Gr 6 Up), has been reduced to rubble by an army of Marauders led by Captain Hanz Otto Oswald Kretschmer (known by the acronym HOOK), son of the “Bloodred Queen” of Germany. Zeppelins fill the air, eight-legged Steam Crawlers roam the streets, and the Horologia virus, a biological weapon released during the invasion, has ravaged the adult population. Only those under 18 survived, and Hook’s soldiers wander the streets in search of children to experiment upon in order to perhaps derive a cure. Gwen Darling, just shy of 16, has been trying to keep herself and her siblings alive, scavenging abandoned homes during the day and hiding at night. But when Gwen’s sister Joanna is seized by Marauders, Gwen is forced to accept the help of Pete, a brash, risk-taking teenager she meets on the street, and Bella, a slingshot-wielding sharpshooter fitted out with mechanical wings. They head for the Lost City, nestled beneath Hook’s headquarters and built by young orphans, where they launch an audacious escape plan. The point of view alternates between Gwen and Hook, allowing opportunity for deeper character development and exposition of the workings of this well-imagined world.

unhookedLisa Maxwell’s Unhooked (S. & S., 2016; Gr 7 Up), set in the present day, brims with sensual imagery, dark fantasy elements, and burning romance. Gwen, 17, is getting fed up with her seemingly unstable mother and their endless stream of moves to avoid the monsters that only the woman is able to see, and their new place, a creepy flat in London, seems to be the worst one yet. Gwen’s perspective changes, however, when she and her best friend Olivia are kidnapped by terrifying faceless beings and taken to Neverland, a land of violence and cruel extremes. Awakening aboard the sailing ship of the surprisingly charismatic Captain Hook, Gwen is then “rescued” by the wickedly charming and intoxicating Pan, who takes her to his stronghold on an island with which she feels an intimate connection. Resisting the intense urge to forget her past, she wants only to find Olivia and try to get home, but danger is everywhere. It quickly becomes clear that the realities and inhabitants of Neverland are nothing like J.M. Barrie described them: flesh-eating sea hags occupy the open waters, frightening Fey hold sway over everything, and villains might just turn out to be heroes. Meanwhile, Gwen, attracted to two young men, struggles with dilemmas of trust, while finally beginning to understand the secrets of her own past. This sinister and spellbinding take on Neverland is scintillating, suspenseful, and surprising.

Publication Information

BAKER, Chandler. Teen Frankenstein. Feiwel & Friends. Jan. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781250058744; ebk $9.99. ISBN 9781250080288.

BRENNAN, Sarah Rees. Tell the Wind and Fire. Clarion. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780544318175; ebk $17.99. ISBN 9780544318847.

CAVALLARO, Brittany. A Study in Charlotte. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks. Mar. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062398901; ebk $9.99. ISBN 9780062398932; Unabridged Digital Audio $21.99. ISBN 9780062417329.

KHOURY, Jessica. The Forbidden Wish. Penguin/Razorbill. Feb. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781595147677; ebk $10.99. ISBN 9780698151062.

MAXWELL, Lisa. Unhooked. S. & S./Simon Pulse. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481432047; ebk $10.99. ISBN 9781481432061.

MEYER, Marissa. Heartless. Feiwel & Friends. Nov. 2016. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781250044655; ebk $9.99. ISBN 9781250080271; CD $39.99. ISBN 9781427267948; Unabridged Digital Audio $23.99. ISBN 9781427267955.

OAKES, Colleen. Queen of Hearts. HarperTeen. May 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062409720; ebk $9.99; Unabridged Digital Audio $18.99. ISBN 9780062448361.

PHELAN, Matt. Snow White. illus. by author. Candlewick. Sept. 2016. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9780763672331.

SPINALE, Wendy. Everland. Scholastic. May 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545836944.

WINTERS, Cat. The Steep & Thorny Way. Amulet. Mar. 2016.Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781419719158.

ZARINS, Kim. Sometimes We Tell the Truth. S. & S./Simon Pulse. Sept. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481464994; ebk $10.99. ISBN 9781481465014.

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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.

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