Archives for posts with tag: Teen Fiction

Rebel MechanicsI found today’s title while searching for reading material for an upcoming book club gathering.  Book clubs offer an excuse to read for fun and so much more.  They are a great way to explore new reading territory and to add titles to your “To Be Read” stack.  Lists of suggested titles for book clubs are fantastic resources and easily found online or with the help of a librarian.

Rebel Mechanics: All is Fair in Love and Revolution by Shanna Swendson was a serendipitous find for me.  It has been a fun trip into alternative history, a fiction type which has been around for a long time but hasn’t shown up on my reading list that often.  Collins English Dictionary defines alternative history as “a genre of fiction in which the author speculates on how the course of history might have been altered if a particular historical event had had a different outcome”.  Many times alternative (or alternate) histories use a military history starting point—What if the Axis had won World War II?  What if the British had won the American Revolution?—and build the story around that.  Some alternative histories use pivotal historical events not tied to warfare as their foundations—What if Lincoln had not been assassinated?  What if the dinosaurs had not died out?

In Rebel Mechanics, Swendson imagines a different beginning to the U.S.; the back of the book jacket says it best, “What if British magic kept the American Revolution from ever occurring?”  The story takes place in 1888 New York City, a bustling metropolis where society is divided along class, economic, and magical lines as it is everywhere in the British colonies.  The British landed gentry possess magical powers and use them for economic prosperity and technological advancement which are denied everyone else.  Yet, revolution is afoot!  Masked bandits operate Robin Hood-style, stealing secret information and ill-gotten gains from the government in support of an underground resistance.  The resistance, known as the Rebel Mechanics, develops steam-powered technology to provide an alternative to magical oppression and to highlight the injustices of the gentry (dubbed magisters).

Enter Verity Newton, a seventeen-year-old daughter of a college professor embarking on a new life in the big city.  After an adventure-filled start to her tale (Train robbery!  Wild bus ride!  Police chase!), she is hired as a governess in one of the most powerful magister families in the colonies.  As she navigates the rarified world of the nobility and gets to know her charges, Verity makes friends with a lively group of non-magisters including Lizzie the firebrand and handsome science student Alec.  All is not as it seems, though.  Why do her new-found friends seem to turn up at just the right place and time?  Is her employer, entomologist Lord Henry Lyndon, really tracking beetles when he leaves the house?  Why does he return bruised and bloodied?  What goes on beneath the streets of New York?  Secrets abound!  Intrigue and danger lurk around the corner!

Shanna Swendson packs a lot into her book.  Rebel Mechanics is a treasure chest of action, adventure, espionage, magic, romance, politics, self-discovery, betrayal, science, class commentary, and steampunk atmosphere—and that’s the first half.  It’s a rollicking ride through Verity’s expanding world and the city’s expanding consciousness.  Swendson creates believable, interesting characters and places them in equally interesting situations.  She shows us New York from Verity’s point of view, and it’s easy to get caught up in the character’s feelings and interior monologue.  The author drives the plot with plenty of action yet includes enough reflection to develop her characters.  She sets the steampunk scene with descriptions of 1880s technology, sights, and sounds.  Sometimes I found myself wanting a bit more polish on the story—there’s a lot packed into it and in a handful of places she could have done a little bit more with what she had instead of squeezing in more.  All in all, Rebel Mechanics is a fun, light book—perfect for a study break or holiday binge reading.  Give this one to middle schoolers and high schoolers interested in steampunk settings, adventure stories, or gentle reads with chaste romance.

I can’t wait to chat about Rebel Mechanics at the next Teen Book Club gathering—Thursday, December 7, from 6:00-7:00 pm at the library.  Participants read a title of their choice based on the month’s theme; at the meeting, the group chats about their books then picks a theme for the next month.  Teens are welcome to bring a brown bag supper, if they like; the library supplies beverage and dessert.  This month we’re reading alternative history and serving hot chocolate with holiday treats.  Teen Book Club is free, open to grades 6-12; no registration necessary.  Questions about Teen Book Club or other library services for teens?  Call me at the library’s Teen Department, (417) 623-7953, extension 1027.  Happy reading!

As someone with a subterranean-level threshold of all things scary or grotesque (the sharks in Finding Nemo are about my limit), I still can’t believe I read To Stay Alive by Skila Brown.  This book is billed as historical fiction written for teens.  However, it is a compelling rendering of a real-life American horror story—the plight of the Donner Party.

The story of the Donner Party is one of harrowing survival and a fixture of American history.  This group of pioneers, led by George Donner and James Reed, consisted of multiple families and individuals traveling west to California from Missouri in the spring of 1846.  Delayed by multiple mishaps and unfortunate decisions (including an ill-conceived “shortcut”), they found themselves in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in mid-October, low on supplies and weakened by previous efforts crossing the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert.  The group, ill-prepared for surviving winter, was forced to hastily make camp when snow blocked the mountain pass.  Exposure, starvation, and illness heightened the nightmare.  A small detachment of the group set out in December 1846 attempting to cross the mountain and send back help; its remnants made it to safety on January 17, 1847.  The first rescue party made to the pioneers’ camp on February 18; the final person out of the camp made it to safety on April 29.  Only 48 of the approximately 90 members of the original group survived. Fewer than 100 miles from their target, many of them had to resort to cannibalism to live.

The Donner Party’s experience has fascinated and horrified audiences for over a century.  Skila Brown’s book To Stay Alive is an intriguing departure from past efforts to explore the topic.  It’s a novel in free-verse form, consisting of over 200 short poems, told from the point-of-view of 19-year-old Mary Ann Graves who made the trek.  Real-life pioneers, Mary Ann along with her parents and eight siblings left Illinois in April 1846; their hideous journey ended nearly a year later.  The poems describing Mary Ann’s experience blend narrative with inner reflection, their forms advancing the story while mirroring her emotions.  The book is divided into the four seasons of the journey, the final chapter jumping ahead to four months after Mary Ann’s life-changing hike over the mountain.

Brown’s verse doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the subject matter.  She wields it like a camera, panning exterior and interior landscapes.  In places, it reads smoothly like the easy part of Mary Ann’s journey—text is almost like prose, and the character’s thoughts are fluid, sequential.  Further in, the economy of verse reflects the hardships faced by Mary Ann; here, words are spaced out to reflect the wide expanse of country or peppered with pauses the length of a hard swallow while crossing the desert or tumbled about the page mimicking the bump wagon ride.  Brown’s sparse poetry conjures up the horrors experienced by the Donner Party without resorting to sensationalism.  Reading the poems depicting Mary Ann suffering from starvation and exposure, the desperation is vivid and the terrible solution becomes apparent.  It begs the question, “What would you do to survive?”

As the author notes, “Historical fiction requires a careful balance of real and embellished, a base of facts with a sprinkling of supposition and imagination”. Skila Brown has done her research.  Her details are spot on whether describing the pioneer experience in general or situations specific to the Graves family.  In addition to the story, the author offers some helpful resources.  An epilogue adds a postscript of Mary Ann’s life.  An author’s note summarizes the events befalling the Donner Party, analyzes the literal and metaphorical wrong turns they took, and offers multiple perspectives on the consequences of manifest destiny.  Here, the author relates what drew her to this story and why she believes it relevant over 100 years later.  An easy-to-read map shows the group’s path compared to the routes traditionally taken by pioneers.  The author also provides a photograph of Mary Ann Graves and a list of the entire Donner Party, noting deaths and survivors.

While a departure from the usual fare of historical fiction, To Stay Alive has a great deal to offer.  It doesn’t give up its gifts easily though.  The topic is difficult—it’s not for everyone.  And, although this one is much more accessible than most, novels in verse may require more effort from readers than narrative prose.  Move past these challenges, and the rewards are apparent—powerful messages of perseverance in the face of overwhelming circumstances, survival amidst suffering, heart-breaking sacrifice.  To Stay Alive is a great choice for mature secondary students and lends itself more to discussion than pleasure reading.  Beyond that, give this one to teens who are hardcore fans of historical fiction, have the patience to follow a narrative in free-form verse, and can handle the subject matter.


     Are you Sherlocked?  The new season of the PBS show, Sherlock, has sent me down a Holmes and Watson rabbit hole.  Luckily, the popularity of the television shows Sherlock and Elementary on CBS along with the recent films starring Robert Downey, Jr., have inspired a rash of titles featuring the classic characters.  I’ve found radio plays, comics, stories imagining Holmes solving crimes without Watson or the other way ‘round, tales riffing on the original canon by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, books attempting to tie Holmes to Jack the Ripper or the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a series depicting Sherlock in middle school, novellas featuring Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, adventures of Sherlock’s purported vampire twin, retellings from the perspective of Professor Moriarty, countless puzzle books, numerous “how to” titles for the art of deduction, and—believe it or not—a board book for infants entitled Little Master Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes in the Hound of the Baskervilles: A BabyLit Sounds Primer.   (On a side note, the last entry is part of a board book series that includes baby versions of Moby Dick and Anna Karenina in addition to the Pride and Prejudice parody, Goodnight, Mr. Darcy.)

     An interesting newcomer to the mountain of Holmes titles is last year’s A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro.  I wholeheartedly agree with the book’s tagline, “You’ve never seen Watson and Holmes like this before.”  Jamie Watson and Charlotte Holmes are 21st-century descendants of John and Sherlock—both Londoners dropped into an upper-crust Connecticut boarding school for reasons I cannot relate due to massive spoilers.  (Not surprisingly, there is a fair amount of this plot I cannot reveal due to spoilers, massive or moderate.)  Watson and Holmes are atypical teens leading atypical lives trying to balance homework assignments, dances, and rugby practices with extortion, kidnapping, and murder.

     James “Jamie” Watson meets Charlotte Holmes at Sherringford, the posh school he attends on a rugby scholarship.  Jamie secretly wants to be a writer, an aspiration he cultivates out of the public eye as he navigates his new surroundings.  He has grown up in the U.S. and, most recently, London which he misses desperately.  Jamie’s estranged father and his new family live only an hour away, another sore point.  Charlotte, as you can imagine, has been busy with other activities.  Her upbringing reflects the family business—training in observation, deduction, the sciences (yes, all the sciences) sprinkled with lessons in lock picking, computer hacking, and wiretapping.  Jamie first spies Charlotte at the weekly poker game she runs in her dormitory’s basement.  A few days later, they officially meet and have the awkward conversation about their ancestors; a few weeks later, they are becoming crime solving colleagues bonding over clues in Charlotte’s personal laboratory.  By the end of the semester, they are fighting for each others’ lives.

     This book is really about relationships—between Charlotte and Jamie, Charlotte and her family, Jamie and his family, Charlotte and her past, the main characters and the school, Charlotte and…wait a minute, can’t tell you that one another spoiler (a HUGE one, trust me).  Certainly there is plenty of action-filled plot; by finals week, this Holmes and Watson duo unravel the mystery behind an assault, a poisoning, a deadly snake, eerie recreations of the original Holmes stories, an attempted murder, blackmail, clandestine surveillance, and a school-shuttering explosion.  This doesn’t even count the roller coaster ride occurring in the last few chapters of the book!

     Brittany Cavallaro successfully translates the spirit of the original Sherlock Holmes stories for a current audience.  Her main characters are interesting, three-dimensional blends of wit, intelligence, generosity, loneliness, adventure, and heart.  Her secondary characters are fleshed out as needed for the story, appearing when needed to further the plot then receding into the background until their next task; they aren’t necessarily flat or uninteresting just not as rounded as Holmes and Watson throughout the book.  Instead of directly translating Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories point by point into Sherringford, Cavallaro blends elements from several of them to create her mystery.  Some elements are more obvious—an exasperated-yet-grudgingly-respectful detective, Mycroft Holmes becomes Charlotte’s brother Milo, Jamie’s solicitous dorm mother, a murder weapon purposefully copied from The Blue Carbuncle (among others).  Charlotte displays the distinctive personality traits of the original Holmes, including an opiate habit which sets up one of the most moving scenes in the book—Jamie nursing Charlotte through an overdose attempt and its aftermath.

     A Study in Charlotte is an entertaining romp of adventure and mystery (with a dash of romance) that incorporates realistic situations and a serious topic or two along the way.  It’s a fun read, well-suited to high schoolers and teen lit. lovers looking for a quick book.  Due to some mature language and topics, it may not be to everyone’s taste.  You can find this book (and a variety of others) in the Teen Department of the Joplin Public Library.  Hope to see you soon!


Ahoy, mateys!  Although International Talk Like A Pirate Day was officially observed on September 19, it’s never too late to celebrate life on the high seas.  (No kidding, it’s an actual parody holiday originated by two guys known as “Ol’ Chumbucket” and “Cap’n Slappy”; see for details.)  I couldn’t resist this perfect opportunity to tell you about the title which led me to a life of piracy.  Author L.A. Meyer provides a rollicking introduction to nautical fiction for teen readers in his book Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy.

We meet Mary Faber as a child standing on the street outside her apartment watching the bodies of her parents and sister, who had died in an epidemic, being carted away for disposal.  From That Dark Day (as Mary calls it), she is forced to survive by her wits.  She is taken in by a gang of urchins who are no strangers to Mary’s predicament; they fight to survive on the mean streets of early 19th century London, no easy task indeed.  When disaster strikes the group, Mary jumps at the chance to create her own place in the world.  She disguises herself, hiding her “true nature”, and joins the Royal Navy as a ship’s boy.  Adopting the name “Jacky”, Mary joins in the ship’s adventures of storms, hunger, backbreaking work, pirates, and liberty trips on shore.  She learns how to tie knots, climb rigging, splice line, beat to quarters, and keep accounts; more importantly, she learns how to think on her feet and to look out for herself in a rough, often hostile, environment.  Her biggest challenge is keeping up “The Deception” until she can come up with a plan and the means to survive on land.

Sounds familiar at this point—the author isn’t the first to come up with this plotline by any means.  However, it’s what he does with his plot and his characters which make the difference.  L.A. Meyer creates a vibrant, intelligent, plucky, engaging heroine in Jacky and drops her into a world set against her from the beginning.  He gives his readers a strong, compelling female character that is realistically portrayed—a feature of teen fiction which is growing but still not as prevalent as you might think.  Jacky shows her flaws and is forced to face them.  Meyer depicts his other characters as engagingly as he does Jacky.  He puts them in settings and situations vivid enough to seem as if you are right there.  More importantly, Meyer addresses some important, heavy duty topics within the historical context.  Meyer acknowledges his young characters’ journey through puberty in a respectful, concrete manner.  He shows all sides of living under harsh conditions in close quarters.  He also recognizes the ugly parts of history with accurate portrayals of class, economic, and racial differences.  Meyer has certainly done his historical research, and he pairs it with a sensitivity to the lives of and issues faced by his teen readers.

Bloody Jack is the first in a series of 12 books featuring the title character.  Each book holds as many madcap, death-defying adventures as the first, and each title builds on the tales told in its predecessor.  Meyer takes Jacky & Co. from one end of the Napoleonic-era world to the other.  By the end of the series, the plucky (or foolhardy, depending upon your point of view) heroine has danced the flamenco in Spain, been a privateer, run for her life from the British Navy, studied at a high-society finishing school, served in the French infantry, started a Boston fire brigade, attended the fiercest pirate in the South China Sea, and found herself in the hangman’s noose more than once.  The final book, Wild Rover No More: Being the Last Recorded Account of the Life and Times of Jacky Faber, was published in 2014, a few months after the author’s death.

Jacky Faber’s adventures spurred me to explore new avenues of reading.  I had not read much about life on the high seas—no Treasure Island as a child—but Meyer’s lively descriptions and action scenes piqued my interest.  As a result, I’ve enjoyed nautical fiction (the Master and Commander and Horatio Hornblower series) as well as several histories of the Napoleonic era.  Sometimes, the story itself is half the fun of reading; there’s an excitement in falling down rabbit holes of discovery.

Book groups are a great way to fall down those rabbit holes, too.  The library’s Teen Book Club meets monthly, is open to 6th-12th graders, and is free—no registration necessary.  Participants read a book (or audiobook or graphic novel) of their choice relating to the monthly theme then come together to chat about their selections.  Our next meeting is Thursday, October 13, from 6:00-7:00 pm in the library’s Small Meeting Room; bring a brown bag dinner, and we’ll provide the dessert.  The theme of Teen Read Week, which we will be celebrating, is “Read for the fun of it.”  Come and tell us about a book you enjoyed reading—can’t wait to hear about it!  For more information about the Teen Book Club or other teen programs at the library, contact the Teen Department at (417) 623-7953 or  See you soon!


the-first-part-lastI found today’s book while searching for a title for the next installment of the library’s Teen Book Club.  The First Part Last by Angela Johnson was first published in 2003. Since that time, both the book and its author have won several honors, including the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King Award for demonstrating “an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values” and Michael L. Printz Award for “literary excellence in young adult literature”. It’s easy to see why. The First Part Last offers an intense, gut-wrenching look at a difficult topic using spare language to convey complex emotions.

Bobby receives a bombshell for his sixteenth birthday—his girlfriend Nia is pregnant. In an instant, his world is turned upside down. Neither he nor Nia planned for this to happen. Now both are left to find a way to “do the right thing” for themselves and the baby.

Although the book is a quick read (131 pages) with a simple plot line, it stands out for its power to tell a lesser-known tale concisely and beautifully. This is one of the few books exploring teen pregnancy from the male point of view. Angela Johnson uses concrete, contemporary language to create a portal into Bobby’s complex emotions. She allows us into Bobby’s physical world—sleepless nights, high school, “new baby” smell, New York City—with all five senses at work. She only includes what is necessary to share Bobby’s experiences and to advance the story—no extra drama or dialogue here.

The story alternates between scenes in the present when Bobby is a full-time father and scenes in the past starting with Nia’s pregnancy news and ending with baby Feather’s arrival. Throughout, Bobby struggles with his new responsibilities in the no-man’s-land between being a kid and an adult. He reels, just as we do, when a plot twist toward the end packs an extra emotional punch.

I was glad to find this book again as it had been several years since I last read it. It has been a powerful, amazing experience every time I’ve picked it up. The First Part Last speaks to both teens and adults. This is a great title for individual reading, but it is even better for inter-generational reading and discussion. Be sure to have tissues on hand.

The Teen Book Club meets the first Thursday of the month from 6:00-7:00 p.m. and is open to youth in grades 6-12. The program is free; no registration is necessary. Structured by teens for teens, the group’s goals are to generate and sustain enthusiasm for recreational reading and to provide opportunities for a respectful exchange of ideas. Participants read books of their choice relating to the monthly theme chosen by the group then meet to chat about their books and their responses to the titles. There are a wide variety of titles and opinions shared. (Plus, we have snacks.) The Teen Book Club meets again on Thursday, February 4; this month’s theme is “books with a number in the title”.

For children in grades 4 through 8
Thirteen-year-old Arthur Owens misses his dad, who was recently killed in a motorcycle accident, and while his mother may have been ready to pack up and clean out his things, Arthur was not. So when he sees the man everyone refers to as the “Junk Man” going through their garbage and wearing his dad’s favorite hat, he picks up a brick and throws it at him.

Thankfully, the “Junk Man” is not seriously injured, but Arthur is sent to juvenile detention and when he is finally released he is so happy to be home it is hard for him to think about facing Judge Warner—the judge who will decide his punishment.

On court day, Arthur learns the “Junk Man” is named James Hampton—a man he barely recognizes in dress clothes. And while Judge Warner is a hardcore, unsympathetic figure looking for an appropriate punishment for Arthur, Mr. Hampton surprises everyone when he steps in and convinces the judge of a more redemptive opportunity for Arthur—120 community service hours to be served working for Mr. Hampton.

On his first day of community service Arthur is barely able to locate Mr. Hampton’s workshop and upon arrival finds Mr. Hampton’s rickety cart and a note instructing him to gather the Seven Most Important Things—light bulbs, foil, mirrors, pieces of wood, glass bottles, coffee cans, and cardboard.

Arthur is shocked and appalled to be going through peoples’ garbage, but after just a few weekends of community service he learns Mr. Hampton is working on something much bigger than collecting garbage.

Other reviewers describe Shelley Pearsall’s work as luminescent, remarkable, excellent, and moving; and while one is hard pressed to find a better descriptor, stunning fits nicely into the group. Pearsall’s masterpiece explores friendship, family, love, and the important lesson of “not judging a book by its cover.” Her ability to parcel the story out will hook readers and combined with her interesting and well-fleshed out characters there is not a chance of putting this book down until the endnotes about the real James Hampton have been read and studied.

Teen Fiction

Adam and his girlfriend Lizzie have pretty good seats to the concert that sets off a chain of events only the revolutionary Zealots could have predicted. Jimmy Earle, a rock star at the height of his career and popularity, has taken the drug Death. Jimmy has accomplished his elaborate and very public bucket list and is putting on one last concert before the best, drug-induced week of his life ends in his equally public death.

Because that’s what this new drug, Death, does. You take a little white pill, have the most fantastic week-long high, and then die. Very simple. Once the drug has bonded with your brain, there’s no going back. There’s no antidote. No cure for Death. Once you’ve taken it, you’re dead after seven days.

After Jimmy dies on stage in front of thousands of fans, the riots begin. The undercurrent of tension between the haves and the have-nots in Manchester suddenly boil to the surface. Adam and Lizzie get to watch it all unfold making Adam feel like he and Lizzie are bound together by this night. Nothing could be better.

Then Adam’s life begins to unravel. His parents get a mysterious letter from the Zealots telling them his brother, Jess, is dead. Lizzie seems disinterested and angry with him. Suddenly, Adam’s view on his life is much less positive. In a moment of self-loathing and despair, Adam decides to take Death.

Now he’s got a week left to do as much living as a teenage boy can. Like Jimmy Earle, he begins with an extraordinarily complicated and elaborate bucket list. To accomplish this list, his first task has to be to make up with Lizzie and spend his last days with her.

After he and Lizzie reconcile, they become enmeshed with a dangerous drug-dealer’s even more dangerous son. Lizzie gets kidnapped and Adam has to decide whether to use his remaining days to help her or to accomplish his bucket list.

Burgess has created a near future dystopian adventure in “The Hit.” The gap between rich and poor is so insurmountable that home-grown terrorist groups like the Zealots find strongholds with Manchester’s young people and, for some, taking Death seems like a viable option.

Adam and Lizzie deal with a lot of heavy issues in “The Hit.” Burgess does a good job of focusing on the issues his characters face without being too heavy-handed or preachy. The action scenes make you sit forward in your seat. The twists and turns the plot takes are realistic as are the characters.

Every characters’ flaws are exposed and explored to a degree that makes you wonder whether you really like these people. Ultimately, the selfishness and insecurities revealed by Adam are so uncomfortable because they are so true-to-life. Adam behaves exactly as a teenager would–he is at times self-absorbed, reckless, heroic, kind, a genius and a complete idiot.

The premise of “The Hit” is intriguing–what kind of mental process would you go through if you knew in 7 days you were going to die? Especially if the world is about to change and you realize you won’t be around to see or help the change happen. Would the self-loathing and hopelessness you felt when you first took the pill last through your 7 days or would you find a reason to regret that choice?

With sexual content, drug use, and mature themes, this is a good choice for mature teens and adults who like near-future dystopians and flawed characters wrestling with Life’s big questions.