The Place Between Breaths

It’s been years since Grace’s schizophrenic mother fled from her and her father, Dr. King. Deep down, Grace knows that her mother’s disappearance was purposeful – that she left out of fear that staying would only cause the family more pain. Now in her teens, Grace’s relationship with her father is strained. Dr. King is still working tirelessly as a recruiter at a lab that studies schizophrenia in order to find a cure. “He waits for [his wife] to return, to be found, and finally, finally, their love, [their] family [to be] whole again.” 

Grace, who is interning at the same lab, knows better than her father. She knows “what is and is not within the realm of possibility . . . [that] hope is just a four letter word.” The only thing she believes in is science. And one day, science comes through for Grace. She discovers a DNA code that could be the breakthrough her father has hoped for. Or at least, that’s what she thinks. The discovery could be a delusion, as Grace’s mind has already begun to slip. Grace is experiencing symptoms that are all too familiar to the ones she witnessed as a child. Soon, she cannot be certain of what is real—and neither can the reader. 

The Place Between Breaths is rather unique in the way it is presented. Grace narrates much of the novel; however, several chapters take on different points of view. Sometimes the reader is given flashbacks from Grace’s childhood that are told in the third person. Other times, the narrative takes on a second-person point of view with an ambiguous speaker who is speaking to an unknown person. This creates a somewhat disjointed and intentionally confusing reading experience, like puzzle pieces that are meant to be put together as the story goes on. 

Grace’s emotions are very raw making her easy to sympathize with. The reader feels her growing hopelessness as her schizophrenia consumes her. During a schizophrenic episode, Grace thinks to herself, “Please let me die. I refuse to live like this.” Readers will want Grace to find peace in her rapidly deteriorating state. Other characters are difficult to get a good sense of, which is clearly intentional. Since Grace cannot be certain of what is going on around her, the reader cannot be certain if the people around her are who she perceives them to be. 

The Place Between Breaths requires readers to pay careful attention to the text, particularly in the concluding chapters. It may even be necessary to read the novel over again to grasp what exactly happens. This is doable, as it is a brief 181 pages. However, certain readers might be irritated by how confusing the narrative is and frustrated by the lack of closure. The confusion is purposeful because the audience is meant to experience the story through the lens of having schizophrenia.  

The Place Between Breaths is an important novel that spurs an honest understanding and empathy for those suffering from schizophrenia. It is a uniquely told story that manages to be moving despite its confusing nature. It has a bittersweet message that, while many people continue to fall victim to this disease, medical advancements are slowly but surely being made. Teenagers who are interested in exploring mental illness in literature will likely enjoy the read. However, The Place Between Breaths is definitely not something everyone will enjoy. The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim also explores how mental illness can affect a family. 

Sexual Content 

  • Grace’s friend Hannah is pregnant. When talking about the pregnancy, Grace says, “I didn’t think things were that serious with you two. I thought it was strictly messing around.” 
  • Grace is cynical about Hannah’s relationship with her boyfriend and suspects that “he probably just [uses] her for sex.” 

Violence 

  • During a schizophrenic episode, Grace notes, “my teeth sink into the soft flesh of my tongue. Blood pools in my mouth.” 
  • Grace hallucinates a train coming toward her house and panics. She says, “I will myself to die before the train explodes into the house. I smash my face against the floor. My nose fills with blood.” 
  • During a heated argument, Grace attacks Hannah’s boyfriend, Dave. She describes, “I reach up and grab him by the hair. Bite his shoulder.” During the fight, Dave shoves Grace to the ground. “The back of [her] head slams against the pavement” and she is knocked unconscious. 
  • Grace’s fellow intern, Will, reveals that his schizophrenic twin sister killed herself years ago. He recalls stopping her during her first attempt. Will says, “‘My dad had this sword collection . . . she got into the room . . . I tried to take it away from her . . . that’s how I got these scars [on my palms].”  
  • Will says his intervention in his sister’s suicide attempt “didn’t do any good. Because in the end, she still found a way to end her life a few days later.” 
  • One of the book’s second-person perspective chapters describes the feeling of a schizophrenic breakdown, how “you will feel as though your ears are bleeding from the cries . . . your skin ripped open from the clawing.” 
  • At one point in Grace’s childhood, her mother harmed her during a schizophrenic episode. Her mother “pulled her close and then placed the blade [of a knife] against the pillowed fat of her cheekbone. The ridge and edge forming an indented line.” It is unclear if she actually cut her. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • As a young child, Grace witnesses her father injecting her mother with something to help combat a schizophrenic episode. 
  • Several characters note that the drugs for treating schizophrenia have improved vastly. 
  • Grace attempts to kill herself by poisoning her coffee with cyanide stolen from the lab, but she is stopped by a hallucination. 
  • While in treatment, Grace “takes the pills when [she is] told to.”

Language 

  • Minor words of vulgarity, including damn, ass, and hell are said on a few occasions.  
  • Fuck and shit are used occasionally.  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Grace confronts Hannah’s boyfriend, Dave, about him wanting Hannah to carry their child to term. He says, “I wasn’t raised to just cut and leave. My faith means a lot to me. I actually prayed on this, Grace.” 
  • Grace tells Dave that “‘there is a reason your GOD gave scientists the brains to create birth control and abortion.” 
  • A doctor at the lab Grace interns at compares the work of a scientist to religion, saying, “our place of worship is here [at the lab]. Our scriptures and prophets are the texts and scientists who have come before us. We are just as adamant and at times fantastical as any zealot.” 
  • Grace’s mother is described as praying at one point during her childhood 
  • Grace is highly skeptical of religious faith. The topics of faith and worship are motifs throughout the book. 

The Words We Keep

It’s been three months since Lily found her older sister, Alice, bleeding from her wrists on the bathroom floor. Now, with her father having drained his bank account for Alice’s mental treatment program, Lily knows she is not allowed to be a burden to her family. She’s told no one about her panic attacks, or how she impulsively picks the skin on her stomach until it bleeds, sometimes even in her sleep. She constantly wonders to herself, “What if you’re going crazy? Just like [Alice]. What if . . .you’re already gone?” Still, Lily knows she cannot let any of this out. She needs to keep her eyes on the prize – that being a full track scholarship to Berkeley. 

Her sister’s return home from Fairview is coupled with a boy named Micah transferring to Lily’s high school. As it turns out, Micah was in treatment with Alice, and he’s also Lily’s new partner for a school art project. The two embark on a project that involves leaving poetry in unexpected places throughout the school. The two maintain their anonymity, gaining the title “the guerilla poets of Ridgeline High.” Lily knows Micah can assist her in finding a way to help her sister. However, Lily also finds that she needs Micah to help her, because the words she’s kept inside for too long are beginning to break through. 

Told from Lily’s perspective The Words We Keep is a vivid and gripping story about the effect depression and anxiety can have. The reader feels the push and pull of Lily knowing she needs help but wanting to be strong for her family. The poetry she writes communicates this struggle very well. The highlight on mental illness and self-harm is unflinching, and while at times difficult to read, the narrative handles the difficult subject matter beautifully. Occasionally the chapters end by showing the reader Lily’s Google searches and her word-a-day calendar entries, which allow for deeper glimpses into her psyche. Other chapters end with comments on the high school’s student message board, offering insights into how other students perceive Lily and Micah’s poetry project.  

Lily and Micah’s tentative bond and eventual romance is developed well. Micah’s mysterious nature and affinity for the characters of Winnie the Pooh intrigue Lily, and she muses that he might be able “to understand [her struggles]. Maybe he’s the only one who could.” The strained relationship between Lily and Alice is also very important to the narrative. The sisters are both suffering, but unable to console each other because they are holding their struggles back for the sake of the other. Through their relationship, the importance of openness with those close to us during trying times is emphasized. 

The major characters in The Words We Keep are largely well-developed and likable, but those outside of the main cast are too numerous and one-dimensional. For example, a bully named Damon is at points unrealistically cruel to Micah. Damon goes as far as giving Micah a bottle of aspirin with a note suggesting that he kill himself, which Micah just shrugs off. Other characters, like Lily’s best friend and her stepmother, provide little substance to the narrative and seem to leave and reenter the story at random periods with little impact, leaving the reader to wonder why they were included at all. 

The flaws of The Words We Keep ultimately do little to detract from the impact of the story. Readers will be able to connect with Lily and will want to see her story to its finish. While not for the faint of heart, this is an important novel that explores the pain of suffering in silence, and how to overcome the fear of letting it out and asking for help. Readers will learn that many people around them may be fighting inner demons, and that compassion and openness about one’s own struggles is imperative. Readers who want to explore mental health through fiction should add Paper Girl by Cindy R. Wilson and Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge to their reading list. 

Sexual Content 

  • Lily texts Micah saying that a talk with her sister went over “like a fart in an elevator.” Afterward, Micah jokingly texts Lily that she needs to “work on [her] sexting skills.” 
  • When students begin leaving poems throughout the school, Lily notes “the occasional blow me” written along with them. 
  • Lily says that her father and stepmother are newlyweds, “which means sex. And lots of it.” 
  • Lily and Micah almost kiss in a janitor’s closet and rumors spread. One student speculates on the student message boards that Micah was “banging [Lily] in the janitor’s closet.” 
  • When Lily and Micah kiss for the first time, Lily describes, “his lips [moving] slowly, as gentle as a breeze, but the taste of him makes my whole body hum . . .our bodies, our lips, melt farther into each other.”  
  • Lily and Micah go skinny dipping in the ocean. Lily says, “I taste the ocean on his skin as I press my mouth to his shoulder, his neck, his jaw. He groans, low and guttural, when his lips find mine.” 
  • Lily sees her sister going skinny dipping with a guy at a beach party. He later says that the two of them were “messing around.” 
  • Micah was with Lily and her family at the hospital after Lily attempts suicide. He later confesses, “‘I have to tell you something . . . they put you in a hospital gown and I totally saw your butt.” She jokingly asks if it was “good for [him],” to which he responds it was. 

Violence 

  • As a child, Lily nearly drowned while swimming in the ocean. Her sister guided her back to shore. Lily remembers, “salt water fills my mouth, my ears, my everything . . . and then I’m on the sand. Dad’s swearing. He’s pounding on my back. He’s yelling my name so loudly, it hurts my head.” 
  • Lily discovers Alice on the bathroom floor, “blood draining from her wrist, pooling on the tile . . . Dad scoops her up, legs limp, blood dripping like a fairytale crumb down the stairs.” Alice is taken to the hospital and then to a mental facility. Lily recalls finding her in the bathroom several times throughout the book. 
  • Kids at school discuss rumors surrounding Micah. One boy says, “‘I heard someone found him perched on Deadman’s Cliff, trying to, you know. . . ’ [he] makes a throat slitting motion with his thumb.” 
  • One student says they heard that Micah “went full psycho on a kid at his last school. Like stomping him to the ground.” 
  • On a message board for students at Lily’s high school, someone suggests they make bets on “how long until [Micah] offs himself.” 
  • Lily self-harms. The earliest incident the reader is privy to is when she vigorously plucks hairs around her eyebrows, “[digging] the tweezers in until blood beads on my skin. But I keep going . . . got it . . . I wipe the pinpoints of blood from my eyelids.” 
  • When Lily was seven, a man, who is later revealed to be Micah’s father, leapt from Deadman’s Cliff. She remembers “watching the body covered in a white sheet like a bloated whale on the sand” on the news. 
  • Lily picks at the skin on her stomach, constantly picking off scabs and opening new wounds. She says, “it helps calm me, keeps me from having a full on meltdown . . . before long, blood coats my fingertips.” This process is described vividly throughout the book. 
  • Lily picks at her wounds in her sleep as well, waking up to find “bright red, angry splotches where I’ve ripped open my skin.” 
  • Micah lashes out at one of his bullies. In a fit of rage, Micah pushes him “up against a locker, and he’s hitting him, hitting him, hitting him.” A school security guard apprehends Micah and he is suspended from school and sentenced to do community service work. 
  • Alice has a breakdown at a beach party and tries to jump from Deadman’s Cliff, apparently convinced that she might fly. Lily tries to climb up to convince her to get down. She reaches for Alice’s ankle and “as she yanks her leg away, her other foot slips . . . and she’s falling. And screaming . . . and there’s blood in her hair. So much blood.” Alice survives the incident, ending up with a concussion. 
  • After her sister’s fall. Lily picks the skin on the entirety of her body in the bath, saying, “I continue even though the pain fills me. Because the pain fills me . . . I scrape myself away.” This happens over three pages. 
  • Lily has a nightmare about finding her sister in bed with “a waterfall of blood [pouring from her covers]. Soaking her nightgown. Splattering onto the carpet.” 
  • While in her room, Lily opens a box of razors and runs her finger “across all the razors and pencil sharpeners and scissors . . . If pain is all we’re going to feel anyway, why not bring it on?” She snaps herself out of it before she can act on the urge. 
  • Lily runs away from home in the middle of the night and attempts suicide by jumping off of Deadman’s Cliff. She thinks, “I just want it to stop. All of it—the monsters, the guilt, the never enough. It’s the only way.” Alice, Micah, and her father arrive and stop her. This scene lasts six pages. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Lily finds her father cleaning out a medicine cabinet in preparation for Alice’s homecoming. She suspects this is so he can “make sure Alice doesn’t down a fistful of Aspirin when she gets home.” 
  • Lily’s father takes sleeping pills. 
  • Lily begins secretly taking her father’s sleeping pills to combat her intrusive thoughts. 
  • A bully leaves Micah a bottle of aspirin with a note reading, “Do us all a favor.” 
  • After picking at her entire body, Lily takes one of her father’s sleeping pills and one of Alice’s prescribed pills. She sleeps for days while her father and stepmother are constantly with Alice at the hospital. When she awakes, she takes a double dose of sleeping pills and several of Alice’s before returning to sleep.

Language 

  • After Alice falls from the cliff, a student on the message board says that she and Lily are “total attention whores. The world would be better without them.” 
  • Shit, bitch, and damn are said on a few occasions. 

Supernatural 

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • Lily says that she and her family talk with her therapist while holding each other’s hands “like we’re saying a prayer. And maybe we are, supplicating a higher power to help us.” 

Mosquitoland

After the sudden and unexpected divorce of her parents, Mim Malone is dragged from her Ohio home. Mim’s happy life collapses when she’s forced to live with her father and his new wife in “Mosquitoland,” otherwise known as the middle of Mississippi.  

When Mim overhears a conversation, she finds out her mother is sick, and something in Mim snaps. Mim runs home, packs a bag, steals her stepmother’s stash of money, and boards the next Greyhound bus out of town, starting her almost thousand-mile journey from Jackson, Mississippi to Cleveland, Ohio. 

On her bus is a cast of quirky characters—some annoying, some creepy, and some, like her seatmate Arlene, kind. When the Greyhound bus tips over in the middle of a rainstorm, what would have been a straightforward trip, spirals into an interesting journey into the unexpected. On this new journey, Mim finds unexpected friends in Beck, a college student on a trip to find his old foster sister, and Walter, a boy Mim’s age with down syndrome, who is homeless. With the help of these new friends, Mim begins to realize she is not alone in this world, and that while she is struggling with events in her life, she does not have to struggle alone. 

While the trip started as a plan to see her mother, Mim’s trip morphs into a journey of self-discovery and acceptance. Mim is a strong-minded and independent, but also an imperfect person. She describes herself as a “collection of oddities, a circus of neurons and electrons.” Mim explains “my heart is the ringmaster, my soul is the trapeze artist, and the world is my audience. It sounds strange because it is, and it is, because I am strange.” Readers will relate to Mim because she does not strive to be perfect. Instead, she recognizes her quirks and problems, and, as a teenager, she knows she still has much to learn. 

Throughout Mosquitoland, Mim explains that she is “not okay.” She struggles with an unspecified mental illness, and her world seems to be falling apart because her family fractured when her parents divorced. At first, Mim is attempting to go home, back to the life she had with her mother in Ohio, but throughout the trip, she realizes “home is hard.” She learns that she will never have her old life back – a life she somewhat idolizes – and that leaving her old life behind is for the better. Mim realizes that home is not a “place or a time,” maybe “home is the heart . . . an organ, pumping life into my life.”   

Mosquitoland is beautifully written, with witty dialogue and memorable characters. The story is written from Mim’s point of view, who has a very unique narrative voice. Readers get insight into her perspective of the world and her hilarious internal dialogue on various topics, including baseball games, shop signs, and teenage girls. Moreover, her point of view is interspersed with letters to her unborn sister, explaining why she decided to leave Mississippi and documenting her feelings about the trip. 

Mosquitoland explores the heavy subject matter of mental illness and sexual assault. Mim explains that throughout her life, she has often questioned her sanity and her father has often thought there is something wrong with her. Mim goes to psychiatrists and therapy and is prescribed medication, but often questions if this medication is necessary. Mim’s family has a history of mental illness. Mim’s aunt committed suicide and her mother is currently hospitalized for depression. This book also discusses sexual assault, as an older man forces himself on Mim and kisses her. This experience traumatizes Mim and she often has flashbacks to this moment. Plus, she becomes anxious around men who remind her of the man who assaulted her. Furthermore, she feels incredibly guilty for not speaking up about this man’s actions before he assaults another girl. Mim shows the readers her vulnerability in these moments, the tough persona she presents to the world is broken down, and readers see Mim as someone who is just trying to figure life out and survive.  

Overall, Mosquitoland is a funny and entertaining book, with memorable, relatable characters. While it does touch on some difficult topics, this is balanced with a lighthearted tone and humorous plot. Beyond being a coming-of-age story about Mim coming to terms with her life and finding herself, it is also a story about the power of friendship. 

Sexual Content 

  • When Mim was younger she liked her friend’s older brother. Mim explains that she “was sexually attracted to Steve insomuch as I was an indiscriminate preadolescent girl.” When she was a year older, she still liked him. As he drove Mim home one night she explains, “new images sprang to mind: less boxing-ring-chest-pounding, more bedroom-floor-topless-romping.” 
  • Mim imagines what high school girls should be talking about. She thinks it’s “argu[ing] over who gives the most efficient blow job.” 
  • After a long, deep conversation, Mim and Beck, the older boy she has a massive crush on, fall asleep with “Beck hold[ing] Mim . . . on the floor well into the night.” Mim explains, “[w]e don’t talk. We don’t need to. Sleep is close, and I’m okay with that . . . At some point, he carries me to bed and lies down next me. . . He wraps an arm around me, and I swear we were once a single unit.” As Beck rolls over in the bed, “he rolls sideways, toward me, his face hovering over me. We stare at each other for a second, silent, unmoving . . .And I sense the move before it comes. Beck leans in, slowly, and kisses my forehead. It isn’t brief, but it’s gentle, and full of sadness and gladness and everything in between.” Mim wonders “how it would smell-taste-feel to have his lips pressed against my own, to feel his weight on top of me.” The two never go past the kiss as Beck reminds Mim, “I’m too old for you.” 

Violence 

  • In the beginning of her journey, the Greyhound tips over. Mim observes, “it’s a simmering stew of glass and blood and sewage and luggage, a cinematic devastation . . . Some people are moving, some are moaning, and some aren’t doing either. Carl is bleeding in about six places, administering CPR to one of the Japanese guys. I see Poncho Man help Amazon Blonde to her feet, right where I’d been sitting. I stand and stare for i-don’t-know-how-long, until an ax crashes through the left wall—formerly the roof of the bus. Firefighters crawl through the wreckage like ants, pulling limp bodies around their shoulders, administering first aid. Two EMTs . . . approach the limp body of a woman. The redhead leans over, puts his ear to the woman’s chest. Straightening, he looks at his partner, shakes his head.” Mim realizes the woman is dead and she is Arlene, Mim’s seat mate, who she has bonded with during the trip. In the accident, Mim received “just a cut.” 
  • Mim accidently becomes locked in the bathroom with a man she has nicknamed “Poncho Man.” He comes on to her, getting closer to her. When she pulls away, he grips her aggressively and tries to kiss her. “His lips are cold against mine,” Mim explains. In order to get away from him, Mim forces herself to throw up, launching “a vomit for the ages directly into Poncho Man’s mouth.” 
  • When she was younger, a bully calls a friend of Mim a “retard.” Mim punched the bully “breaking his nose and earning a one-day suspension.” 
  • Caleb, a suspicious young man she meets in the woods, tells Mim his dad “used the beat the hell outta [him] with household appliances . . . [and] for no good reason, too. [His dad] wasn’t a drunk . . . He was just fine at it sober. But one day, I was all growed-up, see. So you know what I did? Pulled the fire extinguisher out of his garage and beat the shit out of him.” 
  • When Mim figures out Caleb is planning to steal from Walter, she and Walter run back into town. Caleb chases them on to the roof of a gas station, where he pulls “a sizeable hunting knife” on them. Eventually, the owner of the gas station, Ahab, who just happens to know karate, comes up to the roof and begins to fight Caleb. “A blurred figure plummets on top of him, knocking him to the ground. Within seconds, Caleb is back on his feet, wielding the hunting knife at this new adversary . . .The fight doesn’t last more than a minute. In a roundhouse kick that would have made Jet Li proud . . . [Ahab] sends Caleb’s hunting knife sailing over the edge of the roof. With him disarmed, it’s hardly a fight at all. A couple of hook-kick combos and graceful strikes to the chest, arms, and head, and Ahab has a whimpering Caleb trapped in a half nelson on the gravel.” Ahab keeps Caleb in his “clenches” until the police arrive.  
  • When Caleb begins to insult Ahab, “without thinking twice, Ahab lifts Caleb up by his hoodie, and punches him once, twice, three times in the face. Blood splatters across the gravel roof, as well as a single tooth.”  
  • Beck reveals that he saw a young girl exit a bathroom, eyes “puffy and red from crying.” Afterwards, Beck sees a man exiting the same bathroom, and Beck realizes what this man had done to the young girl. Beck “punched him. Twice. In front of a cop.” The man is arrested because the “little girl spoke up.” Mim realizes that predator responsible was Poncho Man, the same man who assaulted her.  
  • Beck recalls that he had a foster sister whose father had just been released from prison. Unfortunately, a few weeks later her dad was “stabbed to death in a drug deal.” Beck’s foster sister “shut herself in the upstairs bathroom. We could hear her sobbing all through the house,” Beck explains. “I kicked down the door, found her in the tub. She’d slit her wrists.” 
  • When Mim is six her aunt “hung herself in our basement. . .I found her hanging there, her feet dangling inches from the floor – inches from life.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Mim is prescribed “aripapilazone” or “abilitol.” Mim takes these pills a few times. Although it is prescribed by a psychiatrist for her mental health issues, she is unhappy taking this medication and stops.  
  • When she was young, Mim and her mom used to go to a block party every Labor Day. She remembers “beer buckets” and her mom drinking beer.  
  • As he talks to Mim, the Greyhound bus driver “lights a cigarette [and] takes a drag.”  
  • When Mim stops at a gas station, the “young girl behind the counter blows a giant bubble with her gum and offers [her] free cigarettes.” 
  • When Mim meets Caleb, he “pulls a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, sticks one in his mouth . . . and lights up.” 
  • In memories from her childhood, Mim remembers her mother and father “drinking beer” in various instances.  
  • When Mim was nine years old, she discovered that her father smoked, and he allowed her to try one. Mim “pulled out a cigarette, surprised by how light it felt in my fingers. Dad lit the end, then told me to breathe in deep. I followed his instructions and inhaled deeply, deciding Dad was way cooler than I’d given him credit for. This was immediately followed by my hacking my lungs out, then throwing up on my mother’s favorite Venetian blinds. I couldn’t taste anything for a week. It was my first and last cigarette.” 
  • When Mim is forced to move to Mississippi she really wants to take her mother’s couch. She tells her father, “I would literally jump off the roof while simultaneously swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills,” before leaving the couch behind.  

Language   

  • Profanity is used occasionally. The profanity includes shit, fuck, bitch, jackass, dick, bastard. 
  • When she was younger, Mim witnessed a bully call a friend a “retard.” When she asks her mom what that word means, her mom explains “retard is a mean word used by mean people.”  
  • Beyond the use of regular profanity, this book also uses words that are profane-esque, including “effing” or “muthafuckas.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Beck asks Mim if she “believe[s] in God.” Mim tells a story, explaining when she was “maybe four years old,” she was with her mom running errands. Mim saw a man with “a really deformed face . . . so with the tact of a four year old, [Mim] pointed right at his cheek and asked what happened. He smiled even bigger and said God made him that way.” Mim continues “the prospect of there being a God scares me. Almost as much as the prospect of there not being one.”  
  • Beck says he definitely believes in God. He says, “My heart must continue beating in order to pump a red liquid called blood through tiny tubes called veins throughout this unit called a body. All my organs, in communication with my heart, must work properly for this carbon-based life-form called Beckett Van Buren to exist on this tiny spinning sphere called Earth. So many little things have to be just so, it’s a wonder we don’t just fall down dead.”  
  • When visiting her mother, Mim “ponder[s] the peculiarities of an angry Almighty.” She explains, “[a]nd now I know. I see it in the medicated drool dripping from the face of my once youthful mother. I see it in the slew of trained specialists assigned to her keeping. I see it in the Southwestern motif, from floor to ceiling of this nightmare called Sunrise Rehab, and I know what makes God when He’s angry: a person with the capacity for emptiness . . . a drained emptiness. A person who was once full. A person who lived and dreamed, and above all, a person who cared for something – for someone. And within that person, he places the possibility of poof – gone – done – to be replaced by a Great Empty Nothingness.” 

Thanks for the Trouble

Parker Sante has not said a single word in 12 years; not since he witnessed his father die in a fatal car accident. Instead, he writes out his thoughts in a journal and watches other people interact; studying their movements and actions until it is the perfect moment to steal something that others would never know is gone. That’s exactly what he is doing when he locks eyes with Zelda. The striking, silver-haired vixen who seems to entrap him with just one look. Suddenly, not only does he want to steal from her, but he wants to get to know her. To talk to her.  

However, Parker quickly realizes that Zelda isn’t everything he thought she would be. She’s a dream, but one that may be coming to an end very soon. When Zelda receives a mysterious phone call, she makes it clear she plans to end her life. While she won’t tell him the details, Parker knows he must change her mind. So, the pair spend the next few days doing everything that Parker hopes will make Zelda fall in love with life again. It includes one wild night at a Halloween party (a scene that is very unlike Parker), becoming the middleman in a very public breakup at the movies, and even letting Zelda convince him to apply for college. However, as time passes, Parker falls more in love with Zelda and is increasingly frustrated because he knows nothing about her.  

Zelda remains an enigma to Parker until he demands she tell him who she is and why she is going to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. But the story that Zelda begins to tell Parker is one he never saw coming. Instead, it is filled with unbelievable lies that Zelda insists are her reality; a reality that causes her to remain young forever. But Parker isn’t buying it. People didn’t just stop aging and live forever…or did they?  

As Parker races against time, trying to change Zelda’s mind, he realizes that maybe she isn’t the only one who needs saving. After all, Parker was living his life at half volume until Zelda came along, and now that she’s here, he doesn’t want to let his life slip away again. He just may have to figure out how to live life to the fullest on his own. 

The odd, yet endearing friendship between Zelda and Parker adds a vibrancy to the novel that immediately draws in the reader. Considering all the challenges Parker faces, witnessing his social progression throughout the story will leave the reader with a sense of pride. For example, by the end of the novel Parker begins to make real friends at school and starts to form the connections that he always wanted but never had. While Zelda shows some signs of vulnerability, an air of mysteriousness remains around her. There are moments where even the reader will question if what Zelda is saying is true or just another made-up story to help her conceal her identity. Because of this, the reader may find themselves frustrated by Zelda’s consistent games, but they will simultaneously be entranced by her.  

While Thanks for the Trouble contains a great plot line and immense character development, there is a heavy presence of suicidal thoughts. Multiple times, Zelda mentions that she intends to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, and she eventually carries through with the action. While Zelda discloses to Parker that she cannot age and that is why she intends to commit suicide, the reader is still left with a feeling of uncertainty around that reasoning. Therefore, it never feels like we get a complete reason as to why Zelda wants to commit suicide, which makes the novel heartbreaking. While Parker consistently attempts to get Zelda to rethink her decision to commit suicide, that is the only form of suicide prevention that is present within the novel. The novel does not discourage suicide, and it does not discuss methods of intervention.  

Aside from the heavy topic of suicide, the plot will keep readers on their toes and the mystery never lets up. Readers never know what will happen next, which makes Thanks for the Trouble a must-read. The story is heartbreaking and honest in a way that many novels for young adult readers are not. The novel plays on the impulsiveness of teenage feelings when it comes to love and relationships, creating a sense of understanding between the reader and the characters. Parker’s devotion to Zelda reminds the reader that love is the greatest kindness you can show someone. Once more, Zelda’s journey through the novel and her eventual death brings light to the idea that life is fragile in every form, and that we may never know how much time is left. All in all, the novel makes resounding commentary on how love, life, and death are the three sole things that can never be stopped, even if we wish they could be.    

Sexual Content 

  • Zelda guesses what Parker does in his free time. “Seventeen? What a horrible age. I bet you spend most of your free time playing computer games and watching pornography on the Internet.”  
  • Parker recalls his first kiss when he was in seventh grade. He was playing spin the bottle with a friend and “the bottle had landed on her first, then on me, then blam! I was kissed. Kisses are weird that way. They’re supposed to be performed by two people simultaneously, but they don’t have to be. We even have a term for it- a stolen kiss– which is really just a euphemism for full-on-oral assault. I can remember looking up from the open mouth of the bottle only to find another open mouth rushing at me. A crush of lip and tongue and saliva and the chorus of yowls from the onlookers.” 
  • Someone tells Zelda what a cougar is. “A cougar’s an older woman who gets it on with young men.”  
  • Zelda lies about Parker and her being lovers. A boy at the Halloween party “asked me if you were my community service project. I told him we’d been lovers for months. That you’d made me feel things I’d never felt before.”  
  • Zelda and Parker kiss at a Halloween Party. “I turned to smile at Zelda and she kissed me, right on the mouth this time, and I kissed her back.”  
  • As Parker walks around a museum with Zelda, he says, “Usually, the only thing that keeps me awake is all the nudity. Though not nearly as common as bowls of fruit, naked ladies tend to feature very prominently in your average museum.”  
  • Parker and Zelda passionately kiss in the Shakespeare Garden. “I moved across the dark distance between us and put my arms around her waist, pulling her into a kiss. I felt the cluck of her phone dropping to the grass. A moment later we were on the ground too. She rolled on top of me, pinning my arms behind my head, pushing against me in a way that made me forget every single problem I ever had or probably ever would have.”  
  • Parker’s mother gives him sex advice. His mom says, ” Try to do it mostly with people you love. Use protection. Don’t be an asshole.”  
  • Parker and Zelda have sex. “We finished undressing each other and got into bed. The house was just cold enough that it felt really good under the covers, skin to skin. And then we were kissing, and then it was happening, and I’ll leave the gory details to your imagination if that’s okay by you.”  

Violence 

  • Parker steals from a woman’s purse at the hotel. “I glanced around the room, and when I was sure no one was looking, I reached over and undid the clasp of the silver-haired girl’s little blue handbag. I pushed through a cloud of Kleenex and deep-sea dove into the mysterious mire of femininity until my fingers found the wad.”  
  • Parker describes his version of the sleeping beauty storyline. “He’s actually a douche-bag king—one who already has a queen by the way—and he rapes her. She wakes up pregnant, so the king’s wife tries to kill her, bake her into a pie, and feed her to the king. The happy ending? The king decides to have his wife burned to death so he can raise a family with Sleeping Beauty.”  
  • Parker writes a fairytale and describes one of the characters abusing his wife. “As a punishment, he beat his wife around the belly with a bent piece of barrel wood.”  
  • Zelda tells Parker about her plans of committing suicide. “I am waiting for a phone call. And when it comes, I’m going to give this money to the first needy person I see. Then I’ll take the trolley to the Golden Gate Bridge and jump off of it.”  
  • Parker describes the car accident that killed his father. His father caught the back bumper of another car when he was switching lanes and “we were flipped over in the middle of the highway and my dad was dripping onto the fucking roof, you know.”  
  • Parker recounts a character in one of his stories being hit by his mother. “His mother slapped him upside the head again. Go back to bed child!”  
  • Parker tells Zelda about how he got charged with assault in eighth grade from pushing his bully. “I pushed him back one time, and I wasn’t paying…this one car was driving way too close to the sidewalk, and so yeah, he ended up getting hit. Trevor’s parents pressed charges, and maybe because he was white and I wasn’t, I got this minor version of assault put on my record.”  
  • When Zelda finds out Parker declined the phone call she had been waiting for, Zelda slaps Parker. “Finally, I grabbed her shoulder, and she spun and delivered a stinging slap right to my bruised cheek. I was blind with pain for a few seconds, and by the time I recovered, she was gone.”  
  • Parker finds Zelda about to jump off the bridge. “Now, you might think it doesn’t really matter one way or the other—if a person wants to kill herself, she’ll just find some other way to do it, right? Wrong. It turns out that most people make these decisions pretty lightly, on the spur of the moment when the thought occurs, they often don’t do it at all.”  
  • Parker describes how Zelda looks before she jumps off the bridge. “Imperfect sadness maybe, which was another way of saying there was a little splinter of happiness in there too. I’d given her that at least. And then she jumped.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Zelda pours rum into her drink. “She took a small leather flask out of her purse and poured some of it into her soda.”  
  • Parker goes to see his mom and she is drinking. “The eviscerated remains of a TV dinner were still in my mom’s lap, and she was holding a mostly empty glass of red wine.”  
  • Parker gets home and notices his mom is drunk. “My mom was clearly a little bit tipsy. . . ”  
  • Parker describes his idea of high school parties. According to Parker, high school parties are “a bunch of people getting together to be drunk, loud assholes, with a special emphasis on the loud. And another emphasis on the drunk. And a third emphasis on assholes, while we’re at it.”  
  • After being left alone at the party, Parker gets drunk. “I’ve never seen the appeal in getting hammered every time there’s alcohol on offer. But here I was at a party made up entirely of people I either didn’t know or didn’t like, so what else was I supposed to do?”  
  • Parker sees others at the party drinking. “Jamie Schmid, the host of the party, came running from the other end of the yard, a bottle of Budweiser gripped tightly in each fist.”  
  • Parker describes his mother’s bedside table. “Her drugs were on the bedside table – Prozac and Tylenol PM – alongside an empty bottle of wine.” 
  • Zelda confronts Parker’s mother about her alcohol use. Zelda says, “But you cannot expect your son to stand here and be lectured about self-control by an alcoholic.” 

Language   

  • Explicit language such as fuck, shit, and ass are used frequently. 
  • Parker says others describe him as “a thug.”  
  • A friend of Parker’s argues with him over who should go first in chess. “You’re Latino is what you are, son. And that whole white-goes-first bullshit is straight-up racist.”  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Parker describes some of the artwork in the museum: “All those haloed saints and weeping Marys and bleeding Jeses (that’s the plural of Jesus, right?) and yawn-inducing landscapes and dead chickens.” 
  • Parker, Zelda, and his new friends discuss God. The friend said, “God and science are not incompatible. And Zelda just said herself. Nothing adds up unless you consider God.”  
  • Parker expresses his thoughts on the Bible. “That’s the problem with the Bible—or one of them, anyway—it doesn’t just tell you what to do, it tells you what to want. That’s too much to ask, IMHO.”  

Haunt Me

After years of struggling with her mental health and social life, Erin and her family have moved away to start over. She tries to put on a smile for her parents, reminding herself, “this is all because of me. The least I can do is act grateful.” Life in the beachside town isn’t all that exciting until she discovers a ghost haunting her bedroom. 

Joe was the same age as Erin when he died months ago. He struggles to recall details of his life and how it ended. The bond between Erin and Joe grows and quickly turns into love. Still, she can’t avoid the painful reality that “this isn’t a relationship. It isn’t real. It isn’t life.” Erin soon discovers that though Joe’s family has moved from the house she now calls home, they haven’t gone far. And it isn’t long before she meets his older brother.  

Once an athletic playboy, Olly has been left gutted by his brother’s death. Though he and Erin could not be more different, he is drawn to her and Erin can’t deny that she is drawn to him as well. As her life begins to spiral downward due to a betrayal from one of her new school friends, Erin realizes that there is only one way she could ever be with Joe. She must not only choose between two brothers but life and death. 

The first part of Haunt Me alternates between the perspectives of Erin and Joe, and the setting is mostly confined to her room. This is the part of the book that flows the best, as it’s easy to be charmed by their budding romance. Olly’s perspective is eventually introduced, which muddles the pacing. As Erin and Olly spend more time together, Joe’s perspective becomes less frequent as he spends most of his time alone. This change makes the book feel as if it has become another story entirely, which might disappoint readers who were drawn in by Erin and Joe’s relationship. 

As the protagonist, Erin is easy to sympathize with, but she doesn’t stand out. She is shy, troubled, and likes to write, but it’s difficult to gauge more about her. Readers are told about her struggles, but will rarely experience them with her, and it’s difficult to understand why she falls for Joe, and later Olly, so quickly. Meanwhile, Joe is witty and engaging. His narration easily draws in the reader. On the other hand, Olly is the weakest character; he is sympathetic but isn’t fleshed out. In addition, Erin’s family isn’t notable, and there’s a cliché cast of mean girls that does nothing but cause drama with unrealistic acts of spite. Unfortunately, most of the characters end up being forgettable. 

Besides the clunky pacing and the underwhelming cast, Haunt Me has another major issue: the rushed conclusion. A lot happens over a short period of time, and there is little room to process the events. Joe’s spirit fades and the story would have greatly benefited from a longer goodbye between him and Erin, but it happens so fast that it doesn’t elicit much emotion from the reader. Furthermore, Erin lacks the romantic chemistry with Olly that she had with Joe, and it isn’t satisfying to see them end up together. 

Readers who have struggled with depression themselves will connect with Erin’s struggles. She recounts her experiences with bullying and suicidal thoughts which is heartbreaking, but the book fails to show much of how her issues are being treated. Ultimately, it’s hard not to be let down by the poor execution of the story. While unique in concept, Haunt Me’s flaws ultimately cause it to fall flat. As an alternative to Haunt Me, grab a copy of Nina Moreno’s Don’t Date Rosa Santos which is about a girl who feels cursed and must deal with grief.  

Sexual Content 

  • Joe puts a hand on Erin’s head, and because she cannot yet see him she mistakes this for a large spider. She gets up in a panic and hastily removes her shirt while batting at her head. Joe says, “I can’t help myself. I glance at her as she rips her shirt off. Come on. I might be dead, but I’m still a sixteen-year-old boy.” 
  • Erin muses, “I have been kissed. But I don’t know if two snogs behind the gym and one in the back row of a cinema” counts. Snog is British slang for kissing. 
  • Erin describes kissing Joe as feeling like “nothing even exists except his lips on mine, his arms tightening around my waist . . . [pulling me] so close I am starting to wonder where I end and he begins.” 
  • Olly describes “snogging girls whose names I could barely remember.” 
  • Erin listens to Olly recall a party he went to with his former girlfriend. He says they went upstairs and came down after a bit, and Erin notes, “I don’t ask him what the ‘bit’ entailed. I don’t want to know.” 
  • Erin describes kissing Olly, “his hands in my hair, his lips pressed against mine.” 
  • A popular girl named Zoe confesses that she got to know the substitute gym teacher in eleventh grade and that he “had me working out a lot more than I’m used to.” She later admits this was a lie. 

Violence 

  • A stanza in one of Erin’s poems describes “opening a can of chopped tomatoes and slicing my finger and not knowing which red is mine.” 
  • On her first day of secondary school, Erin describes being hit by a car, saying it “broke my leg in three places and shattered my kneecap.” 
  • Erin finds a silver pendant in the closet. When she reaches for it, she describes, “a bolt of electricity runs through my arm . . . it throws me backward against the wall.” She hits her head and is knocked out. When she wakes, she can see Joe’s ghost. 
  • Erin was bullied at her old school. Her bullies once waved a plastic bag in front of her and “suggested that I put it on my head and tie it tight . . . they were practically begging me to off myself.” Erin says this torment continued for a considerable period, but she didn’t tell anyone. 
  • While a psychic medium is attempting to expel Joe from Erin’s room, Joe feels as if he is being attacked. He describes feeling as though “needles [are piercing] my arms . . . knives [are slashing] at my legs.” The struggle lasts about six pages before he is successfully expelled. 
  • Erin attempts to kill herself by jumping off a beach cliff. Unable to get to her, Joe protests from below. He describes, “she’s letting go, leaning backwards.” Olly arrives just in time and grabs her arm, pulling her back up.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • A stanza in one of Erin’s poems describes “staring at the gray carpet until it blurs . . . a bottle of pills in my hand.” 
  • Erin admits to Joe that she once tried to commit suicide via painkillers she had been prescribed. She says, “I emptied the contents of the bottle in my hand and took them in one go.” Her parents found her and took her to get her stomach pumped. 
  • Olly says his past few years have been filled with “parties, girls . . .  and drugs.” 
  • Olly says that he began taking Joe to parties. At his first party, Joe took ecstasy. Olly reasons that half the people at these parties were “popping pills or sharing spliffs” and that he often smoked weed himself.  
  • While at a party, Joe would take whatever drug he could get his hands on, but usually ecstasy. 
  • At her first sleepover, Erin says she learned, “I quite like hard cider . . . after two pints of it, I think I’m rather good at singing, dancing, and air guitar.” 
  • While at a sleepover, Erin and her friends drink from a bottle of alcohol that one of the girls snuck past the host’s parents. 
  • Joe’s death was caused by a brain aneurysm. He thought he just had a headache. Joe took ecstasy that his brother was in possession of to “get completely wasted and not care about anything.” This caused the aneurysm to be fatal.    

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural Content 

  • Joe is a ghost, confined to Erin’s room. He states. “No one can hear me or see me. Because I’m dead.” Erin can see Joe after touching a silver pendant found inside the closet that gives her a sort-of electric shock. 
  • Joe is unable to touch at first, stating that his hand “goes right through [things].” He begins to realize he can interact with things if his emotions are strong, and he begins making physical contact with Erin more frequently throughout their relationship. 
  • While Erin’s mother is in her room trying to get her to come downstairs, Joe becomes so flustered that his energy causes her mother to be pushed back onto the bed, “the curtains [start] flapping . . . the window starts to rattle. . . [the bed] starts to shake as well.”  
  • After the above occurrence, Erin’s mother becomes convinced the room is haunted, saying that “the room is about ten degrees colder than the rest of the house . . . I’ve been hearing [bumps] for weeks.”  
  • Erin’s mother hires a psychic to expel the spirit. The act is described in detail, and the psychic instructs Erin’s mother to take some “of the sage, light the top of it and repeat after [her].” Joe is successfully expelled from the room, but his spirit is transferred to a cave by the beach. 
  • Joe realizes that his spirit is lingering because he needs to help his brother let go of the guilt he feels regarding his death. He also needs to help Erin find her will to live again. Once this is accomplished, “he melts, as he becomes the sea and the sky and air.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Remember Me

The day before her seventeenth birthday, Blue Owens wakes up feeling like something is wrong. Her memories are hazy, and everything seems vaguely familiar, yet so foreign. Her friends and family are acting weird and suspicious, tiptoeing around her, as if she will fall and break at any minute. Blue explains, “You ever get the feeling something’s going on and you don’t know what it is?”  

In the back of her closet, she finds a strange note that reads: meet me on the little blue bus at 7:45. Blue has no idea who wrote the note or any idea why someone would want to meet her. But she only has one day to decide what she’s going to do. 

Following her gut, Blue gets on the little blue bus at 7:45 and meets Adam, who seems like a stranger. But as they talk and connect, she is flooded with familiarity; it is as if they have always known each other. Because they have. Adam hesitantly explains that they have dated since the tenth grade. “In fact,” he says, they’ve “done everything together for two years.” Blue discovers that she “canceled” Adam, and chose to erase him from her memory. 

Realizing what she has done, Blue sets out to recover her memories and figure out why she “canceled” them. As she explores deeper into her past, she is faced with painful memories. Should Blue leave her forgotten memories in the past? Should she bring her memories back and experience her grief all over again?  

Set ten years in the future, Remember Me mixes sci-fi and mystery elements with a story about grief and finding yourself. While Blue is a determined, independent, and brave young woman, she is also broken and imperfect, as she is dealing with great tragedies. After Blue’s sister’s tragic death, Blue spirals into a deep depression, waking up “most days [wishing she was] dead.” Blue’s friends and family begin to worry, as she becomes detached, irritable, and overly spontaneous. Blue must decide if she wants to erase all memories of her sister, finding a supposed cure to her pain, or spiral further, hoping one day she will wake up “and be [the] kind of person who glows and has goals and a self that doesn’t torture them.”  

In the end, rather than truly canceling her past, Blue learns to live with her grief. Although “it still hurt[s] whenever” she thinks of her sister, as these memories can “break [her] apart,” Blue is able to “come back together” and be whole. She comes to terms with her past and realizes that memories of her sister, for better or for worse, are still a part of her and make her who she is. 

Remember Me is best for mature readers, as it deals with topics like depression, suicide, death, and grief. It also delves into the effects of divorce on children. Furthermore, it has an explicit sex scene and substantial use of profanity. Overall, Remember Me, is a must-read, with a diverse cast of characters, a strong female lead, and an interesting plot. The story discusses the difficulties of grieving and losing someone you love. Plus, it highlights the importance of learning to live with the painful events of your past and accepting them as a part of who you are. 

Sexual Content 

  • Blue’s friends, Turtle and Jack, are dating and “in love.” They often act intimate with each other in front of others. 
  • Turtle is practicing for a play and has to make out with Kevin, a boy who is gay and uncomfortable kissing a girl. While practicing for the show the two struggle to connect. The teacher who is directing their practice has Turtle and her partner Jack (who is also in show choir) kiss to show them how it’s done. “Kevin is watching, uncomfortably, from the side. Jack leans forward slowly, pulling Turtle flush against their own body, and they melt into a deep kiss.” 
  • In eighth grade, Blue kissed Jacobo Mancini. Blue “let him put his hands in my bikini bottoms. I remember playing a game where I was supposed to be in the closet with Calvin Locus and we were supposed to spend six minutes in there and we didn’t come out for a much longer time.”  
  • While riding the bus with Adam, Blue thinks that she does not “remember kissing [him]. . .  my body does. My body positively writhes with knowing.” 
  • After reuniting, Blue and Adam kiss. “Our lips touch and he presses the middle of my back toward him. I feel like an elevator falling up.” Later, their families pull them apart, Blue thinks “out of nowhere I’m back in that kiss, in the breathlessness that took me over.” 
  • Blue thinks about sex. She thinks, “I’m not so much thinking about sex per se, like me having it but I am thinking about the idea of sex, or why people want to have it.” She then imagines her and Adam together. “And it’s not like I want to have sex with him right away or something. . . But I would like to kiss him. Very much I would like that. I wouldn’t mind running my hands over the skin under his shirt, feeling his breath on my neck, his fingertips on my belly.” 
  • Blue notes that her friend lives in the older part of town, in a crumbling building where you “can hear their neighbors having sex when they’re trying to go to sleep.” 
  • When Blue and Adam first began to date, they spent “hours and hours on end” kissing. Then “the shirts came off. We spent about a month like that . . . then pants got inched down and finally off.” The two become sexually intimate with each other. Blue recounts a moment when Adam had “his head between my legs” for the first time.  
  • Before she cancels him, Blue visits Adam for what is supposed to be the last time. The two kiss. Adam “opens his mouth and it’s hot when he nips at my lips. It’s not a sexy kiss so much as a communication . . . an apology.” 

Violence 

  • Ten years into the future, there is an “international epidemic” of suicide, especially among young people.  
  • There is a bridge in Blue’s town that “people throw themselves off… all the time, and it’s been getting worse.” One instance causes the whole community to come together, when “Taylor Strong chucked himself off the edge”of the bridge. 
  • When Blue arrives at the beach, she sees Adam and explains “my throat drops into my toes… He has V draped across his arm and is swimming ferociously toward the shore. She is limp, head hanging backward, neck tilted back and exposed like she’s offering herself up to the sky.” She imagines V swam “straight to the spot where Dad told us not to go, swims out there vowing to prove that we all underestimate her. She swims straight into a riptide, gets pulled under, flails and kicks but the riptide is too strong for her. She’s carried away screaming when she reaches the surface, until she can’t fight anymore…. By the time the ambulance comes, I am as gone as V…  My sister is dead.” 
  • After her sister dies, Blue explains “most days when I wake up I wish I were dead.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • On her fifteenth birthday, Blue gets drunk. She explains that she “didn’t mean to get drunk but [she’s] such a lightweight that even though [she] only took a couple of sips” she was drunk. 
  • Blue attends a party with her friends and drinks.  
  • Blue observes the “worst my parents do is smoke joints out back after they think I’m asleep.” 
  • After her parents’ divorce Blue wonders if her father is hooking up with “one of those rafting girls he works with, sturdy, beer-drinking, tan, young.” 
  • Blue’s father explains to Blue before she was born, he “drank too much beer and cursed.” 

Language   

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes shit, fuck, bitch, ass, and pussy. 

 Supernatural 

  • None 

 Spiritual Content 

  • Blue and her grandmother attend a funeral. As they walk into the church, Gran “makes the sign of the cross twice, once as we pass the Lady of Guadalupe statue in the courtyard and again when we stumble over the threshold into the actual church.” 
  • Blue describes the funeral service. “A priest says some things about Jesus. . .  I just listen[ed] to the prayers, the talk of God having a place in heaven for Arturo, the God will look over his wife and his children, that Arturo is free now.” 

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr

Sometimes the world is too much for Mona Starr. She’s sweet, geeky, and creative, but it’s hard for her to make friends and connect with other people. So much so, that her depression seems to take on a vivid, concrete form. Mona Starr calls it her Matter.

The Matter seems to be everywhere, telling Mona she’s not good enough and that everyone around her wishes she’d go away. But with therapy, art, writing, and the persistence of a few good friends, Mona starts to understand her Matter and learns she can turn her fears into strengths.

Many readers will relate to Mona, who struggles with insecurity, indecision, and negative thoughts. Even though Mona tries to hide her dark thoughts, she realizes that she can rely on others for emotional support. As Mona tries to understand her depression, she has the help of a therapist, her parents, and her friends. While this takes away much of the shame associated with depression, the constantly shifting scenes make the story disjointed. Despite this, Mona’s personal journey allows teens to understand depression and how depression can impact people.

Throughout the graphic novel, Mona struggles with dark thoughts and wonders if “I’m doomed. . . and it’s all doomed. That I don’t matter. . . none of it matters.” Her emotions are expressed in both the text and the illustrations. For example, in one scene the picture shows her surrounded by speakers that blare comments such as, “You deserve to be alone. You’re lame. You’re a bad person.” Her dark thoughts take several different forms, such as a huge blanket, loudspeakers, and space. While the illustrations are beautiful and complex, the inconsistency may confuse some readers.

One negative aspect of the graphic novel is that some of the comments don’t connect with the story’s plot. For example, Mona tells her counselor, “I know I shouldn’t complain as a privileged white American” which may imply that Mona’s problems aren’t valid. Plus, there are several other comments that needed to be developed in more detail. For example, Mona thinks her depression caused a benign tumor to grow. However, this thought is never explained or discouraged.

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr will give readers insight into how to cope with depression. Not only does Mona go to therapy, but each chapter begins with advice that helps Mona deal with her dark thoughts. For example, “draw it out,” “turn emotion into action,” and “break your cycles.” Mona learns to lean on her friends and to be honest about her difficulties. She also learns that “I can’t erase the negative story in my head that says I’m crazy but maybe I can replace it with a story that is more accurate.”

The black-and-white illustrations are captivating because of their complexity. Instead of just relying on facial expressions, Mona’s emotions take on forms of their own. For example, at one point Mona is overwhelmed and the illustration shows her surrounded by a brick wall. In another image, Mona’s hope is highlighted by a yellow glow and when Mona’s parents support her, they have yellow hearts surrounding them.

Readers who would like to explore how other characters deal with anxiety should read Guts by Raina Telgemeier and Breath Like Water by Anna Jarzab. Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge also deals with a teen’s overwhelming emotions and self-doubt, but it does a better job explaining these emotions better

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Mona’s father talks about his sister who was “mentally unwell. She ended up taking her own life.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Mona overhears her parents’ conversation. Her mother says, “Maybe she needs medication? My sister is on antidepressants and says it helps.”

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

The Oracle Code

After an accident renders her disabled, teenager Barbara Gordon is sent to the Arkham Center for Independence (A.C.I). She learns to cope with her newfound disability, makes new friends, and processes her trauma. However, there seems to be something more sinister occurring within the rehabilitation center; kids are disappearing, and the doctors are hiding something. Can Barbara solve the mystery behind the facility before she too falls victim to it?  

The graphic novel, The Oracle Code is told from Barbara’s point of view, which helps the reader see her character growth and understand the overarching themes of resilience, the importance of friendship, and embracing who you are. The story shows the difficulties of living with a disability, while still emphasizing that having a disability does not make your life less valuable. Barbara’s friend Issy reinforces this theme when she says, “The truth is, no matter what anyone led you to believe, life on wheels isn’t any worse or better than life on both feet, or one foot, or crutches. It’s what you make of it.”  

Barbara also learns the importance of letting others help during hard times. While she tries to be as independent as possible, eventually Barbara accepts that it is okay to rely on others and ask for assistance when needed. As she tries to solve the mysteries behind the A.C.I, Barbara calls upon her friends and family, and it is through their teamwork that the puzzle is eventually cracked.  

The secret behind the facility is incredibly dark and may be difficult and upsetting to read. The head physical therapist and head psychiatric therapist experiment on the A.C.I patients in order to find more effective treatments and cures. This is done by kidnapping the children whose parents have seemingly abandoned them and erasing any trace of their existence. The therapists then perform torturous experiments in order to “fix” them. The physical therapist even refers to the children he experiments on as “collateral damage.” In the end, Barbara and the rest of the patients within the A.C.I. prove that they don’t need to be “fixed.”  

Preitano’s illustrations highlight the emotionally powerful moments with dynamic page compositions and incredible character expressions. The color schemes also help differentiate between flashbacks and the present day. Flashback sequences are illustrated in stark reds, oranges, and yellows. This contrasts the muted colors used in the rest of the graphic novel. Preitano’s use of intense shading also helps intensify the looming dreadful atmosphere of the A.C.I. Despite the excellent illustrations, the dialogue between the characters and Barbara’s internal monologue is still central to the story and ensures each idea is conveyed clearly. In addition, the text is easy to read because it uses simple vocabulary. 

The Oracle Code is highly recommended for anyone struggling to come to terms with a disability. Barbara and her friends are excellent role models because they persevere through difficult circumstances and display selflessness by helping each other despite the dangers. In addition, their incredible vulnerability will encourage teens to be more open with their emotions. Plus, the well-written mystery and relatable characters make for an incredibly engaging read.   Overall, The Oracle Code is an excellent graphic novel and a must-read for anyone who loves DC comics or a good mystery.  Fans of DC comics should also read Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed by Laurie Halse Anderson.  

Sexual Content  

  • None

Violence  

  • Barbara gets shot “trying to help someone.” During flashback scenes, guns and bullets are consistently present in the illustrations.  
  • The hospitalized kids retaliate against the doctor who experimented on them. The doctor is hit several times with mobility aids and then tied up with a jump rope. Onomatopoeias like “crunch” and “smack” are used during this segment. 
  • The A.C.I. experiment on a patient, who later said they were “test subjects.” 
  • One of the doctors conducting genetic experiments also threatens Barbara and her friends with a gun.  

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • None 

 Language   

  • None 

Supernatural  

  • None 

Spiritual Content  

  • None

On a Scale of One to Ten

Tamar is admitted to Lime Grove, a psychiatric hospital for teenagers with a variety of issues. She’s asked endless questions. But there’s one question she can’t. . . or won’t answer: What happened to her friend Iris? As Tamar’s past becomes more and more clear to her, she’ll have to figure out a path toward forgiveness and find a way to live.

Tamar tells her own story which allows her self-hatred, guilt, and desire to die take center stage. While readers may not understand Tamar’s struggle, she is a sympathetic character who isn’t sure how to take control of her life. While in the psychiatric hospital, Tamar does little to help herself and she describes most of the hospital workers in a negative light. The staff members are either incompetent or too worn out to expend any energy on the patients. When a psychiatrist sees Tamar, his lack of compassion makes the sessions useless. While in the hospital, Tamar continues to try to harm herself and even attempts to end her life. Even though the story has a hopeful conclusion, the reason that Tamar is beginning to heal is unclear.

On a Scale of One to Ten is difficult to read because of Tamar’s graphic descriptions of her suicide attempts and her self-hatred. Tamar often refers to herself as a murderer because of Iris’s death. The constant reminders of Iris create suspense, but the circumstances of Iris’s death aren’t revealed until the very end. The reasons that led to Iris’s suicide are unrealistic and horrifying. When a girl sets Iris’s hair on fire, Tamar does nothing to help Iris, which is one of the reasons Tamar feels guilt. Tamar’s lack of empathy for Iris and her own despicable behavior is heartbreaking.

In the end, Tamar is on the path to recovery, and she realizes “there isn’t a cure. Except me: I am the cure.” On a Scale of One to Ten gives readers insight into one girl’s struggle with mental illness; however, the story doesn’t include how Tamar is finally able to cope with her guilt and suicidal thoughts. On a Scale of One to Ten excellently depicts Tamar’s emotions and gives insight into teens who struggle with mental health. Mature readers who want to delve into another book that explores mental illness should add Turtles All the Way Down by John Green to their must-read list.

Sexual Content

  • Tamar wonders if a charity shop is “a front for drugs, kidnapping, or prostitution.”
  • Tamar goes to a party at Toby’s house. While there, “I feel his face close to mine even though my vodka-brain is swirling my vision and Rihanna bursts on. . . I brush my lips against his and I don’t think it lasts for more than a few seconds.” Later, Tamar describes the “burnt taste of weed on his lips.”
  • Tamar, who is wearing a dress, wonders if the “person in the street is looking at me weirdly. . . [is] planning to stalk and rape me.”
  • After Tamar gets out of the hospital, she begins dating. Kissing is involved.

Violence

  • To get the bad thoughts to stop, Tamar hits her head against the wall. “If you slam your forehead hard enough, then it bleeds under the skin and the bruises are swollen and sore, but at least the thoughts disappear for a third of a second.”
  • Tamar cuts herself. “I make three thin scratches on my thigh, watch to see which one draws the most blood.” She then gets in the bath and, “I stretch out my arm in front of me and press down, slice the blade across the skin. I watch it split, blood starting to ooze out. . . I’m slashing, wildly gashing deeper, deeper into my undeserving body. . .” She is taken to the hospital and given stitches.
  • While in Dr. Flores’s office, Tamar begins “shouting and swearing every swear word in the English language. I’d . . . hurled the books with the hardest covers I could find at him. . . He’d swerved just as the Holy Bible smashed into his computer.” When the nurses tried to restrain Tamar, she “tried to bite them as they held my squirming body. . .”
  • Tamar tries to drown herself. She fills the bathtub and then “plunging below the surface, water burning nostrils, dancing into lungs that in equal measure try to accept and reject in confusion the muddy flood that prances into them.” The scene is described over two and a half pages.
  • Again, Tamar tries to kill herself. She talks about “how tight the noose felt as it dug into my soft flesh, how my eyeballs felt like they were going to burst out of my sockets, and I could feel my brain swelling against my skull . . .”
  • Ellie, one of the patients in the psychiatric hospital throws a fit. “She thumps on the corridor walls outside the bedroom, dashing and darting away from nurses who want to inject her. . . I don’t look out the window or my door, but I’m sure if I did, I would see the chairs that I heard land, flying across the corridor and slamming into walls. . .”
  • Iris is a new girl at Tamar’s school. One day, Iris, Tamar, and Mia (Tamar’s friend) go outside to smoke. “Mia lifted the lighter to Iris’s red hair. Iris’s face said it all before the flames did, and her hair billowed into a smoking russet plumage. Someone. . . engulfed Iris’s head in a blazer.” There were “sheens of crimson lining her scalp. Shiny tracks of peeled skin running across her forehead.” The paramedics treated her burns. Neither Tamar, nor Mia was punished.
  • Iris and Tamar go to a dam and get wasted. When Tamar leaves, Iris “put her boots back on and filled them with stones. . . [she] jumped into the surging pool below. For a few minutes her body was tossed around as if all her bones had been removed. . .” Her death is described over one-third of a page.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Tamar and her friend, Iris, were drinking and smoking after school. Both girls got extremely drunk.
  • Tamar and her friends smoke cigarettes often. Once, Tamar “smoked half the pack of cigarettes out of my window, curled up into my curtains. It made me feel sick . . .”
  • While in the psychiatric hospital, the teens are given a variety of medications such as risperidone, lamotrigine, and fluoxetine. For example, Tamar is given a sleeping pill.
  • Tamar describes her dad as “beer-guzzling.”
  • In the ER, a man is given acetaminophen.
  • A girl in the hospital says her “mother overdosed on heroin in front of her when she was three.”
  • Tamar ’s friend gives two guys money and assumes they will buy “a can of Budweiser and a packet of Royals.”
  • While on a home visit, Tamar goes to a party where the teens wait “for tipsy to kick in.” Tamar drinks “one shot, then drink the rest of the bottle single-handedly, like it is water. . .until the room swirls. . .” Tamar was so drunk she was taken to the ER and didn’t remember it in the morning.
  • When Tamar tries to kill herself, she is taken to the hospital and given antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers.

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes bullshit, damn, fuck, hell, piss, and shit.
  • A girl says, “my mum was a whore.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • While in the hospital, Tamar hears “Patient A” freak out. Then, “Distressed Patient A prays to God for it all to end, fractured cries between weeping. God doesn’t hear.”
  • At one point, Tamar is in so much pain that she prays, “Oh, God. Please make it end.”

 

Breathing Underwater

Olivia is on the road trip of her dreams, with her trusty camera and her big sister Ruth by her side. Three years ago, before their family moved from California to Tennessee, Olivia and Ruth buried a time capsule on their favorite beach. Now, they’re taking an RV back across the country to uncover the memories they left behind. But Ruth’s depression has been getting worse, so Olivia has created a plan to help her remember how life used to be: a makeshift scavenger hunt.

Throughout their journey, they’ll be taking pictures and making memories, like they’re pirates hunting for treasure. Olivia will do whatever it takes to snap the picture that will make her sister smile. But what if things never go back to how they used to be? What if they never find the treasure they’re seeking? As the two girls face these questions, all Olivia can do is love her sister, not change her—and maybe that’s enough.

Anyone who struggles with depression—whether it’s themselves or someone they know—should read Breathing Underwater. The story is told from Olivia’s perspective which puts the spotlight on her desire to help her sister. Despite Olivia’s love for her sister, Olivia often struggles with the burden of always having to watch for signs that Ruth is falling into “The Pit.” Everyone in the family is understandably concerned about Ruth’s mental state; however, this often leaves Olivia feeling as if she does not matter. The story explores the topic of mental illness through a sister relationship which allows the reader to see how Ruth’s depression affects everyone around her.

One positive message that is reinforced in the story is the idea that each person has wonderfully different “superpowers.” Olivia observes her cousin, Darcy, comforting someone, and Olivia realizes Darcy’s “superpower is making people feel relaxed.” At that point, Olivia wishes that she was more like Darcy. Olivia thinks, “I just wish my power was to have whatever power people needed, to do exactly what they needed, exactly when they needed it, and I wonder if anyone has that power.” However, Olivia comes to realize that “one person’s weird is another person’s Vincent van Gogh, and where would we be without our Vincents?” When Olivia thinks about the question “where would we be without our Vincents,” she realizes that her—and Vincent van Gogh’s “superpowers”– may not be appreciated by everyone, but they still have value. In the end, Olivia becomes comfortable with herself, which allows her “superpower” to shine.

Olivia would do anything to help her sister. However, she comes to realize that she is not responsible for Ruth’s happiness. Olivia learns that no one can be in control of someone else’s happiness or unhappiness. This pivotal lesson allows Olivia to love her sister without trying to change her.

Breathing Underwater would make an excellent book to use as a discussion starter because it highlights the complexities of families and mental illness. Despite this, some readers may have a difficult time reading the entire book because much of the story focuses on Olivia’s inner monologue. Readers who would like to read more stories that explore mental illness may want to read The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim and My Life in the Fish Tank by Barbara Dee.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Ruth takes medication for her depression. At first “it took lots of tries with different kinds of medicine and different doses before the doctors and Ruth found one that calmed the whirlpool going on in her mind.”

Language

  • Ruth occasionally calls Olivia names such as wierdo, dork, punk, and prick.
  • Crap is used once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

My Life in the Fish Tank

Twelve-year-old Zinnia “Zinny” Manning loves her siblings and adores her older brother, Gabriel. But one night, the Manning family gets a call that shakes up their lives: Gabriel has a mental illness and will be going to a rehabilitation center. Zinny’s parents tell Zinny and her two other siblings, sixteen-year-old Scarlett and eight-year-old Aiden, to keep quiet about Gabriel. This means that Zinny can’t confide in her two best friends, who don’t understand why Zinny has been acting differently and won’t talk with them about what happened.

My Life in the Fish Tank discusses themes like mental health, family, and the importance of expressing your feelings. Zinny and her family struggle with understanding Gabriel’s diagnosis (bipolar depression), and each character has a unique way of coping. Zinny’s mom insists on keeping Gabriel’s diagnosis and treatment a secret, while Zinny’s dad buries himself in work and becomes very quiet. Zinny’s older sister Scarlett lashes out and refuses to speak to or visit Gabriel, and younger brother Aiden is left to deal with his emotions and schoolwork on his own. Zinny takes on a parental role over Aiden, and tries to help him with homework, making dinner, and trying to crack jokes.

Zinny’s main tactic is avoidance of her own emotional turmoil, which frustrates and saddens others around her, especially her best friends. As a result, Zinny grows apart from them and spends more time with her cool science teacher, Ms. Molina, who teaches Zinny about the wonderful world of crayfish. Ms. Molina notices Zinny’s separation from her friends, however. This leads to Zinny’s invitation to join the Lunch Club, where a group of students meets with guidance counselor Mr. Patrick. The Lunch Club is set up like group therapy, but with middle school students and pizza.

Initially, Zinny hates attending, but she eventually befriends the others in the club and learns to express her feelings in a healthy and productive manner. Zinny makes peace with her feelings about Gabriel, her parents, and ultimately herself. Zinny also learns that even when bad things happen, she’s allowed to enjoy good things, too. Zinny wants to be there for her family, and she almost passes up a chance to attend a summer marine biology program. However, Gabriel encourages her to do what she loves.

My Life in the Fish Tank explores how mental health affects a family. Zinny is a wonderfully flawed character who starts on the path to emotional maturity. Most importantly, this book shows that everyone is always learning—about mental health, and how to handle their emotions and communicate with loved ones. Gabriel’s diagnosis didn’t change him, but he and his family had to learn to understand each other in new ways, and to be emotionally perceptive when others react to trauma in different ways. By the end of the book, Zinny no longer feels trapped in her fish tank of feelings, watching as life happens around her. Through self-expression and love, she can be honest with her loved ones, and they can be honest with her. My Life in the Fish Tank will help middle school readers understand more about mental health and can be used as a discussion starter. Readers who struggle with difficulties such as anxiety will want to add After Zero by Christina Collins to their reading list.

Sexual Content

  • One of Zinny’s classmates got a haircut, and according to her, “a whole bunch of other girls in the seventh grade” were obsessed with him, including her friends Kailani and Maisie. Maisie suggests that “James likes Kailani. That he has a crush.”
  • While getting ice cream, Zinny notices Gabriel is flirting with the girl working. Zinny says, “Girls have always liked Gabriel; once when we were at the town pool, two older girls told me, ‘Your big brother is sooo cute.’”
  • Zinny meets Jayden at the Lunch Club. Zinny notes that he is “way cuter than James Ramos.”
  • Mr. Patrick mentions that he’s “mad because his husband got another parking ticket.”

Violence

  • Gabriel crashes his roommate’s car. Dad tells Zinny and the rest of the family, “He broke his collarbone, but they’re saying he doesn’t need surgery, and he’ll just wear a sling for a while. He’s lucky; sounds like from the condition of the car, it could have been much worse.” Gabriel may have crashed the car on purpose to harm himself, though he never says if that was his intent.
  • Zinny says that the only thing she knows about her classmate Keira is that Keira “was always getting into fights with people.”
  • One boy in Zinny’s crayfish group cheers when their group finds out that they have a male crayfish. Zinny thinks, “Scarlett would probably slap this kid,” as Scarlett is often mad when people assume pronouns or make misogynistic remarks.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Gabriel has “been drinking and driving, way too fast. Which is how he smashed up his roommate’s car.”

Language

  • Zinny’s older sister Scarlett says “bullcrap” to their brother Gabriel, except according to Zinny, “she doesn’t say ‘crap.’”
  • Light language is used often. Some terms include omigod, crazy, dumb, weird, fool, shut up, stupid, barf, fart, and dope.
  • Asher says, “Oh God” when the Lunch Club brings cupcakes for his birthday.

Supernatural

  • Zinny has a flashback to six years previous when she and her siblings played a game where they were characters from a Cartoon Network show. Scarlett’s character has a “magic flyswatter.”
  • Zinny and her friend Kailani make up stories about Kailani’s two kittens. Zinny says, “they’re orphans with magical powers, princesses under a spell, they can predict the future if you understand mewing.”

Spiritual Content

  • Gabriel gives Zinny a tiny chair from a museum gift store as a “good luck charm.” Zinny says that she doesn’t believe in luck, and Gabriel responds, “Yeah? Well maybe you should?”
  • Gabriel tells Zinny that she “might see a mermaid” at her science camp. Zinny replies that she doesn’t believe in them, and Gabriel says, “Maybe you should.”

by Alli Kestler

Everything I Know About You

Thirteen-year-old Talia “Tally” Martin, along with her class and her friends Sonnet and Caleb “Spider,” is going to Washington, D.C. for a class trip. Only there’s one catch: the teachers are assigning rooms, and Tally, Sonnet, and Spider end up rooming with their least favorite classmates. This means that Tally and popular girl Ava are roommates, and neither is happy about the situation.

As Ava and Tally are forced to spend time together, Tally notices Ava’s strange habits—working out all the time and at weird hours of the night, rarely eating, and her scribbling in a notebook. When Tally confronts Ava about her odd behavior, Ava threatens to blackmail Tally. Tally struggles to decide if being a good friend means telling a secret she promised to keep.

Everything I Know About You deals with topics such as body image, eating disorders, and what it means to be a good friend. Tally is unflinchingly honest, and her straightforward view of the world sometimes clashes with the people around her. Although Tally is a deeply loyal friend, she is also jealous when Sonnet and Spider befriend their roommates, who they once hated. Despite her flaws, Tally grows as a person, and through her experiences and interactions with her roommate, Ava, Tally gains a more nuanced understanding of the people around her and her deepening friendships.

The main event hovering around the edges of the book is Ava’s eating disorder, although Tally doesn’t articulate it as such in the beginning. However, Ava’s struggles are present throughout, and Barbara Dee does a good job presenting the issue through Tally’s eyes as well as the eyes of the other students and Ava’s mom. Although Tally doesn’t make any connections between Ava’s eating disorder and Ava’s mother’s obsession with public image and weight, Dee added these elements to give more context to Ava’s life. In addition, the supporting characters—Ava’s mom, Spider, Sonnet, and Ava herself—are interesting and complex. The strengths of Everything I Know About You are the subtle details that Tally glosses over but that the reader can still recognize, like the details about Ava’s mom, or the fact that another boy on the trip, Marco, clearly has a crush on Tally, even if Tally herself doesn’t notice it initially.

Everything I Know About You is an intelligent book that addresses eating disorders. Tally and her classmates have other struggles and strengths, which make the discussions about eating disorders and body image more nuanced. Everything I Know About You captures a multi-faceted slice of the middle school experience, and young preteens and teens will learn the importance of loving yourself, including your flaws.

 Sexual Content

  • According to Tally, “some dumb relative told [Spider’s mom] that if [Spider] kept hanging around with me, he’d ‘turn gay,’ like you could catch it from being friends with girls.”
  • Sonnet thinks that another student, Marco, likes Tally. Tally responds with, “Don’t be preposterous.”
  • Sonnet later asks Tally if Tally thinks Marco is cute. Tally responds with, “Maybe a little,” but she is still angry that Marco bullied Spider so badly the previous year. It is also clear from her constantly asking that Sonnet might also think that Marco is cute.
  • Marco seems to like Tally, though Tally has no idea. He often blushes when speaking to her, and one time she “saw Marco staring at [her] hair, as if bun-making were a complicated math problem he wanted to watch me solve.”
  • Tally starts to have a crush on Marco. Now, like Marco, her “cheeks flush” when she sees him. She admits that he’s “preposterously cute.”

Violence

  • Sonnet passes cookies to Trey and Marco, two bullies sitting in the bus seats behind Sonnet and Tally. Tally “kicked [Sonnet] in the shin” as a response.
  • The previous school year, Tally’s friend Spider “was bullied so much he had panic attacks.”
  • Spider and Tally have been friends since childhood, and other kids would often bully Spider and take his toys. Tally recounts that “I’d have to get [Spider’s things] back for him. Even if it meant punching the kid.”
  • Tally spends half of a chapter describing the harassment that Spider endured. For instance, two of the bullies often left Spider “gifts” of dead spiders, causing Spider to have panic attacks, and he’d “start gasping and wheezing.”
  • One day, Tally “punched Trey in the mouth” because she caught him and Marco bullying Spider. Tally received a two-day suspension, but she “didn’t care. The bullying had stopped, and Marco even apologized, for Trey and for himself.”
  • At the buffet, Trey says that he’s going to eat until it’s “coming out of [his] eyeballs.” Another student then slaps his arm and tells him not to be disgusting.
  • Trey suggests that they leave Spider at the hotel. Then Marco “punched [Trey’s] arm and told him to shut up.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • In lieu of swearing, Tally prefers to say, “Oh, bleep” as a stand-in phrase.
  • Tally refers to a group of popular girls in her grade as “clonegirls.”
  • Ava tells Tally that the rest of the grade cares about spirit day, to which Tally responds, “The rest of you can stuff it.”
  • Mean language is used often. Language includes suck, dumb, weird, omigod, stupid, idiot, jerk, ignorant, and freak.
  • Tally calls a rom-com that her classmates want to watch “ultra-insipid.”
  • Tally says that “this whole ‘class unity’ thing is a pile of dog poop.”
  • Tally is unusually tall for her age, recalling how she stood at “five foot eight” in sixth grade. As there is intense discussion of body image and eating disorders in this book, it is important to note that even Tally acknowledges her tall size often and that Ava makes fun of her for it. Tally notes that “Mom told me I was ‘big-boned,’ but I was muscly, too, with a squishy belly and a big butt.”
  • Ava tells Tally that she doesn’t eat sweets because there are too many carbs, and Tally laughs and calls her a “stick.”
  • Spider’s mom, Mrs. Nevins, makes comments about Tally’s body to Tally’s mom when they think Tally isn’t in the room. Mrs. Nevins says, “Some of the cute styles the girls are wearing must look so wrong on her. You know, with her body type.” This comment infuriates both Tally’s mom and Tally.
  • While at dinner, the clonegirls spend the majority of dinner talking about how “fat” they’ll get eventually and the food that they’re eating. For instance, Haley says, “Seriously, you guys, I’m just squish. My arms are balloons, my hips bulge out, and my belly is, like, disgusting. This summer I had to throw out all my favorite skinny pants.” This conversation lasts for several pages.
  • Ava tells Tally that Nadia is “pre-fat” This term is never clarified, but it seems to refer to Nadia as not being fat yet.
  • Ava has an eating disorder. This is detailed throughout the book, with her eating very little at dinner one night, working out compulsively, and Tally even describes Ava as “emaciated.” Tally doesn’t have the vocabulary initially to describe what she and her classmates are seeing, but Ava’s eating disorder is clearly lined out in the book’s details.
  • Tally says that she’s not feeling well enough to go to a baseball game, and Trey says, “What’s wrong with you, Tally? You got your period?” Marco then tells Trey to “shut up.”
  • Tally calls Trey a “microbe” because of his period joke.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Alli Kestler

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling 

Anna Chiu strives to be a perfect Chinese daughter. However, Ma has been stuck in bed for longer than usual and her mental health is worsening. Anna’s Baba, who is supposed to be the parent, is spending more time at his restaurant. While the family struggles to keep Ma’s sickness a secret, Anna feels it is her responsibility to take care of her younger siblings, Michael and Lily, but she soon falls behind in her schoolwork. Will Anna realize she is taking on more than she can handle and accept that she and Ma need help?

To escape the pressures of home, Anna volunteers to help at Baba’s Chinese restaurant. There, she meets Rory, the delivery boy with a history of depression. With Rory’s help, Anna learns that treatment for her mom’s mental health is available and can help bring peace to the Chiu family. After a traumatic episode involving Ma mutilating a live fish, Ma is sent to a hospital for psychiatric care where doctors can evaluate her condition and prescribe medication. While her mother is under the doctor’s care, Anna can focus on her own mental health and she finds new ways to open up.

By the end of the novel, the family learns how to better support one another, and Anna eventually accepts that not every day can be perfect. Even Rory, who has received help for his depression and anxiety, has difficult days. The book delivers a message to those struggling with mental health issues that no one is alone and there is always someone willing to listen.

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling is told through Anna’s perspective and provides a realistic picture of mental health issues. Anna is a relatable character who struggles to fit in and at first, is awkward in her relationship with Rory. However, after witnessing Rory’s honest personality, Anna learns to discuss issues that are bothering her. Anna and Rory support and care for one another in a happy and healthy way. Anna is an admirable protagonist who loves her Ma and is passionate about working hard to save Baba’s restaurant. Plus, Anna shows love and encouragement to her younger siblings.

The novel demonstrates how race and struggles with identity can influence one’s mental health. As s Chinese-Australian, Anna experiences microaggressions from her peers and cultural pressures from her family. For example, the kids at Anna’s school call her “banana,” meaning she is “yellow on the outside, white on the inside. . . It’s like saying [Anna’s] a bad Chinese.” Anna soon recognizes how these pressures contribute to her anxiety. Despite this, these comments make Anna question whether she is good enough for her family.

In the end, Anna learns to take each day one at a time. She no longer bears the full responsibility of her family but recognizes the journey of her mother’s mental health recovery. Despite the stigmas against mental health issues that Anna witnesses, she accepts that her life is already normal—“It’s heartbreaking. And it’s true.” Anna no longer needs perfection as long as she is with the people she loves. The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling explores mental health issues in addition to having a cute romance. Readers who would like to explore mental illness through another book should also read Paper Girl by Cindy R. Wilson.

 Sexual Content

  • Anna talks about how she has little experience with boys. “It’s like when it comes to matters of sex, I don’t even count as an observer.”
  • One of Rory’s bullies makes a racist and sexist comment to Anna asking, “Aren’t the Asian ones supposed to be submissive?”
  • Rory and Anna share a passionate kiss. “We press our mouths harder against each other. Kissing still feels a bit strange and weird but exhilarating at the same time.”
  • Rory and Anna share a kiss in his car and things escalate. “Somehow we’re in the back seat. I feel his tongue on my skin, his breath against my neck, a hot and wet sliding.” However, they are quickly interrupted by Anna’s ringing phone.
  • Anna and Rory are kissing once again. Anna drags “him closer, feel[s] the tiny hairs on the back of his neck, the base of his throat, taste[s] the inside of his mouth. My legs and hips move, and I’m climbing out of my seat and into his lap.” Rory rubs his hands down Anna’s back, but then the scene ends.
  • Anna briefly describes her sexual experience with Rory. “When Rory hovers over me and I can feel his skin pressing up against the bits of my skin that have never felt someone else before, it’s I feel sated, protected, and exhilarated all at the same time.” Anna’s first time having sex with Rory is not described in great detail, but the action is clear.

Violence

  • Some schoolgirls discuss their assignments and joke about suicide. A girl says, “I’m going to kill myself.”
  • Anna discusses how “Ma used to beat us with the end of a feather duster when we did something naughty . . . I went to school with long sleeves covering the blue-and-green streaks.”
  • Anna claims she wants to “smack the eyeliner off” of a mean girl’s face.
  • Anna makes a vague comment that she wants to “tie weights to [her] ankles and be done with it now.”
  • Rory tells Anna how he once tried to kill himself by jumping in front of a moving train, but the train did not come that day.
  • While Lily is sleeping, Ma tries to hit her. “There are a few muffled thuds and a sharp cry, so I know Ma’s blows have landed but probably across the blanket.”
  • During one of her episodes, Ma mutilates a fish at the restaurant. Ma “holds up a slippery orange fish, no bigger than a mackerel, and before I can do anything, she pops its eyes between her fingers.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Anna is surprised to see her father home “standing by the sink, holding a small tumbler of beer.”
  • Rory takes Anna to his sister’s roller derby game where there is drinking. Rory offers Anna a beer and she accepts.
  • Ah-Jeff, who works at Baba’s restaurant, slips Anna some Hennessy and Coke while celebrating the new restaurant.

Language

  • Anna acknowledges that her “Cantonese might be crap.”
  • Baba calls a work colleague who quit a “bastard.”
  • After Anna finds her sister has pierced her ears, Anna exclaims, “What the hell, Lily?”
  • Anna makes an awkward squeaking sound and questions, “What the hell is wrong with me?”
  • Rory wants Anna to form a thesis declaring Rory, “The most badass English professor I’ve ever had,” to which Anna responds calling Rory, “Mr. Badass.”
  • Rory describes his time in the hospital. “It was shit and it made me feel worse.” He proceeds to use “shit” multiple times in his description.
  • Anna snaps at her brother Michael who can’t find his sock. She yells, “It’s a goddamn sock. Deal with it!”
  • Anna states Michael’s “cute pout isn’t going to save my ass.”
  • Anna calls Rory’s old friends “real assholes.” In a text conversation, she refers to the same group as “dickheads.”
  • Lily texts Anna that she is still “pissed” at her.
  • Rory feels as though he is a “shit son.”
  • A patient at the hospital calls someone a “bitch.”
  • Shit is used four times in one paragraph. For example, Rory states that “Hospitals are shit.”
  • Anna’s face turns red from drinking alcohol she can’t tell if she should “feel embarrassed or damn happy to be called out this way.”

 Supernatural

  • None

 Spiritual Content

  • Anna runs into some girls from school at the market and says a silent prayer “to whatever gods there are that the girls won’t see me.”

by Elena Brown

The Program

Suicide has become an epidemic, affecting one out of three teenagers. The government and parents are scrambling trying to understand, but are unable to find a source. The Program is considered the only cure. With a 100% success rate, parents think it’s an incredible gift. But teenagers don’t view it the same way, because once you go through The Program, you come back without your memories. You’re happy, but you’re no longer you.

Sloane and her boyfriend James depend on each other to keep up each other’s spirits. They pretend that everything is okay. But after their friend commits suicide, James falls apart and is taken into The Program. Sloane quickly follows, when her mother betrays her by calling the handlers. Once inside The Program, Sloane is determined not to lose her memories. But the drugs the facility use keep her in a constant haze and start whittling away at who she is. Will Sloane be able to keep a hold on who she is? Or is she doomed to become just another happy, vacant shell?

While The Program centers around suicide, it does not go into possible causes of suicide, such as social media or familial issues. In The Program, suicide is like a contagious disease. If someone you know has committed suicide or is depressed, then you’re infected and are likely to follow. While suicide isn’t encouraged, it is dramatized in a way that may concern parents. Multiple teenagers in the story commit suicide not only because they are depressed, but also because they feel like they lack control over their lives. Suicide is how they take their power back. Given that teenagers often struggle with such feelings, portraying suicide in such a manner may be concerning.

The Program contains a copious amount of profanity and questionable sexual content. For example, when Sloane feels like she is losing her boyfriend, her solution is to give him a blowjob. During the blowjob she thinks, “I know I have him back—even if only for a second.” Sloane also trades a sexual favor for a memory and knows it was the right thing to do.

The Program will entertain younger readers, but more advanced YA readers will find several plot developments implausible, which may detract from the story’s enjoyment. The teenagers in The Program are well-developed, but the parents and adults in the book are not. While Sloane is a well-developed character, she lacks the ability to make her own decisions. At first, she is utterly dependent on James. Then, when Sloane loses James, she quickly becomes dependent on another boy character rather than finding her own footing. All in all, The Program is one YA series that may be better left unread.

Sexual Content

  • Sloane kisses her boyfriend, James, frequently. Some kisses are not graphic, such as when Sloane leaned “forward to press my lips to his, letting him have me in a way that only he can.” Another example is when, “And so I whisper that I love [James], then climb onto his lap and kiss him, as if it’s the last one we’ll ever have.”
  • Sometimes James sneaks into Sloane’s room at night. “When he’d stay over, he’d show up in my room at three in the morning, kissing me quietly while everyone slept.”
  • Sloane feels like she’s losing her boyfriend, so she gives him a blow job in an attempt to get him back. Sloane “kiss[es] softly at his lips, nearly stopping when he doesn’t respond. Then I kiss his neck, his chest. I undo his button as I kiss his stomach and then lower. And it isn’t until I feel his hand in my hair and hear him murmur my name breathlessly that I know I have him back—even if only for a second.”
  • After a camping trip, “James told [Sloane] that when he touched me, when I looked at him, he got a hard-on.”
  • Sloane remembers losing her virginity to James. She closes her eyes, “remembering how warm James’s mouth was on mine, how his tongue touched my lips before I opened them, letting him in. Letting him lay me back on the blanket as his mouth found mine, again and again, always gentle, yet urgent.”
  • A handler in The Program insinuates he can save one of Sloane’s memories if she gives him a sexual favor. “His eyes narrow deviously then, scanning over my body. . .” Sloane tells him no at first, then changes her mind. “He grabs me roughly. . . His mouth is on mine, wet and strong. . . I can feel how turned on he is as he presses against me. I whimper and try to move back as his tongue licks my lips.”
  • Later, when Sloane is angry, the handler says, “I think you’d be a little too feisty to trust with any of my naked parts now.”
  • It’s mentioned that “somehow James talked me into a game of strip poker, only he lost.” During the game, James says, “Sloane, when winning means getting you naked, you better believe I’m going to try my damnedest to win.”
  • Sloane kisses a boy named Realm four times. “Realm’s lips are soft but unfamiliar. Warm but not hot. My hands hesitate on the sides of his face. . . His hand slides down to pull my thigh over his hip. We could do anything right now; no one is bothering us. He lays me back in the bed, lying between my legs as he trails kisses down my neck.” Another time, “I get on my tiptoes and press my lips firmly to his. Realm responds immediately, surprising me by backing me against the wall, his tongue eagerly finding mine as if he’s been waiting to do this since I got here.”
  • A girl teases Sloane, “That’s James Murphy who you’re currently eye-humping.”
  • James and Sloane go to a place that “looks like a place where unsuspecting teenagers come to have sex and get murdered.”
  • Realm and Sloane almost have sex. “Realm rolls me off the couch, getting on top of me as we lie on the carpet. He’s kissing my neck, his hands searching my body. . . Realm’s hand slides away from my breast.”
  • James and Sloane have sex. “We climb into the backseat, yanking at each other’s clothes, tongues tangling in a heat that I know I could never have with anyone else.”

Violence

  • When handlers come to take Kendra to The Program, she fights them. “Kendra jumps up to run and the handler lunges for her, his closed fist connecting with her face. The shot sends her into Mrs. Portman’s podium before knocking her to the ground. . . Kendra’s top lip is split wide open and leaking blood all over her gray sweater . . . she tries to hold on to anything within her reach, but instead she’s leaving a trail of blood along the floor.”
  • In Sloane’s world, “teen suicide was declared a national epidemic—killing one in three teens—nearly four years ago. It always existed before that, but seemingly overnight handfuls of my peers were jumping off buildings, slitting their wrists—most without any known reason.”
  • Sloane remembers when her friend showed up with “a black eye, cuts up and down her arm” because a guy she was dating “had pushed her out of the passenger door—while the car was still moving.” When Sloane tells James what happened, he finds the guy and “beat[s] the hell out of him.”
  • Sloane can’t let her parents know that she’s sad. So when the tears start to spill over, she purposefully burns herself on the stove to give herself an excuse to cry. “I turn over my arm, the tender part exposed, and stick it into the fire. The burn is immediate and I scream out in pain. . . I decide that I like it. I like the pain and distraction.”
  • James had tattoos of the names of people he has lost. When his best friend kills himself, he says he can’t wait for ink and carves Miller’s name “jaggedly into his flesh. Blood is everywhere.”
  • Sloane’s brother jumps off a cliff and kills himself. “Then I saw Brady—he was floating, facedown. . . I screamed again, pointing toward him as I watched his body slam into a rock, and then another.”
  • Sloane jumps off a cliff trying to kill herself, then decides she doesn’t want to die. “Just then my body slams against a rock, hoisting me half-way out of the water. I hold on to it, vomiting up river until I’m sure I’ll pass out and die anyway. My throat burns, my lungs ache. My arm is numb and I think it may be broken.”
  • When The Program comes for her, Sloane hurts herself because she’s angry. “Then, just because this is my last moment of having a real emotion, I tighten my grip on my scissors. And I slash my wrist.”
  • Sloane punches one of her handlers. “I swing out my arm, punching the left side of his jaw. He immediately recovers and twists my hand up behind my back, cursing under his breath as he slams me against the wall.”
  • Realm goes after a handler for bothering Sloane. “Realm has got his forearm to Roger’s throat, pinning him to the wall. . . [Roger] winks, and then gets up to hobble away.” Later Realm attacks the handler again. “He cocks back his arm and decks Roger, sending him flying over the desk. . . Realm grabs Roger’s right arm and yanks it so hard behind his back the snap is audible.”
  • It’s mentioned in passing that Sloane’s mom hit her. “Mother slapped me that night.”
  • Sloane slaps Realm when she finds out he is part of The Program. “I cross the room and slap him . . . A red handprint is obvious on his face.”
  • Outside a community center, Sloane sees a guy die after drinking QuikDeath. “Liam coughs again, spitting blood onto the patio. Red streaks his lips. He’s going to die. . . his eyes momentarily roll back in his head before he focuses on me again. His body convulses. And then he collapses against the door, sliding to the ground.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • The leading theory for the suicide epidemic is “that the oversupply of antidepressants changed the chemical makeup of our generation, making us more susceptible to depression.” The Program is the only cure; a facility that erases peoples’ memories via a series of pills. If patients refuse to take the pills, the medication is given to them via shots instead.
  • QuikDeath is mentioned several times throughout the book. Sloane’s friend tries to kill himself with QuikDeath. After taking it, he calls Sloane to say goodbye. “‘It’s too late,’ he says, sounding far away. ‘I took it ten minutes ago. But I couldn’t leave without saying good-bye.’”
  • Sloane meets a girl who tried to kill herself with QuikDeath and now has short-term memory loss.
  • A girl in Sloane’s class jokes that “Maybe a coffee spiked with QuikDeath would help you focus on the pain.”
  • When James hurts himself, Sloane goes “through his dad’s medications until [she] thinks [she] find[s] something that will calm him down.”
  • While in The Program, Sloane is sedated often. They give her different colored pills without telling her what they do. If she refused to take the pills, they give her a shot.
  • When talking to her father, Sloane realizes “the faint smell of alcohol clings to him. I wonder when he started drinking.”
  • Realm drinks a beer.

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes: goddamn, ass, and pissed. For instance, when Sloane gets hurt James says, “Goddamn it.” Another time James tells Sloane, “I’m going to kick your ass tomorrow.”
  • God, hell, damn, and bullshit are used constantly.
  • Once when James is teasing her, Sloane says, “Oh my God, shut up.”
  • Sloane often thinks “Oh God,” like “Oh God, I miss him” or “God, I just want him back.”
  • James says, “Holy hell, you really were checking me out.”
  • After James and Sloane first kiss, James says, “Well, damn, Sloane.”
  • While in The Program, Sloane and her friends often play the game Bullshit and call bullshit on each other.
  • Sloane thinks, “We’ve seen it before, how someone will piss off their friends or start sleeping around when depression takes hold.” Another time, Sloane tells her therapist “I’m pissed. I want my life back.”
  • Smartass, shithead, asshole, shit, and dick are all used several times throughout the book. James tells Realm, “We want to know, shithead.” James also says, “I can be a total shithead” and “I’m a dick.”
  • While in The Program, Realm says, “That asshole! What’s he giving you?” Realm also says, “Shit Sloane, I thought this would cheer you up.”
  • Bitchy and fuck are used a few times. Sloane tells her therapist to fuck off several times. “I’m not taking the fucking pill, okay.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Teenagers suffering from depression are sent to The Program, but once Sloane turns eighteen, she says, “It’s my God-given right to off myself if I so please.”
  • Sloane’s parents say, “Thank God for The Program. It’s saving so many lives.”

by Morgan Lynn

When Elephants Fly

Lillian has a plan. No boys, no stress, and no drinking. In fact, Lillian’s entire life revolves around a plan that avoids any sort of stress that could trigger schizophrenia. Schizophrenia runs in Lillian’s family; it drove her mother to throw Lillian off a roof when she was just a child. While Lillian’s plan to avoid stress seems like a good idea, Lillian’s best friend Sawyer worries she is letting life pass her by.

But Lillian doesn’t mind. That is until her job at a newspaper requires her to cover the birth of a baby elephant. The baby elephant, nicknamed Swifty, is rejected by her mother shortly after the birth and is nearly trampled to death by her mom. Due to their similar plights, Lillian finds herself drawn to Swifty and filled with a need to protect the baby elephant. But will saving Swifty cost Lillian her best friend, her freedom, and her sanity?

Throughout the story, Lillian struggles between taking the easy route to preserve her sanity and risking everything to save Swifty. The bond between Lillian and Swifty allows the reader to become emotionally concerned about Swifty and care about her well-being. The end of the novel suggests that it’s okay and even right for Lillian to risk her health and break the law in order to protect Swifty, despite the fact that she goes against the advice of adults with much more elephant experience than her. In the end, Lillian perseveres due to her unconditional love for Swifty.

When Elephants Fly has a delightfully original plot. It’s filled with facts about both elephants and schizophrenia that are conveyed to the reader in a way that meshes well with the storyline and doesn’t come across as obtrusive. The characters are unique but shallow. The original premise of the story will keep readers turning the pages. The lack of descriptions in When Elephants Fly may disappoint older readers; however, for readers just graduating to the YA level, this story is sure to delight with its many twists and turns.

The story touches on some difficult topics, including mental illness, genetics, family trauma, friendship, and animal rights. Although the author attempts to educate readers about schizophrenia, she unfortunately allows readers to believe that mental illnesses can be prevented–which is not the case. Flashbacks are scattered throughout the story, allowing readers to get a glimpse into Lillian’s thinking process as well as her increasingly unsteady mental health. Although When Elephants Fly has an interesting premise, readers will notice that some of the plot points are unrealistic, the romance is forced, and the characters are underdeveloped. Despite the book’s flaws, anyone interested in mental health or animal abuse should read When Elephants Fly.

Sexual Content

  • Lillian wants “to at least be kissed by someone other than John Jensen in the tunnel of love. We were ten and I let him cop a feel of my nonexistent boobs.”
  • Years ago, Lillian’s grandparents wrote a letter to Lillian’s parents begging them to abort her. Her grandparents were certain the stress of becoming a mother would trigger their daughter’s schizophrenia.
  • Lillian has a plan for a stress-free life to avoid triggering schizophrenia. That includes no sex. At one point, she sees a guy who is “cute in a hipster kind of way. I’ve taken a vow of celibacy for the next twelve years, but I can still look.”
  • Lillian thinks about a schizophrenic girl who “had hallucinations that she was having sex, all the time, day and night, fully clothed. Three years after her first episode, she’d attempted suicide twice, was addicted to cutting and lived in her stepmother’s basement.”
  • Lillian accidentally sees Otis skinny-dipping and remembers skinny-dipping with her best friend Sawyer. “Otis is naked . . . I should look away, but I don’t. It’s not the first time I’ve seen a naked guy. I mean, I’ve seen Sawyer plenty of times. We skinny-dip in his pool late at night when his parents are away or asleep. But it’s the first time I’ve seen a naked guy who doesn’t know I’m watching him. Technically, that’s uncool. But my eyes still travel from his broad shoulders to his lean waist, pretty much perfect butt and muscular legs.”
  • Lillian and Otis almost kiss. “Our lips are inches apart. His fingers drift down to trace my collarbone . . . Our lips brush, soft, fleeting. His mouth travels along my neck. Everywhere he touches comes alive.”
  • Otis says, “When I was seven, one of the workers took an interest in me. I was the kind of kid pedophiles target . . . One night I was sleeping outside Tambor’s pen. I woke up to the guy unbuttoning my jeans. Nothing happened. But it was heading that way.”
  • Lillian and Otis kiss. “It’s my first real kiss . . . Otis pulls back, runs his thumb over my lower lip. My skin is alive for the first time in my life. It’s like being woken up after eighteen years of trying to feel nothing.” They kiss several more times.
  • Lillian and Otis undress, but are interrupted before they can sleep together. “He cups my breasts, his thumbs instantly making my nipples insanely sensitive. He draws me onto his lap so that I’m straddling him, and I can feel how much he wants me. . . He slides me beneath him then bends, lips tasting the curve of my breasts, tongue teasing my nipples until I shiver from the sensation.”

Violence

  • Lillian thinks about examples of schizophrenic behavior often. “I mean like hearing a man’s voice telling you to drive your car into a group of little kids, watching your best friend’s face morph into a monster or people screaming so loudly in your brain that you consider taking a hammer to your own head to crush the voices.”
  • Lillian remembers her schizophrenic mom’s erratic behavior. “If she hit me, five minutes later she’d wonder about a red mark or bruise, then kiss it to make it better.”
  • Lillian watches an elephant give birth. “In a single breath the sac expands then Raki’s calf drops to the ground. There’s a gust of fluid followed by a stream of bright red blood that paints the insides of Raki’s legs crimson.” To make her baby elephant take its first breath, the elephant mother “kicks the newborn with her back leg—hard enough to move it several feet. The calf doesn’t react. Raki kicks it again. . . Finally, its dark eyes blink then remain open.”
  • Lillian thinks about a girl on YouTube with schizophrenia. The girl’s worst hallucinations “included seeing the lower part of her face in bloody tatters each time she caught her reflection in a window or mirror.” Another schizophrenic kid had “voices in his head that told him every single day to kill himself before someone else did it for him. His birthday was March 17 and he didn’t post that day, or ever again.”
  • When Lillian hears that her best friend’s dad is being a jerk, she thinks, “I want to drive over to Cushing Stafford Thompson’s mansion and light it on fire with him inside.”
  • The zoo director tells Lillian about the first orphan elephant she met. “He was found on the Masai Mara standing beside his dead mother. She’d been killed by a poacher’s poison spear. Her tusks had been sawed off, leaving gaping, bloody wounds.”
  • An elephant mother rejects her calf and attacks it. “With an earsplitting trumpet, Raki charges her calf and head-butts her in the torso so hard that Swifty Jones flies several feel through the air, hits the ground, rolls. Raki kicks her repeatedly, her body flipping down the length of the room until she’s ten feet from us. The calf is motionless, her eyes closed.”
  • Otis gets into a fight with his brother. “Howard’s backhand comes out of nowhere, like a bear attack. It catches Otis in the jaw, snaps his head sideways. He doesn’t go down but it’s close. Despite the blood on his lower lip, Otis keeps his hands balled at his sides.”
  • Otis confesses that his brother killed someone. “Howard stabbed the guy twenty-two times. I can still hear the sound of the tines going through skin, muscle, hitting bone.”
  • Lillian’s mother “committed suicide in prison.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Jonah, a student at school, “told his dad that there was a keg at a preseason track party. His dad called the principal. Jonah is now a pariah.”
  • Lillian walks in to find her dad “drinking Scotch. By the half-empty bottle on the counter and the bleary look in his eyes, he’s had way too much. I haven’t seen him drunk in a long time, not since the last few months with Violet.”
  • Lillian’s dad leaves a voicemail. “I heard ice cubes in the background. Calvin was drunk again.”
  • It’s mentioned in passing that Sawyer’s mom “eats [Xanax] like candy,” though it’s never shown.
  • A circus worker mentions that he is on probation for “Drugs. Got hooked. Made some stupid choices.” Later it’s revealed that he “got hooked on heroin when he was thirteen, [then] switched to meth because it was cheaper.”
  • Lillian sees a circus worker drunk. “The way he’s moving reminds me of my dad when he’s had too much Scotch. What the hell is going on? Why is Howard working with the elephants when he’s been drinking?”

Language

  • Hell and damn are used frequently. Lillian’s boss tells her, “Get the hell out of my office.” Another time Lillian asks, “What the hell is wrong with you?” During an argument, Lillian’s dad says, “Dammit, how can you even remember?”
  • Ass, pissed, and crap are used often. For example, “Howard stares at his brother like he’s a total ass.” A worker tells his friend to “stop flirting and get your ass in the truck.” Another time, Sawyer’s mom tells her son, “What’d you expect? You pissed him off, dear.” Lillian said her dad “took a massive crap” on one of her ideas.
  • Shit is used frequently. After watching an elephant give birth, the zoo director tells Lillian, “Holy shit! You’re white as a ghost.” Another time, Lillian calls “Bullshit!” during an argument with her dad.
  • Fuck and motherfucking are used several times. Lillian’s best friend tells her “fuck you.” A woman says if a man wants to know if she is single, “he should fucking ask me himself.”
  • Bitching and bastard are both used a few times. “Matthews is bitching about video, though. It better be attached to your next article.”
  • Prick is used once. A man says, “Tiger is willing to risk her future for what she believes in. What we should all believe in, if we’re not callous, inhumane pricks.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

Paper Girl

Zoe hasn’t left her family’s Denver penthouse in over a year. Doctors continually tell her that her anxiety will get better if she takes little steps, but she knows that she can’t do that. That would mean going outside into the real world, and the thought of that is too terrifying to contemplate. It is much better to stay inside where it is safe, in a world that she constructs out of paper. Nothing can hurt you inside. Nothing can scare you.

Everything changes when her mom decides to hire a tutor for Zoe. But it isn’t just any tutor. . . it’s Jackson, a friend of her older sister Mae. Jackson is the only person from the outside world that Zoe wishes she could see. He’s the boy that she has been thinking about non-stop for a year. How can she let him into her world?

Zoe’s world is flipped upside down as Jackson enters her life and makes her realize that the world outside her door might not be as scary as it seems. The story doesn’t just focus on Zoe, but also shares Jackson’s perspective. Jackson faces many difficulties as he deals with homelessness, an alcoholic father, and the struggle of raising money for college.

Zoe and Jackson don’t realize that they have been communicating while playing online chess together. For over a year, they have been sharing their problems with each other. Online is the only place that they feel free to share their struggle. Will the two ever be able to connect in person? Paper Girl is a captivating read that sheds light on the diverse struggles of adolescence.

Paper Girl discusses mental health at length, as the main character has debilitating anxiety that restricts her from leaving her home. She often meets with therapists and doctors in order to grapple with her illness. Through first-person narration, the audience is able to feel her struggles firsthand, giving a vivid picture of life with a mental illness. Jackson’s father is also depicted as a rampant alcoholic, and although the audience never directly sees him in this state, it is referenced frequently. The characters face realistic hardships, which at times will disturb readers. However, Zoe and Jackson’s story also highlights the importance of having compassion for others who are trying to navigate life. The story does not only focus on the character’s hardships but also adds in a satisfying romantic plot.

Paper Girl is a delightful and easy read, making it an enjoyable experience for the audience despite having some heavy subject matter. The depth and relatability of the characters draw readers in, inviting them to enter Zoe’s paper world. The small details of the characters’ interactions and the sweet romance create an endearing charm that keeps readers on the edge of their seats, eager to see what happens next.

Zoe’s family is an integral part of Zoe’s journey, and although they are not always understanding, they truly want what is best for her. Another positive aspect of this story is that therapy is portrayed in a positive light.

Zoe’s journey is powerful, as she and the audience learn how to battle inner demons to live a fulfilling life. Beautifully written, Paper Girl is a must-read that has relatable characters who struggle with anxiety and are afraid of being judged by others. Paper Girl will evoke emotions of frustration and sadness, as well as give readers a message of hope.

Sexual Content

  • Zoe’s parents kiss in a scene, making her feel mildly uncomfortable. “Dad kissed Mom on the lips long enough to make me cringe.”
  • In Zoe’s fantasy world, she would “flirt with [Jackson] a little.”
  • Zoe’s fear of seeing Jackson was, “the equivalent of the naked dream.”
  • When Jackson’s elbow brushes Zoe’s, he thinks, “her skin was so smooth and warm and I wanted to touch it again.”
  • When Zoe thinks about Jackson wanting to get to know her, it “makes my whole body buzz.”
  • Mae teases Zoe about Jackson and says, “You think he’s hot and you want to kiss him?”
  • Mae kissed her boyfriend, Robert, “all the time, and even though I made faces, she seemed to like it.”
  • Zoe fantasizes about Jackson and thinks, “Jackson’s kisses were probably like his smiles. Overwhelming. Brilliant.”
  • In another fantasy, Zoe imagines that she and Jackson would walk around Denver. “He’d kiss me, right in the middle of the sidewalk. He’d slide his hand down the hem of my shirt, where a sliver of bare skin was exposed and—”
  • Gina, Zoe’s therapist, tells her a story of when she was in college and threw up on a guy’s shoes. “I offered to take him out that weekend, and though he didn’t want new shoes, he still went out with me. And we dated for a year.”
  • There is a scene where Zoe and Jackson stand on a balcony staring out at the night sky. During the entire scene, Jackson has his arms around Zoe’s waist.
  • Mae says that Zoe “has it soooo bad” for the comic book character Mr. Fantastic, and that he has “sexy glasses.”
  • Mae casually asks Zoe if Jackson is a good kisser. When Zoe says that she has yet to kiss him, Mae recommends that she, “pull him over to Mercury and say something about gravity not working or something then kind of fall into him. . . with your lips.”
  • Zoe and Jackson share their first kiss. “His found mine without hesitation. They were warm, like his hands, and softer than I expected. Gentle. My mouth parted, ready to say his name, but he took this as an invitation to step even closer, so his hand slid up my back and the other found my cheek with those same warm fingers.” Later, after trying again, Zoe says, “I was right, Jackson was a great kisser, and I never wanted him to stop.” They kiss several more times throughout the novel.
  • After they kiss, Jackson’s “fingers slid up my spine, making my world tilt.”
  • When Zoe tells Jackson that she wants to make a paper asteroid belt, he says, “Oh God, you make that sound sexy.”
  • While they are making out, Jackson is surprised when Zoe, “shifted in my lap to straddle my legs.” After this, the elevator unexpectedly dings, surprising them, and they hastily get up to look normal. Jackson “yanked down the front hem of my shirt to cover the effect Zoe had on me.”

Violence

  • Mae and her friends play a game when they watch horror movies, where they compete to see who comes closest to guessing the number of people who will die. Some of the movie is described. “She fired off another shot. The killer collapsed in a heap . . . In a last burst of unnatural and bloody vengeance, the Prom Night Slasher jumped on Alisha, using his bare hands to strangle her.”
  • Zoe worries that Jackson’s dad, who is an alcoholic, had “gotten violent.”
  • Zoe’s therapist, Gina, got jumped in college. “‘He had a knife. I tried to fight, but. . .’ She pushed aside her scarf to reveal a jagged scar that ran down her neck to her collarbone. ‘It almost killed me.’”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Jackson’s dad is referenced many times as being an alcoholic and a drug addict. Eventually, he goes to rehab and gets his life back on track.
  • Jackson is homeless. His father still receives his mail and official paperwork, so he isn’t caught by social services, but “I wasn’t sure how much of that agreement Dad remembered, since he’d made it while working toward an epic high on heroin.”
  • Jackson thought his Dad had sold his clothes “for drug money.”
  • When Jackson’s Dad calls him for the first time in months, he grows suspicious and thinks of his schedule. His dad, “didn’t typically start the party until two a.m. First, a few beers, then tequila, and if that didn’t get him where he wanted, he’d hit the heroin.”

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently throughout the book. Profanity includes: damn, hell, crap, bastard, shit, holy shit, and dammit.
  • Jackson’s online chess partner was “kicking my ass.”
  • Zoe calls her math makeup homework “crappy.”
  • Jackson said that he’d been, “riding a ship through the shit storm of life with my father at the helm.”
  • Oh my God, God, and oh God are used as exclamations several times.
  • Jackson calls Zoe a “badass.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Morgan Filgas

After Zero

Elise has spent years hearing her friend Mel talk about her friends at school. When Elise’s mother finally decides that Elise can go to public school, she is excited. But she soon discovers that it’s easy to say the wrong thing. When Elise accidentally spills a secret and makes a social media mistake, she decides it’s better to be quiet. Now, Elise tries to say as few words as possible. She keeps a notebook full of tallies, marking each word she says. Her goal is to get to zero words spoken.

At school, Elise is known as the quiet girl. She has made no friends, and even Mel is drifting away from her. Now, Elise isn’t sure she could talk if she wanted to. But when she learns a shocking family secret, Elise learns that silence may not be the answer for everything.

After Zero is a beautifully written story about Elise’s personal struggle. Readers will relate to Elise’s desire to make friends and her inability to understand social norms. Like many, Elise would like to connect with someone, but she’s so afraid of saying the wrong thing that she is unable to talk. The story focuses on Elise’s thoughts and struggles, which allows the reader to understand Elise’s thought process. Some of the girls become hostile because they misunderstand Elise’s silence. They do not understand that Elise truly believes that, “silence is the means of avoiding misfortune.”

Although Elise is lonely and bullied at school, her family life is even worse. Her mother hardly ever talks to her. When she gets in an argument with her mother, her “mother’s eyes flash. I’ve seen it before. Whether the loathing is for me or my father, or both, I’m not sure.” Elise lives in a silent world, which forces her to spend too much time focusing on her inner thoughts. After Zero explains Elise’s anxiety in a way that is understandable, allowing the reader to feel compassion for her.

The first person narration allows Elise’s personality to jump off the page. The story is the perfect blend of Elise’s internal turmoil and outside conflicts. The easy-to-read story highlights the importance of forgiveness and friendship. Elise’s story is not only enjoyable, but it will also stay with readers for a long time. Anyone who reads After Zero will come away with a new understanding of others’ struggles with anxiety. The story will also show readers the importance of having empathy for their peers.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • When Elise is lost in the woods, she comes across three teenagers who steal her backpack. “The girl and the curly-haired boy yank my wrists behind me and push me to the ground, pinning me there on my stomach. I jerk and squirm and try to shake them off. . . They put their weight on me with their hands and elbows, and one of them rests the sole of a boot against my cheek, pressing my face to the ground.” In order to get loose, Elise kicks the boy and later slams her elbow into the girl’s leg.
  • When Elise is lost in the woods, she sees a house. She’s afraid when she hears someone coming closer. “A boot plants itself in the grass behind me. I summon my muscles, or what’s left of them, and swing around, punching him hard, wherever my fist hit first. . . It turns out I hit a private area. He staggers back, clutching himself, his face contorted.”
  • At school, a group of girls gets upset that Elise won’t talk to them. One girl, “comes towards me, whipping a nail file out of her pocket. . . She grabs my wrist and twists it behind my back so fast and hard that I almost cry out. . .She pushes me against the guardrail again, and it rattles. . .” When Elise begins to fight back, a teacher appears and saves her. The scene takes place over five pages.
  • One of the teachers presents a poem about her sister that committed suicide.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Elise had been told that her father was killed by a drunk driver. Later, she discovers that her father was driving drunk and had killed her two brothers.
  • Elise finds a picture of her father standing with her brothers. Her father, “was raising a beer bottle to the camera.” In another picture, “Emerson is sitting on my father’s shoulders while my father smiles at the camera, a beer can in hand.”

Language

  • A boy calls his friend a “doofus.”

Supernatural

  • Elise has a vision of her brother and Granny P. When she tries to talk to Granny P., she disappears. Later, the story hints that Elise hallucinated because she was so tired.
  • One of Elise’s teachers has a stuffed raven. The story implies that the raven comes to life and helps Elise in several situations. When the stuffed raven disappeared from the classroom, the teacher tells Elise, “Sometimes when we feel lost, the universe sends a little help. Something or someone to guide us on our path…And that can come in the most unexpected form.”

Spiritual Content

  • Elise’s mother does not celebrate her birthday, and her friend thinks it may be because she’s a Jehovah’s Witness. But Elise’s mother, “isn’t religious. I still remember the day a pair of missionaries came to our door and asked if she believed in God. ‘Once upon a time,’ she replied, and she shut the door in their faces.”
  • Elise finds a card that someone gave her mother. The card says, “praying your sons will pull through.”

Turtles All the Way Down

Aza and Davis haven’t spoken in years. Their childhood bond fizzled as the distance of adolescence separated their lives. Then Davis’s father, multi-billionaire Russell Pickett, goes missing the night before the police raid his house. Aza doesn’t plan to pursue the mystery of Russell Pickett’s whereabouts.  But there is a one-hundred-thousand-dollar reward, and, as Aza’s best friend Daisy likes to point out, shouldn’t they take advantage of a childhood friendship?

Meanwhile, Aza is grappling with an ever-tightening mental spiral of her own thoughts. Every day she must fight to regain control and stop her fears from consuming her. This story of first love, mystery, and mental health blends effortlessly to create one of John Green’s finest works to date.

Many sensitive topics are discussed and analyzed in this novel, making it a teen must-read. Aza’s difficulties coping with depression and OCD are beautifully articulated, giving the reader a greater understanding of these issues. Aza battles mental health challenges while navigating the complications of everyday life, making this a relatable story for readers who may feel overwhelmed by the weight that life can carry.

However, this story is not for the faint of heart. Younger readers may be disturbed by the sensitive issues the story explores, including the loss of a parent, intense mental health issues, burgeoning teen sexuality, and abandonment. There is also a fair amount of unnecessary profanity that may not be appropriate for younger readers.

The importance of parental figures in the novel highlights an aspect of teen life that is often overlooked in young adult fiction. The parents are presented in the wake of traumatic events as multi-dimensional characters, a contrast to how they are often depicted in other young adult novels.

Fans of John Green’s previous works will not be disappointed as Turtles All the Way Down carries his familiar style and packs the emotional punch that readers have grown to expect from his work. Although the story drags in places, Turtles All the Way Down will delight, inspire, and captivate readers through the masterful use of words, emotions, and thorough development of characters.

Sexual Content

  • Daisy writes fanfiction about Chewbacca’s love life. “In my fic, Chewbacca and Rey were in love. He’s saying it is—and I am quoting—‘criminal’ because it’s interspecies romance. Not sex, even—I keep it rated Teen for the kids out there—just love.” She later defends her argument against human males in the Star Wars universe. “Nobody complains about male humans hooking up with female Twi’leks! Because of course men can choose whatever they want to bone.”
  • Daisy tells David that Aza had a crush on him when they were children. Daisy says, “Holmsey here told me she had a crush on you when you were kids . . . And I was, like, let’s go see him, I bet it’s true love.”
  • The idea of being in a romantic relationship makes Aza feel anxious. “I definitely felt attracted to some people, and I liked the idea of being with someone, but the actual mechanics of it didn’t much suit my talents. Like, parts of typical romantic relationships that made me anxious included 1. Kissing. . .”
  • During a dinner conversation, Daisy asks Aza if “you ever gotten a dick pic? . . . I mean have you ever received an unsolicited, no-context dick pic. Like, a dick pic as a form of introduction.” Daisy then hands Aza a picture that she received on her phone, to which Aza replies, “Yeah, that’s a penis.”
  • Russell Pickett had been sued several times for sexual harassment allegations in the past. These incidents are not described.
  • When Daisy is nervous about going on a date with Mychal, she confides in Aza. “I have not actually made out with a human being in
  • Aza has a forearm fetish. “I’m not sure why, but I’ve always been pretty keen on the male forearm.”
  • Aza wants to kiss Davis, despite her anxiety towards germs. “I wondered why I wanted him to kiss me, and how to know why you want to be with someone, how to disentangle the messy knots of wanting.”
  • Aza accidentally walks into a room where “Daisy and Mychal were kissing in a large four-poster bed.”
  • After her first date with Mychal, Daisy weighs the possibility of their future relationship when she has a conversation with Aza. “I actually think upon close examination he is hot. And in general, quite charming and very sexually open and comfortable, although we didn’t do it or anything.”
  • When Aza asks Davis to read his poetry to her, he says, “Reading someone’s poetry is like seeing them naked.” Aza responds to this by saying, “So I’m basically saying I want to see you naked.”
  • After a few times hanging out, Aza and Davis make out. Aza “liked feeling his body against mine, one of his hands tracing my spine . . . I felt my chest tighten, his cold lips and warm mouth, his hands pulling me closer to him through the layers of our coats.” The scene lasts about two pages.
  • When Davis drops Aza off at her house, he “kissed me chastely on my sweaty lips.”
  • Due to her anxiety and the constant spiral in her mind, Aza finds kissing terrifying. She always starts making out with Davis, but once the overwhelming fear of shared microbes takes over, she must pull away. Her therapist says that her anxiety is causing intimacy issues.
  • When Daisy greets Mychal at school, she “threw her arms around him, and kissed him dramatically on the lips, one leg raised at the knee like she was in a movie or something.”
  • There is a brief make-out scene near the climax of the novel. Aza “liked the warmth of his mouth. I wanted more of it. . . I wanted to feel the brain-fuzzing intimacy I’d felt when I kissed him, and I liked kissing him. He was a good kisser.” This scene lasts about half a page.
  • In his blog, Davis writes about E. E. Cummings, saying, “He wrote of love and longing. That often got him laid I’m sure.”
  • Daisy wants to have a tombstone next to Aza that will say, “Holmsey and Daisy: They did everything together, except the nasty.”
  • Daisy feels that her virginity is inescapable, which is a problem she had with her relationship with Mychal. Daisy is upset that “he doesn’t want to have sex unless he’s in love, and yes, I know that virginity is a misogynistic and oppressive social construct, but I still want to lose it.”

Violence

  • Aza and Daisy get into a car crash in which Aza is hospitalized because she sustains serious injuries. Following the crash, Aza “lifted myself up, and the pain blinded me for a minute, but the black dots scattered so I could see the damage.”
  • Aza and Daisy smell Pickett’s body rotting. They aren’t sure and do not look, but they tell Davis who later notifies the authorities. The news reports that “Pickett likely died of exposure.” The dead body is not described.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Aza takes medication for her anxiety. “I’d had a bit of a crack-up my freshman year, after which I was prescribed a circular white pill to be taken once daily. I took it, on average, maybe thrice weekly.” She also takes supplemental medication when she is feeling panicky.
  • When Aza and her mom discuss how to pay for college, she says, “I’ve got plenty of time to win the lottery. And if that doesn’t work out, I’ll just pay for school by selling meth.”
  • When having dinner at Applebee’s, Aza jokingly asks the server for a glass of red wine.
  • When her mom asks her about her thoughts on taking medication for her mental health, Aza thinks, “I wasn’t convinced the circular white pill was doing anything when I did take it, and for another, I was not taking it quite as often as I was technically supposed to.” Later, when talking to her therapist, she says, “Who’s deciding what me means—me or the employees of the factory that makes Lexapro? It’s like I have this demon inside of me, and I want it gone, but the idea of removing it via pills is. . . weird.”
  • Davis describes his father as hiding “cash like alcoholics hide vodka bottles.”
  • Davis’s little brother gets caught with pot at school. This scene is not described.
  • Aza begins ingesting hand sanitizer after kissing Davis in an attempt to kill the bacteria. “I pulled the hand sanitizer out of my jacket and squeezed a glob of it into my mouth. I gagged a little as I swished the burning slime of it around my mouth, then swallowed.”
  • When Aza has a rough night devoid of sleep, Daisy says, “You look like you just got off work from your job playing a ghoul at a haunted house, and now you’re in a parking lot trying to score some meth.”
  • After the car accident, Aza has to take large doses of pain medication.
  • While in the hospital, Aza says, “Even though I was pretty high on morphine or whatever, I couldn’t sleep.”
  • After Aza attempts to drink hand sanitizer in the hospital, the staff, “figured me for an alcoholic—that I’d gone to the sanitizer because I was desperate for a drink.”
  • Davis’s younger brother Noah sinks into depression after their father’s disappearance. Davis remarks, “It’s like Noah’s two people almost: There’s the miniature dude bro who drinks bad vodka and is the king of his little gang of eighth-grade pseudo-badasses. And then the kid who crawls into bed with me some nights and cries.”
  • Daisy, Aza, and Mychal go to an art show where they see an image of “a portly rat drinking a bottle of wine.” During the art show, wine is passed around.

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently throughout the book. This includes holy shit, hell, shit, dumbass, fuck, bullshit, and asshole.
  • Oh my God, Christ, God, thank God, and oh God are used frequently as exclamations.
  • Daisy bemoans the ugliness of her Chuck E. Cheese uniform and calls it, “Fucking systematic oppression.”
  • Davis calls his dad, “a huge shitbag.”
  • After saying something a little rude to Aza, Davis says, “That probably sounded dickish.”
  • Russell Pickett is described as being, “skeezy as hell.”
  • Daisy pretends to be someone’s boss and says, “He went to the fucking office and emailed me scans of the fucking police report.”
  • Davis says that he is “just so goddamned lonely” and that he had a “shitty day.”
  • Aza talks about the parasites that she fears and says, “The parasite breeds there, and then baby parasites get crapped into the water by birds.”
  • When asking Noah what he is doing in his video game, he says, “kickin’ ass and takin’ names.”
  • After going on a date with Mychal, Daisy says, “Do not think I am becoming the best friend who falls in love and ditches her bitches.”
  • In text messages, Davis repeatedly says that he likes Aza’s ass.
  • When trapped in her mental spiral, Aza repeatedly thinks, “oh for fuck’s sake.”
  • Daisy created a character in her Star Wars fan fiction that was based on Aza, and doing so was regarded as a “dick move.”

 Supernatural

  • Aza personifies her mental illness as a demon that is trapped within her body.

Spiritual Content

  • Davis says, “Star Wars is the American religion.” Mychal responds by saying, “I think religion is the American religion.”
  • Daisy laments about how adults, particularly her parents, don’t seem to care. She says, “You watch them try to fill themselves up with booze or money or God or fame or whatever they worship, and it all rots them from the inside until nothing is left but the money or booze or God they thought would save them.”
  • Aza thinks about what it is to be like within her spiral or within love and she says, “I knew what it was like to be in a feeling, to be not just surrounded by it but also permeated by it, the way my grandmother talked about God being everywhere.”

by Morgan Filgas

Saint Anything

Sydney’s older brother, Peyton, holds the spotlight in their family—first for his charm, and then for his stints in rehab and his poor decision-making skills. When he lands in prison after hitting a young boy while drinking and driving, the spotlight turns on Sydney. With this new scandal, she decides to switch schools, hoping for anonymity and a chance to start over.

She starts over by becoming friends with the Chatham family, a family that shows Sydney what it looks like to have parents who are present and supportive and friends who accept you for you. Dessen does all this without feeling cheesy or unrealistic. Readers will see the lesson shown when Sydney is finally able to stand up for herself and the people she loves. Readers will appreciate the character development of Sydney as well as her parents.

Saint Anything is a heartfelt story that doesn’t only focus on romance but also captures the ups and downs of real life. With just the right amount of romance, suspense, and family drama, Saint Anything explores Sydney’s personal growth as she deals with tragedy.

Sydney’s character is genuine and relatable. Her story explores the complicated nature of family relationships. Readers will walk away feeling satisfied at having read a story that not only had a well-developed plot, but also realistic characters and an engaging conflict. The realistic dialogue and uncomplicated vocabulary make for an easy-to-read, engaging story.

Dessen writes a beautiful story that focuses on dealing with grief, guilt, and loneliness. The heart-warming story, with well-developed characters, shows readers the importance of becoming comfortable in your own skin. Saint Anything is the perfect book for those looking for a sweet romance that focuses on family and friendship.

Sexual Content

  • Margaret says to her friend, “Thank me forever for hooking you up with the guy you’re crazy about?”
  • Margaret walks up the stairs with a boy, implying that they are going to have sex. She asks Sydney what she is doing, and Sydney thinks, “Considering she was alone with the guy Jenn had clearly stated she was crushing on, in Jenn’s house, on her way to where there were only bedrooms, I wanted to ask her the same thing.”
  • While on a walk in the woods, Mac and Layla kiss. “I took my hand from Mac’s, then reached up to touch his cheek. When I did, his fingers moved to my waist, pulling me in closer. It was fluid and easy, like everything had been since we’d met, as I stood on my tiptoes and finally, finally kissed him.”
  • Layla thinks about Mac while reflecting on their new relationship, “Not just that he was a good kisser (very good, actually) and had the tightest set of abs I’d ever seen or touched.”
  • When Layla and Mac say goodbye, “he leaned in, kissing me once on the lips, then on the forehead. I felt safe enough to close my eyes.”
  • Spence and Layla kiss before going downstairs to the recording studio. As Spence is headed towards the studio, Layla “allowed herself to be pulled in for a kiss. To her surprise, not to mention mine, it quickly became open-mouthed and full-on tongue.”
  • Sydney’s mom speaks of Mac, “enunciating his name like you might the word herpes or molestation.”

Violence

  • Sydney’s brother is in jail. He was driving under the influence and hit a young boy riding his bike, “head-on.” The accident is not described.
  • Margaret is speaking to Sydney about her public school and says, “I hear there are fights there every day. And that’s with the girls.”
  • A boy attempts to sexually assault Sydney. “He grabbed my wrists. . . then tightened his grip on my wrists, pushing them back, back, against my ears. That was when I got scared. . . I tried to turn my head as he put his lips on mine, squeezing my eyes shut, but he grabbed my face, jerking me back to face him. I could feel his fingers digging into my chin. . . but then my palm was connecting with his face, the sound of skin to skin loud, a smack, and he stumbled backward. . .” Sydney’s dad stops the attack. “. . . I saw my dad. He had one arm hooked around Ame’s neck, tight, the fist clenched, and was pulling him backward down the hallway, away from me.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • In the beginning, Sydney explains the backstory of how her brother ended up in jail. She describes a background of breaking and entering, smoking pot, and possession of pills in his locker.
  • Peyton’s friend has a habit of smoking cigarettes. He would “duck out occasionally to the garage to smoke cigarettes, using a sand-bucket ashtray my mom (who abhorred the habit) put out.”
  • Peyton “drank several beers, took a few shots,” and then “got into his car, and headed home.”
  • In the past, Rosie became addicted to Vicodin that the doctor prescribed to her for a knee injury. She got into trouble when she attempted to get more by faking her prescriptions. “She got a bit too fond of the Vicodin they gave her. Tried to pass off some fake prescriptions.”
  • When Jenn’s parents are out of town, Margaret, Jenn, Meredith, and Sydney drink piña coladas. Meredith and Sydney are not fans of alcohol, but they stay to make sure Jenn is okay. Jenn drinks too much and Sydney helps her to bed.
  • A newspaper story speaking about Peyton’s past states, “After a string of arrests for breaking and entering and drug possession, among other things, he’d completed a stay in rehab and had been sober for over a year. But on that February night, after an evening spent drinking and getting high. . .”
  • Layla and her friends go into the woods behind their house and drink one or two beers before coming back home. Irv says, “Beer me, someone.”
  • Layla’s boyfriend has started taking drugs. Layla tells Sydney the extent of it. “Just pot. Some pills. They make him different. But when I nag him, he gets mad, then doesn’t answer my texts.”
  • When Layla’s boyfriend shows up at her house, she “got a strong whiff of alcohol.”
  • While in the recording studio, Spence, “proceeded to drink most of his bottle of vodka.”

Language

  • “Oh, my God” and “My God” are used several times as exclamations.
  • Layla’s dad says, “Blah my ass,” and then apologizes for his language.
  • Rosie flips another character off.
  • Layla speaks about her brother’s ex-girlfriend. “She was a mean hippie. Who even knew such a thing existed? Bitch.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Layla and her brother went to church when they were young. She speaks about meeting a friend “whom I’d known since our days at Trinity Church Preschool.”
  • Mac explains that the pendant he wears around his neck is “actually a pendant of a saint.” He explains further saying it is of “Bathilde. Patron saint of children. I guess she [his mom] figured we’d need all the help we could get.”
  • Sydney thinks about Mac’s mother, “Like my mom, she was that center of the wheel, with everyone connected drawing strength from her. She needed a saint of her own.”
  • Mac and Layla deliver pizza. “At the next stop, we interrupted a teenage Bible study and were greeted at the door by a beaming girl with braces, who invited us in for a slice and some testimony. Even though we declined, she tipped generously. Jesus would have approved.”
  • Mac speaks about saints and the pendant again, saying Mrs. Chatham “always liked the idea of protection, but especially since she got sick. I’m not wholly convinced. But I figure it can’t hurt, you know?”
  • Mac speaks about saints and his mom. “But there are a few that can be applied pretty broadly. Like the saint of wanderers, travelers, the lost. Or whatever. . . My mom’s favorite is Saint Anthony, the finder of lost things.”
  • Sydney speaks about her saint pendant. “My Saint Anything. I liked the thought of someone looking out for me, whoever it might be. We all need protecting, even if we don’t always know what from.”

by Hannah Neely

Haze

Seb does not understand people. He prefers numbers and computers. His parents don’t get him. When he’s at school, Guzzle is his only friend. But Guzzle isn’t always around to protect Seb from the bullies who harass him.

Things begin to change when he makes friends with Krisite, Madeline, and Jen. And things get even better when a new computer teacher, Miss Adonia, shows up. However, Guzzle doesn’t think Seb can trust Miss Adonai. Soon Seb is mixed up in a web of computer fraud, and he must turn to someone for help. But who should he trust?

Seb must also worry about Guzzle who is struggling to find peace in his life. Although Guzzle is popular at school, he does not enjoy his classes or the friends his popularity brings. To add to his misery, his mother is in an abusive relationship. Despite his struggles, Guzzle is a loyal friend to Seb.

Haze is an easy-to-read story that has loveable characters. There is enough mystery and suspense to keep the reader interested in the plot. The author adds drama to Guzzle’s life by showing his mother in an abusive relationship without adding violent detail. Part of the story revolves around a possible love interest, with a sweet ending.

The author teaches about Asperger Syndrome through Seb’s thoughts and actions. The information about Asperger Syndrome never seems preachy, but comes across in a natural and interesting way. Although Seb’s new friends don’t understand him, they are willing to stick by him, and as they learn about Seb’s Asperger Syndrome, the reader does as well.

Younger readers will be able to enjoy Haze because of the easy reading level as well as the fact that there is no violence. However, there are sexual references, cursing, and mention of drugs and alcohol that may make this book inappropriate for younger readers.    

Sexual Content 

  • When Seb is worried about going on a date, Guzzle said, “Go to the movies or something. You don’t have to talk and if she lets ya, you can touch her up in the dark.” Guzzle goes on to explain that touch her up means, “grab her boobs.”
  • When Guzzle sees Miss Adonia at a hotel with an older man, a group of her students speculate that they are “lovers” or maybe their teacher is a “sex slave.” Then a girl says, “maybe he’s her sex slave! She seems to like to be in control.”
  • Guzzle tells Seb that Kaziah is “easy” but a “bitch at times.” When Seb asks what easy means, Guzzle says, “shit, mate, sometimes you’re such a kid. She lets me touch her you know, do things.” When Seb asks if Guzzle has, “done it, all the way,” Guzzle says, “not yet. Close but.”
  • When Seb is kissed on the cheek, he thinks, “She kissed him. No fuss. No slobbery saliva. No expectations that he do anything. His first kiss. Not quite up to Guzzle’s standard. But this was better. He wouldn’t swap the world for that kiss.”

Violence 

  • On the way to school a group of boys beats up Seb. One boy tells the others that he feels, “like kickin’ butt” and he then begins to hit Seb. “Seb rarely felt the kicks and punches…but he felt humiliated. The futile anger. Couldn’t understand why they hated him so much. Didn’t know how to make them stop.”
  • When Seb gets upset at school he, “hit a couple of kids and then smashed a window with his bare fist.”
  • When Guzzle tells Seb he is leaving home, Guzzle says, “I’m pissing outta here.” Then later Guzzle explains why he is leaving, “Anus beat the shit outta mum last night. I wish she’d leave him. But she won’t. Says she still loves him.”

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Guzzle goes to the park at night. Later Seb asks Guzzle if he was drinking. Guzzle replies, “A bit. Gotta live up to me name, don’t I?”
  • Guzzle goes down to the park and shares his last beer with Kaziah. “One kid was smoking cones through a cut up coke bottle. Kaz breathed deep on a joint, but Guzzle stuck to his cigs.”
  • Guzzle gets “rolling drunk” and talks about going to the shed, “where kids smoked, and teachers avoided duty.”
  • Guzzle says that Kaziah’s friends like to, “smoke dope and beat up anything they can get their hands on.”

Language 

  • The words “shit” and “damn” are spoken by characters.
  • When Seb tries to call someone in the middle of the night, a man answers the phone and says, “Goddam, who the hell is this?”
  • When Jen gets angry at Seb she yells, “Who the hell do you think you are?”
  • One of the characters asks her mother if she can go out with a group of people which includes boys. Her mother gets angry and says, “I knew that sleepover was a bad idea…Twenty four hours in some slut’s house and all your values fly at the window.”
  • When Guzzle’s mother’s boyfriend hits her, he yells, “filthy bitch…useless…deserve this…”

Supernatural 

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Invisible

Doug Hanson is not normal and the kids at school know it. But that doesn’t stop Doug from having a crush on Melissa or from being best friends with Andy, a popular football player.

Doug spends his spare time creating a bridge out of matchsticks for the model railroad in his basement. The one thing that Doug looks forward to is when his neighbor Andy comes home, and they talk out of their bedroom window. It doesn’t matter that Doug and Andy don’t spend much time together; Doug knows that Andy will always be there for them.

When Doug gets caught watching Melissa undress in her bedroom, things take a turn for the worse.  Now Doug is a target of the football players, the police are watching him, and the principal is on his tail.  To make matters worse, his parents are thinking about putting him into a private school for students with emotional problems.

Invisible is an easy-to-read story that focuses on Doug’s difficulties. Towards the end of the story, mystery is added because Doug keeps alluding to something that happened in the past. In the end, this mysterious event gives the reader a surprise ending.

The author adds drama through Doug’s difficulties, but because Doug obviously has problems, it is sometimes hard to empathize with him. Even though Doug knows it is wrong, he spies on his crush, Melissa. Because of Doug’s actions and his disturbing thoughts, the reader can understand why other students do not like Doug.

Sexual Content 

  • Doug has a crush on Melissa. While at school he stares at her. During one scene he thinks about her body. “I wonder what her breasts look like? I happen to know that girls’ nipples come in different sizes and colors. I imagine Melissa’s being the small, pink variety.”
  • Doug likes to climb up a tree and watch Melissa in her bedroom. He watches her begin to undress, but does not see much. Melissa’s father catches Doug and runs him off the property.

Violence 

  • Doug thinks about, “some Buddhist monks who poured gasoline over themselves and set themselves on fire. They did it to protest a war.”
  • Although there is no actual violence, Doug thinks about a conversation he had with Andy.  “Would you rather be strangled by a serial killer or devoured by rats? We both went with a serial killer.”
  • A group of “football goons” beat up Doug. “Freddie draws back on enormous foot and kicks me hard in the ribs, I curl up and try to roll way, but they are on me, three of them, kicking me from every side . . . One of them stomps on my chest; air hisses from my lungs.” Doug ends up in the hospital, but the boys are not punished.
  • While Doug is in the hospital he thinks about getting revenge. He wants to catch a rat and, “put it in a steel box with a hole against his body so that the only way for the rat to get out is to chew its way through Freddie’s’ stomach. Or I could soak his Nikes in gasoline and light them on fire while they are on his feet.”
  • Doug fills his railroad cars with the phosphorous and then watches them crash and catch on fire.  “I look up at the sky and see flames spreading across the basement ceiling . . . I am burning and I am blind and I can’t find the stairs . . .” Doug ends up in the burn unit.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • There is one reference to “stoners” who attend school with the narrator.
  •  Doug takes Proloftin (or is supposed to). He doesn’t like the pills because they make him sleepy, but they help, “me being locked up at home and not being able to see Andy.” His psychiatrist and his parents keep asking him to take the pills, but he doesn’t.   

Language 

  • When the boys are beating Doug, he is called an “asshole,” a “perv” and a “goddamn peeper.”
  • Dough thinks about beating the “crap” out of someone.

Supernatural 

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

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