YA – The Vanishing Half

Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. Riverhead Books. 2020. 978-0-525-53629-1. 343 pp. $27.00. Gr. 10+.

In 1954, the morning after Founders Day, the 16-year old Vignes twins disappeared from their tiny town of Mallard, Louisiana. Desiree and Stella made their way to New Orleans, where their lives took two very different directions and identities. Stella began “passing” as white, and Desiree continued living as a black woman. Now, fourteen years later, Desiree has returned to Mallard with a young daughter in tow. Jude’s dark complexion makes waves in Mallard, a town founded on the principle of prizing each generation’s lighter and lighter skin tones. No one has seen or heard from Stella in almost as many years. The narrative shifts between 1968, when Desiree and Jude arrive in Mallard, and 1978, when Jude herself leaves to attend UCLA. There she falls in love with a trans man named Reese. Brit Bennett expertly depicts each time period and setting, weaving in real-world events such the integration of wealthy suburban neighborhoods, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the early days of the AIDS crisis. She realistically embeds each woman’s story within the timeline, gradually turning up the tension in one plot strand before focusing on another, equally well-crafted, character arc. No jaw-dropping plot twists are required in a historical novel this good, with storylines that converge, draw apart, and come together again with heartbreaking realism.

THOUGHTS: Crisp, unpretentious writing, vivid settings, and characters who genuinely feel real make for one of the best reads of 2020.

Historical Fiction          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio

Backderf, Derf. Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio. Abrams ComicArts. 2020. 978-1-4197-3484-7. 288 pp. $24.99. Gr. 10+.

For many of us, “Kent State” is synonymous with one of the most indelible images of the Vietnam War era. John Paul Filo’s influential, award-winning photograph captured the aftermath of four days of antiwar protests and National Guard presence, and more specifically thirteen seconds of gunfire. Tragically, four students were shot and killed, and nine more were wounded. In this gripping and painstakingly sourced graphic narrative, comics artist Derf Backderf turns his inimitable skill to chronicling May 1-4, 1970, from the perspectives of the four students whose lives were lost. They played music, went on dates, studied, called their parents, protested President Nixon’s escalation of the war, and uneasily observed the presence of the Ohio National Guard on campus (called in to suppress the “radicals” and agitators, who were generally not part of the student body). Backderf portrays the exhaustion, confusion, unpreparedness, muddled leadership, and dishonesty of the Guard throughout the catastrophic operation, as well as the political pressures impacting their actions.

THOUGHTS: Backderf recreates these four days with such intimate immediacy that the panels depicting the deaths of Jeff, Allison, Sandy, and Bill are gut-wrenching, even 50 years later. Distinctive artwork, ample period details, and integrated exposition set the narrative firmly within the era and provide helpful context. Simply outstanding on every level!

Michael Burgan’s 2017 juvenile nonfiction title, Death at Kent State, and Deborah Wiles’ recent novel-in-verse, Kent State, would round out a text set on this topic for a range of readers.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA Historical Fiction – Burn Baby Burn

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Medina, Meg. Burn Baby Burn. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2016. 978-0-7636-7467-0. 310pp. $17.99. Grades 8 and up.

In this gripping coming-of-age novel, Meg Medina brings 1977 New York City vividly to life with a potent backdrop of disco, the Son of Sam murders, women’s lib, arson, and civil unrest. In her senior year of high school, Nora López is looking forward to turning 18 and saving enough money to move out on her own, escaping her needy Mima and increasingly volatile younger brother, Hector. She’s excited about her new boyfriend Pablo (the cute stock boy at the bodega where she works), though the specter of a killer at large looms over their stolen moments together. Medina includes the murderer’s notes to law enforcement, one of the ways she ramps up the tingly sense of unseen danger around each corner. Meanwhile, Mima faces a layoff and Hector’s mood swings turn violent, just two more secrets that Nora tries to keep from Pablo and her best friend, Kathleen. Many readers will identify with Nora’s economic worries and her longing for a better future. At one point, Nora describes her friends as “beautiful in the face of fear”; it’s exactly how readers will think of Nora herself. THOUGHTS: With a strong historical setting and fully realized characters, this novel is a must-read.

Historical Fiction           Amy V. Pickett, Ridley High School

 

“Maybe the things that scare us seem more powerful than they truly are when we keep them secret” (269).  It’s summer 1977 in Flushing, Queens.  It’s one of the hottest summers on record and the evil that lurks in the city is on the prowl.  It’s the summer of Son of Sam, and Nora Lopez worries about her long brown hair attracting the serial murderer, but that’s just the cherry.  Arsonists have taken to the city and during a city-wide blackout, businesses are looted and burned to the ground.  As Nora witnesses her troubled, pyro-loving brother burn down the neighborhood pharmacy, her fears of failure, family, and her future finally force her to face herself and the lies she’s been telling to protect her family from shame.  As Nora draws strength from within, she finally faces her broken family and future with inner-strength.  THOUGHTS: With a backdrop of disco, the Son of Sam murders, women’s liberation, and cultural tensions, Burn Baby Burn is a wonderful piece of historical fiction that reminds readers that everyone faces difficulties, but it’s how one stands up to those challenges that allows the future to unfold.

Historical Fiction     Erin Parkinson, Beaver Area MS-HS

Sunny Side Up

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Holm, Jennifer L. and Matthew Holm. Sunny Side Up. New York: Graphix, 2015. 978-0-545-74166-8. 217p. $12.99. Gr. 3-7.

Sunny Lewin is a ten year old girl growing up in Pennsylvania in the mid-1970s. She is being forced to fly to Florida alone to spend part of her summer vacation with her grandfather. Through flashback chapters, we learn that she is being sent away while her family deals with her older brother’s drug problem. In Florida, she meets another boy whose obsession with comic books rubs off on Sunny. Together, they debate the pros and cons of hiding one’s identity and keeping secrets. Sunny eventually bursts from the strain of keeping her family’s secret and realizes she does not have to keep holding everything inside. The authors’ note at the end explains that the story is somewhat autobiographical and hopes to help children deal with the stress of addiction in their family.  Told with warmth and humor, and many detailed nods to the time period (Dorothy Hamill haircuts, Eastern airlines, and metal lunchboxes with a thermos inside!) unpeeling the layers of Sunny’s story through the graphic format is a wonderful experience. Thoughts: Fans of Raina Telgemeier’s books (Smile, Sisters, Drama) and Jennifer Holm’s novels (The 14th Goldfish) will enjoy this one as well.

Graphic Novel     Lisa Weiss, Churchville Elementary School