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
Boucher, Marianne. Talking to Strangers: A Memoir of My Escape from a Cult. Doubleday Canada. 2020. 978-0-385-67733-2. Unpaged. $19.00. Grades 9+.
In 1980, Marianne Boucher was at a crossroads in her ice skating career. Not fully invested in her high school experience, she traveled to California (her first trip alone) to audition for the Ice Capades. On a whim, she went to the beach, where she was approached by two friendly strangers. Pleased with the attention, she joined them for dinner, then a 2-day workshop on “finding pure love and real purpose,” and then a retreat at Camp Mozumdar in the San Bernardino Mountains. (Needless to say, she missed her audition.) Camp involved lectures, songs, chants, and mantras repeated for hours, even days. Along the way, Marianne learned about Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his teachings on the “road to unselfishness.” Meanwhile, Marianne’s mother correctly feared that her daughter had been indoctrinated into a cult, and began her own investigation into how to bring her safely home. The grayscale artwork in this graphic memoir is rendered with quick lines and broad strokes, underscoring how rapidly Marianne was absorbed into the Moonies. The slightly unfinished quality matches her still-developing personality. She writes that her fellow Moonies “seemed to understand how hard I tried – but had failed – at so many things in life.” She also alludes to “all the things that are wrong with me.” Talking to Strangers would be stronger if the author had developed this aspect of her history, so the reader could more deeply understand her vulnerabilities.
THOUGHTS: This is a timeless cautionary tale about the dangers of falling in with a found family that seems too good to be true. Readers of Emma Cline’s The Girls will appreciate this one.
Graphic Memoir Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD
Abirached, Zeina. I Remember Beirut. Minneapolis: Graphic Universe, 2014. 978- 1467738224. 96p. $29.27. Gr. 9-12.
Zeina Abirached wrote and illustrated a beautiful graphic memoir about her time growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, during the civil war between neighboring Christians and Muslims. Many of her memories are especially powerful because they are seen through the eyes of a child. Her view of ordinary life during extraordinary times is heartbreakingly real. One memory in particular that stands out is her brother’s collection of shrapnel from the bombings, and how he enjoyed finding new and unusual pieces.
The memoir is told using bold black and white beautifully drawn and detailed images. The language is also simple and real with many 1980s pop culture references. Although this graphic memoir is about one little girl’s view of the war around her, it can also be seen as a reflection of what so many children in the world face in their own lives as they wake up to the conflict around them and just try to live their lives and be safe with their families.
Graphic Memoir Marian Kohan, Erie School District
Portes, Andrea. Anatomy of a Misfit. New York: HarperTeen, 2014. 978-0-06-231364-5. 328 p. $17.99. Gr. 9 and up.
On the outside, Anika Dragomir looks like she could be made of vanilla pudding and apple pie. But on the inside, she is spider stew. At least, that’s how this third-most-popular girl in high school sees herself. Anika got her unique looks and her dark side from her Romanian father, and in 1980s Lincoln, Nebraska, she stands out in a crowd. Whether she’s making snarky comments about her best “frenemy” Becky, slowly poisoning (and stealing from) her boss at the Bunza Hut, falling for cute misfit Logan McDonough, or simultaneously falling for even cuter scam artist Jared Kline, Anika keeps her real feelings under wraps so she can maintain her top social status. But glimpses of Logan’s miserable home life and the consequences of her actions at work wake Anika up to the importance of following her heart even when it doesn’t take her down a popular path. Intermittent, dreamlike chapters of Anika “pedaling fast, fast, fast” toward an impending tragedy add urgency to the novel’s pacing. This YA debut by Andrea Portes, based on her ninth grade year of junior high, is a biting, harrowing, ultimately heartrending view of high school from inside the in-crowd.
Realistic Fiction Amy V. Pickett, Ridley High School
Anatomy of a Misfit was the featured Big Library Read (http://biglibraryread.com) title this October. It has been described as Mean Girls meets The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and this is both a very fitting description and a great way to introduce the title to teens. There’s a bit of rough language, which makes this book appropriate for 9th grade and above. After reading this novel, I am definitely looking forward to the next YA book from Andrea Portes!
Kephart, Beth. Going Over. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014. 978-1-4521-2457-5. 262 p. $17.99. Gr. 9 and up.
Ada, a teenager living in a divided 1980s Berlin, works at a day care center on the west side of the Berlin wall by day. At nighttime, however, she leaves the tiny apartment she shares with her mother and grandmother in order to paint graffiti on the wall. Her graffiti depicts images of daring escapes by East Germans to the west. It is intended for Stefan, the boy she loves, who lives east of the wall with his grandmother and looks for her messages through a telescope as the two plan his escape. The story is told in alternating voices; Ada full of hope that Stefan will one day join her in the west, and Stefan hesitant to risk his life for love. The story is one of courage and hope even in the most desperate of times.
Historical Fiction Julie Ritter, Montoursville Area High School
Although this book took me awhile to get into, I am glad I stuck with it. The plot starts out rather slow, but picks up quickly towards the middle of the story as one of Ada’s day care clients disappears and Stefan begins preparing for his daring escape. Ultimately, the ending is satisfying. Additionally, Kephart does an excellent job of portraying what life was like in 1980s Berlin as friends and families were separated by politics, and movement between the east and west was highly restricted. She even includes an author’s note at the end of the book that gives a brief history of the Wall and informs readers that some of her characters and escapes were based on actual people and events. This would be an excellent choice for readers looking to learn more about the history of the Berlin Wall. Fans of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire might also enjoy this story.