MG – The Prettiest

Young, Brigit. The Prettiest. Roaring Brook Press, 2020. 978-1-626-72923-0. 301 p. $16.99. Grades 6-8.

Eve Hoffman writes poetry, wears her high-school aged brother’s oversized shirts to distract from her curves, and buries her head in a book so as to not be noticed. She is the most surprised of all her eighth grade classmates to find herself in the top slot on the Prettiest List at Ford Middle School in suburban Michigan. As the principal and teachers try to root out the list’s instigator, both girls on the list and off suffer backlash. Prettiest by Brigit Young is told through the perspectives of the main characters: Eve, a well-developed, shy girl from a conservative Jewish family; Nessa Flores-Brady, her best friend, a theater junkie and a large, Latinx girl; and Sophie Kane, a determined blonde-haired girl whose bossiness and make-up mask the shame she feels about her family’s economic situation. When the ringleader of the mean girls, Sophie, gets knocked off her pedestal and relegated to number two on the list, she realizes the pretense of her groupies and reluctantly joins forces with Nessa and Eve to take down the person who they believe compiled the list. Aided by Winston Byrd, a lone renegade from the popular boys, their chief suspect is Brody Dalton, a wealthy, handsome, and entitled young man who has verbally abused or offended many of his classmates with no remorse. The trio enlist other wronged girls calling themselves Shieldmaidens. They bond in genuine friendship and sisterhood as they plot to expose Dalton’s crime in a public way at the finale of the school play. What starts off as a 21st Century equivalent to a simple slam book story becomes a feminist’s rallying cry for girls to be judged on their merits, not their looks, and for all middle school students to resist fitting into a mold to gain acceptance. It also uncovers the nuances of each person’s story. For example, the arrogant Dalton is the sole student whose parent never attends school events. Young’s talent for echoing the authenticity and humor of preadolescent dialogue enables her to tackle important issues with a light touch. This highly readable work reveals the insecurities embedded in a middle school student’s life: not being cool enough, popular enough, and the pain caused by too much attention and not enough.

THOUGHTS: Though there is some show of diversity here (an African-American girl, a girl in a wheelchair), the emphasis is on the pressure middle school students—especially girls—feel to look and behave a certain way. Lots of discussion points in this book: from the insults the girls receive and their collective show of power to the students’ bandwagon attitude and the sympathetic– but mostly ineffectual– response of the teachers and principal. Prettiest may present as a “girl” book because of its feminine cover and title, but it is definitely a book for all genders to read. For more tales of positive girl power: read Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu in high school.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – It Sounded Better in My Head

Kenwood, Nina. It Sounded Better in My Head. Flatiron Books, 2020. 978-1-250-21926-8. 260 p. $18.99. Grade. 8-12.

Natalie had a good grip on her life until her parents jovially announce they’re getting a divorce. They’ve known this for months but waited until the Christmas holidays and high school graduation (which coincide in Australia, where the book was first published). A rarity for literature, Natalie has a great relationship with her parents and is devastated by the news and hurt by their deceit. She turns to her support network, her best friends Lucy and Zach. But since they started dating, Natalie sometimes feels like a third wheel. Having suffered through severe, scarring acne during puberty, Natalie has a shattered self image and has not dated. At a party, she connects with Alex, Zach’s older brother, but quickly convinces herself Alex’s interest was an act of kindness perpetrated by Zach. But an accidental case of musical bedrooms at a beach house over New Year’s brings Natalie and Alex back into close proximity, and as they talk they again feel a positive connection. However, Natalie’s lack of confidence and poor self image quickly threaten to sabotage the burgeoning relationship. This engaging book covers a topic not discussed in YA literature, the trauma of severe teen acne, and the scars it leaves, both physical and psychological. Natalie is a bright teen with caring parents and friends, but the long term effects of her acne are evident in her image, (styling her hair to cover which side of her face looks worse) confidence, and self-worth. American readers will need to translate Australian terms and references but will recognize themselves in the three friends as they shakily navigate through the next phase in their lives.

THOUGHTS: A welcome addition to YA realistic fiction collections. While some characters have sex off-page, Natalie and Alex discuss the issue and decide they are not ready.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Eighteen-year-old Natalie is looking forward to her well-planned future: she and her close friends and new couple, Zach and Lucy, will join her in their respective majors at a local Australian university. Perhaps then, Natalie will be able to shed some of the body shame she has from her years with inflammatory, scarring acne and finally experience a love life.

When Natalie’s seemingly loving parents announce their divorce on graduation night, Natalie relies even more on her friends, though she’s feeling more and more like a third wheel. As the trio await their uni placements, they join Zach’s family at their beach house in Queenscliff to vacation and celebrate New Year’s. What follows is a comedy of errors. Going against his house rules, Zach asks Natalie if she will trade rooms so he and Lucy can sleep together. Older brother, Alex, shows up at the beach house in the middle of the night and crashes in Zach’s room surprising both Natalie and himself. It doesn’t help that Natalie has a secret crush on handsome Alex since he gave her a peck on the cheek during a game of Spin the Bottle at a pre-graduation party. As their nights together multiply, romance blossoms. The revelation of the pair as boyfriend and girlfriend causes a ruckus not just in Alex’s and Zack’s family but also in Zach’s and Natalie’s relationship. Natalie’s first-person narrative reveals her insecurities in navigating the new terrain of sex and a boy/girl relationship. Though no graphic sex scenes occur, It Sounded Better In My Head does percolate the angst and delight of true friendship, first love, and new beginnings. Author Kenwood makes this story light and funny and her characters seem very real.

THOUGHTS: Natalie spends a lot of time obsessing over her bad skin and her lack of a love life. Natalie and Alex spend a lot of time talking and kissing in bed during the room switch and afterward. At this time when there are so many serious issues abound, Natalie’s common concerns about friendship, sex, appearance, university, and her parents may seem a bit trite; however, young readers may share Natalie’s insecurities and longings and enjoy her sense of humor.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA Realistic Fiction – Wink Poppy Midnight; Nice Girls Endure

Tucholke, April Genevieve. Wink Poppy Midnight. New York: Dial Books, 2016. 978-0-8037-4048-8. $17.99. 247 pp. Gr. 9 and up.

A bit of fairy tale, lots of character study, and twists readers may not see coming, Wink Poppy Midnight looks at the interconnectedness of three very different characters.  Wink, lost in fairytales and caring for others, seems naive; lost to the world around her.  Midnight, a true teenage boy with teenage boy things on his mind, is torn between lust for one and growing love for another.  Poppy is cruel; the “mean girl” who leads a crew of followers to complete her bully status.  One is a hero; one a villain, and one a liar, but who can tell which is which.  With fairy tale associations and cruelty abound, Wink Poppy Midnight is reminiscent of J.K. Rowling’s character study, A Casual Vacancy, and e. Lockhart’s storytelling in We Were Liars.  THOUGHTS:  Not for the plot-driven reader, this novel is for the mature reader who understands the intricacies of character development and the importance of understanding a character in order to tell a story.

Realistic Fiction     Erin Parkinson, Beaver Area MS/HS

Much like when I read J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy, I hated and understood the purpose of this novel while reading.  It took me forever to actually read the novel because I couldn’t get into it.  I hated all of the characters and had no clue what Tucholke was trying to accomplish while reading it; yet, I couldn’t actually stop reading it (even though it took almost two months to finish).  I truly don’t know who I would recommend this title to, but it got starred reviews, so it must have an audience.  It is being compared to We Were Liars by e. Lockhart, and I understand why based on the writing style, but I got We Were Liars and understood what Lockhart was trying to do with the intersection of life, fairy tale, and loss.  I don’t understand Tucholke here except to comment on the cruelty of human character and the idea that cruelty and kindness live in all of us.  

 

Struyk-Bonn, Chris. Nice Girls Endure.  North Mankato, MN; Switch Press, 2016. 978-1630790479. $16.95. 256 p. Gr. 9 and up.

Struyk-Bonn has succeeded in telling a realistic yet engaging and meaningful story about a young girl looking to find her place in a world that does not seem to want her. Chelsea Duvey has always been overweight, but, as usual, life seems worse now that she is in high school. She struggles to make friends because of her social anxiety and deals with constant bullying. She spends most of her time at home watching musicals with her father, singing along with all of the songs and forgetting her life for awhile. Her mother is not so understanding and tries to sign her up for weight-loss classes. One classmate in particular targets her for constant bullying, and after he assaults her at a dance and posts photos online, Chelsea becomes despondent and struggles to overcome depression and anxiety. She slowly makes friends in her film as literature class, and one girl in particular befriends her and shows that Chelsea can be who she is and still be loved. The inclusion of a therapist is helpful, but the use of anxiety medication could have been better employed and resolved at the end. The depiction of the adults is fairly realistic, as they are given their own flaws and faults to manage. THOUGHTS: This is a good read for teenagers needing a story of strength and resilience. Highly recommended for high school libraries.

Realistic Fiction     Lindsey Myers, Shady Side Academy Senior School Library

I did truly enjoy this book, and am excited to recommend it to my students. Chelsea does seem to give up at one point, but her friends and family rally around her to help her move on, and teens need to know that there are so many individuals around them who will help and support them. And, Chelsea is not the only one fighting demons in this story, and this fact illustrates how so many of us are fighting our own negative thoughts and emotions. I look forward to possibly using this title in a book club as well!