YA – After the Ink Dries

Gustafson, Cassie. After the Ink Dries. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 406 p. 978-1-534-47369-0. $19.99 Grades 10-12.

Trigger warning: sexual assault and abuse; suicide ideation, self-harm, and attempted suicide; bullying and victim-shaming.

It is fitting that this book begins with a trigger warning, for it is much needed. It is difficult to read of the characters’ experiences in this book without a strong emotional and intellectual response.

The opening chapter plunges the reader immediately into Erika’s world as she wakes disoriented in an unknown bedroom to discover herself naked with Sharpie writing all over her body–crude messages from–she sees later–at least four boys who also signed their names. She struggles to remember the events of the night before–a party…she was so happy with her new boyfriend Thomas’s attention…finally feeling more accepted in her new town….the campfire….she must have passed out. She slowly realizes she’s been assaulted and manages to leave the house unnoticed, but not before hearing four boys gloating over their conquest of Erika, attempting to pull in Thomas, whose response is unknown. Her shame and revulsion is absolute, and all she wants to do is retreat home, remove the filthy writing, and undo the entire past 12 hours.

Meanwhile, the perspective shifts to Thomas, who is dazed by the events and slow to admit to anyone–even himself–what happened at the party. He’s on his way to a coveted, much-planned-for audition to music school, arranged by his uncle in the absence of any fatherly support. He bombs the audition, then scrambles to a double lacrosse practice, where the other guys are ready to tell him how to think about the party (and don’t bail on your friends). Erika and her mom have only been in town for a few months, with her mom taking all the overtime she can as a nurse, and Erika making her way in new teenage social circles. Erika seems to have made friends with Caylee and perhaps Amber, and she’s made enemies with Tina, whose interest was in Thomas. Erika needs a friend, and instinctively thinks of Caylee, but how can she talk to Caylee when Caylee is so proud to be Zac’s girlfriend, and when Zac’s name is written on Erika’s body? Erika tries to act as though nothing is amiss, but Tina’s social media posts start rumors which others only fuel. Ringleader Zac texts Erika simply to torment her. Quickly, Erika becomes a pariah: She’s mentally unstable, a nobody, new to town, sl**, must have wanted it, should have known better, and on and on. With nowhere to turn, Erika seeks to end her life. She is resuscitated and held in the hospital while the boys, their parents and lawyers round up to crucify her. Enter Amber, who emerges as a firehouse of a real friend to strengthen and support Erika (and her mom). The police want details, but Erika wavers. If she doesn’t explain, there will be no repercussions, and maybe this could be over. A visit from Caylee, who has only Zac’s best interest in mind, enrages Erika enough to realize she must speak.

THOUGHTS: Gustafson’s first novel, written in alternating voices of Erika and Thomas, is a terribly real book, leaving readers as witnesses to sexual assault, disbelief of survivors, and seeming powerlessness of young women. The novel very importantly shows that although Erika was not raped, this was sexual assault. After the Ink Dries is recommended for mature readers with a support system to discuss its contents.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA Realistic Fiction – Mr. 60%; Saints & Misfits; We Come Apart; Grit

Barrett Smith, Clete. Mr. 60%. Crown Books, 2017. 978-0-5535-3466-5. 192 p. $17.99. Gr. 9 and up.

Meet Matt, aka “Mr. 60%”, a nickname earned thanks to just-passing grades and Matt’s habit of doing the bare minimum both academically and socially to graduate high school. The only time he engages in conversation is when he’s completing a “transaction” with a classmate. Instead, he spends his time looking for more creative places to stash his “merchandise” at school so when his nemesis, the vice principal, and the on-campus cop conduct random drug searches, they turn up nada.  Everyone thinks Matt is destined to be a high school dropout, yet what they don’t know is that Matt feels like he has no other choice; he’s only selling drugs to pay for medicine to help ease his uncle’s pain in the wake of a fatal cancer diagnosis. With his mother in jail, his dad never having been in the picture, and living in trailer #6 at the local trailer park with his dying uncle, Matt has limited options and no one to turn to.  When the school board develops a new policy requiring seniors to participate in at least one student activity club in order to graduate, Matt is forced to see he’s not as alone as he thought.  There just might be a friend he can lean on when times get unbearable.  THOUGHTS:  Mr. 60% reminds adult readers, educators especially, that our children are more than what we see on the surface, and reminds teen readers that they’re not alone, that a classmate passing them in the hallway might have it worse than they do.  Despite its somber tone and overwhelming sense of helplessness readers may feel for Matt; there is still a note of hope throughout the story: the fellow classmate whose offer of friendship helps her just as much as it helps Matt and his uncle, the guidance counselor willing to try over and over again to offer Matt options to help him graduate even though he doesn’t seem to appreciate it, the police officer who keeps trying to warn Matt of his impending future should he not change his drug-dealing ways, among others. My only complaint is the abrupt ending; the conclusion needed at least one more chapter to feel complete. Teens and adults alike will appreciate the realistic characters and the how real Matt’s life is portrayed, and the short length is perfect for reluctant readers. 

Realistic Fiction            Sandra Reilly, Pleasant Valley SD

 

Ali, S.K. Saints and Misfits.  Salaam Reads, 2017. 978-1-4814-9924-8. 328 p.  $18.99  Gr. 7-12.

Janna sees people as fitting into three different categories:  saints, misfits, and monsters.  She herself is a misfit:  a Muslim girl who chooses to wear the Hajib, struggling to fit in to a variety of different places and with different people, including two families, since her parents are divorced (and have very different views on religion). Janna has a crush on Jeremy, who isn’t Muslim; he’s a misfit, too, if only because he’s willing to consider dating her.  Then there are saints: people so perfect and good, like her brother’s girlfriend, they make Janna feel like she’s lacking.  Finally, there’s the monsters.  Janna tries not to think about the monster in her life; a monster who pretends to be a saint.  He’s the brother of one of Janna’s friends, and she’s afraid to tell anyone the truth, that he tried to sexually assault her once, and she’s afraid he might do it again.  THOUGHTS:  The sensitive subject matter is handled frankly and yet not too graphically, so that this book is accessible to middle as well as high school readers.  This well written book is an important addition to school library collections both because it features a Muslim heroine, and because it empower girls who have been assaulted.

Realistic Fiction               Maggie Bokelman, Cumberland Valley SD

 

Crossan, Sarah and Conaghan, Brian. We Come Apart. Bloomsbury, 2017. 978-1-68119-275-8. $17.99. 320p. Gr. 9+.

Sarah Crossan teamed up with Brian Conaghan to write in verse from two points of view. Both Jess and Nicu lead desperate lives. Jess lives in a dysfunctional home with a despicable stepfather who beats Jess’ mom and forces her to be an accomplice. Jess lives in fear of her stepfather, but it doesn’t stop her from acting out by stealing things. On her third arrest, she is forced to do community service which is where she meets Nicu, who is also performing community service. Nicu and his family have recently emigrated from Romania to England into the time of Brexit and open racism. We see through his broken-English what it is like for a teenager of color to endure racism from not just his classmates, but his teachers and society in general. Nicu also has the weight of an arranged marriage in his near future to contend with. The story begins with a hesitant friendship between Jess and Nicu and slowly transforms into love. Jess fights the relationship from the beginning, hiding it from her friends, and not step to Nicu’s defense when people attack him because of his Romanian heritage. This book reminded me of Crossan’s, The Weight of Water and the publisher likens it to Una LaMarche’s Like No Other.  THOUGHTS: I read this book quickly due to its being written in verse, but also because I wanted to find out what would happen between Jess and Nicu. It’s rated 9th grade and above due to the domestic violence and a brutal racist attack on the street, although I would consider letting 8th graders read this book. I enjoyed reading about Nicu’s perspective of moving to a country in the throes of Brexit and overt racism all the while living with old-fashioned parents that insist on an arranged marriage. I enjoyed the ending, but I can already hear my students complaining that it lacked the happy ending they seem to enjoy.

Realistic Fiction, Verse            Bridget Fox, Central Bucks SD

 

French, Gillian.  Grit.  HarperTeen, 2017.  978-0-06-264255-4. 294 p.  $17.99.  Gr. 9-12.

Seventeen-year-old Darcy Prentiss has a wild reputation that precedes her. Most of her classmates believe she is promiscuous, and she is often found drinking and taking dares at parties. The police think she knows more than she is letting on about the disappearance last summer of her former best friend, Rhiannon, and it soon comes to light that she is also hiding another secret for her cousin, Nell. As the story unfolds, mysteries that seemed totally unrelated are woven together, and the truth behind Darcy’s actions is unveiled. Teen readers will easily be able to relate to and empathize with Darcy, making this a great choice for high school libraries.  THOUGHTS: My only criticism of this title is the fact that I had a hard time figuring out what the main story line was. Did I want to know what happened to Rhiannon last summer, or did I want to discover Nell’s secret? Was I more interested in the love connection between Darcy and a boy named Jesse than I was in either of these mysteries? However, regardless of the complex plot (which all ended up weaving together in the end), Darcy proved to be an extremely relatable and likable character.  I felt for her, and I admired her courage; therefore, I needed to keep reading to find out what happened to her and everyone else. A beautifully written title, perhaps more suited towards older adolescents due to its evocative language and sexual references.

Realistic Fiction      Julie Ritter, Montoursville Area SD

 

Adult Crossover (HS) – Only Love…; Wrecked; You Will Know Me

onlylove

Tarkington, Ed. Only Love Can Break Your Heart. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2016. 978-1-61620-382-5. 307 pp. $26.95. Gr. 10 and up.

As a young boy growing up in late 1970s small-town Virginia, Rocky Askew idolizes his rebellious older half-brother, Paul. Rocky is also infatuated with Paul’s beautiful but secretly troubled girlfriend, Leigh. Following a rift with their father (“the Old Man”), Paul kidnaps Rocky from elementary school with a subtly threatening but unclear motive. After delivering a cigarette-sick Rocky home, Paul runs away with Leigh and literally disappears. Leigh returns home months later but doesn’t seem sure of where Paul is, or if he’s even alive. Meanwhile, Rocky is seduced by an older neighbor named Patricia, and the far-reaching ripples of Black Monday lead to the Old Man’s downfall. Debut author Ed Tarkington then throws a catastrophic wedding, a high school production of Equus, and a ritualized double murder into the mix of this virtuosic literary achievement. Narrated with a reflective tone by an adult Rocky looking back, it has echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird, true crime, the music of Neil Young, and recent crossover standout My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh. At its core, Only Love Can Break Your Heart is a book about love: love between brothers, fathers and sons, first loves, and people and places. It’s also about how love can be manipulated to make people do inexplicable, terrible things. THOUGHTS: Reading Only Love Can Break Your Heart is just like hearing a forgotten favorite song from adolescence: every word is perfectly right and every note rings true.

Historical Fiction; Adult Crossover      Amy V. Pickett, Ridley HS

Because of this adult novel’s sexual content (namely Rocky’s relationship with Patricia), I recommend reading it before deciding whether to add it to your library’s collection for teens. Even if you opt not to recommend it to students, all of the literary allusions and nostalgia make it a wonderful choice for a teacher book club. Alex Award winners are really tough to predict, but Only Love Can Break Your Heart‘s fraught coming-of-age storyline could make it a contender!

 

wrecked

Padian, Maria. Wrecked. New York : Algonquin Young Readers, 2016. 9781616206246. 357 pp. $17.95. Gr.10 and up.

In her powerful and thought provoking novel, Wrecked,  Maria Padian examines the complexities of an on-campus sexual assault. The events of the night in question are revealed in flashbacks interspersed throughout the novel. But, the focus of the story is on Haley and Richard, the roommates of the victim and the perpetrator who become embroiled in the school’s investigation into the incident. Their budding romance is tested as they are immediately thrown on opposite sides of the story. Though neither Haley nor Richard are close friends with Jenny and Jordan, they become uneasy participants in the unfolding inquiry and drama. The truth of what occurred is hard to determine; each character in the book perceives the truth through the lens of their own personal views and experiences. The novel sheds light on the pervasive self-absorption of many of the characters which reveals their lack of empathy for their fellow student. And, the situation is further complicated by the campus culture of binge drinking and easy hookups. The specter of social media harassment adds fuel to the drama.  This novel is recommended for older teen readers due to the mature themes, but it does present an important topic for discussion for students of both sexes.  THOUGHTS: A compelling look at a very serious topic and a timely read, especially in light of recent news coverage of campus sexual assault cases.  The author manages to convey a powerful message about consent that all young people must understand.

Realistic Fiction      Nancy Summers, Abington Senior HS

 

youwillknowme

Abbott, Megan. You Will Know Me. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2016. 978-0-316-23107-7. 345 pp. $26.00. Gr. 10 and up.

To fill the Olympic-sized hole in your life, look no further than You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott. It’s an adult crossover thriller set in the world of competitive gymnastics. Fifteen-year old Devon Knox has set her sights on Senior Elite status and, potentially, the Olympics. Her parents, Katie and Eric, are ultra-involved in both Devon’s training regimen and the gym where she trains: the boosters, the equipment, the coaching staff, and the gossip. Just weeks before Senior Elite qualifiers, Ryan (the boyfriend of beloved but volatile assistant coach Hailey) is found dead in an apparent hit-and-run. It’s both a tragedy and a huge disruption to Devon’s training plan. As her parents wrestle with how to proceed, police involvement suggests that maybe Ryan’s death wasn’t so accidental. Told from the point-of-view of full-time gymnastics mom, Katie, and set in the tense days following the accident, You Will Know Me has all the elements of a page-turner: a dazzling but largely opaque sport, a very cute but very dead guy, and the secrets of a teenager nicknamed “Ice Eyes.” THOUGHTS: With the amazing success of Simone Biles and the entire U.S. Gymnastics team, now is the perfect time to get this crossover thriller into the hands (and onto the devices) of teen readers!

Realistic Fiction; Mystery/Suspense; Adult Crossover     Amy V. Pickett, Ridley HS