In this issue, Bryan reviews Tom Leveen’s new novel, Mercy Rule, and has a conversation with the author about the book and his writing process. (See that interview at this end of this month’s column.)
Becoming Madeleine: A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle in Time by her Granddaughters by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Lena Roy
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018, 161pp., $10.99
The thoughtful new biography Becoming Madeleine, written by L’Engle’s granddaughters Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Lena Roy, provides an enlightening journey through the life of the woman who created Meg Murry, Mrs. Whatsit and many more unforgettable characters. The book provides a clear, balanced picture of L’Engle’s early life, made more memorable by the inclusion of personal materials, e.g., family photographs, news clippings, teenage journal entries and personal correspondence. Readers will find much to identify with here, whether it be a disapproving report card (little Madeleine is lectured to apply herself in subjects she dislikes) or literary rejection slips (presented alongside L’Engle’s spirited and sarcastic commentary).
Throughout Becoming Madeleine, Voiklis and Roy connect their grandmother’s life events to her authorial sensibility. The enduring stoicism of L’Engle’s parents and the loneliness of her childhood, for instance, led to her interest in trying to imagine different perspectives. Her boarding school’s policy of referring to students as numbers rather than names spurred L’Engle’s lifelong resistance to bureaucracy and depersonalization. Of course, there was much happiness in Madeleine L’Engle’s life too, and the authors chronicle the way love and motherhood changed the course of her writing and ultimately brought her to the children’s market. Becoming Madeleine is a warm and thoughtful resource offering an up-close-and-personal glimpse into the life of a children’s literary giant.
Reviewed by Sarah E. Whitney, Erie, Pennsylvania
806 by Cynthia Weil
Tanglewood, 2018, 232pp., $16.99
When KT Lambert discovers that her long-believed father is not biological and that she is actually the result of in vitro fertilization by a sperm donor, the temptation to find her real father becomes far too great. With the help of new brothers Gabe and Jesse, KT makes her way across the country to find her father and possibly herself in the process.
A sweet story full of heart, 806reminds us that people are not always who they seem to be on the surface. Perfect for conversations about non-traditional families and identity, readers will enjoy this humorous and touching story that plays into that childhood fantasy that maybe our parents are secretly a lot cooler than we believe them to be. 806is cheerful, fun, and is sure to delight readers.
Reviewed by Lauren Cutrone, Scotch Plains, New Jersey
Pitch Dark by Courtney Alameda
Feiwel and Friends, 2018, 378pp., $15.50
It is the year 2435 and Earth as we now know it no longer exists. Having destroyed the environment to the extent that Earth is no longer a livable place, manned space crafts were launched to initiate processes of colonization. One such ship, the USS John Muircarries soil that just might save the human race, but the crew, including protagonist Tuck Morgan, has been in stasis for 400 years. Laura (La-ora) Cruz, a teen hacker, and her family are ship raiders aboard the Conquistador, searching for relics from history and the ships that have been lost. When Tuck and Laura’s ships and lives collide, they must work together to save humanity.
Told from the perspectives of Tuck and Laura, this fast-paced, suspenseful, science fiction thriller (with a bit of romance) will have readers on the edge of their seats as they fight monsters and human villains alongside the protagonists. Upon closer inspection, however, Pitch Darkis much deeper and more thought provoking than the summary may indicate. The novel deftly incorporates various issues of social justice for readers to consider- issues of race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, language, and the environment, and offers opportunities to contemplate not only what it means to be human, but also what our responsibility is to both those around us and to future generations.
Reviewed by Janine J. Darragh, Moscow, Idaho
When Light Left Us by Leah Thomas
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2018, 392 pp., $17.99
Science Fiction/Divorce/Self Harm/Homosexuality/Family and Peer Relationships
What happens when Hank, Ana, and Milo Vasquez’s father leaves to go back and live with his other family and there is a void waiting to be filled? In When Light Left Us, the void is filled by a parasitic alien life form named Luz. Gaining a father figure comes at a price, in this case, losing friends and themselves. The Vasquez’s soon realize that this is a price that outweighs the comfort of a father. Hank, Ana, and Milo must find a way to fill the void left by their father with friends new and old, previous hosts, and, most importantly, their mother who is also reeling from this loss.
When Light Left Us explores the psychology and emotions involved when significant loss occurs. The novel addresses what happens when one must find strength within themselves to go on. It is science fiction story that is filled with humanity, honesty, and realism.
Reviewed by Cheryl North, Baltimore, Maryland
Broken Beautiful Hearts by Kami Garcia
Imprint, 2018, 401 pp., $18.99
Domestic Abuse/Doping/Sports/Chronic Illness/Post-traumatic Stress Disorder/Military
Peyton Rios is starting to piece her life back together after her father died in the Iraq War. She has a promising soccer scholarship, a supportive best friend, and a protective boyfriend, Reed. But everything changes when Peyton discovers that Reed has been doping. When Peyton confronts Reed, he pushes her down a flight of stairs, injuring her knee, jeopardizing her college prospects, and breaking her heart. Despite Peyton’s insistence that she was pushed, few of her peers believe her. To make matters worse, Reed begins stalking her. For her own safety and healing, Peyton swears off dating and finds refuge with her uncle and twin cousins in a small Tennessee town, devoting time to physical therapy and her studies. But she finds herself drawn to Owen, a kind, respectful, yet mysterious kickboxer. When Peyton learns more about Owen’s history and faces up to her own trauma, she must decide whether loving him is worth the risk.
This novel’s target audience is high school females, and Garcia paints a realistic picture of domestic assault for them. Her protagonist, Peyton, is strong and likeable, helping readers to empathize and find strength in similar situations. Garcia’s portrayal of those who protect and support Peyton–her mother, her uncle, and her twin cousins–will help readers visualize what it means to prevent and support victims of domestic violence. Also laudable is Garcia’s depiction of sexual consent and safe sex as well as her exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Reviewed by Gretchen Rumohr-Voskuil, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Rebound by Kwame Alexander
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2018, 416 pp., $11.50
Loss/Coming of Age/Family Relationships/Friendships
Twelve-year-old Charlie “Chuck” Bell is angry. After a recent traumatic event in his life, Charlie has begun to shut himself off from his best friends Skinny and CJ, his mom, and basketball. When Charlie gets caught with junk food that he didn’t pay for, his mom decides that some time away might be good for both of them. She decides to send Charlie to live with his grandparents for the summer- a decision that only angers him more. However, Charlie quickly realizes that family might be the best medicine. Through daily morning walks with his grandfather, his grandmother’s homemade meals, and basketball lessons at the Boys and Girls club from his cousin Roxie, it seems Charlie has begun to heal. When Skinny comes to visit the city, Charlie falls into his old habits again which causes him to realize that he must decide what path he wants to take for his future. Charlie’s grandfather teaches him more than a few life lessons through jazz music, witticisms, and hard work. Ultimately, Charlie finds that the lessons he learns on the court might also shape the person he is becoming off the court.
The prequel to Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, Rebound will have readers feeling equally invested in watching Chuck Bell, father to Jordan and Josh, come of age. Written in Alexander’s signature verse style, readers can’t help but find themselves moving with the rhythm of the story. While there are many references to The Crossoverthat fans will enjoy, Rebound easily stands alone as its own narrative commentary on how our relationships help us cope with tragedy.
Reviewed by Ashley Shelton Arnold, Louisville, KY
Little Do We Know by Tamara Ireland Stone
Hyperion, 2018, 392 pp., $17.99
Mystery/Family and Peer Relationships/Religion/Identity
Hannah and Emory have been friends since childhood, sharing secrets along with the patch of grass between their houses. After an argument involving their families tears them apart, Hannah and Emory separately question their words to each other and personal life choices. Their paths cross again unexpectedly when Hannah finds Emory’s boyfriend, Luke, slumped over the steering wheel of his car.
Award winning author Tamara Ireland Stone creates two strong narrators in Hannah and Emory who tell the stories of their lives and conflicts. Readers will immediately be drawn into the emerging adolescent identities and will remain hooked as hidden secrets and conflicts gradually reveal themselves.
Reviewed by Ann Marie Smith, Odessa, Texas
Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe by Preston Norton
Disney-Hyperion, 2018, 416 pp, $17.99
Social and Family Issues/Bullying/Coming of Age/Friendship
Everything for 16 year old Cliff Hubbard is big: his 6’6” 250 pound body, his grief over losing his older brother and only friend, Shane, his love of movies, his self-deprecating humor, and his anger. Cliff is surviving on a steady diet of abuse from his alcoholic father, Pop-Tarts, and using his enormous fists to fight his way out of any situation. When his nemesis, the repulsively handsome, athletic, and cool Aaron Zimmerman is involved in a boating accident, the two of them are left with a mission from God to complete a list of five things to improve their dreadful high school. The weirdest part? God made it clear that Cliff was supposed to help complete this biblical task.
As Aaron and Cliff embark on this mission to improve their school, they develop a friendship and make some unlikely allies. Among them are the most legendary bully in Happy Valley, Montana history, the little sister of the town’s drug dealer, computer nerds who often debate thought-provoking topics like which My Little Pony is the hottest, and the one openly gay student at Happy Valley, whose sister is the leader of a high school religious group with a cult-ish following. These allies turn into friendships as Cliff and Aaron discover who they are, who they want to be, and even who they love.
Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe expertly balances deep life topics in an honest and laugh out loud way that lightens up each page, and helps readers grapple with heavy topics like suicide, heroin use, sexuality, and religion. Cliff’s quick wit and well-timed one-liners keep you rooting for him from the first page, but it is his heart and desire to help right his corner of the universe that will linger with readers.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Peter, Flushing, Michigan
Mercy Rule by Tom Leveen
Skyhorse Publishing, 2018, 456 pp., $17.99
Social and Family Issues/Bullying/Relationships/Violence
I am a Tom Leveen fan. I have written on numerous occasions that in each of his books, he is able to accomplish what is most difficult and yet most important when it comes to creating fiction for young adults- believable, empathetic characters. When I read Leveen’s stories, I connect with each character he creates. He has this remarkable ability to portray high school students- their relationships, their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in ways that enable readers to better understand the complexities of adolescence. It should be no surprise then, that I was excited to read Mercy Rule, his newest novel for young adults. I was not, however, prepared for the tremendous emotional impact that this novel would have on me.
Mercy Rule is the story of seven high school students who are trying to navigate adolescence at a seemingly typical American high school. Leveen returns to the form he employed in his first novel,Party, using a different first-person point of view for each of the seven characters. Danny was expelled from his arts-based high school for an honest, but costly mistake and now has to start over at a new school. Cadence is trying to make friends at her new school, but her consistently positive attitude causes others to view her as weird. Vivi moves from her old neighborhood to a new home and school after her dad receives a large sum of money as a result of an accident. Football players Brady and Donte have been given the run of the school, but their home lives are less than desirable. Drea cuts herself so that she can feel something, anything. Coach preaches that football is the way, the truth and the only path to becoming a real man, while turning a blind eye to his players’ indiscretions.
As each of these character’s stories unfold and intertwine, readers will begin to sense that something horrific is on the horizon. Numerous seemingly trivial events continue to build and grow in maliferous ways. This combined with the constant shifting of characters’ perspectives creates the realistic, and chaotic feel of high school life. I have often compared adolescence to a dystopian experience, which is one reason I believe that high schoolers connect to novels like Hunger Gamesand Divergent. I consider Mercy Rule dystopic in the same way that modern day America high school often feels dystopic.
Readers will find themselves both scolding and empathizing with each of the characters. All of them have admirable qualities, despite the mistakes each makes along the way. As I read, it was as if I was in a movie theater, knowing that the monster was just around the corner. I wanted to shout out to the characters on the screen, the ones I love, the ones I like, and even the ones who I don’t really care for- “Look out! The monster is coming!” Unfortunately, as dystopic as it may feel at times, the monster in Mercy Ruleis real, which is what makes this book so timely and so important.
Recently, students across the country staged a seventeen minute school protest to honor the seventeen students killed in a Parkland, Florida school shooting. Subsequently, thousands marched in Washington D.C. and other cities around the country to raise awareness about school shootings and gun violence. It was extremely encouraging to see so many young people standing up for their beliefs. From afar, my students and I pretend to understand, but how can we if we have never been directly affected? Mercy Ruleis that rare novel that not only accurately portrays the “little” unnoticed events that lead to horrific ones, it allows readers to vicariously experience what it must feel like to watch as loved ones are so senselessly taken away from us. Mercy Ruletook me on a cathartic journey, one that has motivated me to rethink what I can do to help these brave students across the country change school culture. I strongly recommend this book to teachers, parents, and adolescents.
Reviewed by Bryan Gillis, Kennesaw, Georgia
Interview with Tom Leveen, author of Mercy Rule
(Bryan and Tom communicated through e-mail)
Bryan: What, specifically, motivated you to write this story and what do you hope readers take away from it? Feel free to expound on any personal views you have.
Tom: Mercy Rule is technically a “prequel” to a novel I wrote much earlier called 53rd & 3rd (which readers of Mercy Rule will recognize). That earlier novel (currently unpublished) deals with many of the same characters as Mercy Rule, and examines how easy it is for us to become the thing we say we hate. I wrote Mercy Rule to give myself the backstory to that. At the time, I conceived it as something like a thriller, wherein the reader knows this act of violence is coming, but won’t know who the gunman is until the event. The idea then, and now, wasn’t to focus on the shooting so much as the buildup to it- what makes a person take this horrific action? What I had in mind was to illustrate that it could really be anybody, and plenty of characters in Mercy Rulecould have “reasons” for doing something so terrible. I wanted to build and improve upon the things I learned while writing my debut novel, Party, and see just how much I could make these different voices and perspectives come together and support a larger theme.
I hope readers will take away that we have got to listen to each other, even those we dislike most. We have to. We’ve built a culture of what I call casual violence, where things written on social media or gestures blithely used in traffic are whittling away at our humanity, our empathy. Mercy Rule is not about bullying, though of course there is that element; it’s about dismissal. It’s about the cost of dismissing people, which is not the same thing as rejection. Rejection at least requires acknowledgement. Dismissal is a complete disregard that you even exist in the world. It’s how we treat the homeless, it’s how we sometimes treat our kids, and it’s how we treat each other, far, far too much in this country.
While I do have opinions on the issue of gun control, that’s not what the book is designed to encourage discussion about. I feel while that is a crucial talk this nation needs to have with itself, it’s not the only thing we should be talking about.
Bryan: What is your process for creating seven individual points of view? How do you keep track of all of them?
Tom: They talk to me, I think. That’s how it starts. Most of my novels begin with voice rather than plot. I listen to them, write some notes, get a sense of who they are, then start looking for places of conflict and build a plot from there. Some of the hardest work comes in revision, because that’s where the technical elements come in. For example, you might notice that Brady’s narration rarely if ever uses commas. He narrates in these short, choppy sentences and doesn’t use overly complicated vocabulary. That’s a technical, deliberate choice on my part that I focus on during the editing stage.
Keeping track of them is a whole other story. Often, I use Excel sheets to track movement through the story, page numbers, etc., and it gets really interesting when, say, a POV character is cut by an editor! A lot of rearranging has to happen after that. In the case of Mercy Rule, I also had separate documents for each POV character with their chapters cut and pasted in numerical order, so I could read, say, all of Donte’s POV at one time, then all of Danny’s, etc., and see if the arc was there and if the voices were consistent.
Bryan: You create such realistic teen voices and perspectives for your characters. Not saying you’re old, but how are you able to do this? What’s your secret?
Tom: Oh, it’s okay, I’m old! Or I feel like it, anyway. But then I stop feeling like it when I write these stories, so, I get kind of a safe break and get to go back to high school without the awfulness of actually being back in high school. Actually, fundamentally, I had a great time in high school. It *felt* hellish, but really, we were having a ball!
A lot of this comes from my theatre background as an actor and director. You watch umpteen actors work on umpteen different characters after 22 years, and you start seeing how they grow and develop over a rehearsal period. I hope that some of it is genuine empathy. I kept journals in high school, not to mention about 100 VHS videotapes of my friends and me just wandering around, being ourselves, and those two things still echo in the things I hear when I do school visits today. The slang and technology and whatever else has changed, but the adolescent brain hasn’t. We feel things for reasons (which is not the same as saying “Everything happens for a reason”), and I think I still have a good memory of those things and why I felt them. But I also clearly remember what it is like to not be heard, so I hope I can raise those voices to both readers and those who have adolescents in their lives.
I often have parents or teachers ask me what age is appropriate for my books. I used to say, “Oh, 14 usually, but sometimes a little older.” Now, especially with Mercy Rule, I say, WHENEVER. As long as there is a caring adult reading the book with a kid, I couldn’t care less how old the kid is. Nine, nineteen, it doesn’t matter: Books are one of the absolute best ways to start dialogues.
Bryan: Moving forward, what are you working on now?
Tom: I just won my first Stoker Award Nomination (the Horror Writer’s Association award, for which Hellworld was nominated), and I’d like to keep venturing in that direction, but I’m still learning how to write for an older audience. Even now, my first foray into an adult horror series features teens as the main characters. I may get back to work on 53rd & 3rd, depending on the relative success of Mercy Rule, which, if published, would make it my first official sequel novel. I recently asked my fan base what they’d like to see, and the biggest response by far was for realistic YA fiction, with a generous helping of requests for more YA horror, so we’ll see! I have a backlog of 20-30 titles on my white board, waiting to become novels, so there isn’t any shortage of things to write about.
ALAN Picks is a regular book review column compiled and edited by Dr. Bryan Gillis of Kennesaw State University. It features the newest YA titles, reviewed by teachers and librarians. A complete archive of all ALAN picks is available on this page.
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