coming of age

Zero Fade

Jacket• Grade Range: 7th-adult
• Humor/Coming of age
• Author: Chris L. Terry
• Title: Zero Fade
• Publisher: Curbside Splendor Publishing
• 2013
• 295 pages.
• ISBN: 9780988480438
• Awards: In the Margins top 25, Best of 2013 lists-Kirkus & Slate.com
• Author’s website: http://www.chrislterry.com/

 

It is the mid 90’s in inner city Richmond and Kevin is in 7th grade. For nine days in April so are we. It’s Saturday morning and Kevin is getting a haircut in the basement from his Mama when what he really wants is a sick fade and a chance to spend Saturday with someone fine, like orange-haired Aisha. While his dad is no longer around, Kevin has a tight family, a mom going to school and holding a job, an older sister Laura and an admired uncle Paul: his mom’s baby brother. While Kevin narrates most chapters, Paul gets a turn too. He’s gay and he knows it’s time to tell his nephew; problem is his nephew: pining to be cool, desperate to get with a girl and a fan of Eddie Murphy’s gay bashing humor, doesn’t seem ready to hear what he has to say. Add into the mix Kevin’s inability to control his smart mouth, getting grounded, a classic bully, the nastiness of his mother getting a date before he does and an ill-advised adventure with his sister, and Kevin has a full week.

There are a ton of fabulous 2014 books I plan to add to this blog, but as I peruse the best of 2014 lists I can’t forget some of my favorites from last year. Every once in awhile I come across a book I just adore that doesn’t seem to get traction in the press. In many ways those are the books I most want to feature here-genuinely fantastic books you might miss and which deserve to be widely read

In Zero Fade Terry has written a hilariously funny, honest, warm and believable YA novel that easily crosses over with adults. It is a rare book that manages to make the YouthLibraries.org In the Margins award list of “the best books for teens living in poverty, on the streets, in custody – or a cycle of all three” and win over a diverse range of folk on Goodreads: from self identified ‘old ladies’ to those who don’t even like YA. The novel comes across as genuine, surprising and very recognizable, which is fabulous for kids who share Kevin’s ethnicity and or background, but equally fabulous for those who don’t.  Consider this apt perspective from 13 year-old Kevin: “crying in school is like peeing yourself. It feels good to get it out, but you wind up with a bigger problem.”

Thank heavens Kevin is a winningly imperfect teen, with virtually nothing figured out. He fantasizes about being a stand up comic and wonders “[w]hat about my life would be funny later? Not getting any? No cable?” The book is packed with vernacular language, fresh observation and a complete lack of didacticism. When his uncle Paul gives him some good advice: “I mean, just keep doing your thing. There’s always gonna be someone wanna say something, so just do you.” Kevin rightly thinks “[b]ut I’ve been doing me and it ain’t working.” What teen hasn’t had this response to a well meaning adult advising them to “be yourself.”

What I love about Zero Fade is it’s strong sense of ethnicity and place. It deals with substantive issues. It is frank. It is also very, very funny, very human and very relatable. If I can get a single seventh grader to read it I am convinced I’ll get half the class. Likely this won’t be without controversy as there is occasional talk of titties and masturbation and lots of language inappropriate to school. I wonder if this is why this first novel by Terry didn’t win the Coretta Scott King John Steptoe award for new talent. Never the less I am convinced this exactly the kind of multicultural literature we need for kids, both for those who see Kevin in their reflection and for those who see Kevin in themselves on reflection.

Sons of the 613

Jacket-1• Grade Range: 7th-high school
• Humor/Coming of age
• Author: Michael Rubens
• Title: Sons of the 613
• Publisher: Clarion
• 2012
• 320 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0547612164
• Awards: selected by Kirkus, YALSA and VOYA as one of the best books of the year.
• Author’s website:http://www.michaelrubens.com

 

Sons of the 613 opens with a Bar Mitzvah-fail of epic proportions. Isaac, aghast in the audience and three weeks away from his own Bar Mitzvah, knows he’s in “terrible, terrible, terrible trouble.’ He has concealed the fact that for the past many months his Hebrew tutor has never shown up. His determination to come clean to his parents is stymied when they leave town and put his brother Josh in charge. Six foot three, 245 pounds of muscle, sporting a skull and crossbones yarmulke and a tattoo that testifies to his obedience to the 613 commandments in the Tanakh, twenty-year old Josh has his own ideas about what Isaac needs to learn to become a man. So begins an epic, hilarious and touching quest.

Isaac’s rite of passage is filled with outrageous comedy, boatloads of adolescent shame and angst, bar fights, strip clubs, double-dares and growing maturity. There is much that might offend, but Rubens, in his YA debut, uses the comic skills he employed producing the Daily Show to keep the plot moving and Isaac self-deprecatingly aware of his mistakes. Isaac’s maturation process is messy, painful, decidedly not parent-approved, occasionally too cinematic, and sure to delight teen readers. This book is rarely on the shelves of the library and it is one of the titles that frequently walks, precisely because it appeals to the kids who are not the typical, compliant library users; there in lies it’s charm and power. Kids are constantly looking for the information they know they need as they hurtle through adolescence. While there are many fabulous books in our K-8 library, there are not a lot-maybe no others- that speak so directly to the actual concerns of teen-age boys.

 

 

Doll Bones

Jacket• Grade Range: 5th-8th
• Mystery/Coming of age
• Author: Holly Black and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
• Title: Doll Bones
• Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
• 2013
• 247 pages.
• ISBN: 9781416963981
• Awards: Newbery Honor, Carnegie medal in literature nominee
• Author’s website: http://blackholly.com/

 

Zach, Alice and Poppy have been friends for years. Their imaginary adventure game has evolved as each kid contributes plot and action ideas and creates their doll or action figure’s roles. As they enter adolescence all three are aware of the strains conformist expectations place on their unconventional cross-gender friendship and make-believe play, but it is only when Zachary’s father inserts himself into the game that a rift is created. Poppy’s effort to mount one last adventure leads the three into an ambitious and eerie quest to lay to rest a troubled spirit trapped inside a spooky, and possibly malevolent, bone china doll.

We have a joke in our library, especially when weeding, that ‘destined to be a classic’ means ‘never will be read.’ Doll Bones with its strong writing, appealing characters and astute feel for the pain and anger engendered by letting go of childhood, may be the exception that proves the rule. Like all great thrillers it magnifies the psychological pull of ordinary feelings and exposes just what we hope never to openly acknowledge. Zach’s growth, sports prowess and meddling dad push him unwillingly into tweendom. His impotent anger at being forced to let go of something that still matters to him causes him to imitate the dad whose behavior he so despises; he buries his feelings and flees, convincing himself that “growing up means most stories turn out to be lies.” The friends’ struggle-to keep some honesty alive in their relationship, combined with the ghost doll’s creepy influence, push Zach, Alice and Poppy past childlike dependence into an awareness of the freedom that comes from taking responsibility for their beliefs.

While many reviews and most trailers, including mine, focus on the spooky elements, the book’s strength and heart are really about friendship and growing up. This is a smart, timeless story.