35 Going on 13: Game Changers of Youth

One of the great appeals of books written for teens is that the stakes are raised. There is often an event so conclusive‚ the meeting of a new friend, a change of place, or the discovery of one’s true identity‚ that it alters the course of the protagonist’s life irrevocably.

For us grown-up types, it can be hard to see life in such absolute terms, yet who among us cannot remember such a momentous event in our youth? Reading a book can bring back the feeling that another life is just around the corner. Here are six such game-changers published earlier this year.

[YA crossover fans, you will be interested in School Library Journal‘s “Summerteen: A Celebration of Young Adult Books,” an online event held August 8. Check it out!‚ Ed.]

Anthony, Jessica & Rodrigo Corral. Chopsticks. Razorbill, 2012. 304p. ISBN 9781595144358. $19.99. F
Glory is a piano prodigy, living a solitary and disciplined existence with her ambitious father. He envisions a life for her playing sold-out shows in the great venues of the world. Then Frank, the teenaged son of Argentine winemakers, moves next door, which marks the start of an intense affair that will end in madness and Glory’s disappearance. The visual format‚ using a combination of postcards, text messages, photos, drawings, and playbills‚ is both intimate and immediate, evoking the power of first love and the pain of separation. The authors leave enough holes in the chain of evidence to let readers decide for themselves the fate of these two young lovers. Those who might be daunted by the book’s weighty 300-plus (heavy stock!) page count can download an app to their device and link through to its numerous YouTube references and videos.

Bauman, Beth Ann. Jersey Angel. Wendy Lamb Bks: Random. 2012. 199p. ISBN 9780385740203. $15.99. F
Since publication of Judy Blume’s Forever… (would you believe 1975?), sex in books for teens has been treated as a game changer, a decision from which there is no going back and no do-over: Like my mother said, you can’t go back to holding hands. Now in 2012, we meet Angel Cassonetti, a young woman for whom sex is one form of relationship expression. Angel hooks up with friends and with guys she meets on the Jersey shore not because she lacks self-esteem or is angry at her parents; she just enjoys it. Her one regret is that Joey, her on-again, off-again boyfriend, has decided that he needs more from her than a good time. As she navigates the emotional tides of the summer before her senior year, Angel must decide how she wants to live her life after the party is over. With this honest and compelling character, Bauman has rewritten the rules for teen romance, demonstrating that sex need not be the apex from which all other events fall.

Chambers, Aidan. Dying To Know You. Amulet Bks: Abrams, 2012. 275p. ISBN 9781419701658. $16.95. F
It started with a knock at the door. On the other side is our author/narrator, an older gentleman with sciatica and writer’s block. Karl is the knocker: he’s a young apprentice plumber, desperate to prove his love for the beautiful and articulate Fiorella. She has issued Karl a list of questions and an ultimatum to open his heart in proper written English. For Karl, a dyslexic, this constitutes torture. Desperate, he asks one of Fiorella’s favorite authors to intercede on his behalf. Will he get to know Karl and pen the answers for him? As told from the perspective of a much older man, the love story takes a back seat to the budding alliance between the author and Karl, each at at an emotional and a creative crossroads. Never one to quibble about intended audience, Chambers is in many ways a perfect 35/13 author; chronicling the freshness of teen love seen through sadder, and wiser, eyes. Readers who loved (or loved to hate) his 2006 doorstopper, This Is All: the Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn, will take much enjoyment from this shorter, sweeter, novel of friendship and romantic folly.

LaCour, Nina. The Disenchantments. Dutton. 2012. 307p. ISBN 9780525422198. $16.99. F
Colby and Bev have been best friends forever. Now that they’ve graduated, it is time to hit the road with Bev’s girl band, The Disenchantments, and then board a plane for Amsterdam, where they will start a year-long European adventure. One day into the road trip, Bev confesses that she applied to the Rhode Island School of Design instead and will not be joining Colby, leaving him reeling from the betrayal and at odds over how to spend the next year without her. The close confines of a turquoise tour bus named Melinda force The Disenchantments to face some uncomfortable truths, unraveling and reknitting their relationships in their last week together. Embellished by the music of girl groups ranging from The Supremes, to the Runaways, to Heart, this rare novel dares to voice the certainty of growing up: that it is hard to do and that some decisions cannot be unmade. A beautiful way to start any momentous summer.

LaFevers, Robin. Grave Mercy. Houghton Harcourt. 2012. 549p. ISBN 9780547628349. $16.99. F
This novel has the best two-word pitch of any this season: Assassin nuns. Novitiates in the convent of St. Mortain learn more than piety. They master the disciplines of swordplay and seduction, all in the service of their god, Death. Ismae seeks sanctuary in the convent after a disaster of an arranged marriage, her scarred back marking her as a daughter of Death. But the convent does not exist for the purpose of worship; the daughters of St. Mortain are called into the world to bring their special form of communion to the political sphere. Ismae is sent to the court of the young duchess of Brittany to expose and eliminate the traitors in her midst. Posing as the mistress of the duchess’s attractive confidante, Gavriel Duval, she is forced to combat the greatest traitor of all: her willful and untrained heart. This first volume in the His Fair Assassin series pairs a wildly appealing heroine, a mysterious lord, and a skillfully built world that readers will want to reenter, book after book. Its cover image of a determined young woman wielding a crossbow sets the stage for the book within: Ismae is tough and willing to change the rules of the game to follow her own path. It is for us to delight in the journey.

Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. S. & S. 2012. 359p. ISBN 9781442408920. $16.99. F
Bored and angry in the summer of 1987, 15-year-old Ari heads to the pool even though he cannot swim. Dante, a boy his same age, offers to teach him, beginning a friendship that will leave them wholly changed. Both are Mexican Americans, and there the similarity ends. Where Dante is an only child, open and loving with his intellectual family, Ari (short for Aristotle) is closed, brooding over the secret of a brother in prison. When Dante comes out to his friend, and confesses that his feelings for him might be more than Platonic (pun intended), Ari stays loyal despite his uncertainty, because for him, a world with Dante is much better than one without him. Together they attempt to unravel the secrets of the universe, and of their own families. Sáenz’ gifts for lyric prose and pitch-perfect dialog communicate the inner workings of a complex, loving, narrator, on the verge of discovering the truth of his own body in a book that is as beautiful as the desert sky on the outskirts of the boy’s native El Paso.


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