Justin #1 (Blacktop), by LJ Alonge, (June 2016, Grosset & Dunlap), $15.99, ISBN: 9780399542756
Recommended for readers 12+
Justin’s a teen having a rough summer in his Oakland, CA neighborhood. His alcoholic father shows up everywhere, challenging him to a game of hoops. His stepfather and mother are boring, and have spent way too much money on a pair of sneakers that he didn’t really want, but kind of made them think he did. He took on a crazy dare and ended up destroying a local business – literally – and now he’s got to defend his neighborhood basketball court against Ghosttown, a take-no-prisoners team. He pulls together a group of players and faces the upcoming game.
This isn’t just a story about a basketball game: Justin’s got plans for himself, and this first Blacktop book is all about letting us walk through his coming of age with him. He’s got a list of goals for himself, and he’s trying really hard to achieve them. He knows he’s going to be someone, someday, and he knows he needs time to “figure it out”. The narrative is fast-paced, and the basketball descriptions will appeal to fans of the game. I’d suggest this for teen audiences; more reluctant readers. There are four books in the Blacktop series.
Crack Coach, by Steven Sandor (Sept. 2015, Lorimer), $14.95, ISBN: 9781459409804
Recommended for ages 12+
Bob Jones is a beloved high school football coach who just won the election for Toronto mayor. He seems to be one of those guys that can do no wrong – but some people would say otherwise. He’s always got an excuse for his bad behavior. When he refuses to meet with the GLBT alliance or address crucial issues facing the city, he claims it’s because his priority is to coach the high school football team. And the kids on his team, particularly Maurice and Vijay, see that the coach not plays favorites and makes some uncomfortably racist remarks while trying to be the “cool old white guy”. He punishes his team by putting them through abusive practices and says it’s for their own good. But when word starts to leak out about the mayor’s public drunkenness, added to suspicious video and pictures surfacing that highlight a possible drug abuse problem, Maurice and Vijay know that they have to mobilize the team and take control back from the coach.
Crack Coach is another hi-lo reader from Lorimer. I’ve become a big fan of this line; the authors are knowledgeable about their subjects (Crack Coach author Steven Sandor is a soccer broadcaster and sportswriter for an online Canadian soccer magazine) and the topics are timely and interesting. They never talk down to their audiences, relying on smart, direct writing and captivating subject matter to draw their readers in.
Crack Coach is a dramatic title, I’ll be the first to agree, but it pulls you in, doesn’t it? I loved the book and enjoyed the characters. They’re teens that other teens can relate to, with real-life issues that affect kids’ lives today. If you think the coach’s story sounds familiar, you’re not wrong – the book was influenced by a true story. Talking to teens about the story behind the story will bring a current events aspect to lessons; bring in some newspaper clippings or access them online to teach teens about primary sources and how writers use them as a tool.
Crack Coach is another great Lorimer book, perfect for reluctant and struggling readers and tweens who are ready for some grittier novels. A good add to libraries and classrooms with a struggling reader population.
Creep Con, by Kim Firmston (Sept. 2015, Lorimer), $14.95, ISBN: 9781459409774
Recommended for ages 12+
Comic book and superhero fan Mariam’s the new girl in school and feeling lonely until she meets Tya, who’s hardcore into the manga/anime fandom. The two bond over their mutual fandoms and love of cosplay and conventions, and plan to attend an otaku – anime and manga fandom – con together. All is well until Tya can’t go to the con because she has a family wedding to go to, leaving Mariam to go on her own. While she’s there, she meets up with a group of cosplayers from the same manga, who invite her to join their group. The leader of the group, Rick, seems to have a hard time keeping fantasy and reality straight, though, and starts getting way too familiar with Mariam, insisting that they play out their character’s romance. Can Mariam get away from Rick before things go too far?
If you’re a cosplay/convention fan, you’re doubtlessly familiar with the Cosplay is NOT Consent movement, a movement that exists because some con-goers said and acted inappropriately to their fellow fans. Creep Con is an interesting look at this situation, particularly as it takes place in the otaku fandom, where the costumes can get a little outrageous. There are some great references to both comics/superhero and otaku fandoms here, that teens will be familiar with and appreciate. The story brings the danger of cosplay being mistaken for consent home, and at the same time, reminds teens that they need to be honest and upfront with their parents and guardians – safety first.
I did find Mariam frustrating in that she let herself be ordered around by this guy she didn’t even know. She had two people she knew and wanted to become closer friends with at the con, but talked herself – several times – into listening to Rick, who left charming behind and went right into creepy early on in the book. I can see where it was an honest portrayal, particularly for a new girl who was trying to make friends, but I would have liked a stronger protagonist who wasn’t so easily manipulated.
This is one of Lorimer’s new novels for reluctant readers. The line is strong, covering current topics like cosplay and fandom; LGBT and abuse with their Side Streets line; sports; historical fiction, and true crime. Struggling and reluctant readers will appreciate the no frills storytelling that gets straight to the point and covers topics that meet their interests.
Fight Back, by Brent R. Sherrard (2015, Lorimer), $9.95 CAD, ISBN:9781459408586
Recommended for ages 12+
Tyler has been his father’s punching bag for as long as he can remember. After his mother takes his younger sister and abandons him to his abusive father, he sustains a beating that gets him removed from the house and placed with his grandmother, who doesn’t really want much involvement in Tyler’s life, either. Tyler becomes a street kid, fighting and getting into trouble, angry at life, until his grandmother wants him out, and he’s placed into foster care with the Conway family, a husband and wife who’ve raised their own kids and open their home to Tyler.
While staying with the Conways, Tyler has no idea how to accept the kindnesses they give him. He’s afraid to open a birthday gift from them, so he sleeps with the box, not wanting the moment to end. Mr. Conway is finally able to reach Tyler by introducing him to the world of boxing. A former boxer himself, Wayne Conway is able to train Tyler to fight his problems and get his head clear in the boxing ring, not out on the street. With the discipline of training giving Tyler a new lease on life, he’s got the tools to fight his demons, but he has one last fight left – the one inside himself.
This is another great selection from Lorimer’s Side Streets line of Hi-Lo fiction. Tackling the gritty life of a street kid and examining the abusive environment that spawned him, Tyler is a sympathetic character that risks being passed through the system until someone steps up and cares. Teens may recognize themselves or friends and family in Tyler. Adults may see someone they know in Tyler, and step up to do something. Make resources available to teens reading this book, including information on domestic violence and programs that offer an escape, whether it be information on shelters, academic programs, or athletics. Know the teens in your life and get this book into those hands.
Femme, by Mette Bach (2015, Lorimer), $9.95 CAD, ISBN: 9781459407671
Recommended for ages 14+
Sofie has it all – she’s popular, she’s pretty, and she’s dating the captain of her high school’s soccer team. Schoolwork? That’s really not the point of school, is it? Sofie finds herself paired with Clea for an English assignment and isn’t thrilled. Not only is Clea a hardcore straight-A workaholic student, she’s also – GASP – a lesbian.
Except, Clea’s actually pretty cool, and she spurs Sofie on to want to do better. The two become friends, and slowly, Sofie realizes that what she’s feeling for Clea is more than just friendship, and what she feels for Paul just… isn’t. A college road trip puts Sofie and Clea together, and Sofie discovers more about herself and the world around her. Now, how does she handle everything she’s learned?
This is a very sensitive coming out story. Sofie’s identifying as a lesbian – a “femme” – occurs gradually through the story, and we see the conflict present for all the characters: Sofie, Paul, her boyfriend, and ultimately, Clea, who has struggles of her own at home and with being the only out lesbian at school. Bach makes sure that this is no fairy tale rendering of an LGBTQ story – there is bullying and small-mindedness here, but with a spark of hope that makes readers believe that honesty and a strong sense of independence will carry the characters through. Multiple perspectives will help readers identify with different ideas and feelings toward the subject matter, and hopefully open a strong dialogue between teens, parents, and educators.
Femme is part of Lorimer’s new Side Streets realistic fiction line for Hi-Lo readers. The line takes on edgier material and examines timely topics through fiction. This one will be on my shelves this summer.
Mystery in the Frozen Lands, by Martyn Godfrey (2015, Lorimer) $12.95, ISBN: 9781459408425
Recommended for ages 12-16
It’s 1857, and teenager Peter Griffin joins a sea mission to solve a world-famous mystery: what happened to his uncle, Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin. Franklin and his crew of 128 men had sailed from England twelve years earlier in search of the Northwest Passage, a sea route through the Arctic between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Mysteriously, the entire Franklin expedition disappeared without a trace. Subsequent expeditions have yet to recover any of the ship’s crew or discover what happened; Peter signs on to be ship’s boy for the latest expedition, hoping to solve the mystery. Mystery in the Frozen Lands is Peter’s fictional journal.
Based on true events and real people, Peter’s fictional first-person account brings this Arctic adventure to new life. His journal details the long, dark days cooped up on the ship, the ever-present dangers lurking in the forbidding, icy landscape, and the sadness that he and his shipmates experience as they come closer to realizing the Franklin and his crew’s ultimate end. The book includes an introductory background on the 2014 discovery of the wreck of Franklin’s HMS Erebus, a timeline of events, and additional resources for readers.
Lorimer’s Hi-Lo Readers are excellent for readers who are ready for deeper material. The books are over 100 pages, but the storytelling is accomplished with direct sentences that maintain a vivid level of description and information. Give this one to your historical fiction fans and watch them tear through it, then show them this Daily Mail article, which identifies through facial reconstruction, a member of the Erebus crew.
Canadian author Martyn Godfrey died in 2000, but lives on through the annual Martyn Godfrey Young Writer’s Award presented by the Young Alberta Book Society, through the Albert Weekly Newspapers Association.
A Shot in the Dark, by Janet M. Whyte (2015, Lorimer) $9.95CAD, ISBN: 9781459408500
Recommended for ages 12-16
Micah is a legally blind 8th grader. He’s excited to have made the junior goalball team, but he’s got some stuff going on that is stressing him out. For starters, his utevitis is flaring up again – it’s the degenerative eye condition that’s taking his sight, and hurts like crazy. His parents want to get him a guide dog, which rankles him because he feels like it’s a decision they’re making for him, and he doesn’t want to feel dependent on the dog. Finally, a new player joins the goalball team, and he’s good. Really good. Micah’s frustration shows on the goalball court, and almost costs him his spot on the team, and some friendships. Luckily, he’s got a lot of support in his corner, from his parents to the specialist, Cam, who’s helping him work out walking with a cane and talking out his feelings.
This is another Hi-Lo book from Lorimer, and it’s a great choice middle schoolers and high schoolers. We’ve got a lead character who works with his disability, and he’s a jock on top of it! Ms. Whyte takes the time to explain and narrate goalball the way Mike Lupica writes about sports, so readers will discover a new sport and learn that disabilities are obstacles that can be overcome. We get insight into navigating school and life for a kid with a disability, and it’s presented realistically, as empowering as it is frustrating for Micah. Sports gives most kids confidence, and we see that here, illustrated with Micah’s love for goalball.
This is a great summer reading choice that works nicely with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks intiative. As with other Lorimer Hi-Lo selections, it’s age appropriate and offers a deeper read, ready for reluctant and struggling readers who have worked on their skills and are ready for the next step.
Real Justice: A Police Mr. Big Sting Goes Wrong – The Story of Kyle Unger, by Richard Brignall (2015, Lorimer), $12.95CAD, ISBN: 9781459408623
Recommended for ages 13+
I’ve got some teens at a few of my libraries whose reading levels aren’t always at age level, but giving these kids a younger level book isn’t always the answer. That’s what the term Hi-Lo is all about: high interest, low reading level. Reaching teens by writing deeper texts with complex themes and ideas, using succinct language and shorter sentences is the heart of Hi-Lo. There are some good hi-lo books out there – Saddleback has a good line of short chapter books available, as does Canadian-based Lorimer (distributed in the U.S. through Orca), whose chapter books are longer in length and seem to handle slightly more complex sentence structures and even deeper content.
Real Justice is a true crime series, with A Police Mr. Big Sting Goes Wrong detailing the true crime story surrounding the murder of 16 year-old Brigitte Grenier at a music festival in Manitoba, Canada. Unger, who was 19 at the time of the murder, was charged with her murder despite Grenier’s involvement with another concertgoer that evening. An entrapment sting operation led to his arrest and conviction for a murder he swore he did not commit until his acquittal thanks to DNA evidence 20 years later.
Brignall states his facts as objectively as possible and pulls no punches – the book gets somewhat graphic here – and offers an in-depth study of the case that true crime and nonfiction fans will appreciate. Further resources in the back offer a timeline and more reading for those interested.
The Soldier, by M.G. Higgins (2014, Saddleback Educational Publishing), $7.95, ISBN:
Recommended for ages 8-12
Leyla is a 12 year-old girl living in a war-torn area. She knows the rules for going to the water pump near the market – always stop between the buildings, see who is there. One day, she notices a soldier who looks different from the others: the soldier is female.
When Leyla’s life intersects with the female soldier’s life, Leyla finds herself making big decisions. Can she keep herself out of trouble while keeping her new friend safe?
The Soldier is one of Saddleback Publishing’s Hi-Lo novels written for struggling readers. The ideas are complex, but are communicated with succinct text, and short, direct sentences. The illustrations add extra interest, and at 60 pages, allows the reader the experience of reading a full novel without the stress. I love this idea! I’ve got some struggling readers at one of my library sites, and books like this could really be the thing that makes readers out of those kids.
Saddleback offers teacher resources and more hi-lo novels at their website, and are sold through Amazon and BN.com. Take a look at The Soldier, and realize that Higgins communicates an impressive story in a concise and engaging way that will invite any reader to sit down and spend some time.
M.G. Higgins is an award-winning children’s and YA novelist and non-fiction writer. Her author website offers information about her books and a bio.