Posted in Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

We Can Be Heroes embraces young women’s power in the aftermath of a school shooting

We Can Be Heroes, by Kyrie McCauley, (Sept. 2021, Katherine Tegen Books), $17.99, ISBN: 9780062885050

Ages 12+

When Nico Bell pulled the trigger of that gun, so many lives were changed: but the problems were there long before that day. Told in third- and first-person narration, in prose and verse, We Can Be Heroes is the story of Cassie, killed in a school shooting by her ex-boyfriend; her two best friends, Beck and Vivian, and a town split down the middle. Bell is a town named for and financed by Bell Firearms; the Bell family has a sociopolitical grip on the town because they write the checks that keep it going. Nico Bell, heir to the Bell company and poster boy for toxic masculinity, kills his girlfriend, Cassie, in a murder-suicide when she tries to escape their abusive relationship. Beck and Vivian, Cassie’s best friends, never much liked one another, but bond over the chance to give Cassie the voice she didn’t have in life by painting murals featuring women from Greek myths: women whose voices were lost, taken by monsters and men. A podcaster focuses on the case as the murals achieve viral status on social media, and Cassie’s story unfolds, shedding light on ugly shadows in the town and the Bell family. Cassie appears as a ghost, bringing Beck and Vivian together and to guide them in their mission; her story is told in first person verse.

Changing narratives and playing with narrative structure – prose, transcript, and verse – keep this already arresting story moving. I loved the use of Greek myth to tell Cassie’s story; women’s stories through history. We Can Be Heroes explores grief and loss, trauma, and unchecked privilege. Small moments, like Cassie’s excitement over music released after her death are poignant, even when played for a chuckle. A subplot involving Beck and her grandfather adds further depth. A thoughtful look at real issues facing teens today that highlights the importance of listening to women’s stories.

Posted in Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads, Young Adult/New Adult

Teens on the brink: The Light Fantastic, by Sarah Combs

light-fantasticThe Light Fantastic, by Sarah Combs, (Sept. 2016, Candlewick), $17.99, ISBN: 9780763678517

Recommended for ages 12+

April 19 is Senior Skip Day, and it’s April Donovan’s 18th birthday. It’s also four days after the Boston Marathon and 18 years after Timothy McVeigh drove a truck bomb through the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. April has a rare memory condition, hyperthymesia, which means she has photographic recall of her life’s events. This recall has spurred an obsession with tragedies that have happened in April, her birth month, throughout history. Elsewhere, Lincoln Evans – connected in his own way to April – is trying to understand his sometime girlfriend, Laura. Their teacher is distracted by another student’s chilling statement earlier. Across the country, a group of teens that call themselves The Assassins, led by someone calling himself (herself?) The Mastermind, are getting ready to set something terrible into motion.

The Light Fantastic brings together seven voices to tell the story of teens on the brink. There’s one adult voice here; a teacher’s voice, and she’s not there to be the heavy, the whistle-blower, or the accomplice. Each voice has a painful story to tell; each narrator has a tale to tell, intertwined with the events of April 19, 2013. It’s a tense, complex novel with some diversity to its voices. It felt a bit scattered at times – I think it may be the multiple narrators, backstories, and locations. Bringing everyone together online was helpful; I would have liked to see a little more of that interaction.

In these days when school and public violence surrounds us, The Light Fantastic is an important book to get into readers’ hands and get them talking. Booktalk this with A.S. King’s I Crawl Through It and by Marieke Nijkamp’s This is Where it Ends. Candlewick offers a free discussion guide with common core information.

Posted in Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Uncategorized, Young Adult/New Adult

This is Where it Ends brings us into the heart of a school shooting.

this is where it endsThis is Where it Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp (Jan. 2016, Sourcebooks Fire), $17.99, ISBN: 9781492622468

Recommended for ages 13+

It’s the first day of the school year at Alabama’s Opportunity High. At 10 a.m. the principal finishes her welcome speech. At 10:03, the students, trying to get to class, notice the auditorium doors won’t open. At 10:05, someone starts shooting. Not everyone is in that auditorium, though – some kids are running track, some kids are cutting – and it’s up to them to help their classmates and, in some cases, family members, inside.

This is Where it Ends takes readers inside a school on lockdown. The shooter has things to say, and this captive audience is going to listen. Four narratives from teens inside and outside of the auditorium bring readers there, inside that school, waiting for the next bullet to fire. Every one of these teens has a history with the shooter – some good, some not.

This book is tense. It’s rough. Ms. Nijkamp excels at putting the reader into the middle of the chaos – the sights, the sounds, the smells, the churning inside – readers are thrown onto the same roller coaster that her characters are on. She creates strong backgrounds and uses each character’s narrative to move between past and present-day to provide a full picture not only of the traumatized teens, but a profile of the shooter himself.

There’s also a brilliant use of diversity here. We’ve got a queer female person of color as a main character. There are teens of all backgrounds in this school. This school can be Anywhere, USA, and these kids could be our neighbors, our families, our friends. Author Marieke Nijkamp is an executive member of We Need Diverse Books and the founder of DiversifYA; she practices what she preaches with eloquence and skill. Her author website offers a discussion guide for This is Where it Ends. Educators can also find resources at the National School Safety Center to deepen a discussion on school shootings and school safety.

This is a great book to have in libraries and classrooms, particularly those with a current events focus. Discussion groups will find a lot to delve into here. I’d love to see parent book groups read this, too – it’s not a pleasant topic to think about, but when it concerns our kids, it’s something we should start talking about.