Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Young Adult (page 1 of 4)

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post – Emily M Danforth

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post has one of the best opening lines ever (“The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.”). Plus, this Penguin edition is absolutely gorgeous, with sprayed edges in the colours of the Pride flag. I didn’t know much else about it when I picked it up, but hey: that was enough to convince me!

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It turns out, The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is a coming-of-age young adult novel. The titular character, Cameron, is a 12-year-old girl living in rural Montana in the early ’90s (actually, in Danforth’s hometown of Miles City). The story begins the summer Cameron’s life veers wildly off course.

Her parents die suddenly, tragically, in a car crash (NOT a spoiler, see the opening line!). To her great shame, Cameron’s first reaction upon hearing the news of their death is relief. Earlier that day, she had been kissing her best friend Irene (and shoplifting with her, too, but that’s by the by). That might not seem like a shocking secret to be hiding in today’s day and age, but in early ’90s rural Montana? You can understand Cameron’s fervent fear of discovery.

The coincidental timing – of Cameron’s sexual awakening and her parent’s death – makes for a tangled mess of emotions, one that she struggles throughout the novel to untangle. Cameron doesn’t just kiss Irene, she kisses other girls too, and even falls in love with one of them. The guilt she feels over her attractions is compounded by the influence of her new guardian, born-again conservative Aunt Ruth.

Things go from bad to worse when Cameron is unceremoniously outed by the straight girl with whom she had fallen in love. Aunt Ruth “has no choice” but to send Cameron to God’s Promise (blegh), a religious boarding school (conversion camp) that promises to “cure” her (pray away the gay).

So, here seems as good a point as any to mention a few things. First off, big time trigger warnings for The Miseducation Of Cameron Post: death, grief, conversion “therapy”, self harm, and internalised homophobia.

Secondly, if you’re not familiar with conversion “therapy”, this explainer from the Australian Human Rights Institute of UNSW describes it as “a pseudoscientific practice whereby an LGBTQI+ person is subjected to methods of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment which is instigated by individuals with the aim of changing their sexual orientation and / or gender identity”. Danforth has said that The Miseducation Of Cameron Post was inspired by the 2005 case of Zach Stark, a young adult who was sent to one such conversion camp after coming out to his parents. Some Australian jurisdictions have outlawed these programs, and momentum is growing for a nationwide ban; of course, the state of play is more dire in other parts of the world. If you want to know more, see if your local LGBTQI+ action groups have any resources.

Okay, now back to the story. Ironically, at God’s Promise, Cameron finds the kind of queer community she was missing back in Montana. Danforth stops short of depicting any gory physical abuse at the hands of the camp’s staff, but it’s clear that Cameron and her new friends are suffering and struggling with the pseudo-therapeutic “treatment” the staff provides. It was a really interesting approach on Danforth’s part. The pastor and his staff aren’t typical “monsters”, and it’s not always easy to hate them; sometimes, they seem to genuinely care for their charges and believe that they’re doing what’s best for them. That makes for confused emotions and allegiances in the reader – a good reflection of the main character’s own journey.

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is, in a sense, a “coming out novel”, but it’s much darker and less trope-y than that label implies. Cameron’s sexual identity isn’t reduced to a one-off forbidden Sapphic love affair, born of two people with undeniable chemistry who just happen to be the same gender. Cameron is deep-in-her-bones queer, and she seems to have a knack for finding girls who are just as curious-slash-scared as she is, even in rural Montana, even at conversion camp.

The prose is tactile, well-paced, and rich without being overwhelming. Danforth gradually adds layer after layer, and shows remarkable restraint in relaying a highly emotive story. She also writes in a kind of quasi-nostalgic style that shits me no end when it’s written by/for straight men, but resonates so hard for me when it’s written by/for queer women; maybe that’s a relatability thing? I’m conscious of my own biases as a reader, and this is probably one of them.

Of course, because The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is good and interesting and actually reflects the lived experiences of some young queer people, it’s been banned any number of times, most notably in Delaware in 2014. A school board removed it from the district’s summer reading list, citing “inappropriate language” as the reason – ha! Disingenuous tools. Danforth’s response to the news was perfect, so I’ve reproduced it in full here:

“I’m proud that The Miseducation of Cameron Post is now in the company of so, so many novels that have been banned and challenged and censored throughout history—many of them among my all-time favorites, the very books that shaped me as a reader, a writer, and a person. It seems that everyone except you knows that censoring, or even attempting to censor a book, only makes it more appealing to curious readers, which certainly seems to be true in this case. I’m honored to be told that dozens of local readers have already begun seeking out my novel, something they almost certainly wouldn’t have done before you made this completely unnecessary decision.”

Emily M. Danforth (author of The Miseducation Of Cameron Post)

All told, I loved The Miseducation Of Cameron Post – it’s a difficult read at times, but an immersive and impressive one, a must for fans of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. While it’s billed as a young adult novel, and I’m sure there are plenty of teens who get a lot out of it, I think it will actually resonate most for adult-adults, the ones who actually grew up during or before Cameron’s adolescence. Speaking as one of those, my hat goes off to Danforth, and I look forward to reading more from her.

The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

Junior (aka Arnold Spirit) is a budding cartoonist-slash-basketball player who has lived on the Spokane Indian Reservation for all fourteen years of his life (so far). In The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian, he describes the series of circumstances that led up to him deciding to transfer to the all-white high-school miles away, instead of the Indian high-school closer to home, and what that means for his life and his loved ones.

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Junior was “born with water on the brain” (the way his family has always described his condition, known to most of us as hydrocephalus). He wasn’t expected to survive the emergency surgery to drain it, but he did. He now lives with several physical disabilities, which have been compounded over time by his limited access to healthcare. Though he mentions his disabilities from time to time, they’re not a major part of his story. That’s the first check in The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian‘s column – how often do you read a story about a character who lives with a disability but isn’t defined by that disability?

He tells his story diary-style (accompanied by fantastic illustrations, in real-life contributed by Ellen Forney). He describes his home life (troubled), his friendship with Rowdy (dysfunctional), and his confusion about the way the world works, and his role in it.

When Junior decides to attend the all-white high-school 22 miles away, his community is split. His family – though poor and unreliable – support him the best they can. Rowdy, however, is enraged, and the schism that appears between him and Junior is the major conflict throughout the course of The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian. They have very little contact once Junior transfers, only really seeing one another on the basketball court (an already-fraught situation, given that poor Junior has to play against his former schoolmates in his new team’s colours – yes, symbolism, etc.).

Junior has a lot of insight into racial injustice and poverty for a fourteen-year-old, but given his life circumstances, it’s completely believable. Over the course of the year depicted in his diary, he suffers a lot of personal tragedies – many related to alcohol abuse. You might think that would make The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian a real bummer, or at least yet-another grim perspective on the problems faced by non-white communities, but Alexie (via Junior) is careful to keep the tone frank and hopeful. Even when things are demonstrably shit, Junior makes a point of noting the silver linings.

Speaking of Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian is famously semi-autobiographical. Like Junior, Alexie was born with hydrocephalus and grew up on the Spokane Reservation in Wellpinit, raised by and around people with severe alcohol addiction. The story actually started out as a memoir, but Alexie’s editor convinced him to make it a young adult novel. He has since said: “If I were to guess at the percentage, it would be about seventy-eight percent true.”

And here’s how you know The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian is good: heaps of people want it banned. Seriously, it’s up there with The Satanic Verses for controversy. It was the most-frequently banned and challenged book in the United States from 2010-2019, and has appeared in the top-ten list of banned and challenged books almost every year since then. And boy, do its critics have a laundry list of complaints: offensive language, cultural insensitivity, “anti-family” content, “anti-Christian” content, depiction of bullying, depiction of gambling, depiction of racism, depiction of violence, sexual references, references to drugs and alcohol… I could go on. Basically, there’s nothing in this book that the wowsers didn’t take issue with EXCEPT the one thing I think ACTUALLY warrants it: big-time trigger warning for dog death in Chapter 2!

It’d be nice to leave it there, but unfortunately, there’s a really big issue that has to be addressed in any conversation about The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian: the #MeToo allegations raised against Sherman Alexie in 2018. Ten different women reported inappropriate and harmful behaviour perpetrated by Alexie: sexual harassment, unwanted sexual advances, and other forms of relational mistreatment. They alleged that Alexie traded on his power in the literary scene to lure women and silence them. As a result, several organisations and institutions removed Alexie’s name from awards and other honours, and the young adult literature community generally stepped back from the golden boy.

Alexie released a written statement acknowledging that he “has harmed” others, and that “there are women telling the truth”, with a partial apology. I’ve read and re-read the statement, and I’m afraid what sticks with me more than his apparent expression of regret is his determined efforts to discount and discredit the woman who first raised the allegations publicly, Litsa Dremousis.

So, unfortunately, we have another great book with wide appeal written by a man who turns out to be a bit of a shit. It’s a real shame how often this happens. The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian was a good young-adult read, but art does not and cannot exist in a vacuum.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian:

  • “Great book. I didn’t want to purchase this but my dog ate my sons and it was the schools, so I had to replace it.” – Natalie
  • “Laugh your bottom off funny” – Gopher Hunter
  • “This book is not just for kids, I am an old person , a dO laugh so much h that I wanted my husband to read this ., And how true of what he wrote, I’ve mermaids like his story. Cookbooks” – 711/2
  • “Shame on Scholastic for putting this on their reading list! Disgusting book!” – Donna Johnson
  • “My book smelled like cat pee!!! So did the package! I sprayed it with lysol because I needed it for school the next day it’s fine now.” – Felicity Burkhead

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

I first became aware of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower via the 2012 film adaptation. I vaguely remember seeing it; it left the impression of being quirky but also a huge bummer. It turns out that Stephen Chbosky himself actually wrote and directed it (John Hughes originally held the rights, before he sadly passed away). Anyway, at some point I figured out it was a young adult book before it was a film, and picked up a copy for myself along the way.

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The cover of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower promises “a deeply affecting coming-of-age story… in the tradition of The Catcher In The Rye“. It was first published in 1999, and it’s set in the early years of that decade, beginning in 1991.

Charlie is the titular wallflower: a shy, introspective, socially awkward teen, just starting high-school as the story begins. He begins writing semi-anonymous letters, addressed to “dear friend”, he says in the hopes of reaching “someone out there [who] listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have” (page 3). Seems reasonable enough!

Through these letters, Charlie’s story – and his unique perspective on life – unfolds. He’s very earnest and matter-of-fact, but he’s also surprisingly perceptive and insightful for a fifteen-year-old. My teenage diaries and letters were certainly more angst-ridden and self-indulgent, no mean feat considering Charlie’s history of mental health issues.

In these letters, to his mysterious and anonymous “friend”, Charlie makes mention of his periods of depression and “things getting bad” (mostly triggered, it would seem, by the sudden and unexpected death of his Aunt Helen in a car crash, and more recently that of his friend Michael, who took his own life). Charlie feels mostly alone in the world, but he doesn’t seem to mind so much; as he sees it, there are plenty of perks to being a wallflower (geddit?).

Eventually, he makes friends with two older kids from his school, Patrick and Sam. At first, it seemed they might just be taking pity on the weird quiet kid whose friend killed himself, but they proved me wrong. They adopt Charlie into their friendship circle as one of their own, and he has all of the slightly-less-than-wholesome high school experiences. He even develops a charmingly inappropriate and unrequited crush on Sam, who acknowledges it without ever embarrassing him.

Of course, the major problem with befriending older kids in high school is that they’re destined to grow up and get out long before you. That might seem like the logical climax towards which The Perks Of Being A Wallflower would build, but Chbosky always has something darker looming over it all. Charlie increasingly exhibits symptoms of PTSD (of course, that’s not the language he uses to describe it in his letters, but it’s clear that’s what’s going on), and it turns out his repressed trauma is something a lot more gnarly than you might expect. It all comes out when he finally gets His Moment with Sam, right before she leaves for college.

Spoilers below this point, blah blah blah…

Ah, yes, the “big twist” reveal. It comes on subtly, and when it did I wasn’t sure Chbosky had really “earned” the feelings he was clearly hoping to elicit from the reader (see: the same problem as Daisy Jones And The Six). In essence, Charlie was sexually abused by his Aunt Helen as a very young child; that’s why his memory of the event is shaky, and also why his feelings about her death are so confused and troubling. The epilogue, Charlie’s final letter to his friend, reveals that he was discovered in a catatonic state after some kind of psychotic break that recalled his memories of the abuse, and he had to spend some time in a psychiatric facility. Sam and Patrick visited, and while he didn’t exactly live “happily ever after”, he finished up in much better shape than he started out.

I’m really not sure how I feel about child abuse being used as a “big twist” in a novel, but… for all its problems, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Chbosky and Charlie’s story really got under my skin. Of course, this should serve as a huge stinky trigger warning, but for those of us who can stomach it, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is a book that will stay with you, whether you like it or not.

I think Chbosky has a rare talent for writing in the voice of a teenager, about TeEn IsSuEs, in a way that doesn’t sound patronising. He said he wanted to address the question of why good people let themselves get treated badly, and I suppose he found an answer of sorts. He also said he incorporated many of his own memories of growing up in Pittsburgh, making The Perks Of Being A Wallflower at least somewhat autobiographical (though I hope not too autobiographical, ’cause… you know).

Naturally, because Chbosky wrote something relatively realistic about teens for teens, some parents got their knickers in a knot over it. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower has hit the American Library Association’s top 10 list for the Most Frequently Banned And Challenged books no fewer than six times. Apparently, some parents have taken issue with the book’s “pornographic content” and “vulgarity”, “homosexual themes”, and “glorification” of drugs and alcohol – as though teens would have no idea about any of that were it not for a book. Honestly!

I found The Perks Of Being A Wallflower to be a really affecting book, as promised by the blurb, and its effect certainly lingered. I also re-watched the film, and it totally holds up – still quirky and a bummer, as I remembered, but very well done. On the whole, if dark YA gets your motor running, this is one that should be top of your to-be-read list (if it’s not already).

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower:

  • “This book was absolutely amazing and all the moms on here are a bunch of crybaby’s. Many things in the book are not quite AS graphic as they make it seem because of the way it’s written. Overall, it’s a really really good book and now I cant wait to watch the movie. And if you’re a mom whose unsure if their kid should read it, buy it anyways because all you have to do is read it first and decide for yourself, AND you get to relax and read a book.” – Victoria
  • “First of all, I respect any opinion that this is a great book. But I must say I am confounded by the thousands of five-star reviews, because not only do I not see that, but I actively, aggressively disliked “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which would have been more aptly titled “The Perks of Being Weird and Weepy.”” – Ga303
  • “its no wonder high-schoolers are depressed these days. this book made me miserable.” – Dj Hickson
  • “I really didn’t like the various sexual comments.” – Joanne McDowell
  • “It sucked and was super boring and dumb. My girlfriend hated hearing me complain the whole time I was reading it.” – Garrett landsrud

Sadie – Courtney Summers

Well, Keeper Upperers, last year I asked Santa for a big stack of books – and boy, did he deliver! Sadie by Courtney Summers came via my wonderful and dear friend Cathal, right into my hot little hands. This one has been near the top of my wishlist for ages, so I couldn’t bring myself to wait another minute before tearing in to it.

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Sadie is Courtney Summer’s break-out novel. She’s written several other books prior, but this is the one that catapulted her to international attention and #bookstagram fame. What brought it to my attention was the killer premise: a modern twist on a murder mystery, partly styled as a podcast transcript.

The story begins with the discovery of a body, that of 13-year-old Mattie Southern, in a small run-down town in the middle of nowhere. She is survived by her 19-year-old sister, Sadie. Right off the bat, I liked the way that Summers was thumbing her nose at the tropes by naming her book after the living protagonist. When was the last time you read a crime novel with a titular girl who wasn’t dead?

That’s your first hint that Sadie is cleverer than it might first appear. Summers also lampoons the true-crime trend of middle-class butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-their-mouths white blonde victims. Mattie and Sadie are from the wrong side of the tracks, their fathers are long gone, and their mother decided she preferred drugs to home-cooked dinners. Sadie and Mattie have had to forge their own way, living in a trailer with only their landlady for support.

West McCray – a radio journalist – overhears the tragic news of Mattie’s death while he’s working on another story nearby. At first, he doesn’t think much of it (another dead girl? that’s sad, but it’s hardly a story). Then, he hears from their landlady: Sadie has gone missing, just months after Mattie’s death. That’s the impetus for his podcast investigation, what hooks him (and us, the readers): what happened to the girls?

So, one side of the story is told by West, as he investigates – through interviews and sticking his nose everywhere it doesn’t belong – and the other side is told by Sadie herself. It’s a really interesting way of piecing the story together: each protagonist knows things the other doesn’t, and even without the high-stakes plot, you’ll find yourself desperate to find out what happens when their stories catch up to one another and intersect.

Summers also nails the podcast transcript, I must say. It’s very clearly modelled off cultural staples like Serial and This American Life. As I read, I couldn’t help but “hear” most of it in the soothing tones of Ira Glass. It got a little trite towards the end, maybe a little “neat”, but overall it holds up. I read in another review that apparently there are actual recorded episodes out there, which I’m curious to track down.

I think it’s also really powerful that Sadie is given her own voice, the opportunity to tell the reader her own story. Had the whole lot been narrated by West and the people he interviews, a lot of the complexity and intimacy would have been lost. She reveals pretty early on where exactly she’s gone “missing” to: she’s on the hunt for the man she believes killed Mattie, and she plans to give him a taste of his own medicine. She also has a stutter, which makes her internal monologue particularly powerful; what she’s not able to physically say out loud, she can share with us.

Being a crime novel, styled as a true crime podcast, there’s obviously some pretty gruesome stuff (if you’re not a true crime junkie, it’s probably worse than you’d imagine). So, here’s a content warning for violence (duh) and child abuse. Though Courtney Summers’ books are classed as Young Adult, I really feel that Sadie could have been published and marketed as adult crime fiction without raising an eyebrow.

The ending isn’t exactly happy, though it does provide enough resolution that the story feels finished. I knocked it over in a single afternoon. I’d say it’s the perfect book for fans of Veronica Mars.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sadie:

  • “It was pretty ok!” – Lauren A Woods
  • “Wtf” – User

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas was one of the most-frequently banned and challenged books in the year it was released, according to the American Library Association. Why? Officially, for its profanity, vulgarity, and references to drug use. But, unofficially, it’s hard to imagine that it’s for any reason other than it might stoke the fire of young would-be Black Lives Matter activists in the tinderbox that is the United States. This is a story about the human cost of racially-motivated police brutality.

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This is Thomas’s debut novel, an expanded version of a short story she wrote in response to the death of Oscar Grant. It’s shelved and marketed as a young adult novel – given that it features a teen protagonist who, one could argue, “comes of age” – but The Hate U Give would be appealing and accessible to readers of all ages. We all have something to learn from this story.

It opens at a party, where our main character – Starr Carter – is feeling awkward and uncomfortable. Even though the party is thrown in her neighbourhood by people roughly her own age, she doesn’t feel like she “fits in”, mostly (it would seem) because she attends Williamson, a “white-people” high school. When shots are fired, her friend Khalil helps her escape, and they drive away to safety in his car… or so they think.

Khalil is pulled over, and after a short interaction, the police officer shoots him. Starr is the only witness to Khalil’s death. The officer keeps his gun trained on her until back-up arrives.

That might sound like a story in and of itself, but really it’s only the beginning of The Hate U Give. The story actually unfolds around what Starr decides to do next. Should she make a statement to police and prosecutors, knowing it might cause trouble for her family? Should she identify herself as the witness among her friends and neighbours, knowing that it might incite the ire of local gang members? She’s stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, an impossible decision for anyone to make, let alone a sixteen-year-old girl. Chuck into the mix a racist frenemy, a white boyfriend who doesn’t get it, and the ripple effects of drug addiction and gang violence in her neighbourhood… Unsurprisingly, Starr struggles under the weight of what is right and what is safe.

“I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down. Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.”

The Hate U Give (38)

The Hate U Give is a call to action in the form of a young-adult novel. Its central message is reflected in its title, which is actually a reference to an idea attributed to Tupac: that THUG LIFE actually stands for “The hate u give little infants fucks everybody”. In other words, raising children – of all colours and creeds – in a racist system that only functions on the back of oppression is good for no one. Or, to borrow an older saying, we reap what we sow.

In the Author’s Note following the novel’s conclusion, Thomas describes the first time she saw a photo of Emmett Till. She managed to convince herself that it was “history”, until she saw the video of Oscar Grant. This triggered a series of difficult conversations and revelations for her, and “from all of those questions and emotions, The Hate U Give was born”. She emphasises that her motivation for writing the novel was the opportunity to give young people the reassurance that they are not alone in their frustration, fear, and sadness. I like to think that it’s not just “young people” Thomas is speaking to anymore, because surely after the events of this year (if nothing else), that frustration, fear, and sadness is felt by all.

The presence of Chris – Starr’s white boyfriend – in the novel is a deft touch, one that kindly guides white readers towards understanding the role we have to play in making change happen. The Hate U Give also serves the dual role of guidebook and mirror, with Starr’s code-switching reflecting the lived reality of many readers while revealing it to others who haven’t experienced it for themselves. Characters like Starr – and her brothers, her father, and mother – are too often caricatured in fiction. It was a relief to read such a complex and nuanced depiction of them, and the politics of their communities.

It’s both amazing and saddening that The Hate U Give is still so resonant and relevant, perhaps even more so than when it was initially published. The film adaptation – released in 2018 – has also gone on to receive popular and critical acclaim. And so I circle back around to where I began: it’s hard to imagine that this book could be banned for any reason other than systemic racism. I feel a nervous flutter in my stomach as I type that, and I’m tempted to backspace over it, but if Starr can find the strength to use her voice then so can I.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Hate U Give:

  • “I haven’t read it yet, I’ve heard good things and I’m sure it’s great. All I know is that it came broken. Not sure who’s fault it is but I don’t know who to tell and I’m very upset.” – Alyssa
  • “I’ve been wanting to read something that could help me understand better what blacks are like. This was was a great start. I plan to read more to help me understand as I’m a 70 something women who doesn’t consider myself racist but I grew up in VA and my school was the first in our country to graduate black people from a regular formerly all white High School. I need to continue my education.” – Ruth Moorman
  • “Couldn’t read the book — the first few pages were so full of obcenities I stopped caring what the plot was about. I know some young people talk this way but I choose to avoid filling my mind with dirt.” – Lee Gardner
  • “Doesn’t contain a Y and a O in the title.
    I won’t stand for this kind of madness.” – The Biz
  • “Contacting customer service immediately.” – Amazon Customer
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