Tag Archive: YA

Nov 15 2016

Review: It Looks Like This by Rafi Mittlefehldt

The issue of bullying in teens and children has had an increase in awareness over the last few years, with countless news articles about teens or pre-teens who have been either victims or perpetrators.  Statistics show that approximately 160,000 teens skip school every day due to issues of bullying.  With those numbers in my head and a further awareness the bullied teens are nearly 10% more likely to consider suicide, I decided to review It Looks Like This by Rafi Mittlefehldt.

It Looks Like This centers around Mike, a 15 year old boy whose parents have recently moved Mike and his little sister Toby to Virginia from Wisconsin.  Mike’s father is authoritarian and religious.  His mother is equally religious but quiet and almost subservient.

The book opens after its ending.  A short chapter shows Mike recalling a memory of a time watching the sunrise with the other main protagonist, Sean.  This moment sets the stage for the second chapter which jumps back to the beginning where Mike is revealed as the narrator.

Dismayed that his son is “soft”, Mike’s father pushes him towards sports and similar activities in an effort to “toughen him up.”  Mike, recognizing that he is a misfit both at home and at school, tries to appease his father but has neither the talent nor the passion.

After Mike is paired on a project in French class with another boy in his class, Sean, things begin to change.  The two quickly strike up a close friendship and the tentative beginnings of a romantic relationship.  Unfortunately, neither Mike nor Sean can escape their fathers.  Nor can they get away from Victor, another boy in their class who has targeted Mike with his bullying.

It Looks Like This touches on issues of homophobia, cyber-bullying, and conversion therapy.  Religion is a very significant specter in Mike’s relationships with his family and friends.  Several of Mike’s friends at school are also part of his church.  His father’s mercurial temper is deeply intertwined with his religious convictions.  His is the final word in the household, and Mike’s mother is either too afraid or too conditioned to speak out against her husband.

It Looks Like This contains a good but not a great story.  Much of the blame for this lies in the characterization.  Mittlefehldt paints many of his characters with the same brush.  All the men in Mike’s church are stern and distant, while the women are meek and submissive.  The church minister is a stereotypical hellfire and brimstone preacher.  Certain characters are introduced as if they are meant to have some impact on the storyline and then dropped with no significant development.

Many of the scenarios presented in It Looks Like This fall prey to cliche and stereotype.  Mike’s sexuality is suspect due to his disinterest in sports and his strong artistic talent.  The only two characters who defy stereotype and convention are Mike’s sister, Toby, and Mrs. Pilsner, the mother of one of his friends.

Finally, the overall undercurrent of gay bashing feels suspect.  The reader, who is privy to Mike’s inner thoughts and recounting of the events, is given occasional hints that he is gay, but to the outsider, there would be no reason to suspect, other than the fact that he is not athletic and enjoys art.

Readers who enjoyed It Looks Like This might also like Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian, or The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan.  Each of these books address issues of bullying, adapting to a new environment, and first loves.

Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda specifically deals with the issue of cyber-bullying and has a far lighter tone, although both it and It Looks Like This veer toward the predictable.  Simon Vs. the Homospiens Agenda never fully addresses the consequences of the characters actions.  It Looks Like This goes slightly further yet still does not show the events as having any long term consequences for the perpetrators.  In fact, it is Mike and Sean who suffer the greatest consequence from the actions done to them.

In contrast to It Looks Like This, Cut Both Ways takes a more serious approach to the issue of bullying and creates more realistic scenarios, placing it somewhere between Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and It Looks Like This in tone.

As with Cut Both Ways, The Tragedy Paper treats the issue of bullying with a serious tone.  Like Mike, Tim becomes the target of one particular individual who seeks him out with malicious intent.   Also like Mike, Tim stands out as different and awkward, though Tim’s differences are primarily physical whereas Mike’s are that he is quiet, introspective, and uncertain of his sexuality.

Other similarities between The Tragedy Paper and It Looks Like This include a singular tragic event for which both boys blame themselves and which will shape both their futures.  Mike, however, unlike Tim in The Tragedy Paper, has a minor but direct role in the tragic event.  Also, while Tim is targeted by Patrick the jealous boyfriend of his crush, no particular reason is given for Mike being targeted by Victor other than a subtle implication of self-directed homophobia.

It Looks Like This is enjoyable, although the first half drags somewhat.  I found that the pacing increased almost exactly half way through, as I had just reached the point where I was ready to give up when the momentum increased.  As such, the second half of the book was stronger and more enjoyable than the first half.

In addition, I found the books formatting to be distracting.  Mettlefehldt does not use quotation marks to indicate who is speaking, but rather depends on line breaks and “he said” or “she said”.  While the “he said” and “she said” is standard usage, the lack of visual indicators for speakers made it difficult in places to differentiate narrative and dialogue.  This choice is based on the fact that Mike is retelling events that have already happened, but I felt that it detracted from the story and interfered with my enjoyment of the book.

 

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Sep 01 2015

Review: Books centering around LGBTQ teens

With the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage and the renewed surge in movements such as the It Gets Better Project and the No H8 campaign, I wanted to focus on Young Adult books centering around LGBTQ teens.

Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian asks the reader “What would happen if you found yourself falling in love with your best friend of the same gender?”

Will Caynes is 17 and has never even been kissed.  His best friend Angus lives down the block and has been publicly out since junior high.  Will divides his time between his divorced parents who treat him as a weapon to use against each other.  Will wears glasses that are slightly out of fashion because his father pays for those, but clothes that are clearly more expensive because his mother provides those.  Angus, with his good looks and quiet confidence, strikes Will as everything he himself is not.

One night as Angus and Will are getting high and drunk in the park, Angus leans over and kisses Will.  The make out session that ensues leaves Will feeling confused and intrigued.  On the one hand, he knows he’s not gay, on the other, he enjoyed kissing Angus.  A few days later, Will meets Brandy, a girl from his school and quickly begins a relationship with her, complicating the situation even further.

As Will struggles to maintain both relationships, he is also beset with worry over his father who has recently started drinking again and with anger towards his mother whose new family has little room for him.  It becomes clear that Will has fallen in love with Angus despite not thinking of himself as gay, but he also has a strong physical attraction to Brandy.

Cut Both Ways is a darkly honest novel which confronts the issues of emotional attraction and teen sexuality without flinching.  Mesrobian writes with a blunt and forthright style.  Will’s characterization and manner of speaking reads so true to that of a teenage boy that I was genuinely surprised to learn the author is female.

Cut Both Ways contains characters which are believably flawed and complex.  Brandy proves that she is more than a bubbly cheerleader type and her insecurities and attitudes ring true to the fact that she is barely fifteen to Will’s nearly eighteen.

Angus demonstrates that, despite his quiet and disaffected attitude, he too is plagued by insecurities and uncertainties in his relationship with Will and in his own sexual experiences.

Finally, Mesrobian leaves certain elements of the story unresolved, which felt very true to life.

Readers who enjoyed The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban will likely enjoy Cut Both Ways.  Although vastly different stories, both novels present complex and imperfect characters that one would expect to find in everyday life.  In addition, both novels acknowledge that, unlike fiction, life does not always come with neat endings.


Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Abertalli is, in contrast to Cut Both Ways, a lighter and more simplistic novel.

The titular character, Simon, is 16 and gay but has not yet come out to his friends and family.  The only one who is aware of Simon’s secret is a boy at Simon’s school known simply by the pen name “Blue”.  The two struck up an anonymous correspondence earlier in the year, and recently their emails have taken on a more flirtatious tone.

One day Simon is approached by an acquaintance, Martin who has a bit of a bully reputation.  Martin has stumbled on Simon and Blue’s correspondence and threatens to reveal it publicly if Simon doesn’t help him pursue Abby, one of Simon’s closest friends.

Suddenly Simon is faced with a choice: out himself before he’s ready, be outed by Martin and risk revealing Blue’s secret in the process, or help someone he despises hook up with his best friend.

Albertalli writes with a fun and conversational style.  Simon is easily imaginable as a self described Harry Potter look alike, and his friends are equally easily pictured.  Leah, the quiet bookish one, who harbors a not so secret crush on Nick the philosophical musician with surfer looks, and Abby, the perky and skinny cheerleader whom Nick has a crush on.

I was, however, left with the sense that Albertalli is writing to a younger audience than expected given the ages of the characters within the novel or that she is perhaps not completely familiar with teenage vernacular.

For example, the social networking site Tumblr features heavily in the plot and yet each time it is referenced in either description or dialogue, Albertalli refers to it as “the Tumblr” when the most used terminology is simply “Tumblr.”  As a reader, I found this jarring and distracting from the overall plot.

In addition, sections of character dialogue read as if Simon and his friends are within the young teens range instead of their actual ages of seventeen and eighteen.

Martin, Simon’s blackmailer, commits an act that is reprehensible and without redemption, yet is almost immediately apologetic and suffers little to no consequence.  This felt out of character for him given his actions and words earlier in the novel.

In fact, it is Blue who is the best developed character and the one who rang truest to his written age.  Even though his identity is not revealed until the final pages, Albertalli creates a character who is far more rich and complex than the characters whom we know more intimately.  Through his and Simon’s correspondence we come to understand Blue’s own issues with his sexual identity.  He reveals his struggles with his strict parents and his internal conflict regarding their divorce.  He also reveals to Simon his deep feelings of inadequacy around his father and his fear that his mother may be unable to accept him as he is due to her religious beliefs.

Readers who enjoyed Fangirl or Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell will likely enjoy Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.  Albertalli and Park write with similar styles and like Park, Albertalli creates characters the reader would likely enjoy getting to know better.

 

Jul 29 2014

Review: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell centers around the lives of two teenagers in Omaha, Nebraska, during the mid-80’s.  Eleanor has just moved back in with her mother and abusive stepfather.  Forced to share a room with four younger siblings, Eleanor spends the majority of her time desperately trying to be invisible so that her stepfather won’t kick her out of the house again.

Eleanor finds herself forced to sit next to Park on the first day of school after being heckled and shunned by everyone else on the bus.  Eleanor is large, with bright red hair and clothes that can only be called “strange”.

For several weeks, Eleanor and Park don’t interact at all.  Park secretly thinks Eleanor is just weird, and Eleanor wonders how it is that the only Asian kid in school is simultaneously a misfit and part of the “in” crowd.   One day Park looks over and realizes that Eleanor is reading his comics over his shoulder.  After this, he starts giving her comics to borrow, until one day he comments on some song lyrics written on her book cover.  This serves as the needed ice breaker, and soon the two find themselves talking non-stop about music, Han Solo, and the sexist undertones of X-Men.

On the surface, the two begin a fun and lighthearted teen romance, but beneath the surface we find that Eleanor’s entire family lives at the whim of her drunken stepfather.  Eleanor can’t understand why her mother stays with him, but soon we start to see little glimpses here and there of how beaten down and worn out her mother has become.

In contrast, Park has a seemingly perfect home life.  His parents can hardly keep their hands off each other, and his mother’s success as a beautician accords Park a certain acceptability with the cool kids.

Park and his father are constantly at odds since his father doesn’t understand his son’s seeming inability to learn to drive a stick or his penchant for wearing eyeliner and therefore constantly berates Park’s masculinity.

Finally, their individual situations reach a climax and Eleanor and Park are forced to face the realities of trying to turn a teen romance into “forever”.

Eleanor and Park has been compared to John Green‘s The Fault in our Stars or Paper Towns.  I found, however, that it reminded me far more of The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LeBan.  As with Duncan in The Tragedy Paper, Eleanor is starting over in a new school late in her high school career.  In addition as with Duncan and his albinism, Eleanor’s red hair and large frame  set her apart.  Finally, both books are told through alternating perspectives and culminate in a sudden event that irrevocably changes the main characters’ lives.

While I enjoyed Eleanor and Park and found it to be a fun and easy read, I felt it lacked some of the elements that make a truly great novel.  Rowell depends largely on cliches and predictability and fails to explore elements that could add complexity and believability for her characters.  For example, Park’s mother is emphasized as being Korean, and Park struggles with what it means to him to be half-Korean, yet Park’s house seems devoid of anything resembling Korean culture.  The author also gives no indication that Park’s parents encountered any difficulties as an interracial couple who began their life together in 1960’s Nebraska.  Park claims that his previous lack of romantic success is due to a dearth of attractive male Asian examples, yet we discover his ex-girlfriend is still eager for his attention and the most popular girl in school has a crush on him.

In contrast, Rowell does an excellent job with Eleanor’s characterization.  From the first day on the bus when she is labeled as “Big Red”, the reader can relate to Eleanor’s situation.  Eleanor is portrayed as a smart kid who has all but completely shut herself off from everyone, due to the inability or unwillingness of the adults in her life to help.  Her mother is so overrun with trying to anticipate the demands of her husband and with raising the younger children that she sees Eleanor more as a problem than a daughter.  The school guidance counselor thinks everything can be fixed with a smile and a hug.  Her teachers are seemingly unaware or unconcerned.  As a result, Eleanor is sometimes sarcastic and caustic or shuts down when struggling to explain her family situation or the intensity of her own feelings towards Park.

Set in 1986, Eleanor and Park makes solid use of the time frame.  Situations that would be solved by today’s modern technology such as cell phones or MP3 players are integral elements to the plot.  When Park lends Eleanor his tape player, she worries about running down the batteries, noting that they are expensive.  Eleanor also comments several times that she does not have a phone at home, making it difficult for her to call Park or for anyone to call her.  Finally, the music that Rowell weaves into the plot was quintessential of the rise of the 70’s and 80’s punk culture.

Eleanor and Park is marketed for teens fourteen and up.  This is an appropriate starting age due to themes of abuse, bullying, and teen sex.

I found Eleanor and Park to be a quick and enjoyable read.  Rowell’s use of dialogue is her strongest point, but the over use of cliche’s and exaggerated physical descriptions read more like a beginning novel rather than the work of an established author.  A few of the characters were believable in their flaws and insecurities, while others seemed either caricaturish or too undeveloped for their transformation to be realistic.  As with The Tragedy Paper, the dual narrating voices added nicely to the storyline and kept the pace flowing well; however, I would have liked to have been given more insight into some of the lesser characters.

 

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