Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

Shine, Coconut MoonI’ll admit, at first I was worried that Shine, Coconut Moon was going to be a little bit too after-school special for my tastes.  But considering the dearth, Mitali Perkins aside, of really good books about Southeast Asian American teens, I was willing to give it a try.  And while it does sometimes feel like a laundry-list of after-school special issues are being addressed (Discovering your personal history and identity, prejudice from friends and bullies, AND 9/11?  That’s hitting the trifecta right there!), Neesha Meminger does the one thing that can raise an “issues book” above feeling like a Lifetime movie: she writes it very well.  The characters are complex, the writing is tight, and the situations build on each other in a way that keeps them from being preachy or unbelievable.

Apart from her mother, Sameera has never met any of her family.  Sam’s mother is estranged from her parents and is determined to raise Sam as a “normal” American girl.  Sam has never learned about her Sikh heritage, met her uncle and grandparents, or learned even a word of Punjabi.  She has no Indian friends at school.  And while Sam has always wanted to meet her family, she has never given much thought to her heritage.  But like many Americans, Sam’s way of looking at the world changes after September 11th.  She experiences prejudice for the first time since she was a small child – sometimes from unexpected places.  And her Uncle Sandeep reaches out to Sam’s mother, bringing family and all the complications that come with it into Sam’s life.

The characterizations are a strong point in Meminger’s novel, and Sam’s two closest family members are perhaps the most interesting, especially in terms of their changing relationships with Sam.  Sam’s mother, Sharan, is conflicted about her own heritage because of controlling treatment by her parents.  She has tried desperately to shield Sam from their influence, and in doing so she has completely seperated Sam from her history and heritage.  But this treatment from her mother leaves Sam feeling just as controlled and unfairly treated as Sharan did as a child.  Sam’s mother must come to terms with her daughter embracing the family and culture that Sharan has turned her back on.  And as her mother’s attempt at protection backfires, Sam’s relationship with her Uncle Sandeep grows.  He acts as a catalyst for her attempts to learn about her heritage, and to reconcile her family’s culture with her own life.  Their relationship is a very sweet one, which makes the extreme prejudice that Sam witnesses against her turban-wearing uncle even more affecting.

Sam’s search for self also affects her relationship with her best friend, her boyfriend, and others from her school in very realistic ways.  Sam’s growth is often difficult for the people who are closest to her, and I love that Meminger acknowledges and explores that side of her journey.  In some cases Sam comes to very difficult realizations about people who she cares about, and in other cases the relationships eventually grow stronger.  Sam also starts tentative relationships with other Indian girls at her school, one of whom demonstrates for Sam that the choice made by her mother is not the only option.  This new friend helps Sam realize that she does not have to definitively chose either her Sikh heritage or her American culture – she can learn to balance both.

I did find the first half of the book a bit difficult to get through – I didn’t warm up to Sam until her growth arc was really moving along.  But by the second half of the book, after she has met Uncle Sandeep and become curious about her family and her heritage, I was hooked.  Sam goes through the search for identity that every teenager experiences, but because of her estrangement from her family and her complete lack of knowledge about her family’s culture, Sam’s journey is condensed into a short, intense period of time, making it especially powerful for the reader.

Shine, Coconut Moon on the web.

Neesha Meminger on the web.

(PS – Apologies for my recent radio silence!  Things are calming down both at work and at home, so I hope to be updating regularly again.)

Chameleon by Charles R. Smith Jr.

chameleonHey you!  Yeah, you sitting there reading this blog. Have you read Chameleon yet?  No?  Do me a favor – head down to your local indie bookstore or your branch library.  Yes, right now.  Come back when you’ve got a copy of this book.

Got it?  Good.

Shawn is a young man straddling the line between being a child and being a teen, between Compton and the suburbs, between middle school and high school.   And this summer he has a major decision to make.  He’ll be starting at high school in the fall, and his parents have given him the choice between the high school in Compton – where all his friends are, but where the Crips and the Pirus make trouble and the principal is rumored to use a paddle on students who act out – and a new high school near his mother’s suburban home in Carson – which is safer and probably has a lot more choices academically, but where he doesn’t know anybody.  It’s a complicated choice, and Shawn is a thoughtful kid who is going to consider it from all sides – he casts it as a choice between “freedom or friendship” (page 228). 

But while Shawn’s choice is what drives the character growth in the novel, the story is carried by his day-to-day life.  The reader gets to tag along with Shawn and his goofy 13-year-old buddies while they shoot hoops, talk about girls, and eat everything in sight.  And with every one of these small events in Shawn’s day, the reader can feel him considering the different parts of his life.   The choice looming over him lend a weight to every thing that happens, allowing this book to chronicle even the smallest parts of his life without ever feeling trivial.

This is a book that starts with a yo mama joke.  It is the first thing on page one.  And there could be no better way to set the stage for the rest of the novel.  Because this is not a novel about what happens – there are a few exciting moments, including a fight between the Crips and the Pirus, but those larger events are not the heart of this book.  A quick, flirtatious conversation with a girl working the register at a burger joint is given as much narrative importance as the gang trouble Shawn encounters.  And that’s what I loved best about this book.  While it doesn’t shy away from the big issues of modern urban life – alcoholism, gang violence, urban blight – it’s not about them, either.  These things don’t define Shawn, and they are not the center of his life or the novel.  It is a story about being a young man in L.A. – about both the silly conversations and the big ones that make up Shawn’s life, about his doubts and his dreams.  And while those problems are there, the positive forces in Shawn’s life are strong – from his caring parents to his buddies who watch out for him. 

Since conversation is at the center of this book, it’s a good thing that Smith has such a pitch-perfect sense of the easy rhythm of boys.  The relaxed, free-flowing conversation feels exactly like something I would hear from some of the funnier guys in my library – and capturing that patter without sounding forced or fake is not an easy task.  In the final third of the book, when Shawn is with his family more than his three buddies, I missed their easy chatter.  The in-game descriptions of Shawn’s basketball games are also masterful – Smith creates a lot of excitement and movement in his prose during the pick-up games, and boy readers especially will be caught up in the flow of the action.

While all of the chatter between Shawn and his boys is engaging, realistic, and funny, the best of the bunch are the ones about sex.  These are young men on the cusp – old enough to be very aware of sex, but with a lot of curiousity and anxiousness underneath all the bravado.  When the older brother of one of Shawn’s buddies comes home from the Navy for shore leave, it sets the boys off on a hilariously raunchy, but still innocently 13-year-old, line of teasing conversation. 

I have only one concern about this book: I want more people to buy and read it.  If we want our boys to keep reading as the make the transition to being teens – and especially our African-American boys who live in urban neighborhoods – this is exactly the kind of book we need.  More books like this one to be written and published.   And if books like this don’t sell, that’s not going to happen.   I’ve been really impressed by the sudden availability of lots of books that appeal to urban teen girls, and we are seeing more of those books because they are  being purchased in large numbers.  I want that to happen with books like Chameleon, too.  So I’m going to go out and buy a couple of copies to pass on to friends.  And I’m going to buy copies for the library and booktalk the heck out of this one.  Will you join me?

Chameleon on the web.

Charles R. Smith, Jr. on the web.

The Brothers Torres by Coert Voorhees

Frankie Towers is a good kid. He helps out at the family restaurant, he’s a loyal friend to his buddy Zach, and he idolizes his big brother Steve. But lately Frankie’s had to cover up for his brother more and more – Steve’s been staying out all night and coming home with black eyes and bruises. Steve’s street cred may be rising, but Frankie’s getting concerned about his brothers’ choices. Frankie’s romantic life is getting complicated, too. He’s been pining over Rebecca for years now – and just when she seems to notice him, the most popular senior in the school is suddenly hanging all over her.

Frankie’s problems are as realistic as the spot-on teen voice used in Coert Voorhees’ novel. Steve’s increasing desire for the “respect” of the local gang, Frankie’s growing relationship with Rebecca, and his need to stand up for himself and his friends are all a catalyst for Frankie’s growth over the course of the story. The small-town New Mexico setting is vibrant, and lends the novel its own language. The realistic language includes frequent casual swearing, but that it is absolutely a contributing factor in the success of the novel’s voice.

Voorhees’ characterization is the strongest aspect of this novel, which one exception. While most of the characters are very well-rounded and show both strengths and weaknesses, the novel’s “bad guy” is almost a caricature of the YA mean jock. Not only does he graphically beat up Frankie and go after his girl, but his very rich family is trying to buy up and homogenize the entire town. He is the one character who is not given a well-rounded personality, and it makes him stand out in the world of the novel.

Great cover art and a story with high teen appeal will make this an easy sell.  Engaging characters, an honest voice, and a classic coming of age story will make teens stick with the novel.

Coert Voorhees on the web

The Brothers Torres on the web

Repossessed by A.M. Jenkins


First thing I did was, I stole a body”

These words introduce the reader to Kiriel, a fallen angel who is fed up with his job tormenting souls in hell.  So he does what any demon who is feeling bored and underappreciated at work would do: he takes over the body of a teenage boy.   There are a few wrinkles – how to get rid of Shaun Simmons’ soul, for example,  or the fact that Kiriel’s little vacation from hell is highly unauthorized.

I loved the perspective that Kiriel brings to Shaun’s life. A total outsider who has never experienced life as teen, Kiriel can see through many of the ways in which Shaun holds himself back in his life. For example, Kiriel can immediately see how much Shaun’s little brother wants his friendship and love in a way that Shaun never could. On the other hand, it is also empowering for teens to see how much knowledge of the world they need  just in order to get through the day.  Watching Kiriel struggle through familiar situations and social dynamics that a teenager would understand without a second thought can demonstrate to a young person how much they already know about the world.

There was also a nice exploration of fantasy versus reality in Kiriel/Shaun’s relationship with Lane, a girl who has a long-time crush on Shaun. When Kiriel, who seems to think about sex just as much as your typical teenage boy, starts to act out one of Lane’s fantasies about Shaun word for word, her reaction is not exactly positive.  It’s a scene that’s very funny and very revealing.

I enjoyed the way that this book highlighted everyday experiences – the little joys in life that are so easy to forget or gloss over. As Kiriel experiences things for the first time, he calls attention to the many pleasures in life that often go unremarked.

The book’s message got a little bit heavy-handed toward the end, but it is still an important one.  Even in the life of fairly introverted teenage boy, he has made important and lasting connection with the people around him.  Shaun is chosen as  a host body exactly because he was a pretty isolated person, and Kiriel assumed that no one paid too much attention to his life. But Kiriel learns that “Shaun Simmons had made a specific mark on his little world, simply by being,” and that his absence would be missed.

The First Part Last by Angela Johnson


Bobby is a pretty normal 16-year-old boy growing up in New York City. He plays a little basketball, he likes to hang out at the arcade with his best friends, and he’s getting by in high school. But his life changes very quickly when he learns that his girlfriend, Nia, is having a baby.

Bobby is a thoughtful young man, and he has a lot to think about as he tries to grow up very quickly. His love for his baby daughter, Feather, is strong, but it’s tough for a sixteen year old to always make the right choices.  And being responsible for another person means that the stakes for his choices are suddenly much higher.

Bobby does screw up sometimes in the book, but The First Part Last is not really a book about plot or action. The narrative is not linear – it slides around between his life before Feather was born and his life now. Each short chapter illuminates a small part of how Bobby is dealing with his new responsibilities. Nia appears only in the “then” chapters that take place before Feather is born, and the reader doesn’t learn why until a devastating series of chapters near the end of the book, including a single chapter from Nia’s perspective. It’s a beautiful, poetically written book, like all of Angela Johnson’s novels. The short chapters, realistic and engaging subject matter, likeable narrator, and the length of the book would seem to make it a great pick for reluctant readers, but I think the constant time shifts and the lack of a straightforward plot might be a little bit confusing for some readers.

Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis

Bud, Not Buddy

When Bud is sent from the orphanage into yet another abusive host family, he has finally had enough. He runs away with only the clothes on his back and his battered suitcase, using a few small clues to search for the father he has never known. Bud hikes and hitches his way from Flint to Grand Rapids, meeting colorful characters and having a few adventures along the way. Bud eventually finds the man he believes to be his father, band-leader Curtis E. Calloway, who is cranky and distrustful of Bud. While Calloway does not turn out to be Bud’s real father, he finds a home with Calloway and his traveling band, and learns about his real family in the process.

Curtis’ evocation of African-American lives in Depression-era Michigan is masterful, and Bud’s narration is funny and frank. This is definitely a middle grade novel, with a ten year old main character. However, Bud’s wise-beyond-his-years narrative voice may win over some older readers, especially readers who are interested in this period of history or who enjoy historical fiction. Bud’s story and his voice are both affecting, as demonstrated by the book’s status as both a Newbery and a Coretta Scott King Award winner.

Saving Francesca, by Melina Marchetta

Saving Francesca

Francesca is one of 30 girls attending St. Sebastian’s Academy, which is accepting girls for the very first time this year. The teachers and the student body have not been exactly accommodating of the girls, and Francesca makes it to school every day only from the motivation of her mother Mia, who is extremely optimistic, lively, and often annoying. Until one day, Mia won’t get out of bed. Mia was the center of the whole family, and suddenly Francesca, her father, and her little brother Luca must struggle to keep daily life going. As Francesca slowly adjusts to her new surroundings at school, makes friends with the other girls, and begins to fall for the infuriating Will Trombal, she must also learn to live life without the constant guidance of her mother and her old, popular friends. And finally, Francesca needs to discover the root of her mother’s sudden depression, and learn what she can do to help Mia return to her life.

I imagine that well written, light-hearted novels dealing with depression are few and far between, but this title certainly fits the bill. Francesca is a heartbreakingly real character, both in her humorous reactions to everyday life and in her emotional reactions to her mother’s illness. Life and relationships are allowed to be complicated in Marchetta’s book, and Francesca deals with these complications in ways that many teens will be able to relate to.

Son of the Mob, by Gordon Korman

Son of the Mob

Vince Luca’s father’s job has always caused trouble for Vince’s dating life. There was the time his date found an unconscious guy tied up in the trunk of his car, and he gets into trouble every time a girl wants to come home to meet his family. Life’s tough when your dad is the head of the New York mafia. When he meets Kendra, Vince finally thinks he’s found someone who’s worth all the trouble. When he finds out that her dad is in the FBI, he gets a little bit worried. When he finds out that her dad is investigating his dad, life gets really, really complicated.

The classic Romeo and Juliet romantic story is satisfying, but the really engaging part of this book is Vince’s moral struggle with his role as the child of a mob boss. In his attempts to help a few men who owe his father money, Vince finds himself more and more entangled in the family business, which he has always avoided. In the end, Vince has to make a choice about his own future, but he also has to protect his family from the FBI investigation. Vince’s choices provide a moral core for a very funny book. It is this story, and not the trite love interest, that makes Korman’s book unexpectedly satisfying.

Before We Were Free, by Isabel Alvarez

Before We Were Free

Anita de la Torre is just trying to navigate the confusing world of school and first crushes. But life is more complicated than that, because Anita lives in the Dominican Republic in the early 1960s under the dictator Trujillo. People are disappearing, the Secret Police are everywhere, and many of Anita’s friends and family have already evacuated to the United States. But Anita and her family stay behind, and Anita eventually learns that her father, her uncle, and their friends are plotting a revolution. Day to day life is tense, and everything in Anita’s life changes suddenly and drastically on the day that Trujillo’s body is discovered by the secret police in the trunk of her father’s car. But the intended revolution is unsuccessful, and when her dad and her uncle are taken away by the Secret Police, Anita and her mother must go into hiding and eventually escape to the US.

Anita’s story is moving, and would make a good introduction to the terrors of this and other South American dictatorships from the recent past. And in fact, the story barely feels like it is set in the past – aside from a few references to poodle skirts the novel feels modern, which will make it accessible to more teens. Anita’s story is not only about politics and revolution, but is also a very tender coming-of-age story. Alvarez deals with all of these issues with a light touch, filtering the horror of the dictatorship through Anita’s young eyes. Anita is only twelve years old, but this book has definitely been marketed to a YA audience, from the beautiful teenage girl on the cover to the awards for YA literature. Readers will see Anita mature as she begins to understand the true nature of life in her country.

A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly


Mattie Gokey is desperate to earn enough money to escape her tiny North Woods town and attend college in New York. Her dream is to be a writer, but in reality she is caring for her younger sisters and helping her father run the family farm. When she goes off to work at a popular summer resort camp to earn money for a new mule, Molly meets a young couple, and Grace, the young lady, gives Mattie a bundle of letters to burn. However, before Mattie gets around to burning the letters, Grace Brown turns up drowned in a boating accident on the lake, and her boyfriend is no where to be found. Reading the letters, Mattie discovers that Grace was murdered. Grace’s story, combined with Mattie’s own blossoming relationship with a local farmboy, make Mattie question whether relationships are harmful to women.

Donnelly’s narrative is complex and nonlinear, shifting seamlessly from Mattie’s life on the farm to her life at the hotel in the wake of Grace Brown’s murder. The parallel narratives of Grace Brown’s doomed relationship, Mattie’s confusing relationship with Royal, and the several other romantic relationships that are scattered through the text are skillfully woven, and the book is beautifully written. I did feel a little bit beat over the head by the “marriage is bad for women!” message of the book. While choosing not to pursue a relationship with Royal is part of Mattie’s journey, and the relationships of Grace Brown, Mattie’s teacher, and other women are illuminating to that journey, the exploration of this theme felt very one-sided.

The book was based on an actual 1906 murder, which was also explored in Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.