Tournament of Books Round 1: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda VS. All the Rage

Realistic fiction with real-life high school drama thrown in is always popular in my library and I would assume around the U.S.

 Both of the main characters in these two books get bullied, but the books, while basically cast in the same type of light, couldn’t be more different. One is all about pain and anguish while the other is about finding that first love in high school. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is not in my normal wheelhouse of books and I haven’t really read such an emotionally impacting book like All the Rage in a while. I didn’t know what to expect going into this, but overall they are both great books.

 Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli is a funny, innocent-ish, real-life drama about first love and having the courage to say, “This is me and I’m good with that!” Simon Spier is juSimonVS_quote_NEWst your average “in the closet” gay teen in the south with a lot of friends and a secret Internet relationship with another student (Blue) at his school. Together he and Blue have been using secret identities to get to know each other. Their first love romance really brings the story to a place that everyone has been before. Neither of the boys is “out,” but when another guy at school, Martin, finds out about the emails, he uses the information to blackmail Simon into helping him get closer to Simon’s friend Abby. The mystery of who Blue truly is isn’t what kept me interested. It was the sweet innocence and beauty of the character that is Simon that kept me wanting to read more. I laughed out loud and I know I snorted a time or two reading this one.

 All the Rage by Courtney Summers is an emotionally impacting book about a teen who has been raped, but nobody will believe her. Romy Grey had friends once, but after she accused the town golden boy, Kellan Turner, of raping her, everyone thinks she’s a liar. Although she is obsessed with perfect blood red fingernail polish and lipstick at all times, the kids at school torment hall the rageer to the point where she doesn’t want her body. Her only escape is a diner she works in on the outskirts of town. When her ex-best friend Penny tries to talk to Romy about another girl warning her off of Kellan, Romy can’t take the trauma of remembering that night and ends up being found on the side of the road the next morning with no memory of what happened and the words “rape me” written on her stomach. But she isn’t the only girl missing. Penny is missing as well and while Romy is found, Penny is not. Throughout the search for Penny, everyone blames Romy for taking away searchers that could have been looking for Penny. While all this is happening, Romy is just trying to find the words to make people believe her, but nobody ever does. Now she has to find out what happened during her blackout and maybe find Penny. Once I got over the obsessive need she has to paint her nails and describe every detail of the process, I was interested in the story. Emotionally draining are the words I would use to describe this book.

 I did have to force myself through All the Rage at several stages due to the repetition and the way it felt like I was reading a technical manual on nail polish, but overall it was a good read about a hard situation. It reminded me a lot of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, but Romy did speak out about it and nobody believed her.  Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda made me smile and laugh and get emotional to the point where I told coworkers they had to read it. I honestly fell in love with the character of Simon. And yes, I know he’s gay and fictional, but I haven’t fallen for a character that way since I was a teen myself.


Reviewed by Hannah Sloan, Aurora Public Library


It’s all about Teen Lit! Banned Books Week September 27- October 3

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Banned Books Week 2015 (September 27 to October 3) is highlighting books written for teens. Teen literature because it realistically confronts serious issues dominates the most challenged lists of literature.
Area Teen Librarians are participating in Banned Books by displays and programs. At the Oak Park Public Library Rachael Bild is having teen volunteers research why a teen book is challenged, wrapping the book in brown paper, writing the reason on the cover and promoting “Blind Date with a Banned Book”. Rachael has found that talking about the freedom to read with the teen volunteers has been an invigorating process.
Trixie Dantis at the Arlington Heights Library is doing the Banned Book Blind Date but as a program. Books will be wrapped and numbered with the genre and reason they were banned on the outside. Teens will get 30 seconds to “speed date” the book before passing it on to the next person. The teens will write down the numbers and in the end check out the books. Teens can’t unwrap the books unless they’re checking it out.
At Zion-Benton Public Library Dawn Abron is hosting a Don’t Read John Green Party. The teens will celebrate Banned Books Week with An Abundance of Quotes (Make Quote Art), Looking for Bufritos (Eat Fried Burritos), The Fault in Our Vinyls (Make a Phone Skin out of Vinyl) and Paper Kahoots (Play John Green Kahoot trivia). Teens will enter the Vlogteen Confessional to win John Green prizes. Four John Green titles are on the Most Challenged Banned Books List.
Niles Library teens are celebrating their freedom to read by visiting the Banned Book Display in the Teen Underground. A discarded work of literature has been shredded and the teen are guessing what title is the shredded book from a ballot list of 15 top teen challenged titles.
First of all teens are amazed that the library shredded a book. After carefully explaining that the book was water damaged and had to be discarded, the teens begin to read why each teen book has been challenged. This leads to discussion about certain books and an informal book discussion begins. The books also seem to disappear quickly from the display. What is most evident is that these titles have been read and show the effects of multiple check-outs.

Round two: Afterworlds vs. Guy in Real Life

To begin with, full disclosure, I have been a fan of Scott Westerfeld for years. Also, I have never been a gamer. Of any kind. Ever. Having said that, it’s time to delve into two novels that employ the story within a story device in very different ways.

In Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld, Darcy, the main character of the overarching story has just signed a contract for a book that she wrote during her senior year of high school. After graduation, with a huge advance in hand, she moves to New Yafterworldsork City and tries to find her way in the land of authors and publishing. Everything, from finding a cool apartment to getting her first girlfriend and gaining the support of her family seems to come easily to Darcy, which is what makes her whining and complaining so hard to take. The story that Darcy wrote, Afterworlds is told in chapters that alternate with her own. In that story, Lizzie is the lone survivor of a terrorist attack. To help her survive, she is transported to the Afterworld which begins her transition to a psychopomp. Along the way she finds love and deals with a truly evil being. While the terrorist attack will have you holding your breath while you tear through the story, the fact that Lizzie never has to deal with the horror of that experience is a missing piece to her character development.

Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff approaches the story within a story in a much different way. In Guy in Real Life, Lesh wears black, listens to metal music and has a best friend who introduces him to MMOs. One night, he accidentally knocks Svetlana, an independent minded girl who is the Dragon Master in her friends’ RPG, off her bike and thus begins a reluctant friendship/relationship. Lesh’s character develops through the everyday action of the story, as well as his through his presence in the MMO where he first begins playing as a male character only to end up creating a female character based on Svetlana. The characters of Lesh, Lana and their friends are well developed and may remind you of some of the teens that you know. Sure, some of the characters say things that aren’t necessarily respectful and thoughtful, but that rings true for many fifteen-year-olds who are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in the world.

While the intricate structure of Afterworlds is something to be commended, when it comes to characters that are relatable to the reader, Guy in Real Life has the advantage.

The Winner: Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff

guy in real life

Round One: Guy in Real Life vs. 100 Sideways Miles

Guy is Real Life features alternating first person narratives between Lesh, a trench-coat wearing punk guy who gets sucked into playing a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG, or MMO) and Svetlana, a willowy hippie girl who is the dungeon master for a tabletop role-playing game. Their lives collide quite literally when she wings him while on her bicycle, and they both expect that will be their last interaction.

After he’s grounded for the shenanigans that led him to be in the path of Svetlana’s bicycle, Lesh’s friend convinces him to sign up for a MMO. Half-hearted about playing an orc with his friend, Lesh remembers the hot girl he’d run into and creates a second character that looks like her and uses a variant of her name.guy in real life

Their lives intertwine as they find themselves in the same lunch period, and as Lesh gets to know her, he realizes how different she is than the idealized character he’d made on the game, but he also realizes that he likes the experience of imagining himself in a woman’s role, and he likes the attention he gets from the other gamers. His reconciling his attraction to the real girl and his exploration into who girls get to be in this culture is by far the most interesting aspect of the book.

Their voices are fairly distinct and authentic, definitely a high point. It’s not a fast-paced book, but the alternating narratives help it move along. The exploration of gender roles and expectations makes this one worth a second look. Though Lesh is not gay (though he wonders briefly about it) and he’s not becoming a transvestite (though he wonders a little more about that), he still confronts some of the plusses and minuses of being labeled a “girl” in this culture, and he comes out a different person because of it.

One of the fallacies of the book is that there’s not a lot chances for social overlap between Svetlana and Lesh before they make an effort, but I don’t think that’s true. I am a gamer, and most of the gamers I know who play tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons also enjoy computer and console gaming. I also know a fair number of gamers who were or are into grunge, punk, and all things gothic. I suppose some people make anything into a social distinction, but this is something that doesn’t match up to my experience of the subculture at all. It lessened my enjoyment of the book, but I think its handling of other issues more than makes up for it.

For 100 Sideways Miles, my first recommendation to anyone even thinking about reading it is to skip the front cover flap. Over 50% of the events listed in the hook on the front flap don’t happen until after page 200, and it doesn’t do justice the book’s strengths. The book is light on plot with not much to write in a traditional summary, rather the story is about self-discovery and coming of age in a hundred little ways, often with a hilarious edge to it.

Flynn is epileptic as the result of an injury he sustained while he was seven, and though he’s recovered well, he feels like the epilepsy limits how those around him see him, particularly his father. Flynn’s father is a misanthropic author who had one hugely successful book: an apocalyptic science fiction featuring characters that are very much taken from Flynn’s life after the accident. The publicity that the book generated leaves Flynn feeling trapped within that portrayal. The bulk of the action is the everyday progression of incidents that leads Flynn to discover that he’s not limited by what people think of him, that he’s more than how he’s portrayed in his father’s book, and tha100 sideways milest his future is his to decide.

The characters are a delight. Flynn’s best friend is the most inappropriate guy in their class (there’s one in every class) and provides most of the humor and profanity in the book. Flynn’s love interest, Julia, has her own quirks and issues that are portrayed well. Flynn’s father was my favorite character from the book – he has his own understated humor, and most interestingly, he had his own issues about coming to terms with Flynn’s disability. Flynn himself is a compelling narrator. He’s a fairly literal guy, which it is suggested is a side effect of the accident, but Smith did not get most of the other details of epilepsy right. Flynn does a lot of things that an epileptic really should not do. The most glaring example is the several times that Flynn swimming is a plot point. It seems like Smith was selective about what aspects of the disorder that he wanted to include, and they only crop up in the plot when it’s convenient, disappearing the rest of the time into a generic feeling of not belonging.

At the start of the book, Smith writes in a more stream of consciousness narrative, with many tangents and side scenes that all eventually do add up to a point. While being more true to actual trains of thought and courses of conversations, it was a little disconcerting. Making it an even more questionable stylistic choice, the narration style only lasted a few chapters before becoming much more linear for the rest of the book.  It might have been more of a plus if he had been more deliberate with it; as it is, it seems like a half-hearted stunt to get attention early on in the book.

So, the verdict: They both have strong characters and voices. They both have plausible enough realistic fiction plots. Both have some sexual sparks but deliberate choices for no actual sex. Both have a sense of humor without being just a funny book. 100 Sideways Miles, however, wishes it was Catcher in the Rye and falls short, while Guy in Real Life at least brings up interesting and timely questions of masculinity and how men are and are not allowed to express themselves in our society.

Guy in Real Life, For the Win!

Round one: For Art’s Sake! I’ll Give You the Sun vs. The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

I’ll Give You the Sun details the alternating perspectives of artistic fraternal twins, Noah and Jude, and their individual exploration of identity, loss and love. Each twin struggles with their anguished responses to the same horrific event that altered the trajectory of their lives. This accident complicates their relationship with art, with each other and leaves a smear of guilt across the canvases of their lives. Additionally, both Noah and Jude struggle with their sexuality; Noah’s unfolding love sti'll give you the sunory and his thoughts and anxieties about being gay stand in contrast to Jude’s attempts to not be that girl.

Noah’s perspectives are told when he is 13 going on 14. He is on the cusp of adolescence and the world seems to be a gaping universe that he can fill with his artistic vision. Yet, he struggles intensely with the duality of his identity. Noah is bullied and doesn’t have many close friends outside of his sister, Jude, and his mom. His inner world is where the magic lies. Noah sees the world in brilliant colors and magical scenes that burst from his imaginative space. He is also beginning to realize that he is gay and does not know how to navigate this landscape. He and Jude are close, almost claustrophobic in their oneness with each other, but as things progress, we see parts of them start to separate and change.

Jude is the superstitious sculptor; she builds magnificent creations from sand, clay and stone. Her storyline takes place when she is 16. Much has changed since they were 13, including a horrible accident that essentially changed the twins forever. Jude hides her fear behind a belief in her dead Grandma Sweetwine’s “bible,” a collection of random passages detailing how to ward off bad vibes, spirits, or any other nefarious influences. Her post-accident journey has diverged dramatically from Noah’s, and she is on her own- the twins are scarred and bitter, alone and ridden with guilt. After the accident, both Noah and Jude’s ability to express themselves artistically has come to a complete halt. Noah seems to reject any artistic inclination and Jude, while studying at a local prestigious art school, cannot seem to push past the guilt and move into a space of artistic creation. However, it seems that the fates kept one link between them intact, and through a series of discoveries and coincidences, Noah and Jude begin to embrace their abandoned identities and break down barriers by coming clean with one another.

I’ll Give You the Sun is a stunning story about Noah and Jude’s struggle to find wholeness, to be something more than one half of a set of twins. It is a true coming-of-age story since their experiences have brought them through seeing the world as something to be broken up and divided between them to realizing the boundless possibilities and often uncomfortable revelations about humanity and our own evolving identities. I feel like I could write so many more paragraphs about the beauty and magnificence of this novel, but I will move forward!

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy is a quick-witted, perfectly subversive novel about four friends, Ethan, Luke, Jackson, and Elizabeth (and the gerbil, of course), who band together to rid their school of a reality TV show that has infiltrated their institution. The four friends attend Selwyn Academy, a prestigious art school that has been chosen by Hollywood hotshots as the setting for a reality television show, For Art’s Sake. The students chosen to compete on the show must compete in a series of challenges for the chancevigilante poets of selwyn academy to win a $100,000 scholarship to any art school of their choice, and title of “America’s Best Teen Artist.” For this reason, many of the competitors (and faculty) will do anything to maintain their status quo within the show. However, Ethan and his friends begin to realize that the show’s presence has changed the entire atmosphere of Selwyn. Before, students would discuss Prokofiev and opera in the hallways of Selwyn. Now, all subject of conversation revolves around the fabricated drama coming from reality television.

Naturally, a revolution must take place. The teens use the styling of poet Ezra Pound to create their own Cantos, a self-published poem ridiculing the show and admonishing the student body to regain their artistic pride and prestige. The plan encounters some hitches, friendships are betrayed, and Ethan must step out of Luke’s shadow and find his voice in the “uprising.”

At first, it took me a few pages to get used to the rapid-fire inner monologue of Ethan’s introductions. I soon found the rhythm and became quickly enamored with each character. Author Kate Hattemer did a fantastic job of maintaining their individual voices and personalities, and I seriously fell in love with little Baconnaise, the gerbil. While reading Vigilante Poets, I felt as though I was a co-conspirator in writing the Contracantos– that the reader is a part of the subversive movement against the reality TV show. Overall, choosing one winner was genuinely difficult!

Verdict: Both of these novels discuss the struggle to discover your identity in an often chaotic, unpredictable world. Sometimes it is tragedy and loss that forces us to search ourselves, other times it is the need for truth in the midst of change. Both of these books have the potential to serve as a mirror for the lives of teens, and each author creates characters that are wildly memorable and unique. I have to go with my initial reaction on this one and choose I’ll Give You the Sun as the winner. My only complaint was that its near-perfect ending was anything short of miraculous. However, the journey was so beautiful and intense that I feel compelled to choose this novel. Jandy Nelson weaves art- its creation, its power, and its impact on our identity- as the central theme and uses it to create, break and restore her characters. Their journey from adolescence into young adults shows the importance of discovering yourself and confronting your demons, so to speak. Finally, I’ll Give You the Sun reminds us that real life is full of magic.

Winner: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Round one: Through the Woods vs Afterworlds

When I first received the two titles I was to read, I couldn’t help but wonder how –if at all- they might relate to each other. One was a graphic novel collection of short stories, the other a hefty tome (containing two stories for the price of one) that might do double-duty as gym equipment or a barricade in the (inevitable) zombie apocalypse. But I plunged in with an open mind and found that, besides getting more than one story out of each, both titles had their fair share of intense moments that left me wanting to know more but gleefully afraid to turn the page for fear of what I’d find.through the woods

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll brings together a collection of spine-tingling stories that harken back to the macabre fairy tales of the pre-Disney long ago. Nestled within the pages are five short horror stories, related by the terror invoked in us by things that go bump in the night and the horrific possibilities of gnarled and twisted woods: a father who disappears within them, leaving his three daughters to survive on their own; a woman chased into them so that she may avoid the terrors of her home; a brother killed within them out of jealousy; a thoughtless joke, discussed inside them, turned haunting; and a nesting place for the creatures of your nightmares. Borrowing hints and elements from such classics as Bluebeard and Little Red Riding Hood, Carroll rather deftly combines vintage images with modern stories that have a feeling of timelessness. As I was working my way through the stories, I was filled with an unending sense of dread and despair; in my heart of hearts, I knew, as in old-school fairy tales, there would be no happy endings within these pages. The imagery itself is at times striking with its highly contrasting black and white with streaks of red – weaving blood and gore throughout the stories- while managing to effectively use soft, smoky styles to contrast with the sharpness of the violence. With all that said, if there is a weakness to be found in this collection, it was that I had to read it in multiple sittings to avoid the feeling of sameness and the occasional predictability of the stories.

The story told in Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds is two-fold: first there’s the story of Darcy Patel, a newly-signed 18 year-old author desperate to prove herself as a “real” writer in New York City, and then there is the story –as written by Darcy for NaNoWriMo- of Lizzie Scofield, the 17 year-old lone survivor of a terrorist attack. After Lizzie wills herself to appear dead in order to escape execution by the terrorists, she finds herself crossed over to the underworld where she meets the smoking hot Yamaraj and begins her transformation into a psychopomp. Did you get all that? Good. The two stories are artfully woven together by Westerfeld, told in alternating chapters that do a surprisingly good job of complementing each other rather than clashing the way one might expect such different stories to do. Coming in at a total of 599 pages, Afterworlds both looks and feels daunting until you start reading it; once you’re in, the pages practically turn themselves in this realistic meets paranormal romance YA novel. Not to be outdone by Through the Woods, Afterworlds has at least a few scenes that are sure to make even the most stoic reader think twice about dangling body parts over the edge of their bed at night. Darcy’s insecurity can be a bit much at times and Lizzie’s relationship with Yamaraj comes across as suffering from an acute case of insta-love, but when all is said and done, I could not stop reading because I had to know how things would resolve themselves, particularly where Lizzie was involved.

Call it a case of growing up in an era of “Happily ever after”s, but ultimately, it was the moments of happiness in Afterworlds that won me over. The unwavering, leaden dread that sat heavy in the pit of my stomach while reading Through the Woods simply did not provide enough variety and thus did not evoke a strong range of emotions or reactions within me. The highs and lows, the build-up of suspense and the quiet relief of crises averted in Afterworlds made it seem as though it literally and figuratively has more to offer.

Winner: Afterworlds by Scott Westefeld


Round one: Noggin vs. Egg & Spoon

Noggin by John Corey Whaley is a contemporary science fiction novel about Travis Ray Coates, who WAS dying of cancer. At age 16, Travis knows that his cancer is terminal. He doesn’t have much time, but when he is approached by Dr. Lloyd Saranson of the Saranson Center for Life Preservation, he is given an option. He can have his head cryogenically frozen until a time that it can be attached to a donor body. No one is sure it will work, until 5 years later, when Travis is “reanimated”. Travis is now a healthy 16 year old, but his friends and family have progressed through their 5 years. Nothing has changed for Travis, so he now has to figure out how to blend his 16 year old person into a world where everyone else has changed.Egg and Spoon

Noggin is a quirky take on life and relationships. It was a very readable book, but had a few issues. Although teens may be able to relate to the relationship woes in the novel, the main character Travis is a bit overly obsessive when it comes to Cate. The characters evolve in most ways and there are both funny and touching moments

When paths cross, strange things can happen. In Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire, the lives of Elena Rudina a peasant girl and Ekaterina Ivanovna de Robichaux a wealthy girl intermix when Ekaterina’s (Cat) train is delayed on the way to meet the Tsar’s godson. Cat is bringing a Faberge Egg to the Tsar as a gift, but when she shows it to Elena, she drops it off the train. As she goes after the egg, the train moves on with Elena in it. The two then have to figure out how to get back to their own lives and stories with mistaken identities. Their journeys involve the Russian folk tales of Baba Yaga, The Firebird and the Ice dragon come to life. Unbeknownst to them, this journey helps them save all of Russia.

Egg & Spoon is part historical fiction, part fairy tale, part fantasy and part confusing. The story and imagery is amazing, but the author has a tendency to assume that the reader is already knowledgeable about the Russian folktales as well as writing at a very high comprehension level.

Winner: Noggin by John Corey Whaley