Friday, November 23, 2018

Hey, Kiddo - Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Title: Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction
Author: Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Publisher: Graphix (Scholastic), 2018 (Paperback)
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Graphic Novel; Nonfiction
Started: November 20, 2018
Finished: November 21, 2018

From the back cover:

In preschool, Jarrett Krosoczka's teacher asked him to draw his family with a mommy and a daddy. But Jarrett's family was much, much more complicated than that. His mom was an addict, in and out of rehab and in and out of Jarrett's life. His father was a mystery - Jarrett didn't know where to find him, or even what his name was. Jarrett was living with his grandparents - two very brash, very loving, very opinionated people who had thought they were through with raising children...until Jarrett came along.

Now Jarrett's a teenager. He's gone through his childhood trying to make his non-normal life as normal as possible, finding a way to express himself through art despite the fact that he's grown up in a house where many things remain unsaid. It's only when he's old enough to to have his driver's license that Jarrett can begin to piece together the truth of his family - reckoning with his mother, tracking down his father, and finding his own identity.

Hey, Kiddo is a profoundly important memoir about growing up in a family as it grapples with addiction, finding the people who help you get through, and the art that helps you survive.

When I read the write-up for this months ago, I knew I had to read it. This is one of those really touching stories about a kid overcoming some immensely adverse circumstances, and the fact that this is a memoir just makes it all the more remarkable.

Jarrett begins the book by outlining the history of his mother's family, starting with his grandparents' first meeting in high school. As he progresses through the decades, he outlines his mother's early troubled history, his own birth and early childhood, and the factors that lead to him living with his grandparents.

The author does a wonderful job of conveying exactly how his mother's addiction affected him growing up. Though he admits as an adult he came to understand her limitations and that she did in fact love him, it doesn't necessarily lessen the impact of that trauma during his formative years. I also appreciate how he mentions in the afterword that therapy helped him tremendously as an adult and how it would have been beneficial during his youth, but therapy just wasn't as accepted or commonplace during the 80s and early 90s like it is now.

I also like how he subtly works in how his grandmother's drinking affected the family, beyond the fact that addiction tends to run in families. Even though his grandmother loved him too, that addiction impacted his life in different ways than his mother's, his grandmother being more emotionally or verbally abusive rather than neglectful like his mother. It showcases that addiction can still persist in what appears to be stable, loving fixtures.

You can tell this piece was cathartic for the author to create, it has this sense of synthesizing this lived experience as an adult and trying to package it in a way that could help kids today that he wished he had as a child. The little details like the letters, photos, and drawings all help reinforce the reality of the experience (not to mention the fact that the author managed a ton of stuff from his childhood years).

This memoir is truly heartfelt and can be a story of hope for so many who are in similar circumstances. This is a volume that should be in every high school library.

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover's much brighter in terms of colour than the artwork inside (the author has a nice note at the end explaining the reasons behind that), but the orange tones work well against the bright blue pineapple wallpaper behind Jarrett (there's a note about the symbolism of that as well).

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Dear Evan Hansen - Val Emmich, Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

Title: Dear Evan Hansen
Author: Val Emmich, Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Publisher: Poppy (Little, Brown and Company), 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 358 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: November 12, 2018
Finished: November 19, 2018

From the inside cover:

Dear Evan Hansen,
Today is going to be an amazing day, and here's why...

When a letter that was never meant to be seen draws high school senior Evan Hansen into a family's grief over the loss of their son, Evan is given the chance of a lifetime: to belong. He just has to pretend that the notoriously troubled Connor Murphy was his secret best friend.

Suddenly, Evan isn't invisible anymore - even to the girl of his dreams. And Connor Murphy's parents have taken him in like their own, desperate to know more about their enigmatic son from his "closest friend." As Evan gets pulled deeper into the family's swirl of anger, regret, and confusion, he knows that what he's doing can't be right, but if he's helping people. how wrong can it be?

No longer incapacitated by anxiety or hiding from the disappointment in his mother's eyes, this new Evan has a purpose. And confidence. Every day is amazing. Until everything is in danger of unraveling and he comes face-to-face with his greatest obstacle: himself.

A simple lie leads to complicated truths in this bighearted story of grief, authenticity, and the struggle to belong in an age of instant connectivity and profound isolation.

I've heard great things about the musical that this novel stems from, and not having seen it yet, I figured I may as well give the novel version a go and see if I like it. The fact that the original creators and screenwriters were a part of the novel's creation reassured me a bit as well that this would be as close to the spirit of the musical as you can get when adapting to print. Sadly, though this story has the potential to be really amazing and heartfelt (and some parts truly are), the novel's titular character just doesn't really make me that invested in him.

Evan is a severely anxious seventeen-year-old boy who is also depressed to the point of suicidal ideation. At the start of his senior year, his therapist gives him the assignment of writing letters to himself in order to try to keep a more positive outlook. After a confrontation and misunderstanding one afternoon, classmate Connor Murphy ends up with one of Evan's letters to himself. When Connor dies by suicide that night, Evan is eventually contacted by the Murphy family, asking why their loner son was writing letters to Evan. With the best of intentions to ease the suffering of a grieving family, Evan tells the Murphys that Conner and he were good friends and had been communicating in secret. With the later creation of The Connor Project, a movement to remember Connor and create awareness for mental health and suicide, Evan is thrust into the spotlight and his life as he knows it changes very quickly. However, as Evan's mother begins to enquire about the sudden changes in her son's behaviour, Evan's own guilt and anxiety over his actions begin to grow.

There are a few things about this text that I do truly enjoy. There are some lovely moments and sentiments expressed by characters about feeling isolated and disconnected from others, they allow for readers to really empathize with the characters. I also like how the effects of grief on a family are shown, especially when the person who dies has complicated relationships with the family involved. It's liberating for Zoe to say that although she misses her brother, she doesn't miss the tension in the house or the times where he would become violent towards her.

On to the parts of the novel that just didn't do it for me. Evan is a sympathetic character to a certain extent, but when his lie kept snowballing after he had multiple opportunities to correct it I really lost interest in what happened to him. There's something about lying to a grieving family in the manner that Evan did that just doesn't sit right with me. Also, the events in the conclusion just didn't seem all that realistic either, it's as if Evan gets off too easily.

I'd say this is worth the read whether you've seen the musical version of this or not, but it may fall flat for some readers as it did for me.

Thoughts on the cover:
The image of the tree, particularly the shading, is really well done; and the symbolism fits nicely with its mention in the novel.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Crush - Svetlana Chmakova

Title: Crush
Author: Svetlana Chmakova
Publisher: Yen Press, 2018 (Paperback)
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Children's Graphic Novel; Realistic Fiction
Started: November 11, 2018
Finished: November 11, 2018

From the back cover:

Jorge seems to have it all together. He's big enough that nobody really messes with him, but he's also a genuinely sweet guy with a solid, reliable group of friends. The only time he ever really feels off his game is when he crosses paths with a certain girl... But when the group dynamic among the boys starts to shift, will Jorge be able to balance what his friends expect of him with what he actually wants?

Following the overwhelming success of Awkward and Brave, Svetlana Chmakova's award-winning Berrybrook Middle School series continues with its next instalment - Crush!

This is the third instalment of a graphic novel series that I absolutely adore. Copies of these should be in every middle-grade classroom, they're very topical and address issues (sometimes difficult ones) that all preteens and young teenagers deal with at some point in their lives.

After falling in love with Awkward, and enjoying Brave just as much (if not a little more), I hoped Crush would be the same. Thankfully, the author is simply amazing and delivers yet another new story that is just as impressive as the previous two.

This third book focuses on thirteen-year-old Jorge Ruiz, first introduced in Brave. Jorge, at first glance, seems like your stereotypical jock: he's big, plays baseball, and a lot of kids are a little afraid of him. But as Jensen first realizes in Brave, Jorge is actually a nice, no-nonsense guy with a moral code who looks out for people at school.

In Crush, Jorge begins the story with a solid group of friends that are very similar to him. When his friend Garrett begins mingling with a group of kids that behave in ways Jorge detests, he has to decide whether he is going to stay true to his own moral code or emulate what the other group is doing. Amidst all of this, the athletics club that Jorge is a part of is organizing a fundraiser ball, and Jorge himself develops a crush on fellow classmate Jazmine. So Jorge not only has to balance school, homework, baseball practice, and all the activities he has to help out with for the ball; he also has to juggle relationship drama on top of all that.

I really enjoy how the author manages to showcase both male and female characters throughout this series to create stories that appeal equally to boys and girls. Though one character does tend to be the main focus in each story, readers are introduced to several other students as secondary characters throughout each book that they will be able to see themselves reflected in at least a couple. The fact that this book focuses on friendship and budding romantic relationships but is from a male point of view is amazing in my opinion, just because it's rare to see a middle-grade story about those themes that doesn't come from a female main character.

I also like how the author focuses on the interactions of new clubs with each story, this time looking at the athletics club and the drama club. This subtly shows young readers that they can indeed be friends with all kinds of kids, and that they aren't limited to hanging out with those who share every single interest with them.

I really appreciate that the author included the issue of consent in this story. Characters of both sexes actually ask permission if they can kiss each other, and characters in turn give clear answers. This is really a wonderful example to set for the younger generation, it's presented as the default way to be respectful.

I also appreciate how, through Jorge, the author relates the idea that the people you choose to hang out with influence how you are perceived by others. Jorge dislikes James and his buddies because they're disrespectful jerks to everyone else, and loses a degree of respect for his friend Garrett when he starts hanging out with them.

This instalment, like the other two, showcases diversity across gender, race, cultural background, religion, body type, etc. I'm amazed at the different ways readers will see themselves reflected throughout this series.

I can't recommend this series enough. If you've got a preteen/teenager at home that you need to buy books for or teach that age level, just go out and buy these, you won't be disappointed.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the continuity from the first and second covers. Jorge and Jazmine are in full colour while Jorge's friends are in lighter monochrome, and the subtle blush marks on Jorge's cheeks are just too stinking cute.