Welcome to my blog about books and the classroom.
A teacher's opinions on YA literature and the state of public education in America.

The Night She Disappeared by April Henry

Have you ever pondered the power of one moment? Ever looked back on what you perceived as an inconvenience—missing the subway, taking a wrong turn, losing your seat on a flight—and wondered if it somehow altered the course of your life? 

It was a Wednesday night, a night when Gabie usually delivered for Pete’s Pizza. On this day, however, she had switched shifts with Kayla. So, it was Kayla who delivered the three pizzas to a fake address on some dark and isolated highway. But the man who placed the order had asked for the girl in the Mini Cooper—Gabie’s car. If she hadn’t have switched shifts, it would have been her whose DNA was all that was left behind on that riverbank in Oregon.
The knowledge of this detail haunts Gabie throughout the two weeks after Kayla goes missing. The man who targeted her could come back for her at any time. Living in constant fear and guilt, Gabie continues working at Pete’s Pizza just to keep busy, and she finds an ally and best friend in her coworker Drew, the quiet and misunderstood boy who occasionally sold a joint out the restaurant before Kayla’s disappearance. They find that they have more in common than they realized, and if it wasn’t for the extenuating circumstances which had forced them into companionship, they might have become friends anyway.Gabie and Drew constantly go over the details of that Wednesday night and try to recall something—anything—they might have missed. Somewhere in that process two things happen: 1.) Gabie sees Kayla in her dreams and knows she isn’t dead, and 2.) Gabie falls for Drew, whether out of conditional accident or genuine attraction, she can’t tell at first. There really is no time to find out who they are outside of Kayla’s disappearance because the more time they spend together, the more they think of her. When the rest of the town considers Kayla to be dead—at the hands of a local meth addict whose truck was seen in the vicinity of her disappearance—Gabie continues to insist that the police haven’t caught the real perpetrator yet.

Finally, at Kayla’s “funeral” an officer confronts Gabi with an ultimatum: either stop insisting that Kayla is alive, and thus causing unnecessary emotional distress to Kayla’s family, or watch as Drew’s meth-addict mom goes to jail. Torn between what she thinks is real about Kayla and what she knows is real about Drew’s situation, Gabie tries to put aside her whims.

Only she can’t do it. And with the ending turn of events, it’s a really good thing she can’t.
April Henry weaves as tight a plot, and just as compelling, as any C.S.I.-esque thriller. Indeed, a reader could probably read this book in about the same amount of time because the pages start turning themselves. Perspective is what struck me most in the framework of Henry’s text. Instead of a continuous, omniscient narrative, The Night She Disappeared offers two protagonists, several prominent voices (including that of the killer—creepy!), a wide swath of point-of-views, and chronological epistolary snippets that heighten the details and connect the images that bring the picture to completion. And this is so perfect because it reminds all readers—teens and adults—that there is never just one side to any story.
Eerily reminiscent, at least for me and probably more for adults than for teens, of the 1980’s Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, April Henry’s novel has the same ingredients to build a cult fan base as the movie did in the early 90’s. In short, April Henry nailed it. Proof? Not only did I devour this novel in one sitting, but I did it with a toddler biting on my toes and the Wiggles playing on repeat.


Ban This Blog

Ban This Blog, a guest post
by Tom Leveen
I read the most deplorable collection of stories the other day.
In one, the protagonist, Dave, is a peeping tom who, in a fit of immature jealousy, secretly arranges for a girl’s husband to get killed so he can move in on her. This, after having essentially spied on her in the bathroom. Another story is about one brother who kills another out of nothing more than jealousy because his brother is better at his job.
Since that’s not the kind of thing I’d want my own kid to read, I picked up another YA story instead. Lo and behold, in that one, I swear to you: the group of boys in the story couldn’t stop talking about sex, the parents were riotous, bloodthirsty lawbreakers, and the whole story culminated in the suicide of a fourteen year old girl and her boyfriend/secret husband. (Yeah, a priest actually consented to marry two underage teens! Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!)
Undeterred in my quest to find good, clean, pure YA literature, I finally stumbled onto a priceless little gem of a novel wherein the protagonist, a fifteen-year-old girl, struggles to overcome depression through art. Ah, finally. A story no good parent could possibly have a problem with.
Now, let’s back up:
Parents, I presume you know which two stories I’m referring to at the top. Yes? They are King David (2 Samuel, chapter 11), Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) and Romeo and Juliet by some British dude named Bill Shakespeare. Immoral drivel, all of these stories, correct? I mean, you have to agree with that if you’re going to challenge stories like those found in any given R.L. Stine novel. Or, heaven help us, A Wrinkle in Time.
(Yeah. A Wrinkle in Time. I know, right?)
“But that’s not the whole story!” I can hear someone shouting, firebrand in hand.
Neither is date rape the whole story of Speak—a story about a girl who uses art to combat depression. Neither is gang violence the whole story of The Outsiders, or boobs the whole story of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Why…why on earth would Bridge to Terabithia land on the ALA Top 100 Banned/Challenged books (http://www.ala.org/advocacy/banned/frequentlychallenged/challengedbydecade/2000_2009) two full decades running? Or one of my other personal favorites, Cut, by Patricia McCormick? Books that openly and honestly discuss extraordinarily difficult situations that real kids have real problems with seem first to get challenged, and for the life of me, I don’t know why.
Or maybe I do:
Challenging a book is easier.
Challenging a book reveals laziness. How? Because it’s easier to shove a book off a shelf than to have not one, not two, but as many conversations as needed with one’s own children.
Isn’t it.
Frankly, I sincerely doubt that most people signing on to book challenges have fully read the book in question. In fact, a wonderful (possibly out of print) middle grade novel calledMaudie and Me and the Dirty Book by Betty Miles illustrates this truism perfectly. (Well worth picking up. And challenging. It says PENIS!)
I can tell you right now as a parent, I’ve read a couple of YA novels that I’d just as soon my son never read, because yes: they trivialized important topics like sex, drugs, or drinking. But, so help me, if my kid reads a book and decides afterward to do any of those things as a result…who’s “bad” is that?
Uh, mine.
For too many adolescents, books are the only friends or confidantes they have. You take a novel like Cut, which as I recall contains no: profanity, drug use, sex, or law breaking of any kind. It’s a revealing look at self-injury, a symptom of much greater issues that many, many adolescents struggle with. I challenge anyone to show me the passages in which McCormick is somehow encouraging self-abuse. It’s not there! It’s a book about a girl who’s hurting and who ultimately seeks help.
I think a lot of challenged books are challenged because they hold the mirror up to nature. Those who don’t like what they see reach for the school board’s email addresses rather than assessing what the author was actually conveying, and—again—talking about those issues with their kids.
My god, people…we are giving you a perfect chance to talk with your adolescents! Take it!
Listen: I am friends with quite a few young adult authors. Some are “edgy” like myself, whatever that means…although why the story of a boy who learns how to trust in himself and his friends is edgy, I don’t know (Out of the Pocket by Bill Konigsberg). Some of their books more “tame,” with fantastic writing, characters, and plots, but without any sex, drugs, or rock and roll.
Every single one of us takes what we do very seriously.
Every one of us respects and admires teens. Some are parents of teens. Some will be soon, or eventually. But I have not yet met a YA author who fills a book with “gratuitous” anything. It all has meaning, it all has purpose, and none of it is designed or intended to encourage behaviors in teens that could hurt them. None. (Are there gratuitous authors out there? Yes. One scene in one book comes to mind that I feel, as an author and a parent, had no real redeeming value whatsoever. But once again, it’s on me to talk to my kid about it.)
Instead of rushing to ban a book, use it to open a door maybe you thought was long closed. It’s not. There are countless resources out there to help you out. Start by asking the English teachers. I promise they’ll bend over backwards to get you the resources you need. How much trouble might we all save if all us parents were to ask our kids, “What do you think about this book?”
I dunno. Let’s find out.
Finally, I have one request of those who would challenge and ban books: Don’t stop! As a purveyor of smut myself, I can tell you right now, it would be a total boon to my career if you’d raise a stink over my books. Nothing guarantees books sales like a good banning. Please, go read my novel Party: Teens scream racial epithets and have sex and drink! ReadZero: Teens have sex in cars and reference gay make-outs! Read manicpixiedreamgirl: More sex! Ban, ban, ban! And just wait till Sick comes out in October 2013: Riots, cussing, and death, death, DEATH!
Or, if you really want these books to disappear off shelves, keep mum. Let the market decide. Because the instant a book banner starts making a fuss, you can guarantee those grubby little teen fingers will be all over it.

Interview with Sarah Dessen

It’s so awesome to be revamping my blog with none other than Sarah Dessen! Sarah, thank you so much for agreeing to a quick interview about your latest book What Happened to Goodbye. And congratulations on your eleventh book The Moon and More, which is schedule to come out this June! (Readers, save the date.)
I just have a few questions for you. If you’re ready, here they are.
1.) What’s your first step in writing a new book? I would imagine after as many as you’ve written, that you have some kind of ritual.
Usually when I finish the draft of a book, I’m sure I’ll never write another one. I’m just that tired and sick of myself. But then after I take a month or so off, watch a lot of Bravo and read, another idea starts percolating. It usually begins with the narrator’s name, then some idea that intrigues me about her life or situation. I try to ignore it as long as I can, because I know when I start writing, I’ll be right back into it, every single day. But eventually, I just have to. It’s a compulsion!
2.) If you could bring any two of your main characters together for a story, which two would it be? Why?
I’d love to write about Remy from THIS LULLABY again. I just had so much fun with her, because she’s so different from me. As far as who I’d put with her, I’d love to see how she’d interact with Auden from ALONG FOR THE RIDE. They’re both very smart about a lot of things, but clueless when it comes to others. It would never be dull, that’s for sure.
3.) Since my name is weird—Risha—I’m always interested in other odd names. What made you choose Mclean for GOODBYE?
Mclean is the last name of some of my family, and I also knew a guy named Mclean when I was in high school. I just have always liked it and thought it was cool sounding, especially for a girl. When I was younger I always wished I had a more exotic name—although I really like Sarah now. Then, though, I wanted to be a Veronica or a Stephania, something fancy. I guess I live vicariously through the girls in my books.
4.) The whole world loves your writing, but as an author, there have to be a few reader contacts that have stuck in your mind. Can you tell us the best response you’ve gotten for GOODBYE? What made it stand out to you?
I can’t think of one specifically for WHAT HAPPENED TO GOODBYE, but on the whole the responses that mean the most are when girls tell me, “Your books got me through high school.” That is the biggest praise I can imagine, because reading saved me when I was that age. I just felt so alone sometimes, like no one understood, and often it was only in a book that I found comfort. Imagining that my books could serve as solace for someone in the same place just makes me so, so happy.
5.) I think a possible theme of GOODBYE is that going through adversity will strengthen who you are, if you’ll let it. When you you sat down to write this story, did you have themes in mind, or did they just come out organically as your characters took shape?
I just loved the idea of someone who had become accustomed to shedding their identity like a skin and starting over, never having to deal with any long-term relationships, who suddenly had to do just that. I went to school with the same people from kindergarten to senior year of high school: I always wished I could suddenly change and be someone else. So I liked exploring both sides of that, what might be great about it and what would happen when it wasn’t possible anymore and you had to just be yourself, for better or for worse.
Quick round of favorites:

Winter sport? Ice skating! I stink at it, but love to watch it on TV.
Candy bar? I am a sucker for dark chocolate with almonds.
Wine? Chardonnay in summer, Cab in winter.
Quote? “Everything will look better in the morning.” —My mom
Brand of jeans? Citizens of Humanity or Sevens. Love them both!

What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

Mclean Sweet’s dad, Gus, takes a traveling job to do what he does best: fix failing restaurants. What he doesn’t know—what no one knows—is that Mclean is more broken than any business he’s commissioned to fix. After her mom cheated on her dad with the Defreise head basketball coach, Mclean’s life is about as familiar as each new town they wind up in. So, every time they move, Mclean tries on a new alias and attempts to find herself in the wake of life’s new dynamic. When they move to Lakeview, however, something crazy happens: she accidentally tells the truth, revealing to her new neighbor, Dave Wade, that she is Mclean. But it isn’t a comfort; it’s like name is nakedly transparent. Embarrassed of her mother’s infidelity, Mclean struggles to protect the rest of her identity so that her dad won’t be hurt all over again when people bring up what happened.
Protecting her father is also why Mclean won’t make up with her mother. She avoids her phone calls and video chats because a.) she isn’t ready to make nice, and b.) it might hurt her dad too much to see her acting like everything is okay—like it’s normal to have darling twin siblings spawned from an illicit affair; like it’s normal to laugh with the mother who destroyed everything else in your universe. But she can’t forever avoid the family vacation her mom has planned. Mclean finally tells her dad that she needs to go on a trip with her mom and new family. He isn’t hurt, but Mclean still feels guilty—so guilty and confused that the vacation is a chore.
The new, rich life her mom has stumbled into is far from the relaxed and low-key vacations her “real” family used to take at that same beach. In the height of her guilt and confusion—almost enjoying the vacation yet refusing to—she overhears something that makes all the difference in her choice to forgive her mom and move on. Mclean rushes away from the beach house without permission and meets Dave who, despite the drama of having found all Mclean’s sharply contrasting personas online, helps her makes sense of it all. When her parents finally find her at the hotel where they used to stay, Mclean tells them everything that she—not Eliza, Lizbet, or Beth—feels, leaving the reader with a satisfying climax. In the sad-but-real resolution and denouement, Maclean realizes there is nothing she can do to change the past, but she can embrace who she is for now and change her approach to the future.
What strikes me most about this book is the cadence. Sarah’s words leave a lull in your head that you don’t realize is there until you stop reading. What Happened to Goodbye is no less beautiful and refreshing, suspenseful and foreboding, peaceful and heartbreaking than the ocean. Now that the book is finished, I kind of want to hold a seashell to my ears.
Beyond its organic and aesthetic appeal, this book makes me happy because it gives life and a voice to an often-marginalized group of readers: “normal” kids who are suffering from their parents’ decisions. So many teenagers escape into books rooted in fantasy, and that’s okay—I’ve read books just to escape before. But I think that’s because if kids can’t find themselves in books, they at least find who they want to be. It’s a form of escapism. What Happened to Goodbye is so real in an everyday sense that it speak to those kids who can’t find their stories in the paranormal or the romantic; it mirrors the internal conflict of those who are devastated and embarrassed by divorce, affairs, and watching their parents date and remarry again. It kind of makes you wonder if this has anything to do with Sarah D’s ridiculous fan base—you know, that she has this way of speaking to people? 🙂
Parents and teenagers alike should read this book. It’s a flawlessly real look at the ripples of our actions and how those ripples turn to waves, sometimes drowning who we are.

Interview with Sonya Sones

I’ve had this interview for a while, but with the perils of pregnancy, I’ve just been too sick to post. But I’m back, and I’m thrilled to be getting the ball rolling with one of my favorites: Sonya Sones! Her books What My Mother Doesn’t Know and What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know are books that I routinely offer in literature circles, and I know first-hand what they mean to kids. That’s why I’m super-thrilled to feature this interview on my blog. So thanks, Sonya, for giving me some of your time (time in which you should have been writing, right?).

Here we go:

When and why did you begin writing books for teens?
I wrote my first book for teens in 1999. I had tried to write books for younger children (when my children were younger) but didn’t get good enough to be published until my children were teens. And that was when I discovered that I was really much more comfortable writing in the voice of a teen.

How often have you faced censorship and how have you dealt with it?

I have faced censorship a LOT. In fact, my book WHAT MY MOTHER DOESN’T KNOW was on the American Library Association’s list of the Top Ten Most Banned Books in 2004, 2005, and 2010! It was also on the ALA’s list of the Top 100 Most Banned Books of the Decade! I love it when my book gets on those lists, because that means that I often get asked to speak about why books shouldn’t be banned.

When I hear that my book is being challenged, I contact the school or library where the challenge is being made, and I offer to defend my book with a written statement. Of course, it never helps, because the people who ban books are not very smart, and it’s darned near impossible to change their minds. But at least I get to publicly make a case for why books shouldn’t be banned, and hopefully my words reach some children and teenagers, who are still young enough to be open to hearing them.

In six words, would you tell us why you write YA?

I have never really grown up.

What’s been your biggest struggle as a writer?

Getting distracted by the internet! In fact, there is even a poem about that in my brand new novel in verse, THE HUNCHBACK OF NEIMAN MARCUS. It’s my first novel in verse for grownups. But there is a 17-year-old girl in the story, so I’m hoping that teens and their mothers will both like it. You can read about it here: http://www.sonyasones.com/books/hunchback/a_syn_book.html.

And here is that poem I just mentioned about being distracted by the internet. Holly is a writer, way behind on her deadline for a book:

New Year’s Resolution

I, Holly Miller, hereby swear

that I will never again

allow myself to be lured away

from my writing

by clicking

on those hideous headlines

that litter my computer screen

like landmines waiting to be stepped on.

So I am not going to click

on the article about the nasty insults

that Anderson Cooper slung at a celebrity mom

that prompted her to lash out.

Though I’m dying to know

which celebrity mom it was

and exactly what she and Anderson

said to each other.

And I am not

going to click on the article

about the location

of America’s greatest bathroom


apparently was found

when “Pros Flushed Far and Wide

to Find the Best Spot to Tinkle”).

And even though

I do remember Ann-Margret

and I’m yearning to see

how she looks at sixty-seven,

I am not

going to click on the link.

I am not!

I am NOT!


She looks good…

This was such a fun, and long-awaited, interview. Thanks so much, Sonya, for agreeing to interview at For the Love of YA, for being a champion of YA literature, and for giving us a piece from your newest book The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus, which I am on my way to pick up this weekend. See you around the writing world!