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Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Being a teenage girl is rough. Being a teenage girl trapped on an island while a mysterious illness transforms you and your friends into strange, animal-human hybrids and destroys the wilderness around you? Well, that’s a hardship I’ll probably never be able to relate to. And that’s what the characters in WILDER GIRLS have to deal with.

Hetty, Byatt, and Reese are three friends bound together by the strange situation they’re in. They attend the Raxter School for Girls. Except classes aren’t really in session. A sickness has taken over the school. Almost all the adults have died, except for two of the younger faculty, Miss Welch and the Headmistress. These two keep the girls in order, helping them learn survival skills and manage their meager supplies.

The illness on the island causes the girls go through painful and unpredictable transformations. Hetty’s right eye fused shut. Reese has a silver-scaled claw for a hand and glowing hair. Byatt grew a second spine. Other girls aren’t so lucky; sometimes, the transformations are too much for their bodies to handle.

Hetty is recruited to the team of girls responsible for bringing supplies from the Navy drop-off back to the school. The job is dangerous, requiring them to face the transformed wilderness that surrounds the school. Just when Hetty thinks the danger can’t get more intense, she discovers a secret that could bring everything crumbling down. And this secret might put Byatt’s life in danger.

Wilder Girls is one of those books that could be categorized for adults if the content were just a little different. As is, however, the author deals with topics like love, betrayal, and family all with a Sci-Fi spin that I think both adult and teen readers can enjoy. I appreciated the depiction of everyday life in a disaster situation. Yes, the school is falling apart, but there are still love triangles and petty disagreements. Life goes on, even when life is mutating around you.

The story is told mainly from Hetty’s perspective, with a few chapters from Byatt’s point of view. While I don’t mind this tactic, it doesn’t work as well in Wilder Girls. The chapters told by Byatt feel too much like what they are: a way for the author to tell readers about the secrets Byatt unwittingly uncovers.

I have a real knack for choosing books that don’t have tidy endings. Wilder Girls is another one of those. Of course, the author could be leaving room for a sequel–and I honestly hope that’s the case. For any criticisms I might have, it’s a really well-written book. In a way, it reminded me of the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, which is always a bonus.

On a completely different note, I should say this is my last book review for Joplin Public Library. I’ve accepted a position at another library. JPL has been part of my life since my childhood, when I would walk to the old library on Main Street and spend hours amongst the books. Joplin Public Library has a bright future, and I look forward to being a patron for years to come.

What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

Book review by Beth Snow

 

Coming of age stories are the bread and butter of books written for teen audiences.  They appear in a wide variety of formats, both fiction and non-fiction. Like people, they come in all shapes and sizes–which makes it more likely that readers will find a story that fits.  For teens trying to find their place in the world, it can make all the difference. Today’s title is more than just historical fiction or an object lesson; it describes a painful path to identity.

In What the Night Sings, author Vesper Stamper raises and answers the question, “When all is stripped away, who am I?”  Through her main character, Gerta Richter, she shows (in words and images) what remains of identity after a harrowing journey.  Teenage Gerta lived a life sheltered in beautiful music and in her father’s love until the Nazis came one night and put them in a cattle car bound for a concentration camp.  Only when her father’s story unfolded on the train ride, did Gerta learn she was Jewish and living under a false name. From that point on, she’s immersed in the horrors of the Holocaust surviving through luck and her skill with her father’s viola.  Barely alive at the end of the war, Gerta begins the long road to recovery at a refugee camp where she meets other survivors–each with their own physical and emotional scars, each facing decisions about the future. At 16, she must learn who she is and carve a path for herself in a world utterly, irrevocably changed.

Let’s stop there, because plot summary doesn’t begin to tell the story.  Stamper unfolds Gerta’s tale of pain and discovery using carefully crafted prose–just enough detail to be effective without offering more than what is needed.  She crafts an outline on which readers can hang their imaginations, filling in Gerta’s experience: “The train screeches, slows, whines. The clacking tempo decreases until we stop.  A rush of wind blows through the two small windows. It smells of a sweetish smoke. It is not wood smoke.” Although Stamper uses few words (the entire book including multiple supplemental sections reaches only 266 pages), it’s enough to create rich, believable characters.  It’s also enough to convey the research behind this well-written historical fiction. Gerta’s emotions feel authentic, immediate, a realistic response to the specific nightmares of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.

There’s a sparse beauty in Stamper’s text and in the black-and-white, ink wash illustrations found throughout.  Whether a small, corner work or a full, two-page spread, her art is both ethereal and very much grounded in reality.  (Pages 198-99 are a fantastic example!) Images and story mesh perfectly, bringing Gerta’s journey to life and deepening the reader’s experience.

What sets this book apart from the greater body of Holocaust fiction is its timeline.  The main narrative doesn’t end with the Nazi defeat. Instead, it tackles the immense question of “What happens afterward?”  As was the case for millions after World War II, Gerta’s life does not immediately return to prosperity or joy because bombs stopped dropping and concentration camps were liberated.  Stamper unflinchingly describes the situation faced by survivors–disease, malnutrition, poverty, housing shortages, physical and emotional scars, the search for loved ones, rampant anti-Semitism, reclamation of identity.  Perhaps it’s possible that hope can return to Gerta, that she can truly live instead of merely survive: “Everyone has come and gone, piles of shells pulled in and out of waves, and I’m still here, a skeleton of a sea creature, dropped in this tide pool, living, watching, still living.”

Be sure to read What the Night Sings cover to cover.  The supplemental materials after the story round out the book and offer richer reading.  The author provides hand-drawn maps of the book’s settings along with a glossary, pronunciation guide, and brief list of related resources.  To get a true feeling of how music intertwined with the characters, try listening to the selections mentioned in the book; a list is included with the other resources.  Most importantly, read the “Author’s Note” for a powerful view of Vesta Stamper’s moving, challenging journey of discovery as she created this story.

This memorable work was a finalist for the American Library Association’s 2019 William C. Morris YA Debut Award which honors a book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrates impressive new voices in young adult literature.  This is an amazing book, award or no. Read it because it’s beautiful, powerful, important, and Velveteen Rabbit real. It’s great for teens (and adults) who are ready for Holocaust and coming of age material; be prepared for discussion opportunities on a variety of topics.  I greatly enjoyed this title and hope you do, too.

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