Tag Archive for: coming of age

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

This book spoke to me. Like, I’m not kidding, it legit spoke to me. I know, I know, this type of statement typically implies the use of overtly figurative language. Not this time, however. Well, maybe a little. Since this book doesn’t have vocal cords, there’s a bit of anthropomorphic musing taking place here. Still, in terms of one entity addressing another, this book spoke to me. In case you haven’t picked up on my word play just yet, “The Book” is the narrator. Well, The Book is one of the narrators.

Utilizing a multi-narrative perspective, Ruth Ozeki creates a literary tapestry of sorts, threading the similar yet dissimilar voices of The Book and a young boy named Benny into an amalgamation of experiences both lived and perceived. To clarify, Benny does most of the living here, while The Book gladly assumes responsibilities aligned with perception. That’s not to say that Benny isn’t perceptive, just that The Book takes the cake–acting as a wise sage to Benny’s explorative youth. Speaking of “cake”, it talks too.

Shortly after the untimely death of his father, Benny begins to hear voices. At first, he merely hears the voice of Kenji, his uncompromisingly dead dad. Yet, by the first anniversary of Kenji’s death, the number of voices has grown exponentially. Be it the food in his fridge (cake) or his sneakers, Benny is inundated with the whispers of inanimate objects and the personalities they espouse. As his story progresses, so do the voices, more specifically, so do the voices’ motives and intentions. Soon after his fourteenth birthday, these voices entice Benny to perform less than reputable behaviors. That is to say, the objects around him are tempting Benny to behave rather poorly. These bizarre circumstances eventually lead to Benny’s admittance into a psychiatric facility.

As Benny’s narrative unfolds, The Book reveals another tale. Annabelle is a shy, yet driven young woman working her way through library school when she meets Kenji, a new-to-America, Japanese born jazz clarinetist. Taking The Book’s narrative at face value, Annabelle has a propensity toward dating musicians. In fact, when she first meets Kenji, she is dating the less than chivalrous jazz pianist, Joe. After a botched attempt at embarrassing her on stage, Annabelle’s piano-playing boyfriend becomes the foil of his own sinister plot. Knowing that Annabelle is reluctant to sing in front of an audience, Mr. Piano Man (but not of the Billy Joel persuasion) forces the first-time performer on stage for a vocal solo, thus allowing his narcissism to seemingly “put her in her place.” As a reader, I’m still uncertain as to why she needed to be put into any place (let alone her own “place”). Regardless, his motives seemed harm-ridden at best. Having assumed the mantle of “villain” in this unraveling plot, Joe relishes the ensuing events about to unfold

Ozeki masterfully mixes a cocktail of human emotions and their coinciding actions. Furthermore, her wordsmithing is hard to beat. In the scene mentioned above, she describes an intricate portrait of Kenji’s first impressions regarding Annabelle, as well as his attempts to help guide her beyond the initial trepidation she endures throughout her forced performance.

“[Her] faltering phrasing made Kenji ache with loneliness. Only two lines in and she was dying up there. No one could save her. He jiggled his foot and licked his reed again, waiting for his entrance and feeling like his heart was going to burst, and just then, as though she sensed him watching, she turned her head and looked straight at him. Her impossible lavender eyes were brimming with tears.

“No one could save her, but Kenji had to try. He closed his eyes, raised his clarinet, and blew a sinuous line of notes that rose like a rope, twinning through the trumpets and up around the bass, subduing the snare drum and looping past the sax, until finally it reached her. She caught hold of his riff and let it lift her.

He was playing it for her, carrying her through the second verse and then on, boldly into the chorus.

She was singing it now, and as her voice soared, the loud-talking hipsters fell silent. Beards turned toward the stage, boots began to tap and fingers to snap as the song built to its final, brassy crescendo, and then it was over.

She tossed her blond curls and turned to face the audience. The applause rose and fell as she clasped her hands together and made an awkward bow. Joe joined her in the spotlight and put his arm around her waist, but she gave a little wriggle, slipped out of his grasp, and teetered back to her table.”

Annabelle and Kenzi’s relationship flourishes from here. Employing a candid realism to marital bliss, Ozeki briefly explores the years leading to Benny’s birth and then Kenji’s sudden death, not forsaking the human components associated with love, family, and growth in general (i.e., it’s not all “sunshine and rainbows”). She rarely glosses over the flawed elements of human existence, but instead allows individual depravity to highlight one’s need for others–especially within the context of family. Let me say that again, “family.” This is the heart of Ozeki’s story. As Annabelle’s household dynamics take on a new shape in the wake of Kenji’s death, she begins to look for something to fill the void of her husband’s absence. She puts on weight. She ceases daily maintenance of household chores. Most interestingly, she begins to collect things. It starts out innocently, then quickly grows into an obsession of sorts–the obsession of hoarding.

It is within this reality of circumstance that Ozeki’s words truly captivate. As Benji struggles to make sense of the fact that inanimate objects are talking to him, Annabelle gathers more and more objects to add to her repertoire of possessions. This story is about the power of possessing. Yet, it is also about the power that possessions have over us as humans. This story is about loss. Yet, it is also about finding something new in the midst of absence derived from tragedy. This story is about mental illness. Yet, it is also about the beauty of creativity, imagination, and the profound mysteries of this world. This story is about a young boy who greatly misses his dad. It is about a young mother who desperately longs for her husband’s protective guidance once again. Yet, it is also about a family learning to love one another anew, even amid heartache and its ever-present companion, change.

If you’re looking for a book that “speaks to you,” both anthropomorphically and figuratively, then this might be what you’re looking for. Be warned, this isn’t a light reading. This book is heavy (again, both literally and figuratively—as it’s a whopping 548 pages). At times, it is humorous, especially when Kenji leans into the playfulness of a solid “dad-joke” (when speaking to his son of his namesake, Kenji says, “Benny Goodman was the King of Swing…[b]est jazz clarinetist in the world. I gave you his name so you will be a good man”). At other times, it is mysticism at its best (as made evident when Benny and The Book both explain the differences between the voice inflections of “made-things” and “unmade-things”–or things of nature). Still yet, there are times when this book is heart wrenching, provoking powerful emotions both in its characters and from its readers. I won’t underestimate the power of subjectivity. This book isn’t for everyone. Yet, if you’re in the mood for a well-crafted, emotion-driven story that does well to grow and develop its characters along the way, then you might want to give this book a chance. If you do, you can pick it up in the New-Fiction section of the Joplin Public Library.

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Almost American Girl, written and illustrated by Robin Ha

Area schools have been in session for a week or so now, and the air around the Library’s Teen Department has been filled with equal parts excitement and trepidation all month.  There have been a lot of butterflies, whether it’s the start of band camp or sports practice or middle school or senior year.

Middle school is usually a fraught topic every August–people going there for the first time, people hoping to start over in a new grade, people leaving it to navigate the uncharted waters of high school.  There’s a lot at stake in middle school even in the best of circumstances.

Now imagine the shock of going back to middle school then heading out on a family vacation at semester break only to discover that the “vacation” means starting over at a new school in a new country where you don’t speak the language or understand the culture and the only people you know are the surprise step-relatives you’ve just been introduced to.  Plus, you weren’t able to say goodbye to your friends and they (along with all of your clothes and possessions) are half a world away.

That’s exactly what happened to Robin Ha, author and illustrator of Almost American Girl.

Ha is now a cartoonist based in Washington, D.C.  When she was in eighth grade, her mother took her on a short trip to Alabama which turned out to be a permanent move to a house full of strangers.  Ha’s mother married a divorced father of two saddled with a failing fish market, living with his brother’s family (including their traditional Korean mother).  It was a far cry from the life Robin and her mom had carved out for themselves in Seoul, South Korea–except for many of the conventions and attitudes embraced by their new family.

The book follows Robin’s experiences navigating the challenges of middle school, of learning a new language on the fly, and of unexpected, seemingly arbitrary relationships.  Robin’s eighth grade year unfolds chronologically with interspersed flashbacks to her life growing up in South Korea.  Narrative tension isn’t compromised because the memories are connected to experiences after the move.  Prompted by Robin’s meltdown after chafing under the in-laws’ treatment, the chapter “The Leap of Faith” unfolds the difficulties Robin and her single mother endured trying to thrive in a rigid society; the chapter ends with her mother convinced that “Whatever America is like, it will be better…” even if that translates to racism, poverty, and exclusion.

Almost American Girl follows its author’s inner and outer journeys.  It’s a beautifully drawn coming of age story that’s honest and real.  It embraces the pain and delight of adolescence, bringing readers along on the emotional roller coaster ride without being heavy-handed–a meaningful, immersive experience told in a muted palette of blues and tans and purples and reds that grows brighter and deeper as Robin’s wisdom and inner strength grow.

The book is also a love letter to comics fans, celebrating teens who draw and doodle and color and who recognize the transformative power of art.  It’s for everyone who survived adolescence (in whole or in part) thanks to comic books, manga, art supplies, and pads of paper.  Find your niche, and chances are good that you’ll find friends; with any luck, you’ll find some very good ones.

Read Almost American Girl even if you aren’t an adolescent.  (Especially if you aren’t!)  Give it to a teen who’s interested in contemporary, coming of age stories or manga and anime or Korean culture beyond K-pop or who could use a gentle affirmation.  Read it because it’s lovely and because (spoiler alert) stories can have happy endings.

You can find this title in the graphic novel section of the Teen Department or as an ebook through the Library’s OverDrive service.

No Ivy League, written and illustrated by Hazel Newlevant

There’s no denying that art has power. A work of art in any form can stop you dead in your tracks, take your breath away, send chills down your spine. It can elicit a bold, dramatic response–an experience so vivid that it’s as memorable as the work of art itself.

Sometimes, though, art exudes a quiet power–less shockwave and more a resonance that grows deeper and richer with time, drawing you in over and over, changing you in the process.

Hazel Newlevant’s graphic novel No Ivy League has that quiet power, wrapping it in an unassuming package. While the book appears to be a slow-moving memoir of a summer job washed in monochromatic watercolor (don’t let the full-color cover fool you), it is an exquisite glimpse at the lives of contemporary teens.

Author and illustrator Newlevant describes her first job, a summer stint with the local parks department during high school. Hazel is a seemingly average teen in Portland, Oregon, who happens to enjoy reading, video games, hanging out with her friends, and making art. She’s trying to save enough money to see her favorite band in concert in the fall, so at her parents’ suggestion she applies for a spot on one of the city’s youth conservation crews; she gets a job cleaning out invasive ivy at a park. She spends the summer learning about herself and the diverse group of people she works with, discovering that the world around her is a far bigger and more intricate place than she ever imagined.

There’s little plot description because there’s not much plot to describe. Hazel’s story is a meditative character study examining self-discovery, particularly that time when teens first realize that there is life outside their own bubble. Newlevant depicts adolescence in all its naive, cringeworthy, optimistic, angry, despairing gloriousness. In doing so, she opens Hazel’s eyes (and ours) to the shades of grey present in a previously black-and-white world. Words and actions that may seem like jokes to some may be far from it for others. Perspectives on justice and “doing the right thing” may vary widely depending on experience–experiences determined by skin color and economic opportunity. Hazel begins to see and acknowledge the differences between herself and other teens on her team, discovering that her secure, stable life isn’t universal.

Newlevant deftly weaves nuance throughout the book. The realistic dialogue (including Hazel’s interior dialogue) sounds immediate and lifelike without being over the top or trying too hard. Same goes for the art. As you read, the chapter title spreads progress from fully covered in ivy to a space almost cleared. When another teen taunts her, the laughter written on the page chases Hazel away. Invasive ivy creeps toward Hazel threatening to entangle her after being shaken to her core by a family secret. Newlevant’s work shows just enough detail to serve the story–these aren’t overly busy panels–and has a slightly misty quality (as memories do) thanks to a hazy watercolor wash.

Newlevant’s nuance is evident as she thoughtfully relates discovering the role privilege played in her upbringing, “This book is about a pivotal summer in my life. It poked a hole in my familiar bubbles and complicated my understanding of the world. It was a multi-car pileup of race, class, gender, and teen hormones…It’s incredible, believing over and over again that you’ve figured things out–only to stumble on new ways your place in society shields you from the truth. I really didn’t know anything. Maybe I still don’t.”

No Ivy League offers up its insights in quiet, thoughtful ways and leaves a quiet, thoughtful power in its wake. It’s a realistic slice of adolescent life in all of its raw, complicated messiness. This isn’t a book for readers wanting heavy, plot-driven action or a sanitized depiction of teenagers. It is a title for adults and mature teens who are patient readers interested in character development, realism, or examining society. A variety of teen lives are depicted; strong language and some sexual references are included.  No Ivy League and many other amazing memoirs in graphic novel format are available at the library. Stop by and see what we have to offer!

The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek by Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal

Rhett and Link met in the first grade at Buies Creek Elementary School in 1984. The story goes that they were both held back from recess for writing profanity on their desks. While everyone else was outside playing, they spent their recess coloring mythical creatures. They have been best friends ever since, and even made a blood oath to commit to always work together and create big things. That promise has been kept. Some of their earliest projects include a screenplay Gutless Wonders (never finished), and a punk rock band.

Fast forward to today, they run one of the most successful Youtube channels, Good Mythical Morning (GMM), with over 15 million subscribers, and over 5 million views daily. Their catalog also includes music videos, the web television series Buddy System,  their award winning podcast EarBiscuits, comedy/musical tours, and the New York Times’ Bestseller Book of Mythicality. 

Why am I mentioning all of this? Because the parallels between real life and fiction are evident in Rhett and Link’s second book, and first novel The Lost Causes of Bleak Creak. The book follows the friendship of Rex and Leif in the town of, you guessed it, Bleak Creak, North Carolina. Bleak Creek is a typical, small southern town. One that holds religion, family values, and tradition close to heart. It is a seemingly cheerful place, but every town, no matter how big or small, has its secrets.

The first chapter starts with Rex, Leif, and their friend Alicia filming a scene for their film, Polterdog (similar to the screenplay Gutless Wonders mentioned above). Something goes wrong during the filming of a scene which lands the three friends in trouble, one of the terms of punishment being that they are no longer allowed to film their movie. Alicia who already has a bad reputation due to previous circumstances, gets the worst punishment of the self-appointed Triumvirate. But having put so much time and energy into their movie, the group decides to meet up and film one last scene. As Rex and Leif make it to Alicia’s house, they soon find out she is in trouble. They find out she is being sent, against her will, to Wayne Whitewood’s reform school. Shrouded in mystery, no one really knows what happens inside the ominous building surrounded by a chain-linked fence, but it has a reputation of its own. Some people never return, those who do come back aren’t quite the same, almost zombie-like, without the appetite for brains. Either way, Rex and Leif have no choice but to try and save their friend from certain demise.

For a comedic duo, Rhett and Link wrote a thrilling page-turner. There is plenty of 90s nostalgia, and nods to good-ole southern traditions such as pig pickins’. They took elements from their personal lives and transformed into something magical. Hopefully this can turn a few people into a Mythical Beast, or fans of the GMM channel, because the friendship of Rhett and Link is so wholesome and inspiring. Their most recent episodes have been shot documentary-style, while they take you through Buies Creek to revisit their childhood homes, church, and the creek itself. It adds another layer to the novel. Even though  Halloween is over, there is always room for a little suspense and psychological terror (especially with the holiday season approaching fast), and this book delivers.


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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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