fiction · YA

Book Review: Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by Lev AC Rosen

There’s been a lot going around lately about censorship- parents getting their drawers in a twist about the books available to their kids, folks calling for book burnings (I wish I were exaggerating there). BookRiot has a great article on how to fight censorship; I’ve started virtually attending my library’s board meetings because of this, just so I can be up to date with everything that’s going on and be prepared to lend a hand if needed (because yup, this is in my area as well). It was in that BookRiot article that I learned about Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by Lev AC Rosen (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018). The article’s description of how a Christian group challenged the book piqued my curiosity and I put a hold on it at my library that day.

Jack Rothman is seventeen and the resident sex expert of his friend group. He’s queer, confident, and not afraid to be himself, whether that’s sporting a new shade of eyeliner, suggesting a one-time hook-up with another guy, or putting his very active sex life out there for everyone to read about in his new advice column for a not-school-sponsored website published by one of his best friends. He’s unapologetically himself at all times, which often makes him fodder for the school gossip mill, and which doesn’t always sit well with him, but he never lets it stop him from being who he is.

But Jack is getting letters- secret admirer letters, it seems at first, but then they take on a creepier bent. The author of the letter claims to love Jack, but they want to change him and everything that makes him him…and that’s not okay. When the letters start threatening his mother and the emotional health of his friends, Jack knows he has to figure out who’s sending these, and fast.

It’s easy to see why more conservative parents are clutching their pearls over this book. Jack is openly gay, loves sex of all kinds, and bends gender norms in order to most fully express himself- all things that sort of people dislike. (Cry me a river, folks. How other people choose to express themselves has, quite literally, NOTHING to do with you.) To be fully honest, when I first started reading this book, I was a little surprised as well- Lev Rosen doesn’t hold back at all. There are open, frank discussions of sex of all sorts- gay, straight, group, oral, and more- and reading this with my 41-year-old-parent-of-a-7-year-old-and-a-19-year-old eyes, my first instinct was to go, “WHOA.”

And then I stopped and thought about it.

What was I doing when I was Jack’s age, after years of attending a religious school?

OH YEAH. Working in a video rental store that also had a room for adult videos.

At 17, I was listening to hallway gossip about who slept with whom at weekend parties, and what dating couples at my school did and didn’t do sexually (to be fair, this kind of stuff started when I was like 13, at my very small religious school). Between that and the titles of the adult movies I rented out to various customers (including one man who later turned out to be very religious- which I learned because I started dating his son. Awkward), there wasn’t much in this book that I hadn’t heard about as a teenager, the intended audience of this book. How much more is this true for today’s teens, who have grown up as digital natives, with the internet and all its various contents piped directly into their homes and sometimes bedrooms 24/7?

If anything, this book exists not only to give kids the message that it’s a good thing to be yourself, no matter what that is, but to give kids correct information. All the advice Jack gives in his column and to his friends is safe, medically sound, and ethical. He speaks a lot about consent, respect, and not doing things unless you truly want to. He’s there to empower his readers in order for them to make the best decisions for themselves, with as much information possible. Kids are going to be getting information about sexual topics- they’re coming from all angles at kids these ages: friends, movies, the internet, the media. This book is, at the very least, unbiased and accurate in its information, and that’s what teenagers deserve. Teenagers have questions about sex. In the best-case scenario, they’ll come to us as parents with these questions, but it’s no surprise if they feel they can’t (and it’s our fault for not fostering the kind of relationship with them in which they feel they can come to us with those questions). If your kids don’t come to you, where do you want them getting that information? Because, guaranteed, they’ll get it, and the source might not be accurate, putting your child at risk.

Jack is a great character. He doesn’t waver in who he is, though he is spooked into toning it down a bit when his stalker ramps up their game and gets really creepy. He’s supportive of his friends (and knows when he’s hogging the limelight and needs to allow them space to shine). He’s honest, both with himself and with the people around him, and he does his best to bridge that awkward gap that exists between teenage boys and their mothers, even though it’s tough.

My only complaint with the book is the ending felt a little anti-climactic. The identity of Jack’s stalker felt a little out-of-nowhere for me. It left me just the tiniest bit deflated, after what was a truly excellent book about a teenager who exists outside most of what’s considered the norm and is entirely comfortable with that.

If you’re reading this book as an adult, my suggestion is to put your adult eyes away and dig out your teenage eyes, the ones you used when you were full of questions about life and sex and identity. Read it with the eyes of a teenager constantly bombarded with messages about what they’re supposed to do and who they’re supposed to be, with people shaming them for who they are and what they feel. My guess is that there are a lot of kids who will feel validated by this book, who will see that having questions and feelings about sex doesn’t make them bad or disgusting or sinful, it makes them developmentally normal.

If your instinct is that this book doesn’t belong on the shelves at all, that no one’s kids should be reading it, that’s a you problem. If you don’t want YOUR kids reading it, that’s on you as a parent. BE A PARENT and monitor your kid’s reading materials- that’s your prerogative as a parent and I fully support your right to allow or not allow this book in your home. But your rights end there, and the availability of this book at local libraries has nothing to do with you. If you don’t like it, don’t check it out. If you don’t want your teenager reading it, monitor what they’re bringing home from the library. But parent your own child, not everyone else’s. That’s not your job, and you’re not making the world any safer by ensuring that other teens have less information.

I commend Lev Rosen for the bravery it took to write this book and put it out there, knowing the kind of stir it would cause. Thank you for being the voice teenagers need and answering the questions a lot of them have nowhere else to ask.

Visit Lev AC Rosen’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: They Went Left by Monica Hesse

When I was in my early 20s, I picked up a copy of After the War by Carol Matas, about a group of Jewish teenagers and children making their way to Palestine after surviving the Holocaust (this is an excellent book; I highly recommend it). Upon reading this, I realized that most books about the Holocaust focus on the horrors of the concentration/death camps; they mostly end when the camp is liberated, and few books talk about what happened next. What happened to those people who lost everything, who witnessed unspeakable nightmares every day for years? How did they move on with their lives? Could they even move on? This period of history, post-WWII for the survivors, has intrigued me ever since, and that was how They Went Left by Monica Hesse (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2021) ended up on my list. I was glad to learn of its existence.

18 year-old Zofia Lederman has survived- survived the war, survived the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, and survived most of her family. Separated upon arrival at the camp, she was sent to the right; the rest of her family went left. But Zofia is broken; her body has been ravaged by starvation and brutal workloads, and her mind has fractured as a result. She can no longer remember the last time she saw her younger brother Abek, and so she leaves the hospital early and begins to search for him, her only remaining family member.

Her search leads her across multiple countries, to orphanages and displaced persons camps, where people are struggling to rebuild shattered lives, some with more success than others. Zofia marvels at the ones who have picked up and moved on so easily; how is it that they are able to keep living, when she’s barely hanging on? After a while, it seems Zofia is one of the lucky ones…or is she? With the help of her new friends and the lessons she learns from them, Zofia is able to find a future in the unexpected, even if it does mean heartbreak and coming to terms with everything’s she- and everyone else- has lost.

This is a powerful book. Monica Hesse cuts no corners in painting pictures of the brutality suffered during this period of time. Mass graves, murdered babies, horrific medical experiments, survivors committing suicide after Liberation, sexual favors exchanged for survival or better work details, she leaves nothing out. This is not a light and easy novel; this is an in-your-face exposé of all the ways Jews were tortured and reaped of their dignity and their lives throughout the Holocaust. There is suffering and pain on every page, and it’s all thoroughly researched and well-woven into this story.

I appreciated that Zofia wasn’t just another strong character. She’s deeply broken at the beginning of the story, losing time and lapsing into what she’s not sure are memories or just wishful fantasies. The search for her brother is a nightmare in and of itself; we’re so spoiled today with the internet and cell phones, with such instant communication. All families had back then were unreliable phones, letters (likely with a slow, unreliable post at the time), and placing names on lists of organizations (none of whom communicated with one another). Imagine trying to find one person out of millions in that manner, when millions of your people had been slaughtered. The desperation of this method of searching is highlighted throughout this book, and the whole thing just broke my heart.

I’m not sure any book about the Holocaust can truly have a happy ending- even the few whole families who managed to survive still lost homes, friends, communities, their entire way of life. The best, most powerful books end with resolve, and that’s what They Went Left offers: the digging deep and reaching out to find what one needs to keep living. Monica Hesse has created a novel that offers exactly that.

Visit Monica Hesse’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler

Another one from the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge! I needed a book with twenty or 20 in the title, and thanks to the Goodreads group for this reading challenge, I realized I’ve already read quite a few, but that Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2009) was an option. I’d heard of the book before, but hadn’t made the leap, so now was the time- especially since my library had an ebook. Seriously, what would we readers have done during this time without ebooks? Best. Invention. Ever. You know, along with, like, vaccines and antibiotics and the internet in general. 😉

Last year, Anna and Matt were just moving into new romantic territory after a lifetime of friendship when Matt died suddenly, leaving Anna alone, grieving and bewildered. Matt was going to tell his sister Frankie, Anna’s best friend, about the relationship they’d been keeping secret as they figured it out, and now Anna is left to carry the secret by herself. Frankie’s not handling this loss well at all, either, becoming someone Anna barely recognizes. When Frankie’s family decides to make a return vacation trip to their usual California getaway, Anna agrees to come along, but she’s unsure of Frankie’s plan to make this a summer where they meet twenty new boys. Anna’s still not ready to give Matt up.

In California, Frankie’s throwing herself at any available random guy, but Anna’s not really interested until she meets Sam, the first boy to make her feel anything since Matt. Grappling with the guilt over moving on, the weight of her secrets, and Frankie’s out of control behavior and new personality, Anna’s going to have to come to terms with a lot of things on this vacation and maybe risk losing her best friend in the process.

This was a sweet, pain-filled read. Anna is grieving- publicly for the friend she lost, in private for the boy she’d loved since she was ten and who had only begun to love her back. She holds up remarkably well under the guise of having to take care of Frankie, maybe even a little too well. There’s discussion of Frankie barely passing her classes, but Anna seems to have pulled through just fine. I would’ve appreciated seeing some outward sign that she wasn’t entirely okay, because my God, what a terrible loss. (I had a terrrrrrrrrrible crush on a guy all through high school. He didn’t know I was alive for years and no one knew about my crush, and my anxiety brain often told me how horrible it would be if he died and I had to do my grieving all alone, so basically 14 year-old me should have run with this storyline because there’s obviously a market for it…)

Their California beach vacation was a nice armchair trip; lots of description of spending time in the waves and in the sand, which isn’t something I’ll be doing this year. The girls’s constant sneaking out bothered me as a parent; I realize I’m not the intended audience for this, though. There was a lot of discussion of Frankie’s parents basically giving up after Matt died and letting Frankie do whatever she wanted, which I totally get that that could be a thing (I wondered, though, that whether losing Matt so unexpectedly wouldn’t have pushed them to become more protective of Frankie, especially given what caused his death. But to be fair, that would have thrown a spanner in the works of this story, so it may be indicative of a conscious choice the author made to further the story, so I’ll go with that).

Twenty Boy Summer is a story of raw emotion, of secrets, of grief and the ways we deal and don’t deal with it. If you’re grieving, this might not be the right choice for you at the moment; pick it up at a time when you’re feeling strong enough to handle it. It’s a super fast read- I read it in less than a day- and I enjoyed the look into the mind of a teenage girl being asked to carry far more than she ever thought she’d need to.

Visit Sarah Ockler’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.