book cover of the running dream

Magan: The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

book cover of the running dream

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen [website]
Publication Date: January 11, 2011
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Pages: 240 Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: track runner, prosthetic leg, dreams that change
Format Read: Purchased hardcover copy.

Summary: Jessica’s dreams of attending college on a track scholarship are shattered after she loses part of her leg in a bus accident on the way home from a track meet, leaving her uninsured parents with medical bills they cannot pay.

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It’s time to step away from the current releases and focus on one that you could easily find at your local library without the super long wait list. In the midst of our move, my goal became to read physical books on my shelves so I could pass them along to another avid reader. The Running Dream has fantastic ratings on Goodreads and I was so intrigued by the summary.

Jessica is a high school track star. In an early-season track meet, she breaks her personal record and beats her greatest competitor in the 400m race. The school bus is involved in a major accident on the way home. One of her young teammates dies; Jessica loses part of her leg. The Running Dream is composed of different parts that dictate the struggles she faces — the realization that she’s not going to be a runner again when she first wakes up in the hospital, going home and having to return to school, seeing her friends continue to participate in track, and learning how to walk with a prosthetic leg.

Van Draanen told Jessica’s story in such a relatable way that allowed me to completely empathize with Jessica but still breeze through the story at a rapid pace. The chapters are short and very intentional, the story progressing and moving forward, allowing for a lot of time to pass throughout the story. One minor quip I had was the running analogies made at the end of each chapter that sometimes seemed a little unnecessary, but definitely drove the point home.

The strongest aspect of The Running Dream is what happens beyond Jessica’s personal growth. There’s a lot of exploration about how we perceive people and how other people see us. Jessica feels broken and questions people’s intentions when they want to hang out with her. She begins to feel like a charity case. But her accident also causes her to befriend people she wouldn’t have ordinarily noticed and that leads to this awesome conclusion to the story that isn’t really about Jessica at all. She goes through such a powerful internal transformation, and really, the end is what made the entire book for me because it left me feeling empowered.

If you’re looking for something that’s outside of your normal realm and features a character with struggles you may not have faced in your young adult reading ventures, check out The Running Dream. Aside from all the goodness I’ve discussed above, you’ll also get a lovely helping of a strong, strong best friendship and a super sweet love interest.

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Magan: The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan

book cover for The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan (twitter)
Publication Date: January 8, 2013
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Pages: 312
Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: albino character, boarding school, dual perspective
Format Read: Purchased eBook for my kindle

Summary: Duncan unravels the mystery of Tim’s relationship with Vanessa (and their mysterious tragedy) through a series of recordings left behind for Duncan at the beginning of Duncan’s senior year.

Where, oh where, to begin? I’m full of bumbling thoughts about The Tragedy Paper and quite unsure how to best share them with you guys because I’m uncertain if my words are going to be sufficient enough to describe what an incredible read this was.

*deep breath*

The Tragedy Paper is told, essentially, from two perspectives. Tim is perpetually the misfit at every school he has attended because his skin color and hair were different, so his stepfather recommends that he spend the final semester of his senior year at the Irving School because it was where he”found himself” as a student. Tim’s an incredibly smart guy, but no one really gives him the time of day; he doesn’t believe he fits within the confines of the social norm because he’s albino. An accidental run-in before the semester begins with one of the school’s most popular girls, Vanessa, really affects the effort he puts into making friends and putting himself out there. Instead of doing so, he becomes infatuated with this girl despite feeling like he has zero chance of his affection ever being reciprocated.

Upon graduating from the Irving School, seniors leave behind something special for the next year’s seniors to find in their rooms on move-in day. Tim passes along a set of recordings to Duncan and encourages him to listen to his story about an event that occurred the year before. While we’re mostly in present day with Duncan, learning about him as he begins dating someone he’s had his eye on and figuring out that he, too, is essentially a social outcast, readers spend the majority of the book with Duncan, locked in his room as he listens to Tim tell his story through the recordings.

LaBan did an incredible job balancing the back and forth between Duncan and Tim, though I did find myself shaking my fist at the book a time or two because JUST as I felt a big discovery was to be unveiled, the perspective would switch. (Tricky, tricky — of course this kept me up well past my bedtime a time or two.) The setting felt so incredibly perfect for this time of year, too. I was reading The Tragedy Paper on some of the coldest days Texas has seen and it couldn’t have felt more right to be bundled up in blankets as Tim wandered through the snow with Vanessa.

But maybe most striking was the dialogue about Tim. Tim, the albino guy who won’t take care of himself because he is afraid to stand out even more. Tim, the guy who doesn’t think he’s good enough to have someone fall in love with him. The guy who will forget he has a backbone because he’s receiving a bit of recognition from someone popular. Despite the physical differences that may be between Tim and myself, I felt so connected to him because so many times have I felt unworthy of the attention and love I’ve received, even if my doubts were for different reasons.

All of that is to say, I haven’t even begun to mention how strong The Tragedy Paper is from a literary point of view. There’s this incredible focus on what a tragedy is in the senior English class; the students must write a thesis that unpacks their understanding of tragedy. The way this is woven into Tim and Duncan’s stories was remarkable. Really, it just blew me away.

The Tragedy Paper is full of so many strengths: solid writing, a gripping story, a school I wish I’d attended, and characters I felt so incredibly tied to. SURELY this is reason enough for you to pick up this book immediately.

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Estelle: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

Two Boys Kissing by David LevithanTwo Boys Kissing by David Levithan ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: August 27, 2013
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Pages: 208
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: sexuality, breaking records, relationships, family
Format read: ARC paperback from TLA (Thank you!)

Summary: Two boys (exes) try to break the world’s record of longest kiss. Two other boys in a long term relationship go with the ebb and flow of their romance. Two boys meet at a gay prom. One boy’s secret comes out. Encompassing these three separate stories is the narration from those who lost their life to AIDs.

I have no idea how David Levithan does it.

None. Nada. Zip.

His work in Two Boys Kissing is like a performance arts piece. As I was reading it, super savoring each word, I kept thinking about how I would love to hear all of it spoken aloud to an audience. The words, so beautiful when strung together, are just that effective. I was smiling, I was tearing up, my heart felt heavy, my heart felt light. How he writes such poetry without being overly flowery and keeping these lives so grounded, I will never know.

What I do know is that Two Boys Kissing has moved my favorite David novel (Love is the Higher Law) down a slot and will reign as number one for a long, long time.

Harry and Craig are best friends, ex-boyfriends, who are vying for the ultimate world record of longest kiss. They plan on kissing for over 32 hours in front of their high school, friends, family, and strangers. At the same time, a town or two over, Avery and Ryan meet at a gay prom, hoping it’s the start of something. Peter and Neil have been in a relationship for a stretch of time and are working through what happens when things aren’t so new anymore. Cooper is only out to those he “hooks up with” online but when his parents discover his truth, he flees.

With narration provided by those who have succumbed to AIDs, readers learn about their hardships, their joys, and how far the world has come and how far it still has to go for acceptance. The four stories weave within one another detailing varying degrees of relationships, honesty, and support. For every time my heart would break a little bit for these characters and even their “ancestors”, there were equally wonderful moments to be had around the corner (i.e. the most romantic visit to a bookstore ever and evidence that you can tweet and kiss at the same time).

Levithan challenges his reader with use of the “Greek chorus” and while I think it might take a little getting used to for some, their presence makes Two Boys Kissing feel epic without losing its accessibility. It’s touching without being melodramatic. Their commentary and their observations really lend a ton of perspective to how society has evolved and struggled and continues to do both today. And the characters! I have no doubt that each of these characters truly represents a living and breathing person dealing with similar situations, and I think it’s a testament to David’s talent that he makes them feel that way (and not like caricatures) in 208 short pages.

Two Boys Kissing is honestly one of the most profound and powerful books I have ever read. It needs to make its way into as many hands, homes, and bookshelves as possible.

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Estelle: All You Never Wanted by Adele Griffin

All You Never Wanted by Adele GriffinAll You Never Wanted by Adele Griffin ( website | tweet )
Publication Date: October 9, 2012
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Pages: 240
Target audience: Mature young adult
Keywords: siblings, re-marriage, insecurity
Format read: ARC from NetGalley (Thanks!)

Summary: Sister relationships are never easy, but ever since their mother’s remarriage to a wealthy man… Alex and Thea seem to be at odds. Alex is popular, pretty, and smart and younger sister Thea wants to find her place in Alex’s circle, in any way possible. She’s crushing on Alex’s hot boyfriend, while Alex is crumbling under her own pressure to take care of herself. Secrets,  untruths, and family boundaries come to a shocking finale in this dark novel.

If I wrote down five facts about me  and five facts about my sister, it would probably be hard to believe we are related. We are just so different. But sometimes we make the same facial expressions, we share the same parental frustrations, and she will not let me forget when I tied her to a chair when she was little. (She even mentioned this is her maid-of-honor speech at my wedding.)

Even though she’s the younger one… sometimes I wish I had her wisdom and sense of adventure. Sometimes I wish I never succumbed to academic pressures I threw on myself until college was done. I wish I could pull off a pixie hair cut like she does. And, I’m sure, if someone asked her… there is one or two things about me that she might want for her own.

In the case of Alex and Thea, they formed a close-knit unit with their mother as they struggled to make ends meet with their father left. That solidarity has taken a back seat since their mother remarried a wealthy man who provides them with all the money and leather products and fancy cars they ever imagined. So money doesn’t exactly bring happiness… instead their mother is frequently absent from their lives (without even realizing it), Thea has sewn a complex web of lies to further her status in high school, and an embarrassing moment for Alex causes her to take “control” of her body in a horrific way.

I know, I know. It sounds a lot like a “poor little rich girl” story, doesn’t it?

Craftily, Griffin manages to keep this dark and twisty tale grounded despite Thea’s delusions of grandeur and Alex’s continual meltdown. It seems totally justifiable that a family could be at odds without even knowing it, nostalgic about the way things used to be but ignoring the reality of their current situation. Even this “rivalry” between Alex and Thea has its push and pull moments where Alex needs Thea, Thea comes to her aid (even though it’s half-hearted) but Alex is aware of how Thea looks at her boyfriend and Thea is actively trying to become the queen bee of their school.

It’s a ridiculously complex story where many of these characters could probably use a bit of therapy. The extremes that Thea took and her off-the-wall behavior was embarrassing, bordering on psychotic. And Alex was her direct foil. Her extremes cut her off from everyone (or so she thought) and sent her down a dizzying spiral. I couldn’t help but be an enthusiastic member of Team Alex, and hope that Thea would learn her lesson. Especially when Xander, a boy from her volunteer after-school program, starts to shed a positive light on this entire book.

I don’t want to say he was a savior, but he was certainly a much welcomed character. I was really hoping that Alex would learn to lean on him because she really needed someone to see through her bullshit because, in her own way, she was creating a mask of lies too.

While I had a little trouble adjusting to Griffin’s language in the first chapter, I settled in nicely and was very invested in Thea and Alex and how and when the grand firework finale would break down the rest of novel. I didn’t exactly have faith that these sisters could detangle themselves from one another, and step forward — into a better place. I was definitely holding my breath.

One more thing. There aren’t many books that I want to reread right after finishing them the first time. But Griffin is such a detailed and skilled writer, I wanted to go back immediately and discover all the details she buried within her chapters. She took what could have easily been a superficial premise and gave it such rich layers. I also didn’t waste any time: two more books by Griffin are sitting on my nightstand right now.

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More thoughts on All You Never Wanted:

Kelly at Radiant Shadows: “Complicated, relationship between sisters and a writing style that I enjoyed did make All You Never Wanted a mostly entertaining read.”