The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand

adam-strandThe 39 Deaths of Adam Strand
Gregory Calloway
Dutton Juvenile, 2013

Teens looking for answers will not find them in Gregory Galloway’s The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand.

Although this is a book about suicide and depression, it is not a classic “problem novel.” Adam Strand has not been persecuted for his beliefs or sexuality. His parents are not abusive or uncaring. He has no body image issues or drug addictions. He’s just inexplicably drawn to the act of killing himself.

But in a sisyphean twist, Adam can never complete this act. Every time, no matter what method he chooses, Adam is fantastically returned to life. 

Galloway is very much aware that he is writing a kind of teen introduction to The Nausea. He even creates a concerned teacher who constantly recommends Kafka and explains Camus. Like any existential protagonist, Adam is unmoved. But the dialogue serves as a nice supplementary reading list for teens that are drawn to the philosophical issues the novel raises. 

Like Adam’s teacher in the novel, I must admit that I often have ulterior motives when I recommend a book. I recognize his hope, his deeply-rooted faith that one of these works will resonate with the troubled teen and inspire him to turn his life around.

There is no such transcendent moment for Adam. And most of the time there’s none for the teens I work with either.

Still, in the life of a transparent nerd and sentimental optimist there are little victories. Books like this one can be the spark of curiosity that have the potential, at least, to open up an entire world of literature.  When you hand a strange, complicated novel like this one to a teen, how can you not secretly hope that he or she will come back and ask who this Kafka guy is?

Out of the Easy


Out of the Easy

by Ruta Sepetys

Philomel, 2013.

Ruta Sepety’s second novel, Out of the Easy, is set in a world of cigarette smoke, shadows, and bourbon. It’s 1950 in the french quarter of New Orleans. Josie is a smart girl with hopes of college, but the city feels like a cage. Her mother is a call girl at a well-known brothel and a highly publicized murder has caught them both in a web of lies and secrets. A supporting cast of prostitutes, errand boys, madames, and madmen completes the picture.

In short, this is a noir.

And noir is a rare setting for a YA novel. Perhaps authors assume that the iconic imagery and archetypal characters will be unrecognizable to the Millennial generation. Maybe they are uncomfortable with the femme fatale and the mess of gender stereotypes that come with her. Or maybe they just don’t like it.

But there’s more to noir than snappy dialogue and shoulder pads. Beyond the private eyes and sexual innuendos are themes of misrepresentation, moral ambiguity, betrayal, and alienation. Its perspective is cynical, depicting a world infested with lies and liars.

For many (myself included) adolescence is a period of not fitting in, feeling that the world around you is obscure and impossible to navigate, like being lost in a maze. Sometimes, at least, it can feel like noir.

Which is why Sepetys’ choice of setting feels so right for a young adult audience. When Josie realizes that she has only herself to blame for the web of self-serving lies and half-truths she has has been spinning, she is both the quintessential young adult and the quintessential noir anti-hero.



by Daniel Kraus

Delacorte, 2013

As always in a Daniel Kraus novel, there’s plenty going on and it’s all terrible.

In Scowler, Kraus’ latest, two monsters threaten the lives of nineteen-year-old Ry, his mother, and his younger sister. The first is Ry’s father. Abusive and cunning, he has escaped from prison with plans to slaughter his family. The second threat is Ry himself. Or rather, Ry’s hallucinations of boyhood toys, come to life, telling him what to do. (Plus, there’s a comet headed for the family’s farm.)

But with all the gruesome twists and turns of the plot, there’s one early scene that stands out to me. I can’t seem to shake it.

Ry recalls a morning after one of his parents’ violent fights. His father has left and he breaks into his parents’ locked bedroom. His mother has been sewn to the bed. Every part of her body, from her ear to each space in between her toes has been methodically threaded to the mattress.  Ry gets scissors and begins the long process of removing every stitch. He recalls the details with tenderness:

“Ry felt the prim fealty of a nurse as he took up the pink fabric, shook out its crusty folds, and quartered it… He found a clean edge and swept beads of sweat from his mother’s lip and brow. Then he refolded it again and wiped the urine from her thighs and blotted what he could from the mattress. He discarded the fabric in the trash can and took up the shears. It was the most intimate thing he had ever shared with anyone.”

Daniel Kraus is masterful at confronting both his characters and readers with the meaty reality of the human body. He loves to expose our physicality and ultimately our mortality, turning our bodies into terror.

But it was the tenderness of this scene that shook me. In Ry’s response Kraus exposed a fear beyond the physical. It’s not just about losing a parent to death or violence. It’s about taking on the role of caregiver when a parent is weak and needy – losing a parent to adulthood.

The scene felt deeply familiar to me, reminding me of those moments when I was confronted with my own parents’ physical, mental, or emotional weaknesses. There is a unique blend of terror and love in those moments when a parent needs you more than you need them. And I think Daniel Kraus captured it perfectly.

I am at least ten years older than the intended audience of this book and my parents are significantly older than those of my peers. So perhaps this scene generates images and feelings for me that it would or could not for teen readers. But I suspect that for a lot of people the struggle of their teenage years is intricately tied to the loss of a parent, sometimes to death or illness, but more often to a painful recognition of their parents’ limitations. So while the scene may not feel familiar to all readers, it can still presage the inevitable consequences of adulthood.

The List

the-list-siobhan-vivianWhen I was in middle school, I wrote a story that was printed in the school lit magazine.  It was about a girl that is so obsessed with the upcoming dance and what’s she’s going to wear that she forgets to look both ways crossing the street and is fatally injured in a car crash. Yes, I was an angry teenager. It was this kind of juvenile catharsis that I expected from The List by Siobhan Vivian. I gleaned from the cover flap that the story revolves around an actual list of the prettiest and ugliest girls in each grade. Apparently it comes out every year right before homecoming and somehow no one knows who makes it and the school administration does absolutely nothing about it. I imagined “pretty girls” and “ugly girls” discovering they had more in common than they thought. I saw an eating disorder somewhere in there. And I hoped for at least one pretty girl getting blood dumped on her or being horribly disfigured in an accident. Entertaining, maybe. But I’ve (almost) moved on from all the bitterness and insecurity of my teenage years. As a mature and confident adult I find reading about these kinds of stories shallow and boring.

I was wrong. And right. This is undeniably a book about body image and identity. There is, indeed, a girl with an eating disorder. But that’s just a hook. Vivian uses the list and the inevitable drama it creates as a way to drop a bomb into the lives of girls who are fully realized characters all on their own. They are worried their boyfriend is ashamed of them. They hate their mothers. They lost their virginity and aren’t ready for the emotional consequences. They just don’t want to be friends anymore. With alternating chapters from the voice of each girl on the list, readers can dip in and out of these girls’ lives drawing the larger thematic connections where they want. I have to hand it to Vivian for holding the plot together across eight different points of view. By the end, I not only felt I really knew each girl, but I really wanted to know who wrote the list. And then I remembered that I’m a mature and confident adult…and stopped judging books by their cover.

Wonder Show

Wonder-ShowSince reading Wonder Show I’ve had the chance to tell a lot of people about it. Every time, I find myself outlining the plot for them. There’s a girl, I say, who is abandoned by her family and sent to a home with a sadistic head master. She’s mistreated, I tell them, but also possibly guilty of a terrible crime. And so she escapes to a traveling freak show, which is when the story really begins. Oh, they say, cool. And after they have politely smiled and nodded their head, I realize that I have failed. They think this is just another novel. I could go into more detail, sure. I could point out what a relief it is to read a book written for young adults that is not entirely in the first person. I could talk about how Barnaby weaves together the omniscient voice of the narrator, pieces of diary entries, letters, lists, and chapters from the viewpoint of tertiary characters. I might explain just how rich those characters are, that they are not just a quirky backdrop for the adventures of the protagonist, but are on journeys of their own deeply woven into the larger narrative. I could talk about how the book is really about the power of storytelling and how we define, burden, and limit ourselves with the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.  But who would listen? I’m not the storyteller that Barnaby is and even if I was, most people don’t want to hear about anything but the plot. They want the coming attractions that show exactly what is going to happen and reveal all the best jokes. But sometimes, the story is all in the telling. And Wonder Show is that kind of story.