In Which Tessa and Rebecca Compose a Poem in Scotland!!!

Today (now yesterday) we went to an amazing place: Cramond, a seaside village outside of Edinburgh. There, we walked to Cramond Island, which can only be reached during low tide. Unfortunately Thankfully, we were not stranded on the island where we would meet some reclusive Highlander who had come to the island because there was a price on his head . . . nope, that didn’t happen even a little bit. But it was still beautiful and amazing. And after our trek, sea-sprayed and sandy and quite chilled, we stumbled into the Cramond Inn, where we had drinks and overheard the bartender, who was, like, fourteen, tell another patron that the place had been a pub for 400 years, and that the building was even older. Yowza.


Anyhoo, befuddled by (one) drink (each) and sea-fresh air, we composed the following ridiculous poem as an ode to our Scotland trip so far. We traded off line by line until we simply needed to stop and buy salt and vinegar crisps so we could make it to the bus back to Edinburgh. So, here you go. We’ll be back with more actual book-related things soon. If you feel like you want to nominate this poem for a Nobel prize or something, we don’t mind. Really, we’re just in it for the art.

Oh, Aye:

An Exquisite Corpse Style Poem from a 400 Year Old Inn in Cramond, Scotland,

by Tessa and Rebecca

Down the close, the cracks get smaller,
crazes cleaving like cauliflower.
If our muscles with bubbles were carbonated,
we’d float up ourselves, kilted & wig-pated.
A beer, a cider, a winter beach or
the terror of some long walled-up creature?
Old men’s speech like moss ribbons curled
up on themselves, clods dropping off the bottom when their laughs unfurl.
The tide comes in, the gulls all cotton,
but all I see is a muddy dog-bottom.
If we’re wet, we’ll shake ourselves free of it ’til we’re all dog-sweat
and a double dog body branch to signify the tree of it.
Where’s your shuffle? The muscle now barnacle-striated,
young pip-pip birds turn their heads without knowing how they were created.
On a tie-dyed winter crumble beach
that high nor low tide ever reaches.
The bus turns to the side, promising a crunch.
You can’t see the front, don’t know what’s open for lunch.
But don’t retreat, don’t have a panic,
it has blown you oceanic.


You’re welcome!!!

Then, Tessa drew a picture of her current hero, James Boswell, whose diaries she’s obsessed with. I thought he looked like he needed to be wearing daisypants, so I added some daisies to his pants:

James "J-BOZ" Boswell

After that piece of literary history was composed, we went to catch the bus back to Edinburgh and met the biggest cat ever! We named it Cramond (obviously) and pet it a lot.


See you stateside . . .


Sharing Our Snacks: Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

Welcome to another edition of Sharing Our Snacks, in which Rebecca and I each recommend YA brain food that they think the other would enjoy crunching and munching!

Sharing our Snacks

Five Flavors of Dumb

Antony John

Dial Books, 2010


review by Tessa

Rebecca tacked this title onto her email of Sharing Our Snacks ideas, saying it was “a book I really, really wanted to like but just didn’t.”  If she hadn’t suggested it I may not have picked it up – not for any reason, but just because… just because. But I’m glad that I did. Now I can more enthusiastically booktalk it to people who are looking for music-related realistic fiction.  I even made this collage last night in its honor, using only models from the Crate & Barrel Catalog, foil from Trader Joe’s honey-mint patties, fine-point Sharpies, and my interesting magazine picture backlog (which honestly needs replenishing). Oh, and a phrase from a rad Nikki McClure calendar.:


Accordingly, my review will also be collage-y.

BASIC PLOT (courtesy of Antony John’s author site):

“Piper has one month to get a paying gig for Dumb—the hottest new rock band in school.

If she does it, she’ll become manager of the band and get her share of the profits, which she desperately needs since her parents raided her college fund.

Managing one egomaniacal pretty boy, one talentless piece of eye candy, one crush, one silent rocker, and one angry girl who is ready to beat her up. And doing it all when she’s deaf. With growing self-confidence, an unexpected romance, and a new understanding of her family’s decision to buy a cochlear implant for her deaf baby sister, Piper just may discover her own inner rock star.”

I’ll get the CONS out of the way first:

Rebecca, I feel you. Five Flavors of Dumb is uneven. It tackles many issues – deafness, Deaf culture, feeling like an outsider among outsiders, navigation of cool, taking on job responsibilities, figuring out who in your band is undermining everything, understanding music history, tough sibling relationships, tough parent relationships, estranged friendships, uhh… I think those are the main ones.

So, to cover those things requires a lot of plot, and the plot gets lost sometimes. There’s a whole mystery involving an anonymous internet commenter sending Piper and Dumb around Seattle to learn about the deep, dark side of being a famous musician, and while the trips are intriguing, the mystery itself gets dropped for so long I found myself wondering if it had been forgotten.   Time shrinks and expands in weird ways throughout the story (I should’ve taken notes on this so I could back my assertion up, but I didn’t and I apologize).

Finally, one must brace oneself to suspend their disbelief when reading Five Flavors of Dumb, because the premise of trying to become a band manager to make money for college is a thin one. However, a book about applying to scholarships and making a budget would not be as interesting or dynamic. So. I understand.

So we can get to the PROS:

The good news is that John gets the emotions down, and the ins and outs of familial, friendly, and romantic relationships were more than enough to keep me reading.  For me, the pros outweighed the cons and I enjoyed reading about Piper and even found her world believable (despite the exception mentioned above.)  In order of importance to me:


Piper’s dad has an emotional IQ of zero when it comes to his oldest spawn.  This guy! I wanted to invent a pinching machine to follow him and pinch him whenever he did or said something blockheaded or particularly carelessly hurtful, and believe you me he would be covered in tiny bruises after about 10 minutes.

It’s an achievement to portray very darkly abusive parents and caregivers, for sure, but I sort of think it’s an even bigger achievement to portray the everyday slights, the subtle emotional abuse, that can go on in a family. Is abuse too strong a word? I don’t think so. Piper is shut out from being appreciated as a person and she is made to feel lesser than because of her preference for using ASL and because her parents STOLE HER COLLEGE FUND WITHOUT CONSULTING HER.  But of course she still reaches out for love from her dad and mom, and it’s heartbreaking to see the ways it isn’t returned as her parents are caught up in providing for her baby sister.


Piper does love her baby sister and she struggles with trying not to feel jealous of the cochlear implants and the attention that baby Grace is getting, in a realistic way. And she loves her brother, but they’re not over-the-top besties. They squabble but ultimately have each other’s backs in a way I find familiar, being a sister myself.


Piper tackles her problems practically and speaks up when she feels she’s being underestimated, despite also feeling like an outsider because of her hearing impairment and being without her moved-away best friend who can’t even bother to get on Skype once in a while. I like that about her and I like seeing how she tries to solve her problems without trying to become a tough chick stereotype.


There should be more portrayals of being in a band, and how much work it is to make a song and play together and deal with 2, 3, 4 or more personalities and ideas of how to make money. And how awesome it feels when it comes together.


The bits of the book where Piper investigates the history of Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix are fascinating. I put down the book and did more research about Hendrix afterwards. (That’s why I tried to have her holding a record album in the collage, even though it’s impossible to tell that it is supposed to be a record – also to reference a very poignant scene with her dad.)

In Conclusion

Despite its uneven flow, Five Flavors of Dumb had emotional depth, brought out the history of its setting, and showed what it’s really like to try to work as a group. And so I’d recommend it to other readers wholeheartedly.  Does that speak to any of your feelings of meh, Rebecca? I’m curious to know if you remember more about why you weren’t into it.

Sharing Our Snacks: Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Welcome to another edition of Sharing Our Snacks, in which Rebecca and I each recommend YA brain food that they think the other would enjoy crunching and munching! 

Sharing Our Snacks

I recently requested some recommendations from R, and (among other things) she said:

I’d love to know what you think of Sweethearts, by Sara Zarr. I really liked it (it’s like a short, tight little gem), but don’t remember it that well, in the way some books just skate over my brain. I think you’ll like the writing and the way it’s poignant, but not gushy, but I don’t know whether you’ll find enough to dig into to really like like it.

Well, R, I didn’t just like like Sweethearts, I became smitten with it. I fell in love with it for its mind and I fell hard. Which is funny, because I loved it because it knows how weird and hard love is, and how love operates in friendship, and how hard it is to tell those things apart sometimes.

Sara Zarr Sweethearts


Sara Zarr

Little, Brown and Company, 2008

review by Tessa


Jenna Vaughn (Jennifer Harris): transformed herself from a lonely girl that mean kids called “Fatifer” to become someone who no one could make fun of.

Cameron Quick: Jennifer’s only friend, presumed dead

Ethan, Katy & Steph: Jenna’s new friends and first boyfriend, unaware of her past


Jenna’s past is dead and so is the boy who shared her worst experiences and left without saying goodbye. Only, neither are dead and now Jenna has to deal with what that means.


Jenna grows up as a girl who can’t fit in and is vulnerable to those who persecute the vulnerable and perpetuate in building the walls around her, thus guaranteeing that she can’t fit in, and so she ends up with a peculiar worldview.  Between elementary and high school, her life has changed so as to be almost unrecognizable. Her single mother found a good partner, finished nursing school, and moved them to a new part of town, allowing Jennifer to escape classmates with conceptions of her as “Fatifer”: the chubby girl, the girl with dirty clothes, the girl who cries at everything, the comfort-eater, the secret thief of small things, whose only friend left town without even telling her and was rumored to have been run over in California. She sets goals for herself, disciplines herself to fit into “normal” clothing sizes and smile all the time. And it works.  There are new friends and a first boyfriend and things run smoothly.  She tries to leave her sad self behind, but of course everything feels fake to her because she’s not letting herself feel anything.

And she’s never told anyone about who Cameron, her only friend, really was. How he gave her a note that said he loved her. How he built her a dollhouse for her birthday. How he really listened to her. And how on that birthday something scary and strange happened with Cameron’s dad (no, it’s not what you’re thinking right now).  Now that she’s turning 17, this memory keeps returning, little by little.  And as though summoned by that memory, Cameron himself returns. Not from the dead, but from California.

photo by flickr user Bellafaye

photo by flickr user Bellafaye

What was this book’s intention and was it achieved?

Sweethearts is an intense portrait of a girl’s mind at the intersection of memory and reality, attachment and growth, when she has to figure out who she wants to be from who she thought she was. Zarr succeeds wildly at this. Like a good flaky pastry, Sweethearts  is compressed but has lots of layers to add texture (and lots of butter to add depth of flavor).

Jenna has been repressing her feelings for so long and acting like everything is okay that, although lots of dramatic things are in play in the plot and character development, the narration is not melodramatic. Jenna is not shrill but she is tense and remains in control by assuming the illusion of being calm, so her voice reflects that calm – in fact, she’s stronger than she realizes so that calmness is not all an illusion.

Zarr gets the nervousness of the haunted so right, and then brings back the ghost to make things extra interesting. And here’s where, for me, it turned from a good book into a great one. Because this is not a destined-for-love story. Some of the realest moments are when Jenna is trying to figure out why Cameron is back, how he found her, and how far she should go to help him, and his behavior frustrates her or weirds her out. She wants to be nice to him, be friends with him, but she’s not sure what his deal is or how she even feels about him.  For example, she finds him sleeping in her car one morning and isn’t sure whether to be freaked out or offer him breakfast (both), or when, her family having taken him in temporarily, he doesn’t come home for dinner and Jenna feels responsible for her mother’s worry, and then angry that her mother never worried about her in the same way when she was growing up and alone for dinner.

It all comes back around in Sweethearts, like the past is cycling over and over in Jenna’s head, until she can properly mourn it.  And it’s seeing Cameron grown up and the same but not really that helps Jenna do this. Her experience with the Cameron of now puts into relief the difference between the love she’s play-acting with Ethan, who thinks he’s a charmer but is just shy of being way too possessive, and the terrible complicatedness of real love – not total romantic love, but love built from a bond that is part powerful friendship and part caring in the face of the meanness of life.

“I think about how there are certain people who come into life and leave a mark. I don’t mean the usual faint impression. …And I don’t just mean that they change you. …I’m talking about the ones who, for whatever reason, are as much a part of you as your own soul. Their place in our heart is tender; a bruise of longing, a pulse of unfinished business.”

Just like Rebecca said, “a short, tight little gem”.  And perfect for a New Year’s read, with its themes of growth and its direct style that makes it a quick read that can stay with you.

I also enjoy that the adults in Sweethearts are human, involved (for better or for bad in different cases) in their kid’s lives, and there’s a good stepfather character.

Sharing Our Snacks: The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman

Sharing Our SnacksWelcome to another edition of Sharing Our Snacks, in which Tessa and I each recommend YA brain food that they think the other would enjoy crunching and munching! Since T lives in Pittsburgh and I live in Philadelphia we can no longer share an enormous middle-of-the-night bag of potato chips and tin of onion dip from Turkey Hill like we used to, so we had to find another way to share. Check out our other Shared Snacks here. You can recommend books to us, too—contact us!

Tessa recommended The Other Side of the Island to me because she thinks “it’s a nice little eco-apocalyptic that is often overlooked, and there’s a tree octopus in it.”

A Review of The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman

Razorbill, 2008

By REBECCA, June 4, 2012

The Other Side of the Island Allegra Goodman


Honor Greenspoon: our protag, she vacillates between wanting to fit in and wanting to uncover the secrets of the Island

Will & Pamela Greenspoon: Honor’s parents who have a hard time following the rules on Island 365

Quintillian Greenspoon: Honor’s little bro, a—gasp!—second child

Helix Thompson: Honor’s friend, he is dedicated to finding out the truth behind the propaganda

Mrs. Whyte: Honor’s teacher who drills the students in Safe propaganda

Miss Tuttle: librarian whose job it is to cut all passages that mention non-controlled weather out of books (the horror! the horror!)

Octavio: a tree octopus!!! <3!!!

The Other Side of the Island Allegra Goodmanhook

Honor moves into the Colonies with her parents when she’s 10, in the 18th “glorious year of Enclosure.” On Island 365, Earth Mother and the Corporation have regulated the dangerous weather that wiped out much of Earth’s population, and with that regulation comes a strict system of social controls. Honor has to get with the program fast in order to fit in—and she does. It’s just . . . well, something very strange is going on across the Island and no one is talking about it.


The Other Side of the Island is a classic dystopia: a force beyond human control (in this case, the weather) threatens humanity and a system must be implemented to ensure their safety; of course, a repressive regime has sprung up alongside/in service of these precautions. And, actually, it’s the classic-dystopia-ness of Island that sets it apart from the slew of YA dystopian series that we’ve seen in the past few years. The dystopian setting is not contrived as a backdrop for romance, nor is it a thinly-veiled set-up for an adventure story. Rather, Allegra Goodman has written a stand-alone dystopian novel that reminded me of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921) more than anything else (I love that book!).

Yevgeny Zamyatin WeAnother unique quality that shaped The Other Side of the Island is that our protagonist, Honor, is only ten when the book opens, and twelve by the end of the book. This shifts the focus of the novel from potential romance or elaborate adventuring to a much simpler story of a young girl who is young enough when she arrives on the Island to really just want to fit in. In a world where children born each year after Enclosure are named after the corresponding letter (Honor is born in the 8th year after Enclosure, etc.), Honor is told that she will never fit in because the “h” in Honor is silent, setting her apart from all her peers. And, eventually, Honor agrees. This is a dimension of the powers of the desire to fit in that doesn’t get explored much in dystopias featuring teen characters—either such a character has lived under the dystopian regime her whole life and rebels one day because of a catalyst, or she has never conformed and her rebellion finally rises to the surface. For Honor, her loyalty is to her parents at first, but little by little she begins feeling embarrassed by her parents’ inability to easily conform to the Island’s rules and regulations.

When Honor’s parents disappear, taken by Safety Officers, Honor questions the price of conformity and begins to dig into the mysteries of the Island—for example, who are the Watchers that no one seems to pay attention to?

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

They control the weatherHere is where things get just a touch sticky for me in reviewing. I thought The Other Side of the Island was a totally solid novel. The world-building is good, if pretty dystopian-standard, and there are some totally chilling moments. But . . . there was, I dunno, no joy in the book or something. It’s Goodman’s first YA novel, although her adult fiction, Goodreads informs me, is critically acclaimed, and it felt just a touch like an adult voice that got edited into a YA book because it was a story about a kid. That’s not to say that the writing isn’t good—it is. It’s that I didn’t feel like the goal was for me to identify with Honor and see this world through her eyes. This left me feeling a bit outside the book.

Rebecca Stead When You Reach MePart of this, I thought at first, can be attributable to Honor’s age. As a 10 and 12 year old she is in some ways harder to relate to than someone older who has a more complex view of things.  But then I thought about other books that have young protagonists that absolutely rock in terms of voice and characterization, like Rebecca Stead’s amazing When You Reach Me or David Almond’s awesome Skellig, and I now think that maybe the book is just kind of detached and emotionless in voice.

Further, I felt as if there was a larger story that Goodman had in mind and she limited the novel to only the piece that featured Honor. I really liked that there was a whole other story about Honor’s parents that we only get to see in glimpses, but as an adult reader the simplicity of Honor’s perspective made it seem as if perhaps the book would have been more dynamic if we had gotten to follow Honor’s parents’ story as well.

octopus!I would totally recommend The Other Side of the Island to anyone who likes a classic dystopia—the best things about the novel are Goodman’s world-building and the shifts in Honor’s character. The ending was a bit abrupt and, although it seems to suggest one thing, as Tessa pointed out, “the creepiest part, though, is that the hopeful ending might be a fakeout, if you go back and reread the first paragraph.”

personal disclosure

Ok, I’m not going to lie: the thing I liked most about the book was Octavio the tree octopus. Tessa recommended this book to me because of Octavio. People, I am obsessed with octopi. If you ever come across a book with an octopus in it you simply must tell me. I just want MORE OCTAVIO!


We Yevgeny Zamyatin

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921). One of my favorite dystopias ever, We really set a huge number of the genre conventions in a totally awesome and Russian way. A must read.

The Giver Lois Lowry

The Giver (The Giver #1) by Lois Lowry (1993). The Giver is one of the best examples of character-driven, subtly-constructed, dynamite YA dystopian lit! It was long before the sub-genre became super popular, so it’s outside comparison. If you’ve never read this one, it’s a total recent classic.

The Wind Singer William Nicholson

The Wind Singer (Wind on Fire #1) by William Nicholson (2000). This is an understated fantasy-dystopia-quest hybrid of awesomeness. Like The Other Side of the Island and The Giver, it has younger protagonists who go on a quest to discover the secrets of their town.

procured from: the library, after, like, 8,000 years of waiting for my hold to arrive

Sharing Our Snacks: The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston


Welcome to another edition of Sharing Our Snacks, in which Rebecca and I each recommend YA brain food that they think the other would enjoy crunching and munching! Rebecca recommended this book to me with no explanation as to why.  She just knows I like pictures of internal organs, I guess.  Check out our other shared snacks here.

You can recommend books to us, too—contact us!



The Freak Observer
Blythe Woolston
Carolrhoda Lab, 2010

review by Tessa

Loa Lindgren: has a lot on her plate, and even more on her mind
Corey: Loa’s absent friend, in more ways than one.
Esther: Loa’s accidentally (?) dead friend
Asta: Loa’s formerly ill, now dead sister
Jack: successfully friendly with Loa, has found therapy in the ceramics department.
The Bony Guy: Death. Haunts Loa.

What does it feel like before things gets better? That’s where Loa Lindgren is now. Luckily for us, her inner narrative is bleakly funny and sprinkled with observant details, even as she wades through a swamp of grief, depression, and PTSD.


one interpretation of The Bony Guy

The Freak Observer starts with Loa’s recounting of the accident that kills her friend Esther. Esther runs out into the road along a curve and gets hit by a truck. Loa’s parents, in a cold and almost practical reaction, are mad at her for missing work because of it. Now Loa won’t get more hours at the Cozy Pines retirement home. They need the money because her father is out of work.

But this isn’t the worst of Loa’s problems.  Her sister Asta recently died from a genetic disease that left her unable to care for herself, and this is what really broke up Loa’s world.  She has terrible nightmares where Death haunts her, and crippling attacks of panic from her PTSD, but no money for therapy.

A third layer of the book concerns Corey, a boy who functioned as Loa’s friend, escape from the rest of the world, debate partner and sometime sex buddy.  He is gone, abruptly leaving for school in Europe.

Loa is left alone to trudge through each day.

What was the book’s intention? Was it achieved?
The description on The Freak Observer’s jacket simply says that it’s “about death, life, astrophysics, and finding beauty in chaos.” And that’s a smart move on their part. Because writing out all those things that are going on in Loa’s life during the course of the book make it sound like a total slog to read.  And it’s the opposite of a slog. It’s a fast ride through a tunnel, bursting out on a view of a city lit up at night.

a chicken!

Blythe Woolston has given Loa Angela Chase levels of introspection, but a darker sense of humor, and more poetic observational skills. For example, one of the first ways we learn about Esther is through a story about the first time Loa saw her as a kid, ending with this statement: “Esther is dead now. She was a defender of puppies and whacker of pigs, and now she is dead.” (4). And she watches everything in her life in that way, with a little detachment, but with care.  She takes the time to mention that “Chickens don’t always cluck…. When they are happy, they sort of hum–they chirp–they purr. The chickens are all around my mother waiting for her to make them happy. They are singing to her in their chicken way.” (19).  

Reading The Freak Observer is visceral in that it’s like looking at something’s insides.  It’s fascinating and vulnerable and bloody.  It’s for good reason that the (kickass) cover features a large photograph of a (human?) heart.  And the first person narration is used to full effect. Since Loa is narrating, the reader sees the world that Loa sees, and interprets people according to her views of them.  It also serves to stretch out terrible moments, like this one:

“…I didn’t see the rest of the picture right away.
Then I saw Esther.
My first thought was
Her heart has fallen out of her body.
I didn’t know that could happen. I didn’t know what to do. So I just froze there on the cutbank.
I don’t know how to put a heart back into a body.
It was the only thought I had, and it wasn’t very useful.
It seemed like a long time, but it wasn’t really, because Abel was right behind me, and he pushed me out of the way. I slid down the bank in the loose dirt and rocks. Then I just sat there where I fell. I watched Abel while he grabbed his sister and tried to make her be alive.
I could see that her heart hadn’t fallen out. The muscle on her arm had been torn away from the bone. It was just a lump of muscle. Her heart was safe inside her, but she was still dead.” (12-13).

Most wonderfully, this is a book about living with loneliness, done undramatically, as when Loa observes that:

“I’ve known a lot of people, grown up with people, and done stuff with people. I know what color their bedrooms are and if they like to eat a dill pickle before they go to sleep. I watched people outgrow sweatshirts. …But friendship is something more than breathing the same air or touching the same basketball.  Not much more, maybe, but something.” (74).

or when she remembers her dead dog Ket, saying: “I still miss Ket and the way he used to look at me like he wanted to know what I wanted him to know. It is the sort of look that can easily be mistaken for love.” (191).

But this isn’t a good book just because it describes those feelings and realizations so perfectly.  It’s a great book because it lets Loa grow and gives her a little relief and it does it naturally. None of the bad things about Loa’s life feel overwrought, and none of the better things feel like plot devices.That’s what good realistic fiction should be. I’m so glad that Rebecca recommended this little gem for me.


If I Stay
Gayle Forman
First person narration, heartwrenching subject matter. This one’s a little more forced in tone and execution but I didn’t care because I was too busy gulping it down and trying not to weep.  Mia narrates her days of trying to decide whether to stay in her broken body or die, after a car crash kills her parents.

Looking for Alaska
John Green
There’s something about the truthfulness of Loa’s voice that reminded me of John Green narration.  And they both have black covers with one lone photographic element. And there’s death in this one too.

Andromeda Klein
Frank Portman
I won’t lie, this book is hard to get into.  I almost stopped reading it. So in that way it’s nothing like The Freak Observer. But what it does have in common is a complex, loner girl protagonist who is rewarding to get to know and who feels real.

Disclosures & Digressions

Digression: Can I just say how impressed I was with Woolston’s dream descriptions? Usually dreams in fiction are such bald allegorical crap. Not so here.  Let me quote:

“The Bony Guy likes disguises.
I am watching a late-night show. There is a guest who tried to pay for a cruise with a  glossy photograph of the host. The host declares that it ought to be as good as money. It is a picture of him. people like him better than any of the guys on the money,don’t they? The audience applauds wildly. Then he has a quiz for all of us. Question 1: Would you watch a bunny rabbit eat some lettuce? Question 2: Would you watch a bird peck something dead by the side of the road? Question 3: would you watch dogs eat a live donkey? The audience applauds wildly.” (92-93)

Disclosure: Blythe Woolston sat at a table with me and other librarians at ALA last summer for 5 minutes to shill her books, and she was very personable.

Procured from: the library

Sharing Our Snacks: The Juniper Game

Welcome to another edition of Sharing Our Snacks, in which Rebecca and I each recommend YA brain food that they think the other would enjoy crunching and munching! Since I live in Pittsburgh and R lives in Philadelphia, we can no longer share an enormous middle-of-the-night bag of potato chips and tin of onion dip from Turkey Hill like we used to, so we had to find another way to share. You can recommend books to us, too—contact us!

The Juniper Game

Sherryl Jordan

Scholastic, 1991

Dylan, totally ready to find himself
Juniper, naively quirky
Marsha, don’t call her Mom
Niall, a “gypsy”
Kingsley, BMOC
Johanna, free spirit

What a feeling it is to find someone who “gets” you!  Especially when you’re a shy boy and she’s a beautiful, independent girl, and especially when it involves something as exciting as time travel. That is, until things stop being polite… and start getting real.


Gorgeous, socially savvy, vivacious and Medieval-things obsessed Juniper needs a partner-in-crime to go further in her explorations of psychic phenomena. Conveniently, there’s a new boy in school, Dylan Pidgely, who is a talented artist and on the same wavelength as Juniper. Now, if only everyone would stop worrying about their intense connection with each other and the 15th century that makes them ignore homework, disapproving boyfriends, babysitting duties and imploding families for days at a time!  Uh-oh – did that lady from the past actually see them?
Rebecca recommended this book to me because

“it’s a YA book that has quite a different backdrop than others of its sort, and I think you’ll appreciate the way a lot of ‘real-life issues’ are touched on subtly, even though they’re not the main story. More than that, though, this book (for me, and keep in mind that I first read it as a kid) captures the kind of potentially self-destructive obsession with a quest for fantasy or a life you think should be yours that I think might mean something to you. I’m not sure if you’ll love Juniper or hate her, but I can totally picture you dating a younger gypsy man with a caravan when you’re like 40.”

Ha! Thanks, Rebecca. I look forward to my Cougar Caravan phase of life. (I somewhat unwisely just googled “cougar caravan” and the 2nd image result was the teaser poster for Sex and the City 2.)

I was pretty psyched to read a young adult book from 1991.  Like watching movies from the 80s or 70s, there’s just no faking the atmosphere of something created in a different cultural milieu–not just the fashions or the slang, but the whole product ends up being slightly “other” – familiar, but distant.  For example, I don’t think that a novel today would use the modifier “huskily” for someone’s dialogue.

I’ve noticed that the characters in YA books from, say, before Y2K have a higher level of honesty when talking to each other. There’s just generally less secret-holding as a plot point. Parents and kids talk about their feelings more with each other.  For instance, Juniper’s mom calls Juniper out on some of the shitty ways she treats Dylan, and Dylan, on his end, has several talks with his dad about his parents’ still-new separation.  I’m sure there are many contemporary examples you could throw at me, and please do, but I also think that it was more of a thing for kids and adults to try to be real with each other and talk things over in books coming out of the 70s and through the 90s.
And, as R. mentioned, this book has a different take on its supranatural events.  I hope it goes without saying that I’m a huge fan of contemporary YA novels and genre books, but many of the paranormal romance books have settled into a pattern, and books written before that genre-pattern was set in place that deal with similar issues are that much more exciting to read.

meditation room at the UN

Not only does this book not offer a traditional power-reveal or love triangle, it also deals with time travel in a way that I haven’t seen or read about before (for extensive coverage of this, I recommend reading the timeslip reviews at Charlotte’s Library).  What starts as simple ESP exercises turns into meditative traveling to time, because everything is NOW and nothing is past and present. This was satisfyingly mystical and yet grounded in… hippie theories?  What Freud called airy-fairy stuff?  It had more of a background than most stories, but less than Michael Crichton’s Timeline, I guess is what I’m saying.

intention achievement
Although my synopsis was tongue-in-cheek, I really did enjoy reading The Juniper Game. For the reasons mentioned above, and because it really captures some key things about growing up: the levels of friendship that fluctuate between people, the manic episodes of laughter between friends, the regret for being blind to your parents being real people, the anger at your parents for not seeing you as a person.  At the same time it fulfills teenage fantasies — parents indulgently allowing drinking and a medieval-times-obsessed girl who sleeps in a bedroom with a straw covered floor and is super-popular at school and not socially awkward.

One very important element of the story is finding a world where you fit. Dylan is an awkward kid to begin with and you can tell that he loves his family but they’re kind of boring to him. He’s waiting to find a place to be himself, so he can finally be himself. And then Juniper shows up.  She lives in a house that sounds like a modern architect reinvented the log cabin with her mom, who she refers to as “Marsha”.   Marsha dates a back-to-the woods guy named Niall.  (He lives in the aforementioned gypsy caravan). They kiss each other and talk about making love in front of the kids. There’s a meditation room in the house, and Juniper basically gets to indulge her obsessions however she’d like, which lets her be a truly creative and self-directed young lady and also oblivious as to when she’s being selfish.

caravan by tomylees on Flickr

But the thing is, Dylan doesn’t care that Juniper sometimes sounds impatient with him, or doesn’t acknowledge their friendship at school, or the fact that she has more fun with Dylan than with her suave but short-tempered boyfriend, Kingsley.  He’s found somewhere to geek out, somewhere to be comfortable.  He’s found his cool friend – this is a term my friend Liz introduced me to in high school. She insisted that I was her cool friend – the friend she was excited to introduce her other friends to because it made her look better — but I was equally convinced that she was mine.  But there’s a darker interpretation.  The cool friend is also the friend you might let walk all over you a little bit, because you’re a little insecure of your place in the relationship, because although you have fun with them, you don’t feel as cool as the cool friend.  So as I was reading The Juniper Game, that experience really rang true to me.

I also think it was successful as a portrayal of the dangers of the mystic.  When things get hairy near the end of the book, the terror is real, and it’s powered by the fear of the unknown. Dylan and Juniper have messed with uncharted territory, so when they are pulled deeper into the adventure than anticipated, it’s really scary. I felt like anything could happen. Even though I was pretty sure that things would turn out okay.


The Books of Fell by M.E. Kerr – for a similar classic-era YA style and another unattainable girl.

Things Change by Patrick Jones A very realistic treatment of obsession between two people and the rotten things that can emerge from it.

The Brood by David Cronenberg – What happens when you mess with forces beyond your control through experimental anger therapy

Espers – this Philadelphia band would probably be the ideal soundtrack for medieval time travel

disclosure / digression
1. Rebecca – I couldn’t help but imagine you reading this as a teen and wanting to be Juniper, and it was great.
2. Sometimes books put me in mind of the music that should be their representative, apart from Espers, Belly is the band for The Juniper Tree, specifically the song “Dancing Gold” from the Baby Silvertooth EP.
3. But the other song that was constantly in my head while I was reading this was an old folk song called either The Juniper Tree or Old Sister Phoebe, sung very nicely by the Seegers on American Folk Songs for Children. You can check out the description and lyrics here, and I’ll just note that their interpretation of why it’s a juniper tree gives me an interesting interpretation of why Marsha may have named her daughter Juniper.

More Thrilling Than a Very Thrilling Thing From the Planet Yes!: Thirsty

Welcome to Sharing Our Snacks, in which Tessa and I each recommend YA brain food that they think the other would enjoy crunching and munching! Since T lives in Pittsburgh and I live in Philadelphia, we can no longer share an enormous middle-of-the-night bag of potato chips and tin of onion dip from Turkey Hill like we used to, so we had to find another way to share. You can recommend books to us, too—contact us!

A Review of Thirsty by M.T. Anderson

Candlewick, 1997

By REBECCA, February 20, 2012


Chris: Vaguely Dissatisfied Teen Protagonist Awkwardly Turning Into a Vampire

Rebecca Schwartz: Crush, On a Pedestal

Tom: Douchebag Old Friend

Jerk: Poignantly Stupid and Loyal Old Friend

Paul: Chris’ Brother, Film Enthusiast

Mom & Dad: Chris’ Parents, Preoccupied and Concerned By Turns

Self-Proclaimed Avatar of the Forces of Light, aka Chet: Mysterious Stranger

Lolli Chasuble: Hilarious

Tch’muchgar: Vampire Lord and All-Around Bummer

Various and Sundry Children of the Melancholy One: Vampires


Chris is turning into a vampire in a totally non-romantic way while he is also forced to be that most curséd of all beings, a teenager.


There may be vampires, but Thirsty’s world is not a fantasy in which goodness is repaid with goodness. In fact, being a good guy doesn’t count for anything. Or, in other words: realism.

When Tessa recommended Thirsty to me, she feared that her intense love for M.T. Anderson might prevent her from being objective, and wondered how I thought it stacked up against other vampire novels. I began reading Thirsty with this in mind, but soon decided that I didn’t think it belonged in comparison with vampire novels at all. The majority of vampire novels break down into categories based on perspective. Historically, vampires were portrayed as an outside threat (Bram Stoker’s Dracula); then, in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, stories are told from the perspectives of the vampires themselves. Most recently, the trend has been to view vampires from the perspective of one or two lucky initiates who are privy to their world (Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, Annette Kurtis Klaus’ The Silver Kiss) or for vampirism to be a well-known fact to which only our narrator and a few other characters are sympathetic (L.J. Smith’s Vampire Diaries, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series).

While Thirsty is also set in a world where vampirism is a well-known (and much-maligned) fact, this is no romance in which Chris’ emerging vampirism is seen as sexy or cool, nor is it an adventure in which he will flee his repressive circumstances to find a vampire community that will accept him. Instead, the entirety of Thirsty is set in the space of Chris’ transformation into a vampire, and this is totally horrifying. In fact, what Thirsty most reminded me of was the film District 9, which dealt with the similar revulsion of turning into something alien that you have no control over. That, then, is the heart of the novel. The main action, indeed, occurs because Chris is willing to do anything in an attempt to reverse his transformation. Throughout, he is alternately bored with his friends and his life or terrified of himself and what he might do. Reading Thirsty, Anderson succeeded in making me feel similarly claustrophobic and squirmy.

But the real prize for me is Anderson’s writing. Tessa tells me, “The way that he writes people’s inner monologues could be seen as unrealistic… but on the other hand I feel like the mix of deadpan dispassion and earnest obsession that creeps through it is kind of authentic.” I couldn’t agree more. Anderson’s prose is extremely flexible, ranging from lyrical description to amusing juxtaposition of the banal and the unexpected. This means that Thirsty shifts facilely from scenes of funny social drama to moments of poignant reflection to periods of grotesque desperation. You will thank me for a few examples:

Check out this gorgeousness:

“The leaves are so fragile, an infant green, they look almost frightened when they first cluster at the joints and elbows of the trees in the yard” (126).

And this hilarity in a letter from Lolli Chasuble:

“P.S. I don’t have a boyfriend right now. There was this guy I had a total crush on at school—he was a complete H-U-N-K-O-R-A-M-A—did I want to get inside his shorts! And he would have been mine, too, except that after the car crash his parents had him C-R-E-M-A-T-E-D!” (63).

And my favorite:

“‘It was a wicked good film,’ says Jerk, ‘but a little bloody. Bloodier than a very bloody thing from the planet Hemorrhage.’” (22).

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

I think Thirsty’s intention was to dramatize the all-consuming (literally, in this case) horror of being helpless against a force that you cannot control or understand. In that, it completely succeeds. Although the forces with which Chris contends are preternatural, Thirsty will speak loudly to anyone who has had the experience of thinking boredom was bad only to have it superseded by something worse, of not knowing who to trust, of feeling like their own body was turning against them, of feeling out of control or addicted . . . That is, most everyone.

If Thirsty has one weakness, it is that we are dropped into the middle of a character’s life at a moment when a major change has already begun, leaving Chris’ characterization a bit shallow and not allowing us to see the range of his relationships with the other characters as we might if the story took place over a longer period of time. Overall, though, this lack of deep familiarity with Chris feeds into the intense alienation that we experience when reading about his transformation into a vampire.

personal disclosure

It doesn’t take much to convince me to meditate on the total horror of becoming alienated from oneself. It does, however, take some fine-ass writing and great secondary characters to make me want to read about it in a high school freshman. Two fangs up.


Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride (2010). Shares a slapdash approach to coping with the sudden revelation of that our protagonist is not merely human, as well as a keen eye for gruesome hilarity.

Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas (1996). Similar use of humor in a self-reflective main character who is going through some shit, from the man who would later bring us Veronica Mars. Mmm, I have to re-read that.

Procured from: the library

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