Great Graphic Novels 2015 Noms: One-Off Fantasy/Magical Adventures

by Tessa

Read about the whys of this series here.

Possibly my favorite genre of comics, and one of the larger lists to be culled from the nominations this year – graphic works are suited for describing the fantastic if done well, and there’s a lot of fun and variety in these selections, so if yo u find your attention waning partway through, please take a break and come back to appreciate the back end of the list with fresh eyes.


Sing No Evil

JP Ahonen, writer

KP Alare, artist


Anticipation/Expectation level: Another one I’m on hold for – excited to read this! Although the comics I’ve read about people in bands are usually disappointing, this one looks like it could be fun.

Art Taste:



The Gigantic Beard that was Evil

Stephen Collins, writer and artist


Anticipation/Expectation level: Based on the title, pretty high?

My Reality: It’s one of those gentle stunners of a book that is somewhere closer to adult picture book on the graphic novel spectrum. A fable-like story about an island named here where everything is in its place, surrounded by a sea that leads to There, an unknown place of frightening chaos. An inhabitant of the island has one hair on his chin that goes haywire, causing problems for all of the island’s society and culture.

The text is gentle, with a sure tone and an almost-rhyming feel. It is very rhythmic and I sang part of it to my cats as part of their integration therapy. The art is penciled, with a sense of lighting that adds to the otherworldliness and gravity of the story. Collins balances the softness of his pencils and the lulling of his words with the helplessness of the unknown that lurks beneath both. It is a treat.

Will teens like it?: Yes, it doesn’t have an immediate hook apart from the great title, but it’s not hard to get into and provides its own rewards.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes – much like The Arrival, this is the kind of book that isn’t marketed towards teens but would be great to use in a book club, to introduce to an arts loving teenager or foist upon a book club with success, because there’s not really an impediment to getting something from it other than the thought that it might not be like what one is used to reading.

Art Taste:

The Gigantic Beard that was Evil



Ananth Panagariya, writer

Tessa Stone, artist

Oni Press

Anticipation/Expectation level: It looked fun, but I knew nothing of it going in. I like the name Tessa.

My Reality: Like Hicks’ and Shen’s Nothing Can Possibly Go WrongBuzz! is a solid entry into the teen high school slightly off adventure comic market. It’s easy to pick up off the shelf and recommend because it’s a new concept (underground spelling bees) running on standard tropes (outsiders who used to be insiders take on powerful conglomerate with the help of a talented newbie, betrayal from sort of within happens). And there’s nothing that is objectionable unless you object to a hint of magic. The action starts quickly and escalates quickly and the art is dynamic, hitting a spot between Faith Erin Hicks and Brian Lee O’Malley (as does the tone of the story). In short: fun.

For me, the action was a bit too quick and I never felt any resonance with the characters or their struggles, everyone was a bit too blithe. However, I don’t really count my feelings as meaning much because I’m not the ideal audience for this book. I don’t think it’s meant to be resonant, and I don’t think it has to be to be a successful comic. In fact, as a teen services librarian I wish for more of these fun, one-off books for my shelves.

Will teens like it?: Yes.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.

Art Taste:



Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem

Steve Niles and Matt Santoro, writers

Dave Wachter, artist

Dark Horse

Anticipation/Expectation level: I’v always been a fan of golems.  I was interested to see what this book would do to distinguish itself in the saturated WWII market. (Pretty sure there are even already books about golems in WWII).

My Reality: A straightforward tale, as far as a tale about using a Golem against Nazis goes. A boy loses his father to World War… One, I think. Or two. Anyway, enough time that he grows up a bit in between. He’s waiting in a small village with his grandfather and other elderly people, all Jewish or mostly Jewish. He’s still waiting when a plane crashes outside of town. This is bad, because it is an Allied pilot who will bring scrutiny from Nazis. There is barely enough time to flee, so his grandfather entrusts  him with the secret of golem-making, and makes a Golem.

In keeping with the folsky, mythical vibe of the Golem, the tale is focused on the elemental parts of the story: good over evil, nobility over greed, sons discovering their strength in the absence of fathers and father figures. The Golem itself is elemental: the protection of earth and faith. The historical detail of the story adds another layer of pathos and dignity. And the art is gorgeous: detailed, black and white with a nice flowing sense of space and shadow, highlighted by brushy washes of grey and black. Unfortunately, by focusing on the elemental parts of the story, the story ends up being kind of forgettable. It’s evocative during reading, but might fade from the mind over time, merging with other golems or other WWII tales.

Will teens like it?: I can see some teens liking it.

Is it “great” for teens?: It’s good. I don’t know if it crosses over to great. For teens. But I bet someone else could argue it.

Art Taste:



The Undertaking of Lily Chen

Danica Novgorodoff, writer and artist

First Second

Anticipation/Expectation level: High, because I read Slow Storm and Refresh, RefreshI loved those books and was excited to read a longer work with a more clearly defined plot from Novgorodoff.

My Reality: If The Undertaking of Lily Chen were a movie it would be a fast talking movie in the mold of 30s and 40s flicks and it would be a farce, only set in China and having to do with a less-loved son finding a corpse to bury with his dead, too-venerated older brother. It’s a strange mix but one that works – Novgorodoff is good at finding the groove in uneasiness.

The main story is a chase/road trip type format, with Deshi Li dealing with the abrupt and violent end of his brother (by his hands), his place within his family, and his desperation to find a corpse or someone to murder to become a corpse bride. He runs into Lily Chen, who is brassy and adventurous in contrast to Deshi’s sad and anxious mode. She is trying to get to Shanghai from the poor countryside by any means possible. She becomes Deshi’s target and companion. The story, as it is, is not the strongest part of the book. The central idea of the ghost marriage as an impetus is interesting, but not enough to sustain the whole book – that would fall on Deshi’s shoulders, and he never really proves himself as a main character. Lily, being the titular character and the more naturally active person, is compelling, but so concerned with her movement away from her past that it’s hard to admire more than her gumption.

What really pulls everything together is the art. Sweeping, melancholy vistas of mountains. Twlight and dawn-light. Out of body experiences. Novgorodoff mixes delicate watercolors with pen-line shadows and outlined characters, the exaggerated with the realistic, creating a world slightly beyond the real.

Will teens like it?: Yes. It’s intriguing and well-paced.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes  – the shortcomings of the characterization are balanced out by the art and themes that emerge near the end.

Art Taste:

lilychen lilychen2


Moonhead and the Music Machine

Andrew Rae, writer and artist

Nobrow Press

Anticipation/Expectation level: I like Nobrow.

My Reality: This hit all the sweet spots for me. Palpable depictions of awkwardness that lead to heartwarming scenes of celebration of being weird. Joey Moonhead has a moon for a head. No one talks about it, but he and his family are the only ones who are visibly different from all the other humanoids. Joey is out of it and kind of shy, but he wants to build a music machine for a talent show. His first attempt is pitiful but he is discovered by a new friend – a ghost-person, dresssed in a sheet, who is kind of a musical genius, and he blows off his long time buddy to pursue the dream.  I found it to be relatable, a story that has been told, but a heartfelt, personal take on it that works. Rae’s art is all clear lines with a great sense of storytelling beats through the pacing of the panels. And he draws great creatures.

Will teens like it?: Teens might think it’s too weird or off their usual path, but I bet they would like it if they gave it a chance. Or they might think its message is too simple.

Is it “great” for teens?: I think it’s great!

Art Taste:




Down Set Fight!

Chad Bowers and Chris Sims, writers

Scott Kowalchuk, artist

Oni Press

Anticipation/Expectation level: Verging from neutral to vaguely wary about sports content.

My Reality: Down Set Fight! is unapologetically a book about fighting. To be specific, it’s about a football player who is most famous for fighting on field and has abandoned his career and aged into being a high school coach. Until mascots start seeking him out to fight him. (There’s also a back story with his sleazy dad.) The fun the writers had dreaming up the mascots is readily apparent, and although there’s a mystery element to the plot, it is really all about Chuck fighting mascots and figuring out why they want to fight him. It’s all done with a sense of whimsy and over-the-top violence that isn’t gruesome or realistic in anyway, and I admire that.

Will teens like it?: You could sell this to a teen.

Is it “great” for teens?: I don’t know if it’s great. I’m on the fence.

Art Taste:



Beautiful Darkness

Fabien Vehlmann, writer

Kerascoët, artists

Drawn & Quarterly

Anticipation/Expectation level: Read a preview of this last year and really, really wanted to read it.

My Reality: Possibly one of the best books I’ve read, period. It is beautiful and terrible – terrible in the sense of being deeply frightening. Or maybe the right word is horror, or is there a word of witnessing the consequences of bad decisions or acts of god(s) and being struck by the impassive blankness of nature? It’s that. There are very visceral moments in here that will stay with a person.

So, the book is about these tiny fairy-ish people who emerge from the body of a dead girl in a forest. It’s not clear who they are or how they ended up in the body but they now have to survive in the forest. Some are oblivious to the dangers, some scheme to get power, some try to help out, some go out on their own. The team of Kerascoët is the perfect choice to illustrate this world, with their sure, delicate pen lines and richly colored, realistic backgrounds.

Why should I say more when you could be reading this book?

Will teens like it?: Yes. It might scar younger readers, but will also fascinate them.

Is it “great” for teens?: I mean… it’s great.

Art Taste:



Great Graphic Novels 2015 Noms: Sci-Fi

by Tessa

Read about why I’m reading these here.

I had 4 sci-fi titles bunched up together. Two of them are not going to make it to my eyes in time.


Ringworld, an adaptation of the sci-fi classic by Seven Seas, could not be procured even through my library system’s excellent ILL department, and I don’t think I’d like it enough to spend money on a digital copy. I would if I were actually on the committee, but luckily I don’t have to. It sounds like a cool idea, and I am tempted to read the original prose novel.


I am sad that my library does not have Rust V.3: Death of the Rocket Boy, by Royden Lepp, because it’s been out since May of 2014. This is a series, originally published by Archaia, that I’ve been following since it first came out. Each of its volumes has made it onto the Great Graphic Novels list, and last year the 2nd volume was in our top 10. I want to read the next (last?) installment of this story in an alternate historical time about a jet-pack/boy and his adventures in Canadian farmland. But I’m willing to bet that it makes it on the list again this year. I would buy a copy but it wouldn’t make it to me in time. Bad planning, me.

But anyway, on to what I did manage to read:


The Woods Volume 1: The Arrow

James Tynion IV, writer

Michael Dialynas, artist

BOOM! Studios  

Anticipation/Expectation Level: It was on my radar but I didn’t know anything about it other than the cover looked cool.

My Reality: I had so much fun reading this. In many ways it’s very much a classic high school adventure, but the high school is suddenly transplanted to an alien planet with an extra-mysterious conspiracy added in (I will say no more about that). There’s a survival/road-trip element as a group of the students head out with a super-smart loner at their head, following him because he says he knows whats going on and because the scene inside the school itself is turning into a shitshow, with the gym teacher using all of his Machiavelli against the go-getter Student President, with the principal as a pawn between them. The jocks, nerds, and everyone in-between have roles to play. It gets heavy in a couple of places, but mostly maintains its humor within the tense situations. I loved the coloring here – very purply and saturated.

Will Teens Like It?: Yes, I can see myself booktalking this one for summer reading or something.
Is it “great” for teens?: yes.

Art Taste:

dinosaurnow ourfuture


Alex + Ada Volume 1

Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, writers

Jonathan Luna, artist


Anticipation/Expectation Levels: Pretty much the same as The Woods.

My Reality: Yay! This is speculative sci-fi that explores technology, identity, AI, android rights, loneliness, responsibility, and grandmothers who mean well. Luna’s style of drawing is perfect – very realistic and flat, with an eye for subtle changes in facial expressions. I almost feel like Alex is too good to be true, but I have to remind myself that there are guys out there who wouldn’t be total creeps in this situation. And he may change in the following issues. If you can’t tell from the cover and my rambling, Alex is gifted a robot companion by his grandma because she thinks he is being depressed for too long after his breakup. Alex is weirded out that Ada, the android, has no opinions and defers to his wants and needs. So he decides to figure out what to do about it.

Will Teens Like it?: Yes

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.

Art Taste:


Great Graphic Novels Noms 2015: Memoir and Contemporary Stories

by Tessa

Read about this series of posts here.

FUN FACT: All of the selections today are by writer-artists (one person writes and draws the book). They are the singer-songwriters of the comics world.


El Deafo

Cece Bell, writer and artist

Amulet Books

Anticipation/Expectation Level: I’d heard lotsa good things about this one.

My Reality: All the praise is deserved. It’s a mildly fictionalized memoir about Cece Bell growing up with deafness, outside of the Deaf community – it’s about feeling awkward because she’s afraid she looks so different and because of the challenges of navigating a world that doesn’t always make the allowances it should for a lip-reading child, and it’s also about basic growing up stuff: friendships, family, school. Bell has a good ear for social detail and her chronicles of trying to find a true friend and feeling lonely will win her many readers (I hope). And she’s also funny.

Will teens like it?: Yes. Fans of Raina Telgemeier and The Wimpy Kid/Big Nate will be into this for sure.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.

Art Taste:



All Star

Jesse Lonergan, writer and artist

NBM ComicsLit

Anticipation/Expectation Level: None. I knew nothing about this going in.

My Reality: Great realistic fiction which I think sometimes is thin on the ground in the comics world, especially for the high school level. All Star is squarely high school oriented. It’s not the baseball story that the cover may lead you to believe it is. It’s about the golden boy becoming aware of his golden boy privileges and trying to do the right thing. I’m always fascinated to read about fictional or nonficitonal characters trying to do the right thing. (All Star may seem autobiographical but it’s not). Lonergan writes clean, beautiful action pages that made baseball not so boring even for me. His characters are exaggerated – a little boxy like Jeff Lemire’s but more like walking skeletons.

Will Teens Like it?: Teens might not get all the cultural references going on, but hopefully that won’t turn them away from the story.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yeah.

Art Taste:



Tomboy: a graphic memoir

Liz Prince, writer and artist

Zest Books

Anticipation/expectation level: I got a personal recommendation for this from several people whose taste I trust.

My Reality: Loved it! Prince doesn’t try to tamp down on the ambiguity of her feelings about how she wants to be in the world. Because these go against culturally built up norms for gender expression she struggles with how she feels about girly things, how she has been taught to think about being a girl, and how she feels comfortable and if that has to fit into a gendered behavior. But it’s told as a story that is open, using a black and white, thin-lined style that I think of as “refined sketchbook cartoon” – really accessible and enjoyable for a huge age range.

Will Teens Like It?: I put this on display on Tuesday and a teen immediately picked it up.

Is it “great” for teens?: YES.

Art Taste:



I Think I Am In Friend-Love With You

Yumi Sakugawa, writer and artist

Adams Media

Anticipation/Expectation Level: I had read this on Tumblr or something before it was published. I thought it was cute to a point.

My Reality: I like how the format: small and square, with one text panel and one picture to each spread, makes the reading go more slowly. More like a picture book for adults. Sakugawa has a very appealing drawing style. The narrator of this book is a of a monstery design, sort of a cyclops Cousin It. She draws with a thin, textured pencil line, with a good eye for design. While I have experienced friend crushes and support the idea of more talk about the importance of friend-love and friendship as sustaining relationships, I feel like this book is more about friend-crush desperation. A reviewer at Rookie reads it as an exchange between the crusher and crushee, but I see it as a long declaration from the protagonist to an oblivious friend crush. A declaration that would make most people uncomfortable because it lacks confidence. And it is steeped in the social media world of today, and those references will become dated and take away from the chance of this being a classic book with a universal message. So I can’t fully get behind this as a great book but I do think it is cute and harmless – even maybe confidence building?

Will Teens Like it?: Yeah, this is built for sharing on Tumblr.

Is it “great” for Teens: I don’t know. I see it more as a novelty picture book?

Art Taste:


Summer Reads Pt. 1: Celebrated Summer and This One Summer

by Tessa


Summer: anything can happen, freedom, transitional state of adolescence, blah blah blah. I just read a bunch of books set in summer! Two were more high schooly and two were more middle schooly, so I’ll cover them in two parts.

Celebrated Summer

Charles Forsman

Fantagraphic Books, 2013



The cover copy calls this a “graphic novella” because it’s relatively short. I call it “self-aware nostalgia” because the narrator, Wolff, is thinking about this one time that he and his friend Mike took LSD and decided to drive to the beach from their small town in Pennsylvania (Forsman is from Mechanicsburg so I’m picturing there). But even as he’s recalling it he doesn’t think it’s magical. Yet he’s not feeling sorry for himself.

Forsman has a spare line that still manages to capture summer days that are unrelentingly hot and humid. Or maybe it’s the way he writes Wolff, who is drifting and so uncomfortable in his skin, but not ready to do anything about it, that is coming through in the atmosphere of the book. In the same way, the LSD in Wolff’s body warps his environment, so he stops knowing what’s inside and what’s outside:



More previews at Fantagraphics!

Forsman is really good at pacing his panels. Some of them unspool like frames of film, he always pauses for reactions that make the story flow as if it were in real time, giving conversations real pauses, and some, going off into pure abstraction, still follow their own logic.

I also really liked his The End of the Fucking World, and recommend it. And he runs(?) this comics press/distro called Oily that sells subscriptions and it looks pretty rad. Do more research about it than I just did here, on its site.


This One Summer

Written by Mariko Tamaki, Drawn by Jillian Tamaki

First Second, 2014



Hope I’m not scooping you on a review, Rebecca, because I know how much you loved Skim. (Regardless I’d like to read your review of this book, though).

I’m including This One Summer on the high schooly side of things even though it’s about two kids on the cusp of adolescence. Because Rose and Windy are obsessed with the high school/post high school kids at Awago Beach. Because it’s also nostalgic in a way, being that Rose is thinking back to previous summers compared to this one. And it has adult intrigue that Rose understands, but adults reading it will connect to on another level. I think that whatever age reads this book will get different things out of it, and it’s a book to keep coming back to to measure yourself against the feelings it gives you.

It’s gorgeous, no surprise, since Jillian Tamaki is fantastic and wonderful. It’s printed in blue inks, and the lines are brushstrokes. J. T.’s figures are simplified enough that eyes don’t have separate pupils and irises, but retain a sense of depth and weight in the space of the image, so a realism comes through. The backgrounds and splash pages are delicate, detailed, and finely observed, like obsessive studies for full on paintings, grounding the story in place.

The story is Rose’s summer at Awago Beach, where her family has been going forever. She has a beach friend named Windy, who’s a bit younger than her. This summer she has a crush on the video store clerk, he’s having drama with his maybe girlfriend, and her parents are not getting along. Her mom won’t go to the beach and she’s pushing Rose’s dad away. It’s a summer made of moments, and some of them will affect Rose in obvious, rememberable ways, and some of them are the kind that pass by and come back in embarrassment or with a laugh years later, or might never be remembered at all. Here we get to see them play out and wonder which are which. Mariko Tamki is fantastic and wonderful as well, writing another layered and immediate story, with characters that are perfectly themselves.



Back To School, Young Adult Style

by REBECCA, September 18, 2013

my so called lifeNo matter what age I am, September is Back To School month. The smell of new pencils + paper + too much hairspray  is in the air, summer is over (thank god!), and the start of a new year makes it seem like anything’s possible. I love that feeling. So, since I don’t get to start school, being long past that age, here is a list of my all-time favorite Back To School YA!

Harry Potter by J.K. RowlingOne of my favorite YA tropes is the Starting A New School trope! The Harry Potter books are perhaps the greatest Starting A New School books ever, because the new school Harry’s starting is a school of WITCHCRAFT AND FREAKING WIZARDRY. I find Starting A New School books so satisfying because the reader gets a crash course in what may as well be a whole new world—new social landscape, new rules, new potential disasters, etc. It also capitalizes on what is, for most of us, a pretty familiar feeling: the self-consciousness that comes from not knowing where you’re going to fit in. In the Harry Potter books, there’s also, of course, the anxiety that comes from knowing that in addition to having to start school and learn that magic exists, you also have an evil nemesis who wants you dead. Now that’s first-day anxiety for you.

If Harry Potter is the most exciting Starting A New School series, my favorite has to be The Secret Circle series. As I wrote in my plea for people to read this amazing series even though the CW made an abysmal show based upon it, Cassie’s experience starting a new school has all the components that make the experience both so dramatic and so banal. Starting a new school always necessitates:

The Secret Circle by L.J. Smitha.) An evaluation of who the character is and who she wants to be, sometimes resulting in delicious tension when she decides to reinvent herself but some event causes her old traits to out.

b.) The anthropological assessment of the new school—you know, what clique does the mysterious soul in your math class belong to; who, exactly, eats at the tables by the windows during lunch; does the fact that the intimidating girl in your writing class can cause spontaneous combustion mean she’s part of a local coven . . . you know, just the usual.

c.) The shaking up of the status quo. Every time a character arrives in a new social setting, she necessarily changes it; it’s like the observer effect. Naturally, some people welcome change while others resist it. This creates . . . drama!

Winger by Andrew SmithAs we have well established on Crunchings & Munchings, we love boarding school books, and they are often the most dramatic of the Starting A New School books, since that experience is not just about school but about life too. One of my favorite books of the year, Winger, by Andrew Smith, is a wonderful boarding school book. It’s not strictly a new school, since Ryan Dean West attended it the year before, but it may as well be, because this year he’s been put in a new dorm (for trouble makers), which changes his whole experience and his friend group, giving him a new best friend (not to mention some new enemies). The Tragedy Paper, by Elizabeth LaBan, tells the story of Tim Macbeth, a recent transfer to boarding school, and what leads to a tragedy that a returning student writes about a year later. In Openly Straight, by Bill Konigsberg, Rafe is a teenager who’s been openly gay since 8th grade, but is sick of being The Gay Guy. He decides to go away to boarding school where no one knows him and decides that he simply won’t mention being gay. It’s a great book about how much the stories we tell about ourselves impact how we’re perceived.

The Secret History by Donna TarttThough the New School in question is a college rather than a high school, The Secret History, by Donna Tartt (one of my favorite books EVER), is a perfect Starting A New School book because Richard Papen, who moves from bland suburban California to attend a small liberal arts college in Vermont, is such an outsider. Through his eyes, even the styles of jeans his new classmates wear are unfamiliar. Janice Harrell’s The Secret Diary series, which, as I discuss HERE, is a near-total ripoff of The Secret History set in high school, is also a satisfying Starting A New School book. Joanna, like Richard Papen, starts a new school and immediately falls in with a tight clique of students who are hiding a terrible secret.

Twilight by Stephanie MeyerWhatever I think about the Twilight series (and most of it is unflattering), the first book is a great Starting A New School book because of Bella’s relationship with Edward. I thought the movie did a particularly good job of capturing that confluence of new school weirdness and my-lab-partner’s-a-mind-reader weirdness. Of course, it would have been more interesting told from Edward’s point of view, which would then make it an Interesting New Student book. I was curious to read Midnight Sun, the retelling of Twilight from Edward’s perspective . . . until I read it and it was really boring. Sidebar: being able to read minds would totally change the way you view the world; why doesn’t anyone get it right?

Wonder by R.J. PalacioIn Jennifer Lavoie’s Andy Squared, twins Andrew and Andrea Morris have always shared everything—including their future plans—or so they thought. When new student Ryder arrives from Texas, he changes Andrew’s life and shows him that his future isn’t as set in stone as Andrea has made him think. R.J. Palacio’s Wonder is told from multiple perspectives, making it both a Starting A New School book (for Auggie) and an Interesting New Student book (for everyone else). Auggie, born with a facial deformity, has always been home schooled. When his parents convince him to try out school for the first time, Auggie has a lot of new experiences, but his classmates’ experiences are just as significant. Other Back To School hybrids include Siobhan Vivian’s Same Difference, featuring a teen from suburban NJ who attends a summer art school program in Philadelphia and Deborah Hautzig’s Hey, Dollface, in which Val and Chloe are new to each other, forming a close friendship because they’re the only ones who think their NYC prep school classmates are lame.

So, what about you? What are your favorite Starting A New School and Interesting New Student books? Tell me in the comments!

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.

Lisa Jenn Bigelow: “Put your characters through the wringer!”

Today at Crunchings & Munchings we’re proud to welcome Lisa Jenn Bigelow, author of Starting From Here. It’s a new contemporary fiction title that we co-reviewed/discussed on Wednesday (click through to find out what it’s all about).  She joins us today to talk about how coming out is still hard to do, diversity in YA fiction, the dreaded “dead dog book”, and where to eat in Pittsburgh.  Yay!

Starting From Here Lisa Jenn Bigelow

C&M: I really liked that this was a story about the way kids’ lives can be really hard when they don’t have money. Can you talk a little bit about why it was important to you to portray characters that had material concerns as well as social concerns?

LJB: I grew up in a working class neighborhood. Both my parents had higher education, but they were in the minority. And while we always had enough money, we were careful, and I grew up hyperaware of how much things cost. When I got to middle and high school, several affluent neighborhoods joined the mix, and social tiers became obviously tied to economics. The popular kids, the preps, the student council, many of the athletes—they were from the rich (by my hometown’s standards, anyway) neighborhoods. You couldn’t not notice that.

I think well-off kids are the norm in YA books, and when money’s an issue, often it comes out as abject poverty. I wanted to represent the kids around the corner from me, the kids on the line between being “haves” and “have-nots.” That’s an underrepresented segment of the American population. Especially in today’s economic climate, I think those kids are the majority.

lisa jenn bigelow and carly

Photo by David Sutton

C&M: There have been more and more queer characters in YA books being published in the last few years. Have you noticed any trends (or types, or stereotypes) that have begun to emerge within these books? Did you find yourself trying to embrace/resist/complicate any of these with your own characters?

LJB: On the whole, I think we’re moving away from stereotypes and toward greater diversity. We’re seeing more queer girls and trans characters. We’re seeing more characters of color and different cultures. We’re seeing more stories that move beyond the “coming out” sub-genre. We’re seeing more genre fiction—fantasy and science fiction and even historical fiction—starring queer characters.

One of my favorite trends is the growing recognition of the fluidity of sexuality and gender. Characters aren’t so quick to label themselves. They’re more comfortable following their hearts without taking a hard line on whether a particular attraction makes them gay or bi or what-have-you. That’s something I really liked about Very LeFreak, by Rachel Cohn, which stars a girl who might best be described as pansexual—if she were one to care about labels.

very lefreak rachel cohen

In Starting from Here, Colby identifies strongly as gay, but the two girls she’s involved with don’t want—or aren’t ready—to label themselves that way. I want teens to know that it’s totally okay not to. I think it’s more important to simply feel what you feel at any given moment and to accept those feelings without judging yourself or worrying about “what it makes you.”

C&M: What do you think of the cover? I’m super into it – no generic photograph of a person staring off into the middle distance — and it reminds me of the iconic David Levithan covers. I especially like how the truck is pink and the heart is yellow. Did you have any input on it?  Were you hoping for a certain vibe from the cover?

LJB: The cover’s awesome—no thanks to me. My nightmare was actually that the cover would be a stock photo of an empty country road with one of those yellow diamond-shaped road signs with the title printed on it. So I was thrilled with what the designer came up with. I think it’s very appealing and distinctive from the slew of stock-photo-girl covers out there. I do love that it evokes David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, and also the hardcover edition of Lauren Myracle’s Peace, Love, and Baby Ducks—two great books by two of my favorite authors.

peace love and baby ducks lauren myracle  boy meets boy david levithan

C&M: Starting From Here is set in rural-y Michigan. What’s your connection with the area and why did you decide to set it there?

LJB: I grew up in the Kalamazoo area—technically in Portage, which is a smallish city just south of Kalamazoo proper. It has one huge, commercial road running through the center of town, but drive a mile or two to either side, and you basically end up in the country. Cornfields, trailer parks, lakes and nature preserves. My own neighborhood was right near the commercial center, but over the course of eighteen years, I got a feel for just about the whole town. It’s all remained very vivid to me, plus I get a refresher course every time I visit my parents.

The culture of the area is just as important. When Starting from Here was on submission, there were actually editors who expressed confusion as to why Colby had qualms about coming out to her father. I think that’s cosmopolitan New York talking. Anyone who follows the news should know that in most of America (including New York), coming out can still be a dangerous thing. Coming out can mean being harassed, ostracized, disowned, assaulted, or even killed. Kalamazoo County may have gone Blue in the 2012 presidential election, but Southwest Michigan is, overall, a pretty conservative area. Things have changed for the better there since I was a teen, but I wanted to reflect the reality that things are still far from perfect.

kalamazoo michigan

Kalamazoo by Dave Sizer on flickr (creative commons)

C&M: Mo the dog is a huge part of the story, and in some ways the heart of the story (please forgive me for that cheesy phrasing). Rebecca and I, as devoted cat owners and animal lovers, were both very touched by Mo’s inclusion. So we wanted to thank you for showing the responsibility and love that pet ownership entails! Although, thankfully, this is not a dead dog story, those types of stories are notoriously divisive. Where do you come down on the Old Yeller issue? Do you have a dog?

LJB: Funny you should bring up Old Yeller. The very first chapter of the very first draft of Starting from Here had Colby talking about how she’d read that book over and over again, until she didn’t have any tears left. That’s how I feel about “dead dog books” at this point in my life. I read Where the Red Fern Grows, as well as various other tearjerkers, so many times when I was a kid, but I got to a point where I was tired of crying. Maybe because real life seemed hard enough.

this dog will lighten the mood. by RollanB on Flickr

Now whenever I pick up a dog book, I flip to the last page—something I normally don’t do—to see if the dog makes it to the end alive. If it doesn’t, forget it. I’ve had to say goodbye to three dogs in my life, and it’s terrible. I still tear up when I think about my dog Carly, who died a year and a half ago–she’s the German shepherd mix in my official author photo. She was more neurotic than the average dog, but I loved her to pieces.

I adopted another dog last fall—another shepherd mix, incidentally. Her name is Saffy, and while she’s middle-aged, she’s very energetic and loves fetch and going in Lake Michigan. She’s also a total cuddle. Now I’m searching for a second rescue to make us more of a pack.

Anyway, that was actually the initial inspiration for Starting from Here: I wanted to write an “anti-dead dog book.” A book that kicks off with an awfully close call but doesn’t end in tears. A book that shows how a dog can save someone’s life simply through love, no fatal acts of heroism required.

C&M: Colby’s trust issues get worse and worse and she eventually reaches a breaking point. I thought it was a really truthful portrayal of a character with a lot of love to give and a fear of being hurt. It’s a fine line when you have one of your characters do hurtful things to the people around them and to themselves, but Colby is never unlikeable. Did you ever feel bad about putting her through that process?

LJB: Will I sound callous if I say “not really”? That’s how the novel-writing game is played: put your characters through the wringer! I guess the hardest thing was making Colby convincingly self-absorbed. She feels like the world is out to get her, when it was obvious to me (as it will be to readers) that isn’t true. If I knew her in real life, I’d want to give her a good shake. But we’ve all been there, and I hope readers can make that connection.

The most emotional scenes for me to write were, unsurprisingly, when Colby hits bottom. But they were also some of the most satisfying. I figured that if I could make myself cry—me, the puppetmaster, the one person who should be immune to emotional manipulation—then those scenes would touch readers, too.

C&M: Does your work as a youth librarian influence your writing, and if so, how so?
LJB: As a youth librarian, I’m immersed daily in books for young people. I read reviews of them, purchase them, read them, review them, discuss them, suggest them. All these activities have given me a strong awareness of what’s being published (which is far beyond what you are likely to see on the shelves of a big box store), what kids like to read, and what reviewers and award committees are looking at. On the one hand, it makes me read–and therefore write–more critically; on the other, I’ve become more generous in my definition of what makes a “good book,” because as a librarian you have to accept that it’s different for everyone. Above all, being a librarian gives me perspective. There are so many very good books out there that don’t get starred reviews, don’t win awards, don’t make the bestseller list, and go out of print within just a few years. A lot of that is luck; it’s just how the business is. So you just have to hope your book will find its readers and touch their lives before it fades away. And libraries, which treasure books as long as they have the shelf space, play an instrumental role in that.


Tessa: Tell me about your favorite place(s) to go in Pittsburgh!

LJB: You’re making me nostalgic. I went to Carnegie Mellon University, which doesn’t have a particularly nice campus but is a great home base for what Pittsburgh has to offer. For ice cream, I have to go with Dave & Andy’s. For pizza, the Church Brew Works. My friends and I loved Sree’s Foods for Indian. Sree himself ran a food cart next to campus and was a kind and generous man. He died last year, unfortunately.

one of the buildings at CMU, taken by Flickr user jiuguangw

I could go on all day about food—have I mentioned Bloomfield Bridge Tavern makes tasty pierogi?—but onward. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is a beautiful old building, and I checked out many a YA book from it while I was in college. Bonus, the art museum is right next door. I also love Pittsburgh’s wooded parks, especially Schenley and Frick. The best part of Frick Park is Hot Dog Dam, a swimming hole for dogs. So cute!

Tessa: Those are indeed all wonderful Pittsburgh places.  Thank you for visiting, Lisa, and giving us thoughtful answers and a great book to read and recommend.

10 Reasons Why You Should Be Watching Suburgatory

by Tessa

I’d finished Breaking Bad. The new New Girl was under Hulu embargo. I watched all of Don’ Trust the B*tch in Apt. 23 when I visited Rebecca (it counts as bonding, ok?). Make it Or Break It was sadly cut short in its prime. I still am resisting Gossip Girl for some reason. What was I to do with my “turn off the brain” time?

Then I read an article about Suburgatory. Which I can’t find right now. But it does exist, because it’s too boring of a reason to make up. I felt compelled to watch it, because A. the girl’s name is Tessa, and I have to scrutinize all bearers of my name who appear in popular media B. the article compared it to the WB’s Popular, which I remember liking and should watch again and C. it’s on ABC which is apparently home to all shows that I will become addicted to.  But what, you may ask, is the particular appeal of this show?

1. A Gilmore Girls-style family pairing

In no way are Tessa and George fast-talking homebody small-town bffs like Rory and Lorelai, but they are a father and daughter who have grown up with only each other, have their own inside jokes, and, because George has moved Tessa out to the richie-rich suburbs of Chatswin, NY, they have a us-against-the-world vibe going on. It’s touching to see and a little different than some of the nuclear family stuff or blended family stuff you see on sitcoms.

2. Suburb satire

The cafeteria offerings.

Everyone in Chatswin is obliviously ridiculous and the set designers and writers aren’t afraid to go over the top, while keeping everyone human.  After all, we’re supposed to see why Tessa feels like she’s an alien but also see how she can get used to the Chatswin bubble. So the water fountain in the school has fresh lemons and limes in its holding tank, and prime rib and sushi for lunch. There ends up being a pet kangaroo for one of the characters. Dallas, the lonely wife who commissions a skylight from George only to become his first new Chatswin friend and a strange kind of mother figure for Tessa, opens up a store that sells only crystal, as in blocks of crystal etched with portraits of loved ones, crystal chef hats, and crushed crystal called “Tears from Heaven.” The Halloween episode this season is about “The Witch of Chatswin” who ends up just being… a feminist.  And the bumbling, self-absorbed, but genuinely enthusiastic guidance counselor, Mr. Wolfe, comes out to the student body by saying something like “I’m gay, which means I will now be driving a Mazda Miata.” I think the best part about the absurdity of Chatswin is that it’s not all in your face suburb satire all the time. It comes out in one-off jokes and sub-main plotlines, and no one reacts to it except for Tessa and George, which heightens the feeling that this is real life for these people.  It doesn’t stop to explain itself and that’s funny.

3. A great cast

Although I think Jane Levy is cute as a button, droll, and good at stomping around like a real teenager, she still seems a little too old to be believable. Luckily, the good attributes outweigh the weirdness, Jeremy Sisto and the other main cast members are great (more on that later), and George and Tessa’s next door neighbors played by are Ana Gasteyer and Chris Parnell. Jay Mohr plays Dallas’ oft-travelling husband who is mainly worried about shoes being worn in the house while he’s gone. Mr. Wolfe is played by Rex Lee from Entourage; I don’t know if that means anything to anyone but he’s really funny on this show. Tessa’s next door neighbor and best friend comes to us from Weeds, and even though I’m sad to see that she lost her normal body to become thinner and blonder as the seasons progress, she’s still hilarious and a treat every time she’s on screen, so it hasn’t affected her character. And she did just graduate high school (omg) so I shouldn’t judge at all because bodies are still settling into themselves and forget I said anything.

4. Jeremy Sisto acting funny.

Sisto has played so many douchey characters that it’s surprising to see him play a dad. A normal, slightly neurotic single dad who attempts to make his daughter break a date by planning a surprise board game night with her friends.

And it works! Except when he tries to date Alicia Silverstone. I didn’t buy that at all.

5. The Mean Girls aren’t really mean.

Dalia, the daughter of Dallas and what passes for Tessa’s nemesis, is clearly modeled on Paris Hilton, with her blonde hair, eyes ringed with smudgy black eyeshadow, and deadpan delivery of all her lines, often ending with a crisp “bitch.”  Her minions are, as so often is the trope, foolish followers. No one, though, is really following them, and no one is really their target. (Except for one instance in the pilot episode, and I think the writers realized their misstep after that).

Most people at Chatswin High have their own money and social status, which makes for an almost neutral playing field.  We catch glimpses of nerdy characters, but they are clearly preoccupied with their AP classes, and Tessa, who often interacts with and is therefore insulted by Dalia, has too much self-esteem to let it effect her. Dalia’s insults are more because she has no etiquette or filter between her brain and her mouth, rather than a desire to hurt anyone. If anything, she just wants people to go away because she’s so solipsistic, not have a crowd of worshipers following her. It’s kind of refreshing.

6. Awkward neighbor is not really awkward

Lisa might be my favorite character on Suburgatory. She starts out being a flustered girl who wears a cream-color based palate, accented with tiny flowers, bullied by her controlling mother. Early in the first season we have this exchange at the end of a forced neighborly dinner between the Shays and the Altmans:

Lisa: May I be excused? I’m having a terrible time.

George: What about dessert?

Sheila: Lisa can’t have dessert.

George: Whu-uh, Why not, the sugar?

Sheila: No.

But she slowly takes a page from her own mother’s book and uses it to rebel against her tyrannical reign. And I don’t think it’s all due to Tessa’s Manhattan influence. You can just tell that that spark was living inside of Lisa, waiting to start burning. Everything she says has this undercurrent of plotted derangement, and there’s no episode about how she’s afraid to get a boyfriend. She just gets one, no angst, and proceeds to gross Tessa out with her PDAs.  (And her boyfriend, Malik, is also a funny character. He’s mostly a well-rounded dude who is very into the school paper, but is also part of a Medium fan club and will very occasionally be seen to dress like Patricia Arquette.)

Lisa is disgusted by high fives.

7. Cheryl Hines rocks her character, and has the best accent.

Cheryl Hines plays Dallas, and she imbues the stereotype of a bored trophy wife with real charm.  Then she subverts the stereotype by being a happy-go-lucky loon, not at all weighed down by the grim business of beauty. And she has the weirdest accent that is not southern, but sort of is. If a voice could be “tangy” that would be Dallas’s voice. Here’s the first time we get to hear it:

8. Alan Tudyk’s crazy smile.

9. Jane Levy plays a kind of reverse teenage Carrie Bradshaw/Daria/Cady from Mean Girls hybrid and it somehow works.

Ostensibly Jane Levy’s Tessa is the crux of Suburgatory. It’s her life that is being upended and her voiceover that delivers the Carrie Bradshaw-like homilies at the end of the episode. As you can tell, though, the show is about much more than Tessa.  Instead of a woman embracing the big city and writing about it, Tessa is forced to embrace the suburbs and live… about… it. And instead of being fashion obsessed and finding herself she’s obsessed with being true to herself and not caring about fashion (her outfits are still cute).  She wears motorcycle boots and skirts and plays the outsider/observer, but she’s also not so invested in that role that she won’t become involved in the world of Chatswin. And she’s not too cool — in fact, when she goes out of her way to define her coolness it ends up making her look dorky, and that’s very endearing.  For instance, her favorite band plays at her 16th birthday party and for the first song it’s just her rocking out on the dance floor, with that face that means that you’re REALLY FEELING THIS SONG more than ANYONE ELSE, and when a poetry class is being taught by a tattooed teacher, Tessa trips all over herself to try to be the star pupil, creating a monster of a mother poem in the process.

the I’m Feelin’ It face

Which leads me to my last reason–

10. Because if there’s going to be a character named Tessa on American TV, I’m cool with this one.

Re-Read: Nowhere High Series. So ’90s!

A Review (kind of) of the Nowhere High series, by Jesse Maguire

Ivy (Ballantine), 1989-1992

Nowhere High series Jesse Maguire

By REBECCA, October 17, 2012

Sometimes I feel like Crunchings & Munchings really exists so that I can talk about all the ’90s-era books series that I loved so much as a kid but that never really slotted into “classic YA” enough that anyone talks about them (I won’t speak for you, Tessa, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the ’90s figure pretty heavily into your C&M joy too). In that tradition, then, today I bring you the Nowhere High series—a series that, as far as I know, none of my friends growing up ever read, making it impossible for me to describe any of their hair as being “the color of eucalyptus tree bark—sort of silvery brown” and have them know what I was talking about (6). Anyhoosier, the Nowhere High books were a staple of my ’90s childhood, but much to my shock, when I tried to look the books up to write this review, I saw that there were a seventh and eighth book in the series that I never read. I must get my hands on them immediately!

The deal is this: when TJ McAllister moves to rural Pennsylvania from L.A., he finds himself on the wrong side of a group of pants-snatching, mud-slinging dudes after his first day at Ernest Norwell (“Nowhere”) High. TJ soon meets Caroline Buchanan (Caro), the girlfriend of the school badass who doesn’t seem to care about anyone; Josh Hickham, one-time pants-stealer but artist at heart; Darcy Jenner, boarding school reject whose passion for pranks doesn’t fit with her good-girl image; Alison Laurel (Mouse), Caro’s childhood best friend with a passion for music and thrift store magic; and a few other misfits. They commandeer an abandoned railroad station on the outskirts of town and turn Split River Station into more of a home than most of them have. They are, so the cover of book one tells me, “Hanging out and holding on . . . together.”

This series has many of the things that I love about YA fiction combined with many of the things that I love about ’90s movies:

Foxfire gorgeousness!1. A hideout! Number one wish from middle and high school?: that I could have had an amazing abandoned railroad station hideout with my friends! (Well, maybe, like, number two wish.) Split River Station is awesome, and throughout the series all the characters run away to it, hook up in it, and break down in it.

The Breakfast Club2. A rag-tag bunch of misfits! My favorite thing about the series is that the characters are all so different that none of them would be very likely to be friends in high school—you know, The Breakfast Club vibe. “Looking around the cafeteria, [Caro] saw that the rest of the school was neatly divided into groups” (40-41). When they’re together at Split River Station, though, none of what is expected of them by social group matters. So Josh can just do his art, Darcy doesn’t have to be nice, Mouse isn’t a freak, Caro is more than her looks, and TJ . . . well, TJ is a freaking mensch and I’m sure he would be whatever social group he was in.

3. Small town life! Many of the best ’90s books and movies are about kids chafing against their small towns. And it seems to me that it’s mostly in small towns that the high school stereotypes are the strongest, since there isn’t much mixing or variety, so it makes sense that they are the settings for much angst. It’s the same in this small town in Pennsylvania. Everyone knows each other so it’s hard to get past reputations, and new kids stick out forever. In a way, actually, the first book in the series, Nowhere High, reminded me a bit of a 1989 (mid-Atlantic) version of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, one of my favorite books of all time.No, really! I mean, obviously, it’s not anywhere near as good as The Outsiders, but there is a sense of desperation in the characters, and that shade of hard-edged girls and by-turns distant and violent guys that seems familiar from Hinton’s world. Especially Holly Vickers (such a good name!), the twin sister of one of the school bad boys—she smokes, chews gum loudly, fights, bullies people into dating her, and uses enough hairspray to fell a llama.

Nowhere High Jesse Maguire4. Early ’90s fashion! So, I’m going to do a whole post sometime soon about my favorite descriptions of fashion from YA lit (send me your nominations!) and Mouse in Nowhere High definitely ranks. Caro wears “a tank top, a big khaki shirt to go over it, and a pair of jeans. . . . She clipped on some earrings, pushed a couple of bracelets on, and pulled on a pair of boots” (62). Khaki shirt! Clip-on earrings! Mouse shops for the school dance at a thrift shop and she is clearly a master:

“Alison had unearthed a peasant blouse, heavy with old lace on the neck and sleeves, and an ancient cocktail dress with a stiff strapless bodice and a sequined skirt. Curious, Josh watched as she carefully folded the ugly bodice down and held the blouse up over the skirt. Then she took an old fringed shawl in green, gold, and brown, and with a quick twitch of her fingers, flung it about the skirt at a rakish angle—and suddenly there was a striking outfit” (143).

Supernatural Sam Dean Castiel5. Good, old-fashioned, interpersonal drama! Friends, I never thought I’d say it, sprung full-grown from the bookheads of Anne Rice and J.R.R Tolkien that I am, but I am a little para-super-extra-ed out. I’m sick of prefixes in general, as a matter of fact, and so returning to this mundane saga of pretty basic teenage problems was something of a palate cleanser. People have fights, feel inadequate, want to make art, get pregnant, fall in love, hope, eat, and not a whole heck of a lot else. It’s like I’ve been so supernaturaled-out that when I was rereading the series I kept thinking, like, oh, now TJ and Josh are going to turn out to be creatures and—no, wait, and ah, I bet Caro’s eucalyptus hair is really a Medusa—oh, yeah, not this time. And I didn’t miss it at all.

So, what are your all-time, top-five, desert-island ’90s reads? Inquiring minds want to know.

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