Review: Ebb and Flow

Heather Smith
Kids Can Press, 2018

Twelve-year-old Jett has had a difficult year. A series of bad decisions has led to serious consequences, and Jett is spending the summer with his grandmother while his mother figures out what to do. A summer of reflection, however, with a good listener and a healing ocean leads Jett to an admission of his actions and a will to change.

It’s unusual to read a book told from the perspective of a bully — especially when the bully himself is a victim of another, bigger bully. What I especially admired about this verse novel is the way it uses stories as a form of both teaching and healing. Grandma tells stories about herself to create a safe space, and Jett in turn uses storytelling to reveal — slowly, carefully — what happened with Junior (his friend/enemy) and Alf (a mentally challenged man Jett has befriended). His grandmother’s unconditional love and empathy help Jett wrestle with his uncomfortable emotions and make a plan to atone for his actions. The free verse has some lovely musical lines, and readers who enjoy poetry will find numerous symbols and motifs to trace, enhancing the narrative.

Ebb & Flow is a warmhearted, compassionately observed novel that demonstrates that redemption is a quality we can achieve for ourselves. As our culture grows more aware of difference and vulnerability, this book offers readers a rewarding perspective on simple kindness.


This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2018.

Review: Dark Side

by John Choi
Lorimer, 2016

darksideEmerson Yeung has reached his breaking point. He told his highly demanding parents that he left his mobile phone at school, but in fact it was stolen and the thief’s actions have caused Emerson trouble with the police. Between his parents’ bullying, his feelings of isolation, and his struggle with stress and depression, Emerson is ready to let go. On the night he decides to hang himself, however, a chance meeting gives him a reason to re-evaluate his decision.

A new title from SideStreets, a series for low-literacy readers, Dark Side tells a story about depression and suicide, but also much more. Author John Choi has packed a great deal into this small novel, and that’s a benefit for slower readers, who will closely experience each moment of Emerson’s desperation and recovery (unlike quicker readers, who may skim along the plot effortlessly and miss the emotional punches).

As the title suggests, the novel explores many dark places, but few that many teens aren’t already familiar with. It’s one of the qualities I admire about this series: these books generally offer a more realistic depiction of teen life without going over the top or moralizing. Writing about suicidal thoughts is challenging, but Choi manages the task well. Emerson is subdued and sometimes self-pitying, but his troubles are real and identifiable. When he slowly begins to recognize his own agency, he takes steps toward emotional resilience, a strength every young person needs to develop. The novel ends hopefully, although perhaps a little quickly and optimistically. Emerson realizes he’s not really alone and can determine his own actions and make his own choices — including the choice to stay alive and to change his communication with his parents.

Many adults are wary of discussing suicide and depression with teenagers out of fear of encouraging teens to consider suicide. I myself believe that talking about issues demystifies them, and for that reason would suggest this book be put in the hands of any teen who’s struggling with depression, academic pressure, or family violence. I also admire that Emerson is Chinese–Canadian, adding a little more diversity to YA literature and chipping away at some persistent stereotypes about Asian characters in books for teens.

Dark Side is a strong novel for reluctant readers. I look forward to more sensitive, empowering books from John Choi.


This review was originally published in Resource Links, December 2016.


Review: The Serpent King

by Jeff Zentner,
Tundra Books, 2016

serpent king-coverFirst-time author Jeff Zentner’s YA novel The Serpent King follows Dill and his friends Travis and Lydia through their final year of high school and explores their struggles to break free of heredity and inheritance. It’s a typical problem novel, and this trio faces a pile of problems indeed. But of course, because the book is intended for “children”, it must somehow end happily.

Dill is the central character. Dill and Travis have hard lives, while Lydia’s is privileged, apart from the “hardship” of growing up in a small Southern town. Numerous forces — such as poverty, abusive fathers, school bullying, small-minded religiosity, and a general nastiness — may keep the friends from achieving their dreams. The plot, told in their alternating voices, describes what happens and how it affects them.

I read A LOT of YA books and understand why many adults dislike the genre. Problem fiction always risks overdoing the drama; mishandled, problem novels turn into miserablism for teens. That’s how this novel reads. Every plot point feels heavy and overdetermined — but perhaps that’s what a reader should expect when the novelist sets his story in a town named after a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. (The author’s comments suggest that he based the book on his own experiences of growing up in the American South.)

Novels like this often receive heaps of praise for being sensitive, gritty, and realistic, and certainly this novel is realistic. Many teens do struggle with serious problems, and the political and social fracturing of communities — particularly between urban and small-town rural and between haves and have-nots — amplifies the already significant challenge of growing up. But writing about individuals’ problems does not necessarily make a great book. Perhaps for people who don’t read much YA literature, this book feels fresh and aware because of the ground it covers; for anyone immersed in the genre, however, it feels overburdened with types and tropes (not to mention a heavy-handed attempt to update the character of Atticus Finch in the form of Lydia’s dad). The dread-filled atmosphere was so thoroughgoing and unrelieved that I found the book a challenge to grind through. And the conclusion, when everything is set as right as it can be, was far too long. I stopped caring about the characters and their futures — that’s not a good sign for any book.

If you’re a straight white Christian boy growing up in a small Southern town, The Serpent King confirms that “it gets better” when you grow up and leave. Such a conclusion frankly makes me wonder what small-town America will be in another decade — but perhaps current US politics already tells *that* story.

The Serpent King is a fine book, but just that: fine. I am not the audience for this novel and didn’t care for it.


Originally published on LibraryThing on May 22, 2016.