Choices are also bets we make with the future. And, the bet Poppy’s parents have placed weave a complicated tapestry of anxiety-level unpredictability, fear, paranoia and danger into their lives.
Poppy is a high school senior. But Poppy isn’t like most high school girls. She can’t be. She is likely the only person at Lincoln West High School without a smartphone. She doesn’t make future plans– she never stays anywhere long enough to see them through. She doesn’t even really know anything about her own parents. But when she sees her family parked outside of the school that May afternoon, she knows exactly what it means: for seventeen years they have been on the run, and they’re running again.
Poppy has no idea why her parents have them living like fugitives, she and her sister just abide the Winslow family rules: They don’t use their real names; they don’t stay in one place for too long; when something feels weird, you take one thing and run; they keep the family together at all costs; and you never ask about the past. In their last exodus, they head to California, and things feel different. Different enough that she is compelled to break some of the rules she willfully abides. What she discovers will force her to make her own tough decisions– and make a bet on her own future.
This Golden State is a gripping page-turner. The mystery surrounding Poppy’s family is a tightly-wound ball of secrets– and her bold decision unravels it all. The thrill and suspense of discovering who the Winslows are, along with Poppy, makes the book hard to put down. Her accidental romance with Harry, is both bittersweet and tender. He also struggles with his parents, their expectations, and how to navigate relationships in his life. As intense as their life experiences may seem, they are all too relatable: what teenager doesn’t feel that their parents just don’t understand them?
Weisenberg delivers a thriller, a mystery and a romance all in one. Sure to be a YA favourite!
There are four stories woven into the Shusterman’s brilliantly conceived novel, Roxy. Brother and sister, Isaac and Ivy Ramey, are accompanied as narrators by two anthropomorphized drugs: Roxy (OxyContin) and Addison (Adderall). The siblings recount their experiences with prescription drugs while Roxy and Addison unfold the tales of themselves and their party-going friends who frequent an exclusive club that pits them in a competition to get their ‘plus-one’ into the VIP Lounge.
I very much loved this book, and contend that it is essential reading for teens. North Americans are in the torment of an opioid crisis. Among people aged 12 or older in 2020, 3.3 percent (or 9.3 million people) misused prescription opioids in the past year and opioids were involved in 68,630 overdose deaths in 2020 (74.8% of all drug overdose deaths).1 Until recently, the term “drug use” typically referred to illegal substances like cocaine, heroin or crystal meth. Today’s teens are more likely to get hooked on prescription medication, especially painkillers. Most often teens receive opioid prescriptions after dental procedures and sports injuries. Similarly, adolescent abuse of Ritalin and Adderall is largely driven by the belief that these drugs can improve academic performance. This is more urban myth than reality; it is true that stimulants will heighten energy and focus in the short-term, but after the brain adjusts to the presence of such drugs, these effects are weakened and become more elusive.2
This pervasive problem is addressed in both the dedication: “For those in the throes of addiction, may you find the strength to fight off the demons who pose as gods“; and in the authors’ opening note that reads in part: “It is our hope that everyone who reads Roxy will leave the story with a clearer understanding of how insidious, seductive, and dangerous these drugs can be.”
Isaac and Ivy have relatable teen lives and plausible experiences that lead them to be prescribed opioids. Isaac receives Roxy (OxyContin) after a painful soccer injury, and Ivy takes Addison (Adderall) to help her focus on increasing her failing grades so she can graduate on time. With a popular post-modern nod, we begin at the end: “They tag your toe with the last name on your ID, and your first initial: Ramey, I.”(4) and then flash back through time unravelling how this pivotal moment came to be. Who dies: Isaac or Ivy?
Roxy introduces herself with confident self awareness : “I am so hot right now. And everyone knows it. It’s like I own the world. It has no choice but to yield to my gravity” (16). You enter the party with her, where: “Al greets [you] at the door, a glass of champagne in each hand… Al’s older than the rest of us,” Roxy amiably explains, “been around longer, but he carries his age well” (16). At the bar, you can catch a glimpse of Addison: “He’s dressed in a conspicuous style, like he belongs to a yacht club that his father owns. All prestige and privilege” (17). Also spotted: Molly, Mary Jane, Rita, and the Coke brothers, Charlie and Dusty. Each of them act predictably, like the drugs to which their names nod, and readers get a multi-sensory tour of how they work. For example, we find Addison sitting at a piano recital with his older sister, Rita, comparatively ordinary next to their cousins: Crys, and the twins, in their “white silk suits and flashy jewelry, lounging in a private booth like they own the world, making the party come to them” (33) they instead, calm kids, help them focus– play the piano flawlessly, or as Rita points to her own ward in the audience, sit still through a performance.
The book is awash in delightful craft moves. There are six character-titled “interludes”, each matched with their molecular formulas (you can Google them– they are hyper-linked in this post for your convenience) and explore further the chemical literature of the National Library of Medicine‘s entries for each compound: Mary Jane (C21H30O2); Dusty & Charlie (C17H21NO4); Lucy (C20H25N3O); Phineas (C17H19NO3); Vic (C18H21NO3) and Hyde (CH2O). On their own, they provide poignant personified snapshots of marijuana and it’s legalization and medical use; cocaine, who boasts of his long historical significance, including once being the key ingredient in Coca-Cola (until replaced by caffeine); the powerful taunting of an acid trip; morphine as the Prince of Palliative Care, vicodin (Roxy’s brother) and even formaldehyde, the final drug used, when the character is embalmed for their funeral.
The chapter headings are a form of cryptic poetry, readers find new words using just some of the letters of a longer word or phrase. Like: Naloxone (alone); Roxy Can’t Contain Herself (oxycontin); or Psychopharmacologisticexpialidocious (malicious). Hyde’s final interlude is written as a poem, straying from the story-telling of the others, and has within it a well-known verse. Not a book for Audible.
This is a must-have title for the shelves of high school teachers and for parents who want to start conversations with their young adult readers at home.
Angie Thomas takes us back seventeen years, to the Garden, where she first introduced us to Maverick Carter, unravelling the back story of Starr Carter’s dad (from Thomas’ previous novel, The Hate U Give) and his struggles with black mandhood: gangs, drugs, and parenthood.
Another clear YA win for exposing the heart of our humanity, examining race and priviledge with honesty, and telling a compelling story readers can invest in.
“Son, one of the biggest lies ever told is that Black men don’t feel emotions. Guess it’s easier to not see us as human when you think we’re heartless. Fact of the matter is, we feel things. Hurt, pain, sadness, all of it. We got a right to show them feelings as much as anybody else.”(Thomas, Concrete Rose).
On the night of April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old female jogger was brutally attacked and raped in New York’s Central Park. After prolonged police interrogation, five teenagers – Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise (later to be known and referred to as the Central Park Five ) confessed to being involved in the attacks. At the time, the defendants were between 14 and 16 years of age. Yusef Salaam (one of the co-authors of Punching the Air) was tried as a juvenile and convicted of rape and assault. He served seven years for a crime he did not commit. The investigation of the convictions of these five teenagers has raised questions regarding police coercion and false confessions, as well as, the vulnerability of juveniles during police interrogations.
This book is compelling. Written in powerful verse, Zoboi and Salaam take us to in to the heart and mind of a young teenager struggling. Struggling with his decision; one that allowed him to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the inevitable price: to be found guilty of being black. Like Salaam’s own personal story– Amal Shahid, the character in Punching the Air, finds out that “Boys just being boys” turns out to be true only when those boys are white.
The story that I thought
was my life
didn’t start on the day
I was born
Amal takes us in to the juvenile detention center with him, where those in power construct an identity for him: criminal, monster; he is dismissed– because they “know his type.” When he is sentenced, Amal compares his life before this moment to Africa and says, “maybe jail / is America” (p. 61). In “DNA,” he connects the shackles he wears leaving the court to the shackles his ancestors wore (pp. 80–81).
Salaam writes that: “Punching the Air builds on some of the poetry I wrote while I was incarcerated. When Ibi and I started to discuss what kind of story we wanted to tell, we started with a name— Amal, which means “hope” in Arabic. It was important that whatever this teen boy was going through, he should always have hope, and we should write a story that instills hope in readers. It was also important that we make Amal’s mother a prominent figure in his life, in the same way that mine was. While Punching the Air is not my story, Amal’s character is inspired by me as an artist and as an incarcerated teen who had the support of his family, read lots of books, and made art to keep his mind free. Amal has to grow up really fast in a juvenile detention center, just like I did. But in his heart, his faith is strong. Ibi and I wanted people to know that when you find yourself in so-called dark places, there’s always a light somewhere in the darkness, even if that light is inside of you. You can illuminate your own darkness by shedding that light onto the world.”
I have said it before, and I will repeat it: there are so many amazing YA authors writing now. They honor teens as thoughtful, intelligent readers who care about complex issues and ideas– Punching the Air is no exception. If you have a young adult reader in your life, add this to their to be read pile. Then, read it with them.
If you think we don’t need another book that explores what it is like to be the target of racism in America, then you are not paying attention. As I put this book down, a black man was shot in Georgia by two white men– while he was out jogging. A Georgia prosecutor said a grand jury should review the fatal shooting of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed in February after being chased by two armed men who told police he looked like a burglary suspect. They have since been charged.
Parker Rhodes writes to give voice to the young black men who have suffered violence at the hands of racists. Jerome Rogers is 12 years old, and shot dead by a Chicago Police officer in an abandoned lot. He believed he had a gun. It was a toy, a plastic gun.
Parker Rhodes moves the narrative back and forth through sections labelled Dead and Alive. She tells stories of Jerome, his family; his middle school bullies; and his friendship with Carlos while alive. Then reverts to the present, Dead, as he watches his own trial unravel; has heart-to-heart talks with his shooter’s daughter, and learns the history of his fellow Ghost Boy, Emmett Till.
The prose is simple and straight-forward– it is written for young readers (12-15) to consume and understand. It explores the current police violence and discrimination against African Americans in an age-appropriate fashion, but it also explores past historical events that connect to the present.
This is an excellent narrative to explore with young students (or struggling mature readers) to help them make sense of the racist attitudes and present context of racist violence in which they live. It would make an excellent springboard for discussion.