Book Snap #116

Title: Roxy

Authors: Neal and Jarrod Shusterman

Date Read: August 3, 2022

Two Snaps!

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.

1 Centers for Disease Control and PreventionNational Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2022

2The Right Step | A Promises Behavioral Health Company | Drug Addiction Treatment Centers Texas, 2022

Book Snap #82

Title: Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You

Authors: Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi

Date Read: May 16, 2020

Two snaps.

This. This is the history book, that’s not a history book– but a narrative about race interspersed with the history of why black people have been oppressed in the United States; needed by every child of this generation who might have a chance to change it.

You have heard my rally cry about why Jason Reynolds is the best Young Adult writer writing for teenagers right now. And if you haven’t, read here, here and here. This partnership with Ibram X. Kendi is no exception.

Award-winning historian Ibram X. Kendi wrote Stamped from the Beginning, in it, he argues that racist ideas in America have a long and lingering history, one in which nearly every great American thinker is complicit. As Kendi provocatively illustrated, racist thinking did not arise from ignorance or hatred. Racist ideas were created and popularized in an effort to defend deeply entrenched discriminatory policies and to rationalize the nation’s racial inequities in everything from wealth to health. This is a remix of Kendi’s book. A book written especially for young people.

In the first chapter, Reynolds invites his readers in (in his usual, laid-back, ultra hip way) by explaining: “Before we begin, let’s get something straight. This is not a history book. I repeat, this is not a history book. At least not like the ones you’re used to reading in school. The ones that feel more like a list of dates (there will be some), with an occasional war here and there, a declaration (definitely gotta mention that), a constitiution (that too), a court case or two, and of course, the paragraph that’s read during Black History Month (Harriet! Rosa! Martin!) This isn’t that. This isn’t a history book. Instead, what this is, is a book that contains history. A history directly connected to our lives as we live them right this minute. A book about the here and now. A book that hopefully will help us better understand why we are where we are as Americans, specifically as our identity pertains to race.” (Reynolds & Kendi, p.1-2). Reynolds has a way of engaging young readers, and that’s exactly why he was chosen to remix Kendi’s book.

Reynolds delivers on his promises. Stamped presents the history of America’s racial inequities spanning the period from 1415 to the present. In his unique style, Reynolds offers historical facts alongside the narratives of the people, the politics, and the popular culture that shaped the racist beliefs that have endured. He also recounts the courageous battles fought by those who eschewed simply ‘fitting in’ and assimilating in favour of an antiracist future that would embrace Black people as fully human and equals in their country. He does it, all the while speaking directly to his readers: “But whenever people rise up against bad things, bad things tend to get worse. You know the old saying, When the going gets tough, the tough get… racist. Or something like that.” (p. 24); “People like Benjamin Rush, a physician from Philadelphia who wrote a pamphlet saying that Black people weren’t born savages but instead were made savages by slavery. Record scratch. Pause.” (p.45-6); “And the president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, feared that beig treated decently overseas would embolden Black soldiers. Make them too big for their britches. Make them expect fair treatment at home, the home for which they’d just risked their lives. Let that sink in.” (p. 142). Reynolds never forgets his audience.

A list for Further Reading is also included. Titles teens can read alongside this include books I have reviewed as well, including: All American Boys; Dear Martin, Long Way Down; and Ghost Boys. The reading list includes many more titles, including many I have read and loved in the past (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas; (I would give all of these two snaps, hands down!); offering a wide range of reading experiences, but these titles make for excellent pairings to explore and understand the history of race in America.

This is the most important history book (that is not a history book) that could be read by teens today. Essential reading. As Reynolds closes his Afterword, he asks the reader:

“[This] leads back to the question of whether, you, reader, want to be a segregationist (a hater), an assimilationist (a coward), or an antiracist (someone who truly loves).

Choice is yours.

Don’t freak out.

Just breathe in. Inhale. Hold it. Now exhale slowly.

N O W.

(Reynolds & Kendi, p. 247-8).

Book Snap #81


Title: Ghost Boys

Author: Jewell Parker Rhodes

Date Read: May 5, 2020

One and a half snaps.

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.

Snapshot: Jason Reynolds

The time I was lucky enough to meet Jason Reynolds, NCTE Annual Convention, Atlanta, Georgia, 2016

If you are one of my students, then you have already heard how much I love Jason Reynolds. Right after reading and loving his novel co-authored with Brendan Kiely, All American Boys, I was lucky to attend the National Council of Teachers of English conference in Atlanta.

All American Boys is a 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Honor book, and recipient of the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature. In it, two teens—one black, one white—grapple with the repercussions of a single violent act that leaves their school, their community, and, ultimately, the country bitterly divided by racial tension. This novel went on to be a class novel I studied with a group, and a title that is always on loan to students.

Following that read, I was quick to pick up The Boy in the Black Suit, for which Reynolds won yet another Coretta Scott King Award. Matt wears a black suit. First, beacuse his mother has died. Second, because he got a job at the funeral home to help pay the bills. Life is rough, and then he meets Lovey– someone who understands his loneliness and tries to to ease its burden as well. Then I read the story of Ali and his friends, Noodles and Needles in When I Was The Greatest. I loved the story of these boys and how they end up exactly where they shouldn’t be and how they manage it somehow just the same.

Reynolds captivated me in Long Way Down, which I reviewed here; and in his letter to teens everywhere in For Everyone, which I talk about here.

Simply, I love everything he writes.

He writes young middle grade novels too (which I haven’t yet read or reviewed, but plan to get at…) titles include, Ghost, Patina, Sunny and Lu.

I even taught a lesson on writing a bio, using Reynolds’ bio as a mentor text for my writers, because he is irreverent, honest and funny. Check it out here.

Reynolds speaks to the teenagers he writes for, holding to his promise to not write boring books. He has also been forthcoming and honest about how he hated to read and felt no one ever wrote books that he could relate to. So, he started the books he wanted to read.

Reynolds has been named the 2020-2021 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a position he is deserving to hold.

Currently, Reynolds is also hosting the Write. Right. Rite. Series a GRAB THE MIC: Tell Your Story video series. Throughout the series, he shares his passion for storytelling while discussing topics like creativity, connection, and imagination. At the end of each video, Reynolds will share a prompt that encourages young people to work toward a specific idea. The activities are fun-filled and some are more challenging than others, but Reynolds always makes sure to include brainstorming “get-you-going” questions.

If you have teenagers in your life, get them reading Jason Reynolds! Or, writing with Jason Reynolds!

You can also follow Reynolds on Twitter or Instagram.

Book Snap #78

Title: Patron Saints of Nothing

Author: Randy Ribay

Date Read: April 12, 2020

One and a half snaps.

Young Adult authors are exploring more and more topics that expose readers to the uncomfortable truths of our world. Patron Saints of Nothing takes readers to the Philippines, to discover with Jay, the truth of his cousin, Jun’s death.

Rodrigo Duterte is the President of the Philippines, elected in 2016. After his inauguration, Duterte gave a speech urging Filipino citizens to kill drug addicts. The Philippine Daily Inquirer published a “kill list.” Duterte has justified the drug war by claiming that the Philippines was becoming a “narco-state”. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the prevalence of drug use in the country is lower than the global average. Duterte has dismissed human rights concerns by dehumanizing drug users. This is the current political context surrounding this story.

Jay is jolted from his all-American existence when his father tells him that his cousin is dead. He pieces together that he was shot by the police for being a drug pusher. Then he receives a mysterious message telling him that his cousin did not deserve to die. He insists on travelling to Manilla on his own to uncover the real story of the cousin he knew and loved.

This is a lovely story of guilt and coming-of-age, marked by the very real and raw political context of the poverty, abuse, and violence of the Philippines.

A heart-wrenching and powerful read. It was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award, LA Times Book Prize, Edgar Award for YA, and CILIP Carnegie Medal.