Recommended Books for Tweens and Teens: September 2013

  • September 26, 2013

The following titles have been selected for this installment of Recommended Books for Tweens and Teens.

Recommended Books for Tweens and Teens: September 2013

Imperfect Spiral

Debbie Levy
352 pp.

Recommended for ages 12 and up

Reviewed by Lisa Smilan

In her debut YA novel, Imperfect Spiral, Potomac, Md. author Debbie Levy shares a story of friendship between a 14-year-old girl and the five-year-old boy she babysat.Danielle Snyder is a regular girl with ordinary family issues and sometimes debilitating anxiety. Rather than going back to her annual summer camp where she’d be expected to assume a leadership role that would require public speaking, Danielle stays home and works as a babysitter for 5-year-old Humphrey. While in Danielle’s care, Humphrey is tragically killed by an undocumented immigrant motorist; Danielle finds herself in the middle of a community debate on road safety and illegal immigration when all she wants to do is honor Humphrey’s memory. Danielle is a non-confrontational girl preferring to blend in than stand out, but she must confront the choice between saying nothing or speaking up and being heard. Levy does an impeccable job, subtly layering to round out characters and story while sprinkling in just the right amount of backstory, at just the right moments, to complete the picture for readers. Danielle and those around her are flawed characters, making them all the more relatable. Danielle’s narrative alternates between past and present while exploring themes of sibling relationships, family dynamics, overcoming anxiety and working through guilt. The novel takes a good look at the treatment of undocumented immigrants in this country and the constant fear of deportation experienced by teens brought to the U.S. as young children, many of who go to great lengths to avoid being seen or heard.


Star Cursed: Book 2 in The Cahill Witch Chronicles

Jessica Spotswood
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
366 pp.

Recommended for ages 12 and up

Reviewed by Jess Stork

Washington, D.C., author Jessica Spotswood revisits heroine Cate Cahill in the second book of The Cahill Witch Chronicles series. Cate made a choice. And now she must live with it. In this exciting sequel to Born Wicked, witch Cate Cahill joins the Sisterhood in New London, an organization of witches that her mother distrusted. It’s the only way she can protect her sisters and Finn, her former fiancé. She’s willing to sacrifice herself to stop the prophecies and prevent the deaths of her loved ones. But as much as Cate wants to keep them safe, there are things in this world she can’t control. The Brotherhood’s reign of terror increases, with more girls brought to trial for “iniquity” and crimes as simple as walking home with a man. And the sentence is life imprisonment. In these renewed witch-hunts, Cate’s former fiancé Finn has taken up spying and her sisters have been drawn into the politically charged New London atmosphere. What will she do when she can’t stop fate? Spotswood brings alive the uncertainty of the witch trials and times of persecution. She causes readers to ask hard questions about which is better: saving one, or sacrificing one to save thousands?


Far Far Away

Tom McNeal
Knopf Books for Young Readers
384 pp.

Recommended for ages 12 and up

Reviewed by Beth Bayley

Far Far Away takes place in a small American town, but has the timeless feel of a fairy tale. The narrator, Jacob Grimm, is the restless ghost of the author of fairy tales, and Grimm tells the story of Jeremy Johnson, a 15-year-old boy in the town of Never Better who is a clairaudient (he can hear ghosts). When Jeremy and his friend, Ginger, a daring and charming troublemaker, sneak into the wrong house at night, the town turns on Jeremy. Jeremy already has enough troubles — talkative ghosts, his lonely father and his family’s unsuccessful bookstore — and his situation only gets worse. But the cast of small-town characters (the cop, the baker, the mayor, the rival for Ginger’s affections) keeps you reading. And the town has a bakery that serves magic cakes, which might hold the answer to many mysteries. Fairy tales, especially the Grimm versions, can be bleak and violent things, and Far Far Away sometimes makes for uneasy reading. But McNeal has created a world at once surreal and recognizably normal, and the old-fashioned, German-inflected ghost of Grimm is a compelling narrator. Fans of fairy tales and the strange will enjoy Jeremy’s story.


The Milk of Birds

Sylvia Whitman
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
384 pp.

Recommended for ages 14 and up

Reviewed by Mari Clark

Arlington, Va., author Sylvia Whitman’s The Milk of Birds is the moving story of an unlikely friendship between K.C., a teenager from Richmond, Va., and Nawra, a refugee from Darfur. Told from alternating points of view, the story unfolds primarily through letters that the girls exchange as part of a nonprofit program. The book touches on mature themes: K.C. deals with her complicated feelings from her parents’ divorce and her own struggles with a probable learning disability; Nawra faces the harrowing realities of displacement from her home, deaths in her immediate family, rape and worse. Whitman expertly handles K.C.’s relatively privileged but still-troubled life and Nawra’s harsh reality with grace and style; while the novel veers into dark territory, the story never loses a sense of hope. One of the most pleasing aspects of the novel is the way Whitman gives just enough background on Darfur to add an extra layer to the story, but never bogs it down in political or historical complexities. As Nawra pours her heart into her letters, using proverbs and prayers, the girls find they have much in common, despite deep religious, cultural and socio-economic differences. In the end, both girls find ways to look to the future rather than dwell in the past.


Good Kings Bad Kings

Susan Nussbaum
Algonquin Books
336 pp.

Recommended for ages 16 and up

Reviewed by Cynthia Unwin

Winner of the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Susan Nussbaum’s Good Kings Bad Kings provides a harrowing glimpse into the world of disabled teens and their caretakers at the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center (ILLC). Nussbaum, disabled herself, dives into each character’s psyche in alternating chapters. The result is an emotional multi-perspective journey that leaves the reader alternately horrified, inspired, indignant and energized. This is clearly a book with an agenda — to give a voice to the institutionalized disabled — but Nussbaum does so through characters whose humanity trumps their disabilities: Through Teddy, who dons a suit and tie every day to win the affection of his girl-interest, Mia; through Joanne, the ILLC data-entry clerk, whose own disability guides her decisions and drive as she makes increasingly horrifying discoveries at the center; through Yessenia, the newest resident at ILLC, who learns how to channel her anger into advocacy; and through other equally engaging teen and adult voices. Though not specifically written for teens, the prevalence of teen perspectives in Good Kings Bad Kings makes this novel appealing to older young adults. The sexually graphic and violent scenes, however, can be quite troubling (even to adult readers), so parents of younger teens should proceed with caution.

Lisa Smilan, one of The Independent’s associate editors, has selected the following titles for this installment of Recommended Books for Tweens and Teens. Our reviewers describe the plots and themes of these recently released titles while conveying a sense of each book’s spirit and intended audience. Lisa writes novels for adults and young. She is an attorney and lives in Montgomery County, Md.

Beth Bayley is a librarian, archivist and writer in Washington, D.C.


Mari Clark has a master’s degree in museum education, has worked for a variety of nonprofits and museums, and wrote a monthly column for Dance Magazine. She has lived in Peru, Venezuela, Argentina and Barbados where her husband served with the Foreign Service. She currently works as an independent contractor for the U.S. State Department.

Jess Stork works in a Children’s Room for the D.C. Public Library where she concocts crazy programs such as the Poetry Carnival and the Haiku Egg Hunt. At night, she stamps out middle-grade stories.

Cynthia Unwin, Ph.D., is a reading specialist in the Fairfax County Public School system. In her rare moments of spare time, she writes fiction for children and young adults. 


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