Monthly Archives: December 2016

Primal Teen


Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
A couple of months ago, I went to a day-long conference for teen librarians. One of the presenters talked about teens and the changes their brains are going through, some of which I already knew and some of which was revolutionary for me. The presenter mentioned this book as a good source for more information, so of course I immediately logged into my library app on my smartphone (don’t you just love technology?!) and requested it, and have been slogging through it ever since.
Honestly, the only deductions are because this book is now 13 years old, so who knows how the science has advanced in the intervening time, and because I’m out of practice with reading nonfiction, especially science-based nonfiction. I was mostly able to follow the sciency bits, but got bogged down sometimes. Strauch includes lots of narrative about individual teens which is well done and helps break up the technical stuff while also illustrating it. She covers a lot of different areas where we might see changes in teens’ brains manifesting as particular behaviors. As a librarian who works with children and teens, I would have appreciated a little of “and then here’s how to deal with it,” though this was not at all what Strauch claimed to accomplish; rather, she aimed merely to present the facts and best theories (as they were in 2003). I was surprised at how much of this supposedly still-developing behavior is still present in many adults I know, but that’s maybe a topic for another book! (However, Strauch passed away last year, so sadly we will not see an updated version of this book. She did publish a 2010 book about adult brains, if you’re so inclined.)
The most interesting chapters to me were on just how much the teen brain develops during adolescence, including an explanation of the myelination process that helps them learn to make good decisions and not react from the gut and also learn to read social cues and emotions and not take everything personally. She also discusses sleep cycles (with a good healthy discussion on why schools should start later, a particular pet issue of mine) and the effects of nicotine and alcohol on teen brains (basically, people are likely to get much more addicted to nicotine if they start smoking as a teen than as an adult, because of teen brain development; alcohol is similarly worse). Teens’ brains are taking all the possible things they could need to learn to do in their environment and, by doing them over and over and strengthening those synapses, they are fine-tuning their brains and basically making them less plastic and adaptable and therefore capable of being responsible adults in whatever type of society it turns out they’ve ended up in, which is never a given at birth and which has also changed over time since caveman times and needs.


Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
Nimona is a teen (tween?) girl who teams up with the kingdom’s main villain, Ballister Blackheart, who is really a good guy (wants to expose The Institution for poisoning the people in the name of weapon development). Blackheart soon learns that Nimona is a shapeshifter, but that’s not all. It seems she’s not a girl who can hide as a monster, she’s a monster who can hide as a girl. There’s a backstory with Sir Goldenloin (whose name makes me giggle, and who reminds me a bit of Gilderoy Lockhart), Blackheart’s nemesis, that makes you think they have some sort of sexual or romantic history. The story ends with lots of loose ends and it doesn’t seem that there will be a sequel, which is sort of too bad. Nimona seemed very immature and annoying at the beginning, but she really grew on me and was more complex a character than I had originally thought.

Listen, Slowly

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
Twelve-year-old Mia is so ready for the beach with her best friend Montana and her new crush, but her parents have other ideas for her summer vacation. She’s shipped off to Vietnam with her grandmother, to accompany her while she meets with a detective who has been trying to track down news of Mia’s grandfather who was captured in the south during the Vietnam War and never heard from again. While they wait, Mai (as she is called with her family) learns the value of patience and even makes a friend. Most of the time she is anxious to get back home to California or at least to check Facebook, but eventually she comes to enjoy her time learning her homeland. Her character development is a bit uneven and I couldn’t always tell what or why her reactions were what they were, but overall satisfying (and she dumps the bad best friend in the end, so yay!). SPOILER ALERT: I read this with my book club and only a small fraction of us finished, so I joked, “Wasn’t it great that they found the grandfather in the end?!” to which everyone flipped out. It would have been way too contrived if they had, and I’m glad they didn’t really. This story was a good vehicle for understanding a bit about Vietnam, the language, culture, and the war, even if things weren’t always explained 100% clearly – it was enough to get the gist.

Tru and Nelle


by G. Neri
Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Ever since I read Mockingbird,* an adult biography of Harper Lee, I’ve been intrigued by the friendship between her and Truman Capote. This friendship is also the subject of this book and begins when they are 6 and 7, respectively. As 6/7 year olds, I found some of their language and actions to be unrealistically mature and I wonder how much research Neri did. I’d like to think he did a lot, and that a lot of the book is very accurate, but I also recognize that it’s a story for kids, so who knows. It does help shed a little light on their relationship, and there are some historical notes at the back. Overall, the story isn’t that strong (it’s more anecdotal and spans some three years) and seems more intended for adults, particularly those who have read To Kill a Mockingbird and will recognize Atticus, Scout, Jem, and Dill, and even Boo Radley, among the town’s characters. I also found it a bit eerie to be reading about the KKK near the end of its former heydey at a time when it appears to be ramping back up. Overall, it didn’t really grab me, and I don’t know who I’d give it to.
*I just learned Shields updated his biography to contain information about Go Set a Watchman. If you’re into that sort of thing.

Lily and Dunkin


by Donna Gephart
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Lily only fits in with her best friend, Dare, and her mom and sister. Her dad doesn’t understand her need to wear dresses and nail polish and go by a girl’s name, he insists on calling her Timothy, the name he gave Lily when she was born. He thinks the best way to protect her is to make her go through life as a boy, even though it feels so wrong. When Lily meets Dunkin, she immediately understands his need for a new name. He wants to shed “Norbert Dorfman”for obvious reasons but also unobvious ones: he and his mother moved to Florida to escape their past and start over. What exactly that past entails is best revealed through the book, but Dunkin takes medication to handle his bipolar disorder, which his father also had. Trying to fit in, Dunkin joins the basketball team even though he’s terrible, just because the bullies play and Dunkin is very tall so they assume he’s great. His grandmother, Bubbie Bernice, whips him into shape so he’s not a total disaster, but when he stops taking his medication so that he’ll have more energy, he spirals out of control. Added on top of this is the story of a tree near the library so special to Lily that she names it Bob (after her supportive grandfather) and spends the night in it to prevent it from being cut down.

I’m pushing this book on friends because I have a lot of questions, especially about Lily and Dunkin’s relationship, so I won’t overanalyze just yet. But on the whole I liked it a lot, and I’m glad to see more and more books about transgender kids, especially that don’t focus on their sexuality. Lily is desperate to start hormone treatments to prevent her from growing facial hair and to grow breasts at this pivotal point in her life. Her bravery in wearing a dress to the dance and going as a mermaid for Halloween, not to mention sitting in the tree all night, are impressive.



by Svetlana Chmakova
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

On Peppi’s (full name Penelope Torres) first day at a new school, she trips and falls, scattering her books and papers. When Jaime helps her, the bullies call her “nerder’s girlfriend” and she literally pushes him away from her. She is wracked with guilt until she finally gets up the nerve to apologize and the two become friends. But more trouble is in store, because Jaime is in Science Club and Peppi joins Art Club, who are each vying for a table at the Club Fair and for funding. The rival clubs get into a feud that it turns out only Peppi and Jaime can stop.

One thing I often have trouble with in graphic novels is action scenes being hard to follow, but these ones were clearly explained (and fairly simple and infrequent). The characters were diverse and three-dimensional: Peppi is presumably a person of color. Jaime’s mom is in a wheelchair, with no commentary, which felt refreshing. The science teacher, Miss Tobins, appears to be a woman of color, and the newspaper’s “staff reporter” is Akilah, who wears a head scarf. The Art Club’s leader, Maribella, is also an interesting character as her father is very demanding and she just wants his approval, so failure to her is devastating. (For any Gilmore Girls fans out there, Peppi and Maribella reminded me a lot of Rory and Paris.) I also liked that there was a section at the end about how the book came together, for kids interested in the making of graphic novels.