Like a lot of people, I do more reading over the summer than I do during the rest of the year. Vacation time, longer days, and a respite from supervising my children’s homework in the evening allow for more time to curl up on the couch and read. At the beginning of summer, I have my “to be read” pile, and, at the end of summer, it’s fun to look back and see which ones I finished. As a Youth Services librarian, I read a lot of books written for teens, and there were three I read this summer that were such powerful stories that I am still thinking about them.
Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
Darius lives with depression and struggles every day with navigating life: he is bullied at school, seems to constantly disappoint his father, and feels like he doesn’t fit in anywhere. When his mother decides to take the whole family to Iran to spend time with his ailing grandfather, Darius is uncertain about the trip. He knows his grandparents from their regular video chats, but meeting in person feels completely different, and spending time in a different country is intimidating. He already feels like no one in his life likes him; will this just introduce him to a whole other group of people who will make him feel bad about himself? Though there are some uncomfortable moments during the trip, in Iran he finds an extended family that embraces him and makes him feel like he belongs. A neighbor’s son, Sohrab, becomes Darius’s first real friend, and Darius experiences what it is like to be himself around someone who likes and accepts him. Though his depression remains a constant, the experiences Darius has in Iran and the relationships he develops there start to change how he feels about himself; he realizes that he is worthy of good friends and loving relationships.
Dry by Neal Shusterman
California is in the middle of a drought, and there are ongoing water restrictions. So, when the water stops running out of the faucet one day, Alyssa and her family don’t panic. They figure it will be back in a few hours. But the water doesn’t come back on, and, with government resources and media attention focused on wildfires in other parts of the state, no one seems to be paying attention to the water crisis in their area. Those who can leave, but soon the roads out are so congested that is nearly impossible. People resort to bartering for and stealing water, then take even more drastic measures to survive. Twists, turns, bad luck, and mistakes force Alyssa and her brother to turn to Kelton, a neighbor whose family has prepared for this type of emergency and who has survivalist training. The three of them set out for a shelter in the mountains that Kelton’s family has prepared, where there are supplies to keep them alive for months. As they encounter people along the way, it is hard to know whom to trust--hard to know when to help someone else and when to focus purely on their own survival. Some of the most dangerous people they meet are driven by dehydration; truly dying of thirst, they can’t think clearly and act out of sheer panic. Dry is sometimes shocking in the barbarism that people resort to when faced with the disintegration of societal norms and eventually death. This page-turning story rips along and pulled me in so fully that I could feel the thirst and desperation the characters were experiencing. Did I buy a couple of extra bottles of water the next time I went to the store? Yes, I did.
Grace and Fury by Tracy E. Banghart
For most of their lives, sisters Serina and Nomi have been working toward the same goal: to have Serina selected as a Grace. Since Serina was old enough for her parents to see she would be beautiful, she has willingly been groomed and trained so she can be presented to the heir of Viridia and hopefully selected into his harem of Graces and the life of luxury that brings. Serina has learned to exemplify all the attributes of an ideal woman of Viridia: to be demure, deferential, and tame. She has learned to dance, play music, embroider, and charm others. Nomi has reluctantly spent her life taking care of her sister and other family members and training to be a handmaiden to Serina. She does not accept this singular vision of an ideal woman - or the drastic restrictions on the lives of women in Viridia. Though Nomi doesn’t agree with what her sister is doing, she does know that being selected as a Grace will take them both out of the drudgery and squalor they will otherwise face. When things go horribly wrong, Nomi ends up being selected as a Grace, and Serina ends up being sent to a brutal women’s prison on Mount Ruin, a volcanic island. While Nomi fights to navigate palace intrigue, learn how to be a Grace, and find a way to save her sister, Serina has to learn how to simply stay alive.
Darcie Caswell is the Youth Services Coordinator at CRRL. This column originally appeared in The Free Lance-Star newspaper.