by Hisaya Nakajo
Mizuki Ashiya loves Izumi Sano, a teen high-jumper in Japan, so she stalks him online to find out where he goes to school. Unfortunately, it’s a boy’s school, so if she wants to get close to him she will have to disguise herself as a boy! She travels from America to Japan and enrols in the school, only to discover that Sano has quit the high jump. Luckily they are roommates, and she hopes her proximity to him will allow her to befriend him and change his mind. Meanwhile, she is the new prettiest boy in school, and her feminine beauty causes her classmates to question their sexuality. Also included in this volume is a bonus story called “The Cage of Summer,” about a girl whose angelic second cousin comes to stay with her family, only to reveal himself as a bad-boy player who promises not to seduce her friends if she promises to kiss him.
First, I’ll address the main story, which is pretty dull as far as cross-dressing manga goes. Everything happens so quickly that I can’t imagine the story retaining its secret-fuelled excitement for more than a few volumes. Mizuki is clueless and insensitive and a stalker, so I don’t really care for her or understand her motivation. Izumi is ambivalent, so I am ambivalent about him. Even the dog who lives in their dorm is boring.
Second, “The Cage of Summer” bonus story is not an appropriate story for teens, since it romanticizes sexual abuse. The boy not only pressures the girl into kissing him, but he banks on his innocent facade to encourage her to remain silent about the abuse, since no one will believe her if she tells. She then sees that he is hurting because his parents are getting a divorce, so she warms up to him and has sex with him, after which he leaves and avoids all contact with her for two years. In the end, he transfers to her college. Happily ever after?
While Hana-Kimi is pretty harmless (at least in this volume–I won’t be reading on), the bonus story has a really damaging message and may be traumatizing for teens who have suffered sexual abuse, especially because of its positive portrayal of abuse. I would feel uncomfortable recommending this to anyone for that reason. Even without the bonus story, there are other manga series featuring cross-dressing I would recommend before this one.
by Libba Bray
When a plane full of beauty queens headed for the final leg of the Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant crashes on an island in the Atlantic, all but 13 of the contestants perish. All of the stranded girls have their own priorities: Miss New Hampshire wants to figure out how to survive on the island, Miss Texas wants to continue to practice for the competition, Miss Rhode Island needs to find her medication, and Miss New Mexico has to figure out a new hairstyle that will distract from the airline tray stuck in her forehead. Surviving the elements is the first challenge, but the girls will have to learn to love and respect themselves and each other in order to make it through the trials that await them on the island. While the beginning of the story focuses on the skeptical Miss New Hampshire (Adina Greenberg), we get to see each of the contestants’ thoughts and backstories as the book goes on. The story is occasionally interrupted by commercial breaks, and includes product placement footnotes from our sponsor, The Corporation.
I was pleasantly surprised that this book was actually overtly feminist. It’s a satire, so it gets a lot of flak for having characters who are just stereotypes, but Bray turns a lot of the stereotypes on their heads. There are a lot of characters who never get a name beyond Miss [state], but even this gets some tongue-in-cheek attention near the end of the book. For a story with such overt political messages, it is shockingly funny! Even though the characters discuss some complex political issues, the book avoids a didactic after-school special directness by staging these conversations in settings that would be either realistically appropriate for such conversations or hilariously inappropriate for them. Of course a group of beauty pageant contestants would discuss Feminism 101 over campfire. And a backstory about colonialism is totally pillow talk material before oral sex! But, race politics while sinking in quicksand? Well, that’s just awesome. While the book sort of spirals out of logical control in the last quarter, none of the messages are lost in the chaos, and it’s still pretty funny. There are some glaring plot holes, of course, but I was more than willing to suspend my disbelief for what I got in return: a socially responsible survival satire starring a group of kick-ass ladies.
Recommended for mature teens who are comfortable enough with reading non-descriptive sex scenes. Ideal for teens who are interested in social issues, but funny enough to be enjoyed by teens looking for something silly.
by Hazel Edwards & Ryan Kennedy
Skye doesn’t feel like Skye. Born and raised female, Skye feels like a boy. Nobody knows this about him, and everyone treats him like a butch lesbian. His best friend always tries hooking him up with hot girls, but he can’t focus on who he’d like to be with when he still hasn’t sorted out who he is. When he writes “Finn” on a nametag among a group of friends, they go along with it as a silly role-playing scenario, but he worries about how they will react when the time comes for him to fully transition from Skye to Finn. f2m follows Finn as he navigates the complicated world of transitioning from female to male.
I’m glad that this exists and is in my public library because it’s a subject that is little covered by young adult literature. Another original point is that Finn is punk, and he worries that his non-traditional appearance will make it harder for him to convince a psychiatrist that he wants to be a guy. Aside from the punk trait, Finn and his story are pretty generic. He’s a white 18-year-old from an affluent 4-person family living in a metropolis. Although he seems to know no more than his own preference to be male at the beginning of the book, he rapidly moves through all the huge life events involved in transitioning within the next few months, including hormone therapy and chest surgery. What I worry about with this book is that it really only appeals to people who seek out stories about transitioning, and they will get an unrealistic picture of how easy the transitioning process is. A lot of the reactions Finn received were realistic, though: his all-girl band members found it anti-feminist, other friends didn’t care, and his mom felt like she was losing a daughter. The least realistic and most problematic for me was his brother’s reaction, which was that he would feel more comfortable with Finn once he had chest surgery because then they could be bros instead of Finn being some girl he couldn’t talk to because boobs and stuff. While I don’t think a book about a little-covered subject has to be all things to all people, I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see Finn go through all of the questions about his gender that led him to be sure he wanted to transition. He seemed so single-minded about it, but also completely unprepared for the trials of transitioning, which I thought was odd for a person who grew up in a metropolis and was involved in a queer/punk/feminist underground scene. It made it harder to be invested in his quest because I wasn’t confident that he was completely sure of what he was doing.
I’d recommend it to anyone 13 and up looking for a story about transitioning, although I would warn them that this book is very idealistic about the process and doesn’t go into any of the politics or personal reasons for transitioning.
by Patrick Ness, based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd, ill. Jim Kay
Late at night, Conor wakes from a nightmare to hear someone calling his name. No, not someone: something. The yew tree from the neighbouring graveyard has transported itself into his yard, twisting its branches into a monstrous shape with arms, legs, and a face. Having been woken by a nightmare more horrifying than a monstrous yew tree, Conor isn’t afraid. He thinks it’s just another dream. But when he wakes up in the morning, the floor of his room is covered in yew leaves. Conor has more going on than midnight visits from a monster–in the waking world, his mother is struggling with cancer and everyone at school is treating him like some innocent victim. The yew tree continues to visit Conor and tell him stories about other times he has been called to enact justice, and Conor starts to hope that the yew tree can help him fix his life. But the monster’s ideas about justice are quite different from Conor’s.
I found this book hard to get into at first, even though the illustrations are really dark and beautiful. I was expecting a straight-up monster story, and the first few pages describe a visit from a monster but it’s not scary. Conor isn’t even afraid, so how was I supposed to be? Then I got to the part about Conor cleaning the house and fixing his own breakfast because his mom is still in bed. I thought it was the typical neglectful parent you find in most horror stories. Once I picked up on the clues that Conor’s mom had cancer, the story shifted for me. Usually kids’ stories about cancer or other illnesses are too after-school special for me to enjoy, with more predictable trajectories than monster stories, but this one is different. This one overlaps the horror element of monster stories with the real life struggles of a child whose parent has cancer. The story is beautifully told, and portrays Conor as he would like to be seen–a flawed hero in a horror story of epic proportions, not the victimized subject of an uncomfortable “issues” book taught in school. Both genres are enriched by this story’s inclusion of the other: the horror aspects of the story embody the dark issues of Conor’s situation, making it easier to empathize with him than if he was merely telling readers about how scared he is about his mom; conversely, the mundane and realistic possibility of Conor losing his mother to cancer makes the horror story more threatening than it would be if simply the fate of the world hung in the balance. While it took me eight or so goes to get to page 20, I found Conor’s complicated dilemma absolutely compelling and read the rest of the book straight through. It is an original, beautiful read with excellent illustrations that bring out both the horror and the sadness of the story.
Recommended for older kids and younger teens who can handle dark books about horror and death. Older teens looking for fanged monsters and blood will be disappointed, but those looking for a sad story will still enjoy it even if they do not care for supernatural horror.
by Jeff Kinney
This installment of Wimpy Kid features a great many things, including but not limited to Christmas stress, school property vandalism, e-pets, a creepy lost doll, and, as always, a few cockamamie schemes of Greg’s to make money with minimal effort.
Of all the Wimpy Kid books, this one is the least cohesive. Yes, the other books go on a number of humourous tangents, but this one is pretty much all tangent, to the point where the plot as described on the back of the book doesn’t actually happen until the last twenty pages. There are some really funny parts and it is an enjoyable read, but it gets off to a rough start mostly because Greg seems so much younger than a middle school student. He believes in Santa, and it’s not even framed as a funny thing he hasn’t outgrown. Plus, his school–supposedly a middle school–has playground equipment. Both of these details distracted me and had me wondering if middle school starts in grade three in some states. It felt like these parts were targeted at the 7-year-olds reading the books, which can only detract from how cool these books are to their original audience of early middle schoolers. This audience shift, along with the general lack of plot makes me worry that the series is fading.
Still recommended to fans of the series, and it’s probably the most accessible of all of the books for a much younger audience. I wouldn’t recommend it as the one you give to another adult when you’re trying to convince them how funny the series is.