Off the Shelf: Coming of age – part two by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Confession time: reading novels about young adults, especially those set in modern times, makes me grateful that my teen years are over. That’s because these novels often focus on the teens’ fears about their future. Of course, the main characters of three of these works might feel better if they compared themselves to the narrator who lived during World War II. However, even having that sense of perspective doesn’t mean a person’s life is easy: making decisions about your future is difficult no matter in which era you live.
“The Truth About Leaving”
Lucy’s senior year is not going according to plan. Her boyfriend, who is starting his first year of college, dumped her. Her mother is now commuting from Chicago to California for a new job and spends most of the week out west. Her father increasingly depends on Lucy to supervise her two younger brothers when he works. Even the dance lessons Lucy loved have been dropped because there just isn’t enough time for everything. In “The Truth About Leaving” by Natalie Blitt (Amberjack Publishing), the only thing that remains stable is her best friend, Maddie. Lucy keeps telling herself that if she can just get through the school year and be accepted into college, everything should be OK. That’s her plan, but life takes an unexpected turn when she meets Dov, a new Israeli student at her school, who resents having to spend his senior year in the U.S.
Lucy and Dov seem to bond in their English classes, where the two are paired to exchange poems and talk about why they find them meaningful. However, Dov is prickly and Lucy can’t get a handle on how to create a better connection between them. It doesn’t help that she has plenty of her own problems: she not only became the on-call babysitter for her brothers, but her parents now expect her to attend college in Chicago so she can still help at home. While going to school in Chicago was her original plan, Lucy begins to wonder if that’s what she really wants or if she’s just fulfilling her parents’ expectations. Complicating matters is her growing resentment that her mother’s commute means more time in California than expected and more responsibility for Lucy in Chicago. Lucy begins to think it would be a good thing to gain some distance from her family so she can decide what she wants for her life.
“The Truth About Leaving” is part love story and part coming of age saga. Lucy is an appealing character and watching her gain the strength to not only decide what she wants, but forcefully pursue it, made reading the book a pleasure. While the novel will appeal more to teens than adults, parents can use this work to discuss issues of responsibility with their teens and how they affect both generations.
“Someday We Will Fly”
An increasing number of books are highlighting a lesser known aspect of World War II: the Jews who escaped Europe and found their way to Shanghai. Desperate times make people act in ways they might otherwise never consider, as Lillia Kazka discovers in “Someday We Will Fly” by Rachel DeWoskin (Viking). Lillia, her father and younger sister flee Poland for Shanghai, which was occupied by the Japanese army. Lillia’s mother was supposed to leave with them, but disappeared when the police raided what was to be her parents’ last acrobat performance in Poland.
Her mother’s whereabouts is just one of the many things that Lillia has to worry about in her new surroundings. There now is the question of food, clean water and adequate clothing, especially when her father is unable to find employment. Plus her sister, Naomi, is still not walking or speaking, and Lillia does not know how to help her. In addition, all the refugees must learn some Chinese in order to survive. Lillia begins attending a Jewish school, but with that comes additional problems. Although she is befriended by one of the girls, her friend is not a refugee and has far more money than Lillia. When Lillia discovers one way she can make money, she is forced to divorce her feelings from her actions.
Parts of “Someday We Will Fly” are devastatingly sad, while others offer hope as the refugees band together as family to help each other. For some contemporary teens, Lillia may seem at first younger than her years, but that’s because she grew up in more sheltered times. The burdens she faces, though, are far more difficult than most of the other young adult characters featured in this review. Although aimed at teens, the novel should also appeal to adults interested in this time period.
“Color Me In”
It’s difficult to think about your future when your world is rocked by change. That’s the case with 16-year-old Nevaeh Levitz, who’s never had to come to terms with her biracial heritage – at least, until her Jewish father and black mother separate. In “Color Me In” by Natasha Diaz (Delacorte Press), Nevaeh is living with her mom in Harlem, rather than in their suburban home. The house is full: her grandfather, aunt, uncle and cousins also live there. Nevaeh is not immediately accepted by one of her cousins, who feels she’s lived a life of privilege and, with her light skin, has never known the daily humiliations her darker-skinned cousins have faced.
Nevaeh faces other challenges: her mother has clearly sunken into a depression and her father, who already has a new girlfriend, wants Nevaeh to have a belated bat mitzvah. Nevaeh is not interested, but finds herself liking the woman rabbi who’s assigned to help her prepare for the event. Trying to balance the different parts of her life is difficult. All Nevaeh wants is to find a way to be true to herself and her two heritages, and be part of the Harlem community she’s coming to love.
“Color Me In” opens with a very powerful flashback that informs readers about the underpinnings of Nevaeh’s life. The novel challenges Nevaeh and readers to discover their own prejudice – be it racism or antisemitism. None of the characters are perfect, but they are interesting and their actions thought provoking. One Jewish quibble: the Hanukkah blessings are in the wrong order, but that is a minor complaint about an excellent work.
“Please Send Help...”
Even though I’ve not read the first book by Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin (“I Hate Everyone But You”), it’s not difficult to understand its sequel, “Please Send Help...” (Wednesday Books). The fact that the story is told through e-mails and text messages sent by the main characters – Gen Goldman and Ava Helmer – does make it a bit of a challenge for us older folks who are unfamiliar with some of the abbreviations used. I also had to look up one of the emoticons because it was featured often enough to make a difference. (FYI: it was one for rolling your eyes. I really need to find my own copy.) The novel did make me realize how different communication is now: my college friends and I used to talk on the phone when we wanted to catch up on each other’s lives.
However, Gen and Ava, who are just out of college and now living in different cities, seem to be in almost constant contact – texting or e-mailing each other about almost every part of their lives. Ava lives in small town in Florida and works as a reporter for a family-owned newspaper. Well, she would like to be doing reporting, but her interests and the owner’s are very different. She has a limited social life, leading her to take chances with potentially dangerous people. Gen is working in New York City as an intern for a TV show. The star of the show is wacky and unstable, and the man in charge of the interns seems interested in her. This leaves her unsure whom she can trust and who is taking advantage of her. The two friends offer each other advice, complain (really whine) and bemoan the difficulties they face in the real world.
“Please Send Help...” was very easy to read once I got the hang of which character was writing the text or e-mail. Parts are very funny, especially when the characters overreact about everything that happens to them. There is a decent amount of sex in this novel, so even though it’s aimed at young adults, it’s suited for more mature ones. The best part of the book? It was wonderful to see two characters who so care for each other that they want to share every detail of their lives. Yep, those are the kind of friends people can make in college. Now, excuse me while I contact my college friends to tell them what’s been going on in mine.