Teens, in the present day and times past

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Contemporary America 
What does that word mean? What are those initials for? And that game, how do you play it? Those were some of my thoughts when reading two recent novels that take place in contemporary America. Fortunately, an internet search answered my questions. But even my cluelessness with contemporary teenage slang did not prevent me from enjoying “Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good” by Nancy Werlin (Candlewick Press) and “Cool for the Summer” by Dahlia Adler (Wednesday Books).

At the risk of gushing, I adored “Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good.” I loved Zoe and her friends. I understand their deep attachment to a streaming show that they wanted to share with the rest of the world. I felt for them when they worried about the show being cancelled if it didn’t get more publicity and fans. OK, so I’m not sure I would dress as a character from my favorite show and go to a comic con (a convention for all things science fiction and fantasy), but I understand the impulse.  

I suppose you want to know about the plot. Well, that was fun, too. Zoe, who is in her senior year of high school and lives in Boston, sneaks off to a comic con taking place in Atlanta, GA, without telling her parents and her boyfriend, Simon. She’s actually more worried about Simon’s reaction to her trip: He is very serious and has no time for nonsense like science fiction. While Zoe is at the comic con, he’s spending his weekend working for a state senatorial candidate. He expects Zoe to also work on the campaign because she’s pretended to have the same interests as he does. Zoe loves the other fans she meets at the comic con: most are in high school, and they talk about their plans for college, in addition to discussing their favorite show. Zoe’s thoughts about college are more complicated because she and Simon plan to attend the same school. But finding a school that will work for both of them won’t be easy. As Zoe finds herself more and more involved trying to save her favorite show with her new friends, she learns that life doesn’t always go according to plan.

“Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good” was completely delightful. People who have never felt passionately about a TV show might wonder what the fuss is about. The rest of us will just be tempted to discuss our favorite show. Oh, and the slight twist at the end? That was awesome.
While new ideas about gender are part of Zoe’s life (the characters introduce themselves by their preferred pronouns), it’s sexuality that plays a major role in Larissa Bogdan’s life in “Cool for the Summer.” The beginning of Larissa’s senior year begins better than expected. Chase Harding, on whom she’s had a crush for ages, finally notices her as more than a friend. She can’t believe something she’s dreamed about since middle school is finally happening. But a problem arises when Jasmine Killary unexpectedly walks into the school.

The two girls know each other: Jasmine’s father is Larissa’s mother’s boss, and the four of them just spent the summer in North Carolina. While her mother worked, Jasmine introduced Larissa to her friends and the two girls became very close – close in unexpected ways. But now the two are barely speaking to each other, something that bothers Larissa, but she doesn’t know how to approach Jasmine. What happened that summer was not supposed to interrupt or overlap with real life or, at least, what Larissa thinks of as her real life. After all, she’s loved Chase for years, so why isn’t their relationship completely satisfying? And why can’t she stop thinking about Jasmine?

“Cool for the Summer” moves back and forth in time, offering readers a chance to learn what happened during the past summer and see how it affects Larissa now. The novel is well done, although I found the romance aspect less interesting than what that Larissa learns about herself, and I don’t just mean her sexuality. Those who love teen romances will definitely enjoy this one.

Twentieth-century Netherlands
Almost every family has secrets, but most are not as powerful as the one 11-year-old Jesje’s mother refuses to talk about. In Jeska Verstegen’s “I’ll Keep You Close” (Levine Quirdo), Jesje wonders why her mother always keeps the drapes closed and plays music as if she is trying to drown out her emotions. Jesje and her older sister are expected to be home exactly on time and not to make too much noise. Since she has no explanations for her mother’s behavior, Jesje can’t help, but feel she must be doing something wrong. Then her grandmother, who is suffering from dementia, calls her by a different name – one she’s never heard before. This leads Jesje to learn what happened to her family and what is behind her mother’s fears.

Since this is a Jewish newspaper, readers won’t be surprised by the true nature of the secret, although it is interesting to see how Jesje discovers her heritage. The novel is written in a childlike voice, which makes sense since it features Jesje’s thoughts and her frequent misunderstanding of her mother’s actions. The plot is slight, with the novel focusing more on everyday life than dramatic events. In addition, there is no true ending, that is, if readers expected to learn all the family secrets, but that seems to be the point. The knowledge Jesje gains is only the beginning and, if she wants to learn more, she will have to do that on her own. But seeing these events through the eyes of a child is intriguing, partly because Jesje can’t be expected to understand all that has happened, especially when her family hides a past they can’t bear to remember. 

Fifteenth-century Spain
Secrets also play a role in “The Poetry of Secrets” by Cambria Gordon (Scholastic Press). Isabel Perez’s family secret is revealed by the second chapter: while her family acts Christian in public, they still practice their Judaism, although only in secret. The novel begins before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. However, the Inquisition is already punishing New Christians for Judaizing – for not eating pork, for lighting candles on Friday night, for not working on Saturdays or for practicing any Jewish ritual. 

When an Old Christian officer of the town wants to marry Isabel, her parents agree because he offers the family protection. But Isabel doesn’t want to marry him: she wants to be a poet and experience true love. In fact, she has found the perfect man: Diego Altamirano. There are a few problems: although Diego is in love with Isabel, he belongs to an Old Christian family that would never accept his marriage to a New Christian. Diego also hates his current life – acting as tax collector for his father. He dreams of painting and studying philosophy. A marriage between the two seems impossible. 

While the romance was well done, the real interest for me were the questions of religion that the author raises. For example, although the novel is told through the points of view of Isabel and Diego, it was Isabel’s sister Beatriz who was the most intriguing character. Although required by her parents to celebrate Jewish rituals (in secret), Beatriz has absorbed the lessons of the Catholic Church that she and the family are forced to attend. Beatriz would prefer to be fully Catholic, but she must celebrate the family’s Jewish customs. I felt for this young woman who was caught in what must have felt like an intolerable situation. 

I did have a few quibbles with “The Poetry of Secrets”: several plot twists weren’t completely convincing (although they added depth to the characters) and the ending was not realistic, but readers won’t complain because it was satisfying. However, these are minor complaints about a book that allows teen readers to learn about the Spanish Inquisition and offers food for thought about religion.