Staff Picks Category: Coming-of-age

Sunny by Taiyo Matsumoto []

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Eisner award winner Taiyo Matsumoto’s semi-autobiographical account of the Star Kids orphanage is hands down the greatest unsung hero of contemporary manga currently being published. Why this book has not shown up on more “Best Of” and “Required Reading” lists is a puzzle, and I can only hope that this small dispatch might somehow get these books into more hands. The 6 volumes of Sunny (5 currently available – part 6 to be published any day now!) follow the day to day happenings at the Star Kids home – with each chapter showcasing one of the disparate, displaced children and their caretakers. These are mostly simple stories: the new kid tries to settle into his new home, dinner time arguments about what to watch on t.v., the fallout from a white lie about a cup… but what makes them special is Matsumoto’s ability through his poetic mastery of the language of comics to instill something stronger than empathy – the reader is actually transported into the hazy logic of youth through the combination of pictures and words.

The following chapter titles, one from each volume, hint at the simple majesty at work:
Chapter 2: “Why’re Dracula’s fingernails so long?” “‘Cause he doesn’t cut ’em.”
Chapter 12: “The city always seems angry.” “Like it’s shoutin’ ‘HEY!’ or somethin’?”
Chapter 17: “If I had my own department store, I’d make every floor for toys.” “That’s just a big toy store.”
Chapter 24: “Auoooh.” “Waaaaa.”
Chapter 29: “You think a rainbow’s hot if you touch it?” “The blue part’s gotta be cold.”

These slice of life vignettes somehow manage to capture the elusive feelings and perspective of a child – treating all of their melancholy and frustration, as well as their elation, with an uncanny sympathetic tone – all through his evocative illustration style combining scratchy pen with spots of ink wash. The ambivalence of a runny nose, the proprietary daydream space of a broken down car (a Nissan Sunny 1200, for which the series takes its name), and the powerfully charged relic of a mother’s hand salve tin are all presented with what could only be considered magic. At some moment while reading (possibly during a characters’ first foray into shoplifting, or while everyone is scurrying to get out of an oncoming storm), through some sort of literary sleight of hand you’ll realize your heart has just been inextricably joined to the Star Kids’ lives and will potentially need some mending when you flip closed the last page.

Beautifully designed and printed as part of Viz’s Signature Editions, these small hardcovers are given the proper presentation to contain the deeply affecting stories held within.

Sunny by Taiyo Matsumoto

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky []

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Johnny Heller narrates exactly the way you imaged Charlie’s voice while reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Charlie’s matter-of-fact tone and use of direct language juxtaposes with the intensity of his experiences and the sometimes stunning depth of his observations. Anyone who has been 15 knows that navigating friends, family, and high school can run the gambit from terrifying to exhilarating. Charlie is figuring out how to be a person in the world. He is called a freak, he experiences pain and love and every emotion in between. I highly recommend both the print book and the audio book to adult and teen readers. And while I’m at it, the movie is pretty great too!

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Coffee Will Make You Black []

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April Sinclair’s young adult novel tells the story of Stevie, a young black girl, living in Chicago in the late 60s/early 70s. Stevie has to deal with other people’s ignorance about race and sexuality as she comes into her own identity. Her mother wants her to use bleaching cremes to lighten her skin, but she’s becoming involved in the Afro-American Club at school and she begins to wear her hair natural. Stevie’s Grandma and her mama are strong influences on Stevie and she finds comfort with her Grandma and is often frustrated by her mama. This is a great book for adults, young adults, and teens.

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In One Person by John Irving []

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I’m glad I read John Irving’s In One Person, though I almost gave up on it in the first few pages. The rambling conversational tone took some getting used to, and the sexually explicit language did not yet seem justified. Something in the quirky characterization of the protagonist, Billy, kept me reading and as the conversational tone became familiar and Irving’s wonderful story telling took over, I soon found it difficult to put the book down.

What began as a strangely narrated story of a quirky child soon becomes an engaging coming-of-age story, then a touching examination of the life of a bisexual man in a world that is deeply uncomfortable with his bisexuality and the gender bending behavior of those he loves, and eventually a stark look at the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

Over the course of the novel John Irving illustrates the changing attitudes towards cross-dressers and transwoman in American society from the 1940s until the turn of the millennium. While his portraits are certainly not representative they are believable and always sympathetic.

There is nothing titillating about In One Person despite its sexually explicit language and themes. This is a story about friendships, crushes, prejudice and acceptance.

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Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout []

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In the stifling hot summer of 1971, Amy has a summer job working in the same office as her mother, Isabelle, in the small town of Shirley Falls. We quickly learn that  something has come between them to drastically change their relationship, but what exactly that is takes longer to discover with story enfolding from the differing perspectives of both Amy and Isabelle. The troubles facing the people of this town are almost too realistically drawn; under almost every ideal roof something darker lurks. Great character development and lyrical writing. This is Strout’s first novel; she later won the Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge.

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Map Of Ireland by Stephanie Grant []

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Recently we had a display of books by Massachusetts writers and this particular book caught my attention. Set in the South Boston busing crisis of 1974, it is the story of Ann Ahern, a high school junior and her growing awareness of her surroundings as well as her personal coming out as a lesbian. Through her growing infatuation with her beautiful substitute French teacher Mademoiselle Eugenie who hails from Paris and is of African descent, she is drawn into the conflict of her times – both personal and political. An overall impressive view of a young woman caught in the struggle of identification as a Southie as well as her initial exposure to the world beyond her limited family and neighborhood.

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The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie; art by Ellen Forney []

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He is known as Junior on the Spokane Indian reservation he calls home, and Arnold at the all-white school Reardan in the nearby farm-town. Arnold/Junior Spirit leads a split existence once he decides that he needs to change schools in order to give himself the chance of escaping the poverty and alcoholism that he is surrounded by on the reservation. A book filled with tragedy manages to be uplifting and funny, with cartoons drawn by Arnold interspersed throughout. This young adult novel tells a universal coming-of-age story. This was also one of the Top Ten Challenged Books in 2010 according to ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom – a great reason to read it!

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