Guarantee a good read with a Black-Eyed Susan nominee

by Madeline Hull and Emily Watson

Every year since 1992, the Black-Eyed Susan Book Award has been given to authors of exceptionally good books chosen by Maryland students. The award is used to promote reading by encouraging students to read quality literature.

The Black-Eyed Susan nominations for High School 20192020 are: After the Shot Drops by Randy Ribay, Brightly Burning by Alexa Donne, Pride by Ibl Aanu Zoboi, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, Far From The Tree by Robin Benway, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia, What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee, and Hey Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka

What I Leave Behind, Alison McGhee

Review by Madeline Hull

What I Leave Behind, is a short 100 chapter book narrated by sixteen-year-old named Will who is trying to deal with the death of his father. Throughout the story he shares memories from the past and present with his family and friends. The book brought out deep and darker issues that are sometimes difficult to talk discuss.

The time period fluctuates, but  the story is set in current day Los Angeles, California. The main character’s father committed suicide. Will’s friend Playa is raped at a party, and Will spends most of the novel blaming himself. He must learn to accept that it isn’t his fault.

Will spends most of his days the same way: working at the Dollar Only store, trying to replicate his late father’s famous cornbread recipe, and walking the streets of Los Angeles as a way to try to walk out the pain of losing his dad and Playa. As his thoughts and emotions circle his brain during his walks, he starts to understand more about himself, his dad, and the world. He learns that the best way to break out of his isolated grief is to reach out to those around him.

The story is told in a series of short passages –100 one-page chapters of 100 words each — that are Will’s inner monologues as he works at the Dollar Only store and passes different people in his neighborhood.  

Author Alison McGhee has written several picture books, children books and adult novels.  Each book she writes reaches issues that are rarely ever put into text. What I Leave Behind isn’t the first book she has published that deals with suicide and rape.

The book was all over the place with completely different changes that Will was feeling and all the things he had to deal with so many topics and actions did not go into much detail, restricting the reader’s ability to imagine and get a feel for what the character was going through. But one specific topic was repeated throughout the book, finding positivity in any situation. Everyone has someone personal going on in life, no matter what there is something going on so random acts of kindness can go a long way.

I really enjoyed the book but it was a quick read with simpler words, so when I was reading, I started to just read over the words because I didn’t have to think about what it meant. I would for sure read more book by McGhee she is able to bring attention to topics that are hard to deal with.  

Another issue I had with the book was the little character development throughout the entire book. Will seemed to me to be the only one with development. He started the book off as a depressed and bottle up teenager who was dealing with dark issues, and he ended the story accepting that his father is gone and there is nothing he can do but move on.

I enjoyed exploring Will’s humorous sometimes bitter, voice he represented a modern day teenager which was refreshing to be able to read. The book follows a teenage boy coping with horrible events in his own life by giving back kindness to the world and spreading positivity. That’s a message we all need.

Truly Devious, Maureen Johnson

Reviewed by Emily Watson

In 1936, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter are kidnapped. In a equally stressful and strenuous night, a group of people try to ensure that Iris and Alice will come home. They don’t. Nearly 80 years later, the only solid evidence left by the kidnapper turned murderer is a strangely morbid note in cut out magazine letters. This letter spells different ways to end someone’s life.

In the present, Stevie is finally given a chance to prove to herself and others that she is useful and not a burden. Stevie is a junior in high school who just got accepted to the prestigious and intellectually advanced Ellingham Academy. Her hobbies include listening to true crime podcasts and reading true crime books. When another student, Hayes Major turns up dead in a perceived accident, Stevie must follow her gut and look at the story from all angles. Along the way, she befriends many people at the academy.

There is one problem here: one of those friends may be a killer.

Truly Devious is narrated by several kinds of third person narration. The interesting thing about the story is that it jumps between the perceived present and the time period around 1936-38. The narrator is third person limited with the side character Dolores (Dottie) Epstein and the main character Stephanie (Stevie) Bell. During the 1936-38 chapters, the narrator turns into an omniscient limited narrator. The narrator becomes objective when the book comes along transcripts of interviews done about the murder and of articles that cover the same topic.

This book likes to jump around in time. The book mostly goes back to 1936-38 and the perceived present. Transcripts of interviews and articles don’t take up as much pages in the book as the main storylines. These also vary from 1936, 2016, and the present. The main setting of the story is Ellingham Academy, a free and incredibly difficult to get into school for junior and senior years in high school. The academy showcases a variety of settings, such as the Minerva house, the Workshop, the Observatory and the underground tunnel with it, and the Great House. There are some other minor settings such as the woods outside the academy, the coach, and a restaurant at the rest stops.

Truly Devious has many themes. One that is painfully obvious is that everyone has something that makes them special. This can be seen with how the students are chosen to go to the academy; the students have a certain interest or trait that interests the school. This book also portrays the theme “things are never as they seem”, in a variety of ways. Throughout the book, Stevie makes assumptions about someone or a clue leads everyone to think one thing or another. Even with the last suspect, Ellie, the reader is left to figure out if the death of Hayes was done accidently or on purpose.

Truly Devious is by Maureen Johnson, a New York Times Bestselling author. She has written the Truly Devious Series, the Shades of London Series, the Scarlet Series, the Blue Envelope Series, The Key to the Golden Firebird, On the Count of Three, Girl at Sea, Devilish, and collaboratory books. She has been in the publications New York Times, Buzzfeed, and The Guardian.

Truly Devious in my opinion had flaws along with great triumphs. The critiques I have to give are small, but could really improve the story overall. I feel like the character development of Dottie never shines through. Sure, she may end up dying in the first chapter, but I find it’s important to make the reader connect with a character. This is even mentioned by one of Stevie’s professors who tell her to put a real life person to the crime, not picture them as just someone who was killed, but someone who had a life. Also, the detailed descriptions impacted the reader’s enjoyment of the plot in a negative way. I found it difficult to picture a setting when I get two or three paragraphs of description when Stevie first walks into the room and then very little add on descriptions for the rest of the book. I’m not saying that Johnson’s settings were bad, I’m only critiquing how she displays them to the reader.

I believe that Johnson deserves praise for a great ending. I loved how she threw in clues that would lead the reader in the incorrect directions just to have them figure out later that those clues connected to something else. For as much as I had to say about descriptions of settings, I do have to applaud Johnson in her creativity overall as she created a setting for Ellingham Academy that was whimsical with a slight grip on reality. I also liked seeing how the characters’ personalities collided but also harmonized with  each other.

I think I would read more by Maureen Johnson. I plan to read the next book in the Truly Devious series as soon as I can get my hands on it. I recommend this book to people who like a story that can take a mystery and expand on top of that to create some truly memorable characters and interactions.

Check out other Black Eyed Susan nominees along with other books online at Linganore LS2 PAC. Also, read up on the different ways to vote.