I was lucky enough to be selected as a judge for this year’s INSPY awards in the category of Young Adult Fiction. Now that we’ve made our decision on the winner, I can finally reveal my thoughts on each of the books! So here we go…
First I read So Over My Head by Jenny B. Jones. Bella has a lot on her plate – she has just broken up with her boyfriend, Luke, after he began spending way too much unsupervised time with his ex, and she’s appointed herself private investigator for a murder that’s just taken place at the Fritz Family Carnival. Between dealing with her Luke drama and solving the mystery so the show’s youngest performer, Cherry, can have some peace, Bella is feeling overwhelmed and very confused by God’s plan for her current situation. There were a few things I really liked about this book, the first being the setting. I tend to enjoy books set at the circus, and Over My Head was no exception. Something about the late nights, the mystery of the various acts, and the crazy personalities always gets me. I also liked that Bella was such a typical teenager – she was a Christian teen, yet she was flawed and real just like all teens are. Jones didn’t try to portray her as a perfect kid just because she was trying to follow God – she screwed up in that goal plenty of times! I also thought the mystery was well-crafted and fun to read. There were a few things I didn’t love about the book, too, the main thing being that it didn’t surprise me much or really draw a connection from me in any way. The book was good, it’s just that there was nothing overwhelmingly fantastic about it. Good but not great, if you know what I mean.
Next was Beautiful by Cindy Martinusen-Coloma. Beautiful stars Ellie Summerfield, a teen who has everything she could ever want – she’s gorgeous, popular, smart, and is heavily involved in school, volunteering, and church. But inside, Ellie always has the nagging feeling that things aren’t perfect – something is just missing. Then one night, in the space of just a few seconds’ time, everything changes, and Ellie is forced to examine what being beautiful is really all about. I really enjoyed this one and I think it’s an excellent example of Christian fiction done well. Ellie did come across as an authentic character, she knew she had this great life but still doubted herself and her feelings – as normal teens tend to do, even when things do seem “perfect”. The message is very clear but doesn’t come across as preachy or heavy-handed, just a natural progression that Ellie went through in order to eventually figure out the real truths in her life. The book definitely made me think about how I might react if put in the same situation Ellie found herself in; I highly doubt my teenage self would have come to the same conclusions Ellie did, nor would I have acted with the same amount of maturity and grace that Ellie (eventually) managed to find within herself. This is an inspirational story with a realistic teen at its center – I absolutely enjoyed it.
The third book I read was A Little Help From My Friends by Anne Dayton and May Vanderbilt. This is the third book in a series, but the authors do a good job of filling the reader in on all the aspects of the backstory. This book focuses on Zoe, the youngest and shyest of the Miracle Girls. Zoe went through quite a few changes over the summer, and her junior year begins with her turning heads. She’s caught the attention of handsome Dean, a boy in her class who isn’t afraid to show her how much he enjoys her company, however she still has her faithful boyfriend Marcus to worry about. She also has her family life to deal with – her parents are contemplating a divorce and her older brother, long since moved out of the house, has come home for an extended stay. Throughout the book, Zoe realizes that she needs to rely on her friends, God, and her own voice, to get her through Junior year. I have to be honest here and say that this book was my least favorite of the five. I liked it well enough, but the characters didn’t wow me and I thought the writing was just okay. Now, I could see that if maybe I started from the first book I would want to read all four of them, but unfortunately I didn’t love this one on its own. The best thing about the book, in my opinion, is that it is a clean read for teens and really shows how “normal” teenagers can be Christians too. God is a part of the Miracle Girls’ everyday lives, they don’t make a big deal about their beliefs, they simply try to live them out and be teenagers at the same time – very authentic.
This next book I absolutely loved – This Gorgeous Game by Donna Freitas. This novel begins with seventeen-year-old Olivia winning a prestigious writing scholarship that allows her to take a course at the local Catholic University taught by the very famous author/priest Father Mark. Olivia is over the moon when she hears the news, and is even more excited when Father Mark takes a special interest in her progress as a budding novelist. It’s not long before Father Mark’s affection for Olivia begins to turn into something confusing and scary for her – exactly what game is he playing, and how does she get out? Let me tell you, this book is Powerful. Freitas so accurately portrays what it is like for a young girl to be stalked and victimized, my heart literally pounded FOR Olivia multiple times throughout the book. I think part of the reason the book hit me so hard is that I had an experience with stalking as well, although not with an authority figure (in my case it was an ex-boyfriend), so I truly could feel what Olivia was feeling right along with her. And to make matters worse, her stalker was a person of power, a respected figure in the community, somebody famous for goodness sakes – the situation Olivia was in is almost beyond comprehension, yet Freitas allows the reader to completely understand what Olivia is going through. I could not put this book down – I honestly read it in one sitting – and I absolutely encourage everyone, especially those of you who are a teen or know a teen, to pick it up. This book is freaking fantastic, that’s all there is to it.
The last book I actually had already read, Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr (here’s my review from earlier this year), but I was happy to reread it to refresh my memory. Upon a reread, I felt about the same way as I did when I listened to it earlier this year – I loved it! I don’t want to repeat myself much (just read my original review), but I loved the character of Sam, I loved the plot, I loved how realistic and authentic the entire book was. One thing I paid more attention to this time around was the aspect of faith in the novel, and I found it really refreshing to have a character questioning her faith in a faith-driven book. None of us are perfect Christ followers, we all have moments and seasons of doubt, and I really appreciated how clear Zarr was about Sam’s feelings on the subject of God – she was honestly confused. She knew what she was supposed to believe, but she had a difficult time actually feeling God’s presence and forming that connection with Him. Consequently, she questioned everything. I think these feelings are so completely normal, especially for a teenager trying to figure out everything in life, and I loved how Zarr added this aspect of disbelief into the novel. The whole book just struck me as so authentic and honest, I would recommend it for everyone, not just as faith-based literature, although it certainly fits into that category. And it seems that the other judges agreed with me, because Once Was Lost ended up winning!🙂