High School Novels Provide Summer Reading Fun
Reviewed by Michele Ashman Bell

Two new books about the excitement and trauma of high school are sure to keep teen readers reading during their summer vacation.

The Makeover of James Orville Wickenbee by Anya Bateman

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Jana and Alex are twins, but no two people could be more different. Jana is all about image, looks and popularity and her brother couldn’t care less about those things.

Enter James Orville Wickenbee. His older brother Phil has just married Jana and Alex’s Aunt Ruthie, and his large, ten-member family has just moved to town. Not only does James wear outdated glasses, but he’s also a Mormon.

Trust Alex to quickly become James’ best friend. Jana is convinced her life is about to be ruined if her brother is seen with this loser, but Alex doesn’t care. He likes hanging out with James and ignores Jana’s pleadings for him to not let the popular kids at school see them together.

Reluctantly, Jana finds herself going to James’ house with her brother to watch them play chess, a game she is passionate about. She watches as James annihilates her brother, and she challenges him to a game. Jana suffers a humiliating loss but gains a new respect for James and a desire to have him teach her everything he knows about chess. She’s determined to win the Teen to Young Adult Ohio State Chess Championship and feels James’ understanding and expertise can benefit her.

Thus begins a friendship between Jana and James, one she’s careful not to advertise to the rest of the school. That is until James decides to run for president of Fairport High School. Jana appoints herself James’ campaign manager and takes on the task of giving him a makeover, to increase his chances of winning, but more importantly, to make herself look good.

So begins the makeover of James Orville Wickenbee, but as James allows Jana to help him improve his image, Jana undergoes a makeover herself. Even though James’ outside is different, he’s still a great guy inside and that’s what makes why the kids of Fairport High School begin to like him.

When it comes time for James to address the student body, he wants to give a speech about how important it is that school is a place every student can feel comfortable and welcome, a place where learning is easier because people care about each other. Jana thinks his ideas are a bunch of hogwash because she’s convinced that popularity is what wins.

At the assembly James is humiliated and embarrassed by his running mate, the most popular girl at school, but instead of caving in to the pressure, he stands strong and proves what he’s made of. To Jana’s surprise, James manages to completely blow the students away with his sincerity and humor. His speech is a huge success, enough to win him the election.

I like how this story approaches two topics that are common to most teenagers – acceptance and popularity. For most teens these two needs can sometimes alter their decision-making and the course they take through junior high and high school. Bateman uses Jana and James to represent both extremes, with the satisfying resolution that you don’t need to change your values to be accepted and that popularity has no lasting value or meaning.

This story is delightful and fun, with good doses of humor and quirky characters to keep the reading interesting. The first seventy-three pages were a little slow for me, but that changed once the pacing picked up. By the end it was well worth the read and very enjoyable.

I was happy to see a new book out by Anya Bateman. Her stories resonate with youth and her writing style and sense of humor will make a fan out of anyone who reads her books.

Yearbook by Allyson Braithwaite Condie

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First-time author Allyson Braithwaite Condie uses an interesting format giving each character their own chapter. At first I wasn’t sure about this approach as I struggled to keep everyone straight and remember who was who, but quickly I became immersed in the story. I could easily see why she chose to structure the book this way, and even appreciate the format she used.

The beginning of Chapter 1 is a great way to present the content of this book.

Friendships can surprise you. You can meet someone and think, “That’s impossible, we’ll never be friends,” and then find out later that you get along perfectly. You can have a best friend and then drift apart over time and lose touch with each other.

How true this statement is, one that everyone can relate to. That’s what makes this book such a great read. Throughout the lives of nearly a dozen characters this theme is woven as they interact, disappoint, support and ultimately triumph over difficult challenges and life-changing experiences.

It would be difficult to sketch out each character but I do have to say that each individual, each story, was poignant, unique and emotionally gripping. From Avery Matthews (who is sixteen, troubled and rebellious), to Andrea Beckett (who is an overachiever, a first-place cross-country runner, and homecoming queen), there are many characters – both male and female – that will strike a chord with readers. We get to know them and their struggles to get through the school year, some of them in spite of great odds. Each of them is memorable; each has the ability to touch the heart of the reader.

Condie has created compelling and complicated characters, truly weaving a rich tapestry of interwoven lives. Themes of forgiveness, understanding, and loyalty make the journey meaningful. Somewhere in one of these characters the readers will discover a little of themselves, making the story become personal and poignant.

I thoroughly enjoyed Yearbook and highly recommend it. I also look forward to future books by Allyson Braithwaite Condie.