As August days drip away like ice cream melting off a cone, summer reading time becomes more and more precious. The young-adult novels reviewed here all deserve to be piled on "to-read" stacks. Two works feature a historical figure who played a consequential role in the Salem witch trials, and the others center on teen characters with talent and a passion for art.
The stark and affecting graphic novel "Lies in the Dust" is the more informative title about Ann Putnam Jr., the only participant in the witch trials to publicly express shame and remorse. The black-and-white art by Timothy Decker depicts gruesome, dark scenes of death and solitude. Decker's Edward Gorey-like figures convey a spectrum of emotions by the way they stand, cower, and collapse.
Jakob Crane's narrative puts the Salem witch trials in a historical context, before delving into the trials and resulting deaths, and Ann's life afterward, including the letter of contrition she wrote in 1706. "Lies in the Dust" approaches the familiar history with a unique paradigm by exploring the powerful role words played in the tragedy. "Witch," "evil," and "guilty" led to the grave, and "innocence" was rarely understood. "What is the true power of a word?" writes Crane. "A word crafted into an accusation can be wielded like a dagger."
Engrossing and thought-provoking, "Conversion" by Katherine Howe alternates between Ann as she recounts her story and prepares for her confession in the early 18th century and Colleen Rowley in her final semester of high school in Danvers in the 21st century. The two stories and the setting — Danvers is where Salem Village used to be — draw parallels between the girls' lives. The anxieties and tribulations Ann faces are not so different from Colleen's challenges in 2012. When Ann silently begs for understanding, for the Rev. Green to "see me," it could just as well be Colleen praying for an adult to recognize her suffering.
Colleen and her friends at St. Joan's Academy all worry about grades, applications, interviews, and college waitlists. But it's the individual burdens they suffer in secret that threaten to be each senior's undoing. When a strange illness that causes girls to twitch, mutter, and lose control of their limbs begins to spread through school, a hullabaloo erupts with the media, parents, and experts offering divergent explanations for the epidemic. The plot tension increases as the moment of Ann's confession gets closer and Colleen's internal stress builds, leaving the confused teen feeling "torn to pieces by my life."
"The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone" by Adele Griffin is, like the National Book Award finalist's "Loud Awake and Lost," an acute examination of a young woman's troubled mind as much as it's a mystery. Artistic wunderkind Addison Stone grew up as Allison Stone in a small, Rhode Island town. Through interviews, articles, e-mails, photos, and Addison's artwork, the plot documents the beautiful and haunted artist's meteoric rise in the rarified New York City art world and the events that led up to her death. Addison's parents, best friend, teachers, boyfriend, and others offer anecdotes and insights, but the full truth of how and why she fell from the Manhattan Bridge can only be found by piecing parts of their disparate narratives into a whole.
The real artists and works Griffin references require at least a semester of Art History 101. And because readers can only know Addison through other characters' perspectives, it takes a while to become invested in her. However, that she remains an enigma, even at the fascinating novel's end, somehow makes Addison's death all the more harrowing.
Finally, Jandy Nelson's "I'll Give You the Sun" is a daydream: hazy, otherworldly, and mesmerizing. Like "Conversion," Nelson's sophomore novel is told through two different points of view: Noah Sweetwine's and his twin sister, Jude's. The California siblings were once inseparable: one soul in two bodies. But jealousy, competition, betrayals, and their mother's sudden death rip them apart. Noah, a gifted painter, tells about the events leading up to the rift. Jude takes over three years later when the twins are 16 and she's changed from an outgoing surfer to an art student with a "black heart."
Nelson's evocative language envelops one's imagination like the impenetrable fog that encases Noah and Jude's coastal town. "I don't think other guys' lips are this red," Jude says about her crush. "And I know their faces aren't this colorful, this vivid, this lived-in, this superbly off-kilter, this brimming with dark, unpredictable music."
Jude believes that the only way to stop her mother's ghost from breaking her artwork and make things right with her brother is to carve a stone sculpture. A famous and tortured local artist, Guillermo Garcia, begrudgingly agrees to mentor her. Meanwhile, Noah pretends to not care about painting or the meteorite-loving guy who broke his heart. A 19-year-old British photographer, the twins' parasite-studying professor father, and Grandma Sweetwine's opinionated ghost are unique without being characterized by their quirks alone.
Jude and Noah come to understand the truth about their mother's passions, the enormity of art, the madness of love, and the depth of their bond. The tidy ending requires as great a suspension of disbelief as the plot's magical elements, an exquisite surrender to wonder and possibilities. As Grandma Sweetwine says to Jude, "You have to see the miracles for there to be miracles."
Lies in the Dust: A Tale of Remorse From the Salem Witch Trials
By Jakob Crane,
illustrated by Timothy Decker
Islandport, 128 pp., paperback, $14.95
By Katherine Howe
Putnam, 432 pp.,$18.99
The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone
By Adele Griffin
Soho, 256 pp., illustrated, $17.99
I'll Give You the Sun
By Jandy Nelson
Dial, 384 pp., $17.99