Book Review: OCDaniel by Welsey King

Cover of OCDaniel. Blue background with numbers, some crossed out with the letters OCD vertically-placed, Daniel spelled out acrostic style. Author Wesley King's name at the bottom right. There is a Q-Tip with yellow scribbles representing hair in the middle of the O.

Daniel has OCD…except he doesn’t know. He just knows about the “zaps” and other sensations he feels that compel him to flicker the lights or count his steps. He also knows he doesn’t want to be seen as anything other than a normal kid, and attempts to distance himself from anything that could make him look weird. That means no matter what, he never tells his family or his friends what he’s really thinking. That’s one of several conflicts in Wesley King’s OCDaniel, a middle grade novel about a quirky kid with a bunch of normal kid problems and a big secret.

This isn’t unusual for someone with OCD. Despite showing OCD traits as a child, it wasn’t until my 20’s until I got a firm diagnosis of OCD, similar to King’s own story he includes at the end of the book. Many people with OCD hide their symptoms, which is major reason why this book is so special.

But don’t be fooled into thinking King’s book is only about OCD! Daniel’s story is interwoven with the pressures of being the water boy on his school’s football team, figuring out girls, and a mysterious letter he receives from a “Fellow Star Child”. It’s also funny and charming, the title cover’s Q-Tip a nod to how Daniel is described by his coach.

For those looking for an empathetic and adventurous middle grade novel, OCDaniel should be on your to-read list. More ahead, but beware: spoilers are in the next section!

Spoilers Ahead

Daniel’s perception of normal is challenged when he receives a note from a “Fellow Star Child”, who turns out to be the girl others at his school call “Psycho Sara”. Sara has anxiety and schizophrenia and barely talks, often seen alone or with a TA. But Sara recognizes that Daniel is different. Once Daniel figures out the author of the note is Sara, she asks him to help her find out why her father disappeared. Daniel ends up being one of the only people she talks to, recognizing his OCD early in the novel. She doesn’t tell him it’s OCD until much later, finally giving Daniel answers about his quirks.

Daniel also grapples with the relief of knowing that OCD is a condition shared by many and the stigma of being seen as “crazy”. His friendship with Sara challenges his perception of normalcy and the value of being himself. At the same time, Daniel juggles being temporarily promoted to kicker on the football team, his crush on Raya Singh (and maybe even Sara), writing his own book, and investigating the alleged murder of Sara’s father at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend.

His friendship with Sara helps him to embrace his true personality, someone who loves writing and talking about global politics. Daniel realizes he doesn’t need to “play it cool” anymore.

Daniel also helps Sara discover what her mother and her boyfriend have been hiding from her: her father died from an overdose, partially spurred on by his own mental illness that is similar to Sara’s.

Despite the heavy topics, King writes a very real depiction of two characters struggling with their own battles and embracing their strengths at once. The mystery and romance storylines also keeps readers engaged up until the very end, when Daniel embraces his new nickname: OCDaniel.

Further Reading

In 2020, a prequel about Sara called Sara and the Search for Normal was published.

OCDaniel is one of several books included in my “Books About OCD Written by Authors with OCD” blog post. Look there for more suggestions of what to read next.

Books: 5 Middle Grade and YA Fiction Books About Grief

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Grief is messy, complicated, and hardly a predictable cycle. For children and teens, navigating grief and growing up at the same time is a unique grief experience. Sure, there are nonfiction books about grief to guide kids and teens, but sometimes storytelling is better medicine.

No one story of grief is the same, which is why it is important to have options when finding books on grief. I have five middle grade and young adult book picks as a good starting place.

Keep an eye out for more choices to appear in the future. This list is updated as of 1/25/2022.

The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante

A speculative fiction young adult book that juggles internalized racism, grief, and traumatic experiences through a unique immigration narrative. The protagonist Marisol attempts to seek asylum in the U.S. for both her and her sister following the death of her brother. In exchange for safety, Marisol agrees to become a “grief keeper”, an experimental program where the trauma of others is transferred into another person’s body. Marisol also meets Rey, an American girl who grapples with the loss of her twin brother. For more about this pick, check out my book review from 2021.

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Brought together by their father’s death in a plane crash, two sisters must not only grapple with the grief of losing a father, but the realization that their father lived a double life. Feelings of grief and betrayal mash together for a stunning YA novel. For more about this pick, I wrote a review of it back in August of 2021.

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

I had the opportunity to listen to this book as an audiobook, and wow. What a wonderful book from the perspective of a boy juggling grief over a friend’s death, a learning disability, bullying, and judgement from his community over a suspected murder. Mason is a charming, positive character, and while the book doesn’t shy away from his hardships, the story demonstrates how grief is a day-by-day process with small improvements and setbacks along the way.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

A unique blend of realistic fiction and science writing, The Thing About Jellyfish explores the difficulty of facing death by sudden and tragic circumstances…especially when a last interaction with the person didn’t go positively. Suzy grapples with how her friend, a strong swimmer, could have accidently drowned. Convinced her friend was the victim of a jellyfish sting, she sets out to find the real answers, even when there doesn’t seem to be any.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

After the death of his older brother Shawn, Will is determined to make things right according to “The Rules”. But he spends the next 60 seconds in an elevator with the ghosts of his past, rethinking everything he ever knew.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

What I adore about this book, as well as so many of my students, is the exploration of generational trauma. The majority of Will’s family members were killed by gun violence, therefore Will feels obligated to keep the tradition of “The Rules”, or killing the person believed to have murdered your loved one. Deciding to avenge Shawn’s death, Will gets on the elevator in his apartment complex. One by one, floor by floor, his dead family and friends reveal secrets to him in the confines of the elevator.

Further Resources on Navigating Child and Teen Grief

Here are some helpful websites and resources for grief tools. Check your local community for grief counseling groups or individualized therapy.

Experiencing Grief as a Teenager | VITAS Healthcare

Helping a Teenager Deal with Grief | What’s Your Grief?

Death and Grief (for Teens) | Nemours KidsHealth

Book Review: I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Majorie Agosín

Image Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

If you’re look for your next middle grade read, why not try one that’s perfect for Hispanic Heritage Month?

I Lived on Butterfly Hill is a gorgeous realistic fiction book for middle grade children. Marjorie Agosín’s background as both Chilean and Jewish makes eleven year-old Celeste’s horrific experiences more authentic. Though what is happening in the book is scary, Celeste’s perspective helps to introduce the Pinochet takeover in a way children can understand without downplaying the seriousness of the situation. 

The focus of the first section of the book is the abrupt transition from a peaceful experience under Presidente Alarcon to the takeover of the Pinochet dictatorship.Though I was personally unfamiliar with the events, Agosín uses older characters to delicately explain the parallels between Nazi Germany and Chile to Celeste and to the reader.

Celeste’s family as well as several families around her neighborhood (Butterfly Hill)  are considered as “subversives”, or those threatening the integrity of the new government’s authority. Celeste loves poetry and her parents are doctors who believe in universal healthcare and other human rights, which threaten the new government’s sense of order. Celeste’s friend Cristóbal carries a pendulum around with him that he claims can predict the future. At the beginning of the book, he uses it in front of his friends, but is forced to hide it from guards as soon as the takeover begins. Just like how Cristobal must hide his interests, Celeste’s parents decide to go into hiding after receiving death threats. Eventually, Celeste is told she must move in with her Tía who lives in Maine and learn and adapt to American culture. 

The book, which is a winner of the Pura Belpre Award, also has beautiful black and white illustrations by Lee White to accompany Celeste’s journey. This book masterfully depicts the hardships and triumphs of those living abroad to escape oppression. 

I Lived on Butterfly Hill 

Written by Marjorie Agosín

Illustrated by Lee White

Ages 10 to 14 | 454 pages

Publisher | Atheneum Books for Young Readers

$9.99 US

Books About 9/11 for Middle and High Schoolers to Talk About the 20th Anniversary

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

It’s tough to believe that 20 years have passed since 9/11. Even as a young child I can remember the fear and chaos from that day, even if I didn’t fully understand it myself. It was one of the first instances I can remember of the adults in my life being uncertain about what was happening and what would happen next. What’s even tougher to believe is that I now teach students who weren’t even born when 9/11 happened.

It can be hard for me personally to know what to say or how to describe what it was like that day. I was nearly six years old and only knew that things were terrifying and I couldn’t go to cheerleading practice. So I tell students if they ask or if it relevant to class discussions what it was like to remember the switch from feeling safe to feeling incredibly unsafe in a day. The entire world shifted. Now, I’m old enough to see major historical events I witnessed as a child in updated textbooks and as something considered as “historical fiction”, even though I still think 2001 was “just a decade ago”.

Plenty of media has been made in the last 20 years, but it has gotten easier to find more children’s and YA literature on 9/11. If you’re a teacher, a parent, or even a kid or teen looking for accurate, well-written books that explain what happened during 9/11, I’ve found several that could work in your favor.

Keep in mind that due to recent events in Afghanistan, there may be even tougher conversations about 9/11 and the U.S.’s involvement in the War on Afghanistan. Some of these books also have Afghani perspectives on having Americans in their country, but the majority of them focus on a more U.S. perspective. Other teachers have paired works by Malala Yousafzai or Khaled Hosseini to give a sense of how the war impacted civilians.

No matter how you use these books, they are certain to generate a valuable discussion.

How Kid’s Books About 9/11 Helps Their Understanding of the Event

Stories from their relatives or teachers give them a glimpse of what occurred as well as what they learn in their history classes. However, English Language Arts teachers know that books can open new pathways to productive dialogue and learning. Having characters their own age speak about their perspectives is a lot easier to understand than a documentary. When I assigned Refugee by Alan Gratz as a choice for a coming-of-age unit, a lot of students said how reading the stories of the three kids from each time period helped them better understand what was happening and why they had to flee their respective countries. Making history relevant to kids means giving them relevant experiences. And though most of us know why 9/11 is relevant and still impacts us today, those who were too young to remember it or weren’t even born yet need something to connect with that they can understand for the best impact.

Some of my favorite choices I’ve read or taught in some capacity are listed down below along with their advantages and limitations.

Ground Zero by Alan Gratz

I find Gratz’s books to be some of the most accessible historical fiction books for kids of many ages. Though the target audience tends to be around late elementary and early middle school, many of my high school students enjoy them as well. I will admit that sometimes they can have cheesy moments or oddly-phrased sentences that are meant to clue kids in on what is going on, but it’s nothing that takes away from the main focus of what happened and what the characters have to do to survive.

Ground Zero is one of Gratz’s newer books and takes place both during 9/11 as well as years ahead into the War in Afghanistan. The main characters include Brandon, a nine year-old boy who goes to work with his father in the trade center, and Reshmina, an Afghani girl whose family harbors an American solider named Taz. While Brandon fights for his life in the World Trade Center, Reshmina fights against her brother’s wishes to join the Taliban while hoping for a better world.

I won’t go into spoiler territory, though I will say that Gratz presents both characters fairly in their actions and why they choose to do what they do throughout the book.

Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Unlike the other books I’ve mentioned, this middle grade level story tells the perspective of four different kids in different parts of the U.S. on the days leading up to 9/11. Each character has a unique story and why they are at different airports, but their stories are meant to weave together.

The ending was definitely appropriate for late elementary to early middle schoolers, enphasizing kindness towards everyone. This was put in contrast with the Islamaphobia towards one of the characters and their family in the book. But you’ll have to read it for yourself to know.

In the Shadow of the Fallen Towers: The Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Days, Weeks, Months, and Years after the 9/11 Attacks by Don Brown

Don Brown has a talent for breaking down historical events for readers to understand while also including a ton of relevant, reliable sources to bring the story together. He is probably best known for his graphic novel Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, which captures the tragic events of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in Louisiana. In the Shadow of the Fallen Towers accomplishes an empathetic, truthful narrative of what happened that day in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. It is short, but concisely reports the information with brilliant illustrations.

The only major downside is that the title is slightly misleading, as it spans just one year after the attacks and acknowledges events — such as the assassination of Osama bin Laden — in the notes at the end of the book.

Brown also wrote a graphic novel for the Actual Times series called America is Under Attack: September 11th, 2001: The Day the Towers Fell that is similar, but there is a much more personal feel to his latest book. For one thing, it begins from the perspective of a man who is there to film a documentary on FDNY and like Brown’s other books, follows a path of survivor’s statements. It does a wonderful job of showing just why America was angry while also acknowledging and condemning the rampant Islamaphobia in the aftermath. It also ends on a note of hope, which we can all use a little bit more of, right?

I Survived: The Attacks of September 11th, 2001 by Lauren Tarshis

One of many in the best-selling I Survived series, this book is perfect for elementary-aged kids or for older kids that like fast-paced and action-packed books. Recently, it has been adapted into graphic novel form. Both tell the story of Lucas, a boy who loves football and looks up to his father and Uncle Benny. Both his father and uncle are firefighters for the FDNY.

The book is honest about the events of 9/11 without, as one Amazon review put it, “sugarcoating” anything.

Other Teaching Materials to Pair with the Books

One or two books alone can do wonders, but giving kids the chance to see other sources to match the stories they are reading helps reenforce the knowledge they’ve learned.

9/11 Memorial & Museum Educational Materials

Pentagon Memorial Educational Materials

U.S. Department of Education

University of Pennsylvania: Teaching an inclusive history of 9/11

YA Book Review: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Image Courtesy of HarperCollins

Clap When You Land is a stunning novel-in-verse following two half sisters…who are completely unaware of each other. Well, unaware until their father dies in a plane crash. Then things get complicated.

Those complications make the grieving process significantly harder, though it does take a while for both of the sisters to realize that the other exists. Set in both the Dominican Republic and NYC, Camino and Yahaira Rios are both struck by the tragic loss of their Papi and the secrets he kept from both of his families.

The book explores many topics: grief, secrets, LGBTQ+ relationships, misogyny, colorism, poverty, and so much more. The contrast and parallels of both Camino and Yahaira’s lives make for a fascinating and exciting coming-of-age book.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by the author herself, which brought her novel even more to life and read as intended. Acevedo also does distinct voices for both sisters and includes vibrant imagery in each verse, particularly when it comes to describing the sisters’ relationships or fond memories of their father. I particularly liked the way Camino describes the spiritual healing work her Tía Solana does throughout the book and how she uses her own gifts to help her community.

As for Yahaira, her perspective is similar to the avergage American teen, but what I love about her perspective is that her story often refers to her girlfriend, who is a source of comfort for Yahaira. As she grapples with Papi’s secrets, her girlfriend is there as a steady support system. It’s nice to see a relationship in a YA book well-established and not as a “solution” to grief, but still supportive and key nonetheless. Yahaira also feels guilt throughout the book for her the recent strains on her relationship with Papi, particularly over her quitting chess. I think a lot of kids can relate to feeling pressured to continue doing something for their parents, even if they don’t like it or feeling guilt for not continuing it. This is especially true for Yahaira as she struggles with her identity, like in this quote:

“Can you be from a place
you have never been?

You can find the island stamped all over me,
but what would the island find if I was there?

Can you claim a home that does not know you,
much less claim you as its own?”

From Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

I keep revisiting many quotes from Clap When You Land because of their eloquent power, especially when it comes to Yahaira’s perspectives on how the world monetizes death or how Camino references saints and their ancient wisdom. There’s so much more I could gush about, but I’m too afraid to get into spoiler terroritory for the time being. If it wasn’t obvious, go read (or listen) to this book.

Fellow teachers, if you teach a coming-of-age unit, this is an excellent option for that as well.

Book Review: The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante

Image Courtesy of Penguin Random House

*Note: An earlier version of this review first appeared in Quail Bell Magazine in 2019.

As an educator, I’m always on the lookout for fresh and exciting voices in YA. I’ve also made it a personal mission to find more diverse books to better understand students from all cultural backgrounds. The publishing industry as a whole still has a lot of work to do in order to bring more exclusivity to the reading experience, but a recently published addition has me optimistic about the future of YA. 

One of those voices is Alexandra Villasante, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in person during NCTE 2019. I had read her book from the school library prior to the event and was pleased to see that she was there signing copies of her debut YA book The Grief Keeper.

The Grief Keeper paints a contemporary narrative of the realities of immigration for teens. The novel is a brilliantly woven web of a young Salvadoran immigrant named Marisol and her younger sister Gabi as they escape from the gang violence that killed their brother. In a domino effect of events, Marisol’s attraction to another girl kicks off the string of events leading to his death. In order to secure asylum for Gabi, she agrees to participate in an experiment to be a “grief keeper”, or transferring the intense emotions of another person for herself to bare. Though the novel includes ideas based on science fiction, the nature of the primary experiment used on Marisol is a perfect metaphor for the emotional labor we force upon marginalized people; the unwanted tasks of privileged people being dumped upon immigrants’ shoulders. Overall, The Grief Keeper ​is a snapshot of the difficult choices that are given to those society brands as “illegal”. 

Many people criticize the call for more diverse voices in literature because they are convinced the stories will be formulated and forced. Villasante proves the dissenters wrong with the natural, authentic flow of Marisol’s story. Marisol’s idea of America is a picturesque, perfect life similar to sitcoms she grew up watching, but she soon finds the America she dreamed of is not the welcoming, inviting place it is portrayed to be. Villasante turns the idealistic America on its head, and though the current administration is not mentioned, it is easy to hear the sly rhetoric leaking into the voices of the doctor and caretaker in charge of Marisol. Her hope for true freedom ends up being in the very person she is tasked with curing: Rey, a girl who is still suffering from the loss of her twin brother.  

With stunning character development, Villasante creates a gorgeous story about the perseverance of love in times of strife while also refusing to water down the tougher topics. The book is a heartbreaking, yet redeeming tale destined to be a record of our reality and an enduring message of what true humanity looks like.