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Little Willow

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Author Spotlight: Rachel Cohn

Author Rachel Cohn populates her novels with realistic teenagers dealing with complicated families. She crafts characters with just the right mix of sincerity and snarkiness. I've read all of her books to date and look forward to future releases.

The Gingerbread Trilogy

Her award-winning trilogy for teens features a bold and brassy young woman named after movie star Cyd Charisse. The books ought to be read in the proper order: Gingerbread, Shrimp, and Cupcake.

CC was very young when her parents got divorced. She has only one memory of her father: meeting him in an airport, where he gave her gingerbread and bough her a doll. She promptly named the doll Gingerbread and carried it everywhere.

Now a teenager, she still has the doll, as well as the yearning to see her father. Her mother has remarried, and though she gets along well enough with her stepfather and adores her younger half-siblings, she feels out of place - and feels the need to get out of that place.

She finally gets the chance to visit her father, going across the continent to the other coast, only to find that she doesn't quite fit there either. Her father is distant and their relationship is awkward. She has half-siblings on her father's side, but they are older, grown, pushing her into the unfamiliar role of the younger sister. Luckily, she hits it off with her extremely lovable half-brother Danny, who is easily my favorite supporting character in the series.

While in NYC, CC becomes homesick. She misses her family and friends in San Francisco, especially her boyfriend, Shrimp. On top of all that, something heavy is weighing on her mind - something she hasn't told many people - something she shouldn't have to deal with alone.

Shrimp, the sequel to Gingerbread, was released in 2005. As the title implies, the focus is on CC's love for surfer boy Shrimp. Now that she's back in San Francisco, their on-again, off-again relationship is on-again. Like the waves he loves, things can be smooth sailing one moment, then crash down the next.

Love isn't the only thing on her mind. So is school, what with it being her senior year. CC's mom wants her to go to college, but CC doesn't know where she wants to go or what she wants to do just yet. When CC's mom leaves her college brochures, CC tosses them in the recycling bin. The two headstrong women crash more than once, but their arguments are born of frustration, of differences, of love, never of hate.

Then Shrimp's hippie parents decide to move to New Zealand. What will CC do if Shrimp decides to go with them?

The third and final CC book, Cupcake, was released in February 2007. Now eighteen and a high school graduate, Cyd Charisse is ready to move on - or at least pretend that she is. Though she loves her family and her home in San Francisco, CC can't wait to live it up in New York with her fantastic older half-brother Danny. She just knows life in the city will be great. After all, what could be better to distract her from Shrimp-missage than the larger-than-life Big Apple?

I enjoyed Cupcake so much that I wrote a separate entry dedicated solely to it.

The Steps

Cohn's novels for younger readers, The Steps and Two Steps Forward, also deal with extended and estranged families. I noted The Steps book in an earlier column for The Edge of the Forest and have included it on many of my booklists.

The person who connects all of The Steps is Annabel, twelve "going on thirteen with a vengeance." Like CC, she is the feisty child of divorced parents. Unlike CC, Annabel spent the first nine years of her life with both parents. When her dad remarries and moves from New York to Australia, the distance seems incredible. Luckily, they reconnect when she visits him Down Under. Her stepmother and step-siblings grow on her, especially her stepsister Lucy.

Two Steps Forward splits the narration between Annabel and three of her peers: Lucy, her stepsister from her father's second marriage; Wheaties, Annabel's stepbrother from her mother's second marriage, and Ben, Annabel's Australian crush. The story brings the stepfamilies to Los Angeles, where nearly everyone feels like fish out of water. With so many kids and adults on one shared trip, personalities are bound to clash. Even when Annabel fights to change her appearance and sulks at the dinner table, she's still likable.

More Novels for Teens

For readers older than Annabel but slightly younger than CC, there's Wonder, the star of Pop Princess. Pretty young thing Lucky strikes it big as a pop singer. She becomes America's little darling, and the eyes of the world watch her star rise. One day, she is accidentally killed by a car while crossing the street. A freak accident. A fallen star.

Two years later, her manager hears Lucky's younger sister Wonder singing while slaving away at a Dairy Queen and offers her a record deal. The novel follows Wonder's ride up and down the fame rollercoaster. At first, Wonder does not particularly want to be famous, but she goes along for the ride. When Wonder's Pop Princess tiara becomes too heavy to wear, she realize what she does (and doesn't) want to do with her life and her talent. No matter what she decides to do, even if she doesn't fill her sister's shoes, she can be herself.

This book is featured on my But I Don't Want to Be Famous! booklist.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, her 2006 collaboration with David Levithan, was a hit with older teens and adults. It takes the typical boy meets girl storyline and makes it anything but typical. Over the course of one night, two perfect strangers fall in and out of love with life, music, friends, cars, food, the city, and maybe - just maybe - each other. Read my full-length review of Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist.

Prior to the release of Playlist, I had the opportunity to interview Cohn and Levithan together. They were friendly and forthcoming while discussing their books and their careers.

I interviewed them again the following year about their next collaborative effort, Naomi & Ely's No Kiss List. Also set in New York City, this No Kiss List isn't a boy meets girl story, nor a boy vs. girl story. It's just about a boy and a girl, two close friends who keep falling in and out of love with other people. Naomi's a little bit in love with Ely. Ely just might have kissed Naomi's boyfriend. Needless to say, Naomi & Ely have a complicated relationship, but it makes for a good read.

2010 brought us another Cohn & Levithan collaboration. I enjoyed Dash & Lily's Book of Dares just as much as I enjoyed Nick & Norah. When Dash discovers a red Moleskine notebook on the shelf of The Strand bookstore, he opens it and finds questions and challenges inside. Lily, the girl who left the notebook, wants to liven up her holiday break. The two teenagers start a lively game of dares, each writing in the notebook and leaving it in designated locations for the other person to discover. Along the way, they challenge themselves just as much as they challenge each other. Will they ever dare to meet in person? You have to read the book to find out!

You Know Where to Find Me, Cohn's stand-alone novel of March 2008, is intense, to say the least. Two cousins grew up like sisters, and though their life wasn't ideal, it was bearable because they were together. Then Laura commits suicide, and Miles, the girl left behind, falters.

With this novel, Cohn definitely challenges readers. If she gets just one person to reevaluate what could be the ultimate decision . . . wow. While detailing Laura's death and Miles' downward spiral, Cohn doesn't soft-pedal anything. The fallout is intense without being overwhelming.

One of the many things I enjoyed about Find Me was the search. I didn't know exactly what Miles would do next or where she would end up. I didn't predict the ending. I didn't need to. And with this, with her, I wished for peace and hope. Also, for something she could call her own.

Very LeFreak, published in February 2010, follows the title character through her tumultuous freshman year at Columbia University. Very (short for Veronica) loves life. She flings herself head-first into everything, including romantic flings. However, don't let her enthusiastic organizations of parties and flash mobs fool you: she's far more than a party girl, and there's an intelligent brain in that head of wild red hair.

Very was raised by her single mother, a carefree woman who moved her daughter all over the world for much of her young life. Her mother's sudden (but not completely unexpected) death landed Very with her great-aunt Esther, who has a fondess for knitting odd sweaters and a distain for swearing. After being homeschooled (or worldschooled) by her mom for much of her life, Very did very well in high school and scored a scholarship to Columbia, but during her first year at college, her addiction to all things technological - she is rarely without her laptop, her iPod, and her iPhone - has gotten in the way of real-life relationships and harmed her academic record.

Few YA books currently tackle the transition between high school and college; Very LeFreak does, and does it well. Populated by a cast of contrastive and often eccentric characters and led by the very memorable Very herself, Rachel Cohn's newest novel is one to recommend to older teens and twentysomethings, who will find both humor and reflection in its pages. Read my full-length review of Very LeFreak.

In 2012, Beta, the first volume in Rachel Cohn's Annex trilogy, was released. The second volume, Emergent, is expected to be released in 2013; the third and final volume, currently untitled, may be released in 2014. In this series, Cohn has created a futuristic, luxurious island called Demesne where the wealthy, the shops, and so on employ clones to do jobs ranging from construction to household duties. We meet Elysia, who is a Beta, meaning she is one of the first to be cloned from a dead teenager. As Elysia begins to experience sensations (the taste of chocolate, for example) and emotions, she also relives memories of the girl who came before her and realizes not everything is as perfect as the island folk are pretending it is.

Whether writing for ten year olds or twenty year olds, whether setting her tale on the West Coast, East Coast, or Gold Coast, Rachel Cohn has a knack for telling stories that make readers find hope.

Visit her official website and MySpace page.

The original version of this piece was published in the February 2007 issue of The Edge of the Forest.
Tags: author spotlight, books, mix, reviews

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