Thursday, February 23, 2017

We Are All Made of Molecules, Susin Nielsen

Title: We Are All Made of Molecules
Author: Susin Nielsen
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Year: 2015
Pages: 256
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: Blended Families, Popularity, Peer Pressure, LGBTQ+
Age Range: 7th Grade and Above

Stewart always wanted a sister. So when his father announces that they would be moving in with his girlfriend and her 14-year-old daughter, Stewart is hopeful that it will help take away some of the sadness he's been feeling since his mother's death the year before. Ashley, on the other hand, is NOT HAPPY about the new living arrangements her mother springs on her. She just wants to return to the perfect family life she had before her father told them he was gay and moved into the guest house. Stewart and Ashley could not be more different. Stewart is a genius in everything but social skills. School isn't really Ashley's thing, but she is the most popular girl in school. How will these two seemingly incompatible teenagers coexist under the same roof, both at home and at school?

This book got one of my infrequent 5-star reviews. I am very stingy with my 5-star reviews. A book has to really be so well-written or so powerful that it deserves to be set apart from even other good books. I loved everything about this story. The Stewart that Nielsen created is possibly one of the most engaging, likable characters I have ever read. I wanted to hug him, high-five him, I wanted to put him in my pocket and take him home with me. He isn't perfect, which makes him all the more believable, but his sense of fairness, his loyalty, and his overall integrity made me wish he was a real person that we could clone and send out into the world to show the rest of us poor slobs how we should behave towards each other.

I did not love Ashley at first, but then, you're not supposed to. She makes the biggest changes in the book, and that's good, because the person she was at the beginning of the story was an entitled, mean-spirited brat. But as you read, you discover that much of her attitude is designed to cover-up her feelings of intellectual inadequacy, and her deep fear that if anyone at school knew her true self they would crucify her. She bought in 100% to the ridiculous notion that exists in teenage culture that popularity is everything, and that you need to achieve it at all costs. The consequences of that drive for the top started catching up with her, however, and she was forced to confront the fact that maybe there are more important things in life than being at the top of the social pecking order.

The story is told alternately from Stewart's and Ashley's perspectives, and while this has become a fairly standard practice in this case it really does add value to the story. Aside from the odd couple nature of the relationship between the two almost-step-siblings, the book deals with sexual assault (not graphic, and really and "almost" assault), teenage drinking, bullying, and coming out. It is a beautiful, emotionally impactful telling of two families becoming one.

Usually, I try not to use phrases like "full of heart" because they've become so cliche, but I have to for this book. It is full of heart, and if you can come away from reading it without feeling connected to these characters, and proud of the changes they make, then maybe you yourself have no heart!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Pulse, by Patrick Carman

Title: Pulse
Author: Patrick Carman
Publisher: Katherine Tegan Books
Year: 2013
Pages: 371
Genre: Dystopian Science Fiction
Themes: Power, Oppression
Age Range: 7th Grade and Above

Faith lives in the no-man's-land outside the walls of the State. The United States, in a desperate bid to conserve resources, has encouraged all people to move into heavily populated States, where people are packed into the finite space but have access to food, medicine, and technology that you can't get on the outside. It seems as though the last stragglers of a dying way of life will eventually all succumb to the lure of the State. But there are some who are different. Some who prefer the freedom of the outside to the relative safety and comfort of the State. When Faith discovers that she has the "pulse", telekinetic abilities that allow her to control matter and fly, she also discovers that under the surface, dark forces are at work to dismantle the State and seize control of the people and resources that reside there. Under the tutelage of her classmate, Dylan, Faith learns to control her powers, and to use them in support of those who would keep the State safe from harm.

This is the start of a trilogy, one that I have yet to finish. The first book, however, gets a thumbs up from me! The premise is interesting, and as someone who's read a ton of dystopian YA fiction, it felt new and fresh. Faith as a character is relatable, and there's the whole "dark, mysterious" love interest thing going on. I fully expected to find that the State was the enemy, and maybe they will be in the end, but I thought that premise that the State was good and the people opposing the State were bad turned that old "Hunger Games" style trope on its head.

As far as deep, meaningful discussion opportunities go, it's not exactly chock full of them, at least not this first book in the trilogy, but it is action-packed, and has enough intrigue to keep a person interested. I'd say the trilogy is a solid addition to any well-stocked classroom library, though I reserve the right to change my mind if the rest of the books in the series suck.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Little Brother X, Cory Doctorow

Title: Little Brother X
Author: Cory Doctorow
Publisher: Tor Teen
Year: 2008
Pages: 382
Genre: Dystopian Science Fiction
Themes: Terrorism, Freedom, Government
Age Range: 8th-12th Grade

Summary: (from Goodreads)
Marcus aka “w1n5t0n,” is only seventeen years old, but he figures he already knows how the system works–and how to work the system. Smart, fast, and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school’s intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems. 
But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison where they’re mercilessly interrogated for days. 
When the DHS finally releases them, his injured best friend Darryl does not come out. The city has become a police state where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows that no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: "M1k3y" will take down the DHS himself.


This novel is action packed, and I think that the characters are ones that many youth could relate to. Unlike some dystopian novels, where the society that we know as completely ceased to exist, the America created in Little Brother is one that feels not so far away. Which is a little terrifying, to be honest. The books reminded me a little bit of The Circle by Dave Eggers. It is really an exploration of the consequences of our increasing reliance on social media, and the myriad of ways that we are connected to the digital world. What kind of information do we share about ourselves every day, and how can that information be used against us?

Perhaps the scariest part for me was the constant surveillance, especially of children, all in the name of "safety". I've seen an awful lot of scary things happen in the name of "safety" already. White families who move out of a diverse neighborhood to a majority white one"for the schools", otherwise known as white flight. Surveillance cameras in our streets. The Patriot Act. The reprehensible immigration ban that is thankfully being blocked at the moment by the courts. It seems completely plausible to me that we are one or two terror attacks away from the kind of Department of Homeland Security crack-down that takes place in this novel. There are great themes to talk about with this book. What should be the balance between security, personal privacy, and freedom of association? Can hacking be considered a form of civil disobedience? Is it OK to break laws you consider unjust? What should the role of government be in policing our communities? All of these questions are relevant to the time, and could help build a bridge for students between the fictional dystopia of Doctorow's America and the complex issues the world must grapple with in the face of terrorist threats.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Reality Boy, A.S.King

Title: Reality Boy
Author: A.S.King
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Year: 2013
Pages: 353
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: Mental Health, Media, First Love
Age Range: 8th Grade and Above

Gerald Faust was five years old when his family appeared on the Network Nanny show. Ever since, he's been living under the shadow of his outrageous behavior, which helped him earn the nickname "The Crapper". Despite the nanny's intervention, by the time Gerald is 15 his family is in shambles, and he is carrying around more anger than is healthy. His oldest sister has moved back into the house, bringing with her a dangerous attitude and a rat-faced boyfriend. His middle sister has gone away to school, leaving him alone to deal with his mother's emotional neglect, his father's drinking, and his other sister's murderous rampages. He deals with his pain and anger by creating a fantasy world in his head, where he can disappear for hours at a time. When he meets Hannah, however, a girl who's just as desperate to escape her world as he is his, his defense start to crumble, and he finds he must deal with the demons, literal and figurative, that have been plaguing him for almost twelve years.


"Dear Children Featured on Supernanny,

I apologize."

That was my overwhelming feeling upon reading Reality Boy. I am (now) ashamed to say that I eagerly awaited every episode of Supernanny. There was something wholly satisfying about watching Nanny Jo talk tough to parents and kids about their behavior. Frankly, it was more satisfying for me to watch her have "come to Jesus" meetings with the parents than anything that happened with the children. As a school teacher, I think it was a little bit of wish fulfillment on my part; Nanny Jo could say things to parents about setting boundaries and promoting responsible behavior in their children hat I could never in a million years get away with.

But the sad fact is, these were real families with real children who had no say over whether their misbehavior was going to be broadcast on national television. And it never occurred to me, not once, that this could be more damaging to them than their parents' less-than-stellar parenting skills. Hence the apology above. While Gerald's situation is clearly an extreme form of what the families on this popular nanny shows went through, it does raise an ethical dilemma about exploiting children for entertainment.

You feel sorry for Gerald right from the start. It is obvious that he is in tremendous emotional pain, with only two respites from the real world. He has developed a rich internal life, a place that he can escape to filled with all of the elements of what a happy childhood is. Disney characters and ice cream and playing on the swings with the sister who isn't a psychopath. The other place is the special education classroom his mother somehow convinced the school he should be in; a place where no one judges him for his five-year-old behavior. But when Gerald meets Hannah, his inner world starts to fall apart, and being in his SPED class starts to feel like hiding instead of living.

I love the irony of the title. Gerald's life was defined by reality TV, which never actually showed reality, and his life is now defined by a fantasy world he has created that allows him to escape reality. I also love that Hannah, while she forces Gerald to make some changes for the better, doesn't "fix" him. She's got troubles of her own, and their relationship is not all sunshine and roses. It's a story of two broken people, each with their own emotional issues, supporting each other. They don't always make the right decisions, but each of them is trying in their own way to find the home they've always wanted, in each other.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Huntress, Melinda Lo

Title: Huntress
Author: Melinda Lo
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Year: 2011
Pages: 371
Genre: Fantasy
Themes: Destiny, Good vs. Evil, LGBTQ+
Age Range: 7th Grade and Above

Summary: (from Goodreads)
Nature is out of balance in the human world. The sun hasn't shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people's survival hangs in the balance.
To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Tanlili, the city of the Fairy Queen. Taisin is a sage, thrumming with magic, and Kaede is of the earth, without a speck of the otherworldly. And yet the two girls' destinies are drawn together during the mission. As members of their party succumb to unearthly attacks and fairy tricks, the two come to rely on each other and even begin to fall in love. But the Kingdom needs only one huntress to save it, and what it takes could tear Kaede and Taisin apart forever.

Fans of Melinda Lo's first fantasy novel, Ash, will not be disappointed in this companion novel, which takes place in the same world, but hundreds of years earlier.  I love the fact that Lo has created a world in her fictional (but Chinese-inspired) world of warriors and magic that turns traditional gender roles on their head. In fact, there appear to be almost no actual gender roles at all in the culture of the novel. How refreshing it would be to live in a place where that was actually true. Where people were free to follow their hearts and minds wherever they desired without fear of social repercussions. Lo is also completely at ease writing both same- and mixed-gender romances. In the Kingdom of Lo's creation, all romantic relationships are equally accepted and valued. As a gay woman I can only dream of a world where my relationship is so unremarkable in its nature that it doesn't require "coming out", or protection from people who may not accept it.

Of course, are we really free to follow our hearts and minds? Destiny and fate are both themes explored in this novel. When Taisin has a vision of Kaede, one that makes her feel great love for her, is their eventual romance really authentic, or did it come about because of the way the vision made Taisin feel? When Kaede defies her father to follow Taisin, is she doing it because she is choosing to, or because she is meant to? Every step of the journey Taisin and Kaede  fight to make their own decisions, yet every decision brings them closer to fulfilling the destiny that was foretold. HOw much control do we really have over our own lives? How much are we influenced by the things we are told we should be? How much are we influenced by forces larger than ourselves?

The book is well-written, and Lo appears to have avoided the sophomore slump that often happens with second novels. If I had a criticism, it is that while the main quest the characters take unfolds over most of the book, the culminating quest that is Kaede's alone gets squeezed into the last chapter or so of the book. Seems like a sign that the novel could be longer, or that it needed a sequel. But that is minor-for the most part I enjoyed immersing myself into the world that Lo had created, and I would recommend this book be included in any classroom library that was looking to be inclusive in both genre and representation.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

One, Sarah Crossan

Title: One
Author: Sarah Crossan
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Year: 2015
Pages: 400
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: Identity, First Love, Sisterhood, Coming of Age
Age Range: 7th Grade and Above

Grace and Tippi are conjoined twins, attached at the waist. Defying the odds, they have made it to their teenage years mostly healthy and pretty happy. After being homeschooled their entire lives, Tippi and Grace transition to a traditional high school. Despite the curious looks and unkind words from many of the students, they manage to find Yasmeen and Jon, who quickly become their first and best friends. But their world is turned upside down when their mother loses her job, and suddenly they are struggling to pay for the girls' expensive medical care. And then a health crisis forces them to make the decision they've been avoiding their while life-whether to undergo separation surgery.

I really enjoyed this novel, told in a loose free verse. Grace is the narrator, which I thought was an interesting choice. This story certainly lends itself to alternating perspectives, but I think that Crossan made a good decision to focus only on one of the twins. This allowed her to show how Grace developed her sense of self and identity, both because of and in spite of her sister. Adolescence is a turbulent time for most of us, but having to manage hormones and crushes and the need for space while simultaneously being literally attached to another person heightened the angst and emotional impact.

To be honest, while I know that novel told in verse are a thing right now, that would be my only real criticism of this book. Not because I don't like novels in verse-I do. But for this story it felt unnecesary. When I think of novels in verse, I think of powerful poetry from authors like Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming) or Thanhha Lai (Inside Out and Back Again), where the format adds to the beauty and impact of the language. I'm not sure the use of poetry in the case of One actually added much to the story, and it occasionally felt a little choppy. However, the story on its own is engaging enough that the format is really only a minor criticism. I think that reluctant readers, even boys, would find a story about conjoined twins interesting enough to give it a chance, though I suspect some male readers may find it girly. Given the subject matter, there are surely paired informational readings that could be found to make it part of a larger unit of study, but if nothing else it would make a good addition to any classroom library.

Teacher Resources
Bloomsbury Kids Reading Guide
Centre for Literacy in Primary Education Teaching Sequence

Friday, August 19, 2016

Henrietta Hornbuckle's Circus of Life

Title: Henrietta Hornbuckle's Circus of Life
Author: Michael de Guzman
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Year: 2011
Pages: 160
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: Family, Change, Overcoming Loss, Coming of Age
Age Range: 3rd-5th Grade

Henrietta and her parents are clowns in a travelling clown circus. Henrietta thinks her life is perfect. Instead of going to school, she gets her education from the other clown in her troop. And instead of soccer practice or swim lessons, she gets to perform every night with her beloved father in their two person act. Henrietta wants nothing more than to spend the rest of her life with the circus, but changes are coming. Attendance at their shows is getting smaller, and some of the clowns are leaving to find real jobs in the real world. Then, tragedy strikes. Her father is killed by a hit and run driver. How will she and her mother survive the loss of her father, and will Henrietta be able to survive the loss of her beloved circus life?

Poor clowns! They get a lot of bad press these days. Seems like every time you turn around there is another creepy clown photo or tv show or movie. You don't see too many people wanting to be clowns in the 21st century. But Henrietta and her travelling clown troop brought back those old feelings of wanting to run away with the circus-live in a tent, travel the world, make friends with the acrobats and lion tamers. The troop that Henrietta and her family belong to is one big, happy family, and you can completely understand why Henrietta wants to spend the rest of her life surrounded by the people she loves best.

The story is a simple one, but full of heart. You feel Henrietta's joy at working with her father, her deep fear of losing the circus, her distrust of her aunt (her mother's sister, who was not well pleased when Henrietta's mother ran away with her father), and her deep sorrow at the loss of her father. The first person perspective allows the reader to get immersed in Henrietta's inner life. The unique setting should engage elementary age readers, and there is enough emotional depth that you could have some decent discussions with students. It would make a decent addition to a classroom library, and could be used for novel study as well, depending on the themes being studied.