Friday, August 27, 2010

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

At last the wait is over!  Wednesday evening, I came home from class to find my copy of Mockingjay waiting for me in the mail. 

In case you have been living under a rock when it comes to the latest in young adult literature, Mockingjay is the last book in the Hunger Games trilogy.  I reviewed the first two books in the series, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire here.  The trilogy tells the story of Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old living in District 12 of Panem-what was once the United States.  Her life, and the lives of everyone in the districts, is closely controlled by the Capitol.  The populace is left half-starved and completely oppressed.  Once a year, just to prove how powerful it is, the Capitol puts on the Hunger Games, in which teen-age tributes fight to the death to earn their districts extra food for the year.  The event is televised all through Panem, and is required watching.  When Katniss, who volunteers to be a tribute to save her younger sister, finds a way to outsmart the system, she becomes a threat to the Capitol, and sets in motion a chain of events that leads to an uprising.

(If you have not yet read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, and want to, I suggest you stop reading now, as I cannot guarantee there will be no spoilers in the following review.  You have been warned!)

This is where Mockingjay picks up.  While Katniss deals with the physical and emotional aftermath of her time in the games, the rebels try to groom her to be their symbol-the mockingjay, which has come to mean freedom to the people of Panem.  Katniss is ambivalent about being used by the rebels, and is desperately worried about Peeta, the second tribute from District 12, who was captured at the end of the Hunger Game in Catching Fire.  Finally, her desire for revenge against the cruel President Snow causes her to throw in the with rebels.  With her best friend Gale by her side, she tries to outsmart the Capitol-and the rebels-in order to avenge the brutalities visited on her, her family and friends, and her district, and maybe just free Panem from tyranny while she's at it.

That summary feels pretty weak, but I am afraid that saying too much will ruin something for someone, so it'll have to do.  Because the fact is, if you know too much about the events of the book prior to reading, there is no way that the story can pack the same emotional wallop that it does on a cold read.  I was wrung out after finishing-in a good way, if there is such a thing.  Granted, I pretty much read it all in one sitting, but I don't know how I could have put it down.  And I am not really going to go into the state of the Peeta/Katniss/Gale triangle.  That, too me, is the least that this series has to offer.  Suffice it to say that regardless of what "team" you are one (and could we stop making everything about teams, like it's the Superbowl or something!), you will find very few happy endings in Mockingjay.

What made this book feel different for me than other books with similar topics is the way that the horrors of war are portrayed.  There is no sentimentality here.  All of the characters, but Katniss, Gale, and Peeta especially, are horribly damaged by the war-body, mind, and spirit.  Collins does not try to sugarcoat the effects of war on human beings.  People go crazy, people are wounded, people die.  For periods of the book some of the characters are basically living on anti-depressants and other psychiatric drugs.  I don't see how anyone reading this book could possibly believe that war is somehow glamorous, as some books/movies seem to imply.  Despite the horror and pain, Katniss and the others somehow manage to keep going-a greater testament to the human spirit than the glorified warriors of other novels, I think.

I also liked the theme of media manipulation.  Both the Capitol and the rebels use propaganda films to sway the populace.  There is a certain amount of "wagging the dog", and ultimately the novel shows how almost anything can be spun to prove almost anything.  I think that is not so different than what happens in today's media.  Just think about a political campaign.  There is so much conflicting information presented in campaign ads, it is impossible for both sides to be telling the truth.  Or think about famous scandals.  A well placed apology or public conversion can change a scoundrel into a repentant saint  we are all too quick to forgive-especially if they shoot a basketball real well or starred in a movie we really liked.  The fact was that no one who wasn't "in on it" had any idea what the true agendas of either the Capitol or the rebels were, including Katniss, who was once again manipulated for someone else's purposes.

I Love Lists!

This list was posted today on The Wormhole.  Since I am a sucker for lists, I just had to pass it along.  Given my new pledge to reconnect with YA literature, I though I should give myself a little test to see how out of the loop I am-I actually don't think I'm doing too bad!  The ones I've read are in red (get it?).

Persnickety Snarks List of Top 100 YA Novels (2010): based on a reader poll conducted for five weeks between April and May 2010. Over 735  respondents shared their top ten YA books from all over the globe; 80% were female.

1. The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
2. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's (Sorceror's) Stone - J.K. Rowling
3. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
4. Speak - Laurie Halse Anderson
5. Northern Lights (The Golden Compass)- Philip Pullman
6. The Truth About Forever - Sarah Dessen
7. The Book Thief - Markus Zusak
8. The Outsiders - S.E. Hinton
9. Twilight - Stephenie Meyer
10. This Lullaby - Sarah Dessen
11. Looking for Alaska - John Green
12. Just Listen - Sarah Dessen
13. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K. Rowling
14. Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
15. City of Bones - Cassandra Clare
16. On the (Jellicoe Road) - Melina Marchetta
17. The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
18. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J.K. Rowling 
19. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
20. Along for the Ride - Sarah Dessen
21. Shiver - Maggie Stiefvater
22. Vampire Academy - Richelle Mead
23. Graceling - Kristin Cashore
24. Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher
25. Sloppy Firsts - Megan McCafferty
26. The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien
27. Alanna: The First Adventure - Tamora Pierce
28. Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card
29. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - J.K. Rowling
30. Uglies - Scott Westerfeld
31. A Great and Terrible Beauty - Libba Bray
32. Tomorrow, When the War Began - John Marsden
33. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks - E. Lockhart
34. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
35. The Westing Game - Ellen Raskin
36. Paper Towns - John Green
37. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - J.K. Rowling
38. Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins
39. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn - Betty Smith
40. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - Sherman Alexie
41. Lock and Key - Sarah Dessen
42. The Amber Spyglass - Philip Pullman 
43. Evernight - Claudia Gray
44. Sabriel - Garth Nix
45. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - J.K. Rowling
46. Beautiful Creatures - Kami Garcia, Margaret Stohl 
47. Forever - Judy Blume
48. I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith 
49. Ella Enchanted - Gail Carson Levine
50. The Princess Diaries - Meg Cabot
51. Stargirl - Jerry Spinelli
52. Howl's Moving Castle - Diana Wynne Jones
53. The Dark is Rising - Susan Cooper
54. Hush, Hush - Becca Fitzpatrick 
55. Saving Francesca - Melina Marchetta
56. Second Helpings - Megan McCafferty
57. Dreamland - Sarah Dessen
58. Eclipse - Stephenie Meyer
59. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist - Rachel Cohn, David Levithan
60. Fire - Kristin Cashore
61. The Chocolate War - Robert Cormier
62. Weetzie Bat - Francesca Lia Block
63. The Diary of a Young Girl - Anne Frank
64. Looking for Alibrandi - Melina Marchetta
65. How I Live Now - Meg Rosoff
66. City of Glass - Cassandra Clare 
67. Keeping the Moon - Sarah Dessen
68. Breaking Dawn - Stephenie Meyer
69. Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging - Louise Rennison
70. If I Stay - Gayle Forman
71. The King of Attolia - Megan Whalen Turner 
72. Wintergirls - Laurie Halse Anderson 
73. Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast - Robin McKinley
74. The Blue Sword - Robin McKinley
75. Feed - M.T. Anderson
76. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants - Ann Brashares
77. Go Ask Alice - Anonymous 
78. Wicked Lovely - Melissa Marr
79. Lord of the Flies - William Golding
80. Someone Like You - Sarah Dessen
81. The Forest of Hands and Teeth - Carrie Ryan
82. Jacob Have I Loved - Katherine Paterson
83. The Knife of Never Letting Go - Patrick Ness 
84. Poison Study - Maria V. Snyder
85. Shadow Kiss - Richelle Mead
86. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle - Avi
87. An Abundance of Katherines - John Green 
88. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
89. A Ring of Endless Light - Madeleine L'Engle
90. Glass Houses - Rachel Caine
91. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party - M.T. Anderson
92. Walk Two Moons - Sharon Creech
93. Whale Talk - Chris Crutcher
94. Perfect Chemistry - Simone Elkeles
95. Going Too Far - Jennifer Echols
96. The Last Song - Nicholas Sparks 
97. Before I Fall - Lauren Oliver
98. Hatchet - Gary Paulsen
99. The Pigman - Paul Zindel
100. The Hero and the Crown - Robin McKinley
In case you were counting, that 32% of the list.  And not just the titles that have been around since I was a young adult-I've read some of the newer ones too.  Go me!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

This World We Live In, by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Title:  This World We Live In
Author:  Susan Beth Pfeffer
Publisher:  Harcourt Children's Books
Year:  2010
Pages:  256
Genre:  Science Fiction/Dystopian
Age Level:  7th Grade and Up

Plot Summary:
This World We Live In continues the story of two families after a meteor hits the moon, changing its orbit and causing its new gravitational pull to start tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions all over the world.  The narrator of this book is the same as the first book in the trilogy, Life As We Knew It, Miranda.  Her family-her mother, two brothers, and cat-have survived the winter, with the help of the food the government has been delivering to people still living in her area.  Most of the people in their small town have either left or died.  The weather is getting marginally warmer, and the days are longer, if still gray with volcanic ash.  They occasionally have electricity for a few hours at a time.  During one of those days when the electricity is working, something miraculous happens-the doorbell rings.  Standing outside are Miranda's father, step-mother, new baby brother, and a small band of survivors, including a boy about Miranda's age named Alex.  The two groups try to decide how to live on the extremely limited resources they have, and start sending the young people out to scavenge in empty houses for anything usable.  Miranda soon realizes she has feelings for Alex, and when a tornado rips through what is left of their town, she is forced to make a decision that could change all of their lives.

When I read Life As We Knew It, I literally could not put it down.   The story of Miranda's family was fascinating to me.  One of the things I loved about the first book was the way that Pfeffer showed that there would be a slow breaking down of society, and I especially liked that she did not write a story about how suddenly we would all turn into raving lunatics with guns shooting each other over a can of cat food, which is what so many dystopian novels or movies portray.  I personally think that humanity is better than that.

This book was just as gripping, but much less satisfying in the end.  Once again Pfeffer's writing style, and the authenticity of Miranda's character, made me feel like I was reading a real journal by a real person.  Sometimes that format can feel contrived, but not in this case.  I was glad for the addition of new characters-while the first book showed the slow narrowing of their world to just the sunroom and the four of them, this novel highlighted our need to be part of community.  I did not read the second book in the trilogy, The Dead and the Gone, so I'm sure that some of my disappointment is due to not knowing what happened to Alex and his sister Julie before they joined up with Miranda's father and his group.  Because after getting every detail of every day of the beginning of the crisis, things seemed to jump around a lot in the second half of this book.  I couldn't understand why Alex was so insistent not to stay with the group, or why Miranda's step-mother was so attached to Julie.  But that slight dissatisfaction, of my own making, really for not reading the second book, was nothing compared to the end.  I want more!  I want to know where they go and what happens to them!  I searched the internet last night looking for anything that could tell me if this series is going to continue, and given that everything I found-including the author's blog-lists it as a trilogy I guess I'm out of luck. From a teacher's perspective this is not necessarily a bad thing-it can lead to great discussions and writing projects about what becomes of them and America in the future.  But from a reader's point of view-I'll always wonder what became of them.

Teacher Resources:

Official Readers Guide for Trilogy  

This World We Live In Book Trailer 

Interview with Susan Beth Pfeffer 

Friday, August 6, 2010

Life As We Knew It, Susan Beth Pfeffer

Title:  Life As We Knew It
Author:  Susan Beth Pfeffer
Publisher:  Harcourt Children's Books
Year:  2006
Genre:  Science Fiction/Dystopia
Age Level:  6th-12th Grade

Plot Summary:
At the end of her sophomore year in high school, it seemed as though all Miranda's teachers could talk about was the impending collision of a meteor with the moon.  But that event barely registered with Miranda-like most 16 year olds she was more concerned with boys, her friends, and getting her driver's license.  But when the collision occurs, much more powerful than anyone predicted, it causes the moon to go off it's axis.  This in turn causes tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and drastic weather changes.  As the things that Miranda has always taken for granted start to disappear (like electricity, fresh food, and water), she is at turns angry, petulant, and finally resigned to the fact that life as she knew it is over.  But she discovers that she is stronger than she imagined as she discovers what this new life might be about.

My book club decided to read this book, plus In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke, as our August book clib books.  So while most book clubs were probably reading light, beachy reads, we were reading about the end of civilization as we know it-TWICE!  As my best friend said, it sort of made you want to start hording canned food and bottled water by the time you were done.  But both books were so well done that I can't really complain too much about the subject matter.

As the mother of a 16 year old myself I can tell you that Miranda's voice on this book rings completely true.  At times completely self-absorbed, and at others seeming too mature for her age, Miranda deals with the crisis in the context of the things she knows best-her friends, her school, her family.  Like In a Perfect World, this story is really a multi-layered structure.  There is the science fiction story of the crisis and it's aftermath, there is the family drama of Miranda's relationship with her mother and father, who is remarried and not living with them at the time of the meteor collision, and there is a coming-of-age story complete with that make or break moment where Miranda's ability to handle what this new life throws at her leaves her a more mature, wiser person.  Pfeffer handles all of these matters authentically and with style.

One thing that I appreciated about this novel, and the reason that I think you could use it as young as 6th grade, is that rather than show the world descending into violence and madness after the collision, it shows what I consider to be a much more realistic view of the slow disintegration of our societal institutions and culture.  People do not immediately get guns and start shooting each other over a can of tuna-though they do start to gather resources and hide them away.  People are wary of each other, but not hostile for the most part, and that feels more right to me.  Outside of urban areas where violence seems to sprout up for much less reason than food shortages, in the more rural parts of the country where the story is set, I like to believe that in the event of a crisis of this magnitude people would be more likely to try and work together and help each other than lock themselves away and shoot on sight.  Maybe that's just me being overly-optimistic, but that's what I want to believe, and maybe believing will make it true!

Teaching Resources:

Susan Beth Pfeffer Resources 

Scholastic Study Guide

Discussion Guide