Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Insurgent, by Veronica Roth

Title:  Insurgent
Author:  Veronica Roth
Publisher:  Harper Teen
Year:  2012
Pages:  525
Genre:  Dystopian Science Fiction
Themes:  Family, Survival, Oppression, Identity
Age Range:  8th Grade and Above

Roth has created a fictional Chicago in ruins, cut off from the rest of the world by a high fence.  The lake and river have dried up, and the people who live within the city must get their food from farms on the outskirts of town.  Society has been divided into five factions:  Amity, the peaceful food growers; Erudite, the ultra-intelligent innovators; Candor, whose purpose is to always find and tell the truth; Abnegation, the self-less leaders of the community; and Dauntless, the fearless peace-keepers and informal police force.

Insurgent is the second book in the Divergent series.  It follows Tris Prior, former Abengation, and her love interest and fellow Dauntless fighter, Tobias, in the aftermath of the battle between Erudite and Abnegation for control of the city.  Tris and her friends are on the run from the Erudite leaders and the Dauntless traitors who have joined them.  As the old order breaks down, Tris and her fellow divergent are targeted by the Erudite.  They find temporary safety with Candor, but everyone knows that the current situation can't stand.  When Tris find out that the Erudite attack was a cover for the theft of valuable information from Abnegation, she sets her sights on discovering the information and bringing down Erudite.

As I wrote when I reviewed Divergent last year, this series is an anomaly for me, in that I am completely engrossed in the fictional world Roth has created, even though I don't really like the protagonist that much.  Tris is a complicated character, for sure, but her aggressive nature and her instincts to fight first and ask questions later is pretty antithetical to my worldview.  This book actually helped me like her a bit better, though.  She becomes a much more sympathetic character once she is loaded down by guilt over the acts of violence she committed in the first book.  Sad, but true...I liked her better when she was suffering.

Roth's fictional society and the rules under which they live provide rich fodder for discussion about how society is organized, and about governmental power.  Each of the factions provides the basis for a discussion about the relative merit of each aspect of humanity in society.  And Tris's journey through grief and guilt can lead to discussions of friendship, family, and being true to yourself within a crazy world.  Or you can just read it for the pleasure of reading a fast-paced story filled with action and adventure.  Either way, I recommend this series to anyone who loves science fiction generally, and dystopian fiction specifically.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Maze Runner, by James Dashner

Title:  The Maze Runner
Author:  James Dashner
Publisher:  Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Year:  2009
Pages:  374
Genre:  Dystopian Science Fiction
Themes:  Survival, Adventure
Age Range:  9th Grade and Up

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. His memory is blank. But he’s not alone. When the lift’s doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade—a large, open expanse surrounded by stone walls.

Just like Thomas, the Gladers don’t know why or how they got to the Glade. All they know is that every morning the stone doors to the maze that surrounds them have opened. Every night they’ve closed tight. And every 30 days a new boy has been delivered in the lift.

Thomas was expected. But the next day, a girl is sent up—the first girl to ever arrive in the Glade. And more surprising yet is the message she delivers. 

Thomas might be more important than he could ever guess. If only he could unlock the dark secrets buried within his mind.

With the enormous amount of dystopian young adult fiction out there, it is not hard to find a book or series that appeals to anyone who loves dystopian literature.  I loved the Hunger Games series, the Unwind series,  and I'm right in the thick of the Divergent series right now.  But Maze Runner fell short for me, for reasons that I'm not sure I can accurately articulate.

Part of it goes to the fact that there is a male protagonist, while most of the other books in this genre that I love (those mentioned above as well as Life As We Knew It and This World We Live In by Susan Beth Pfeffer) have female protagonists.  While I don't usually find the gender of the main character problematic, the whole feel of this book is a little testosterone heavy for me.  That said, I'm sure there are  young adult males who find the female protagonists of those other books I mentioned not a perfect fit for them.  If you are looking for a dystopian series that will appeal to male readers, then The Maze Runner and its sequels are probably a good investment.

My other issues with the book have to do with the nature of the plot itself.  It reads like a straightforward story of survival against an oppressive "other"-the Creators-but I found that I was not necessarily buying the underlying premise.  At least, not until the end, when thing started to make a bit more sense.  But even those revelations felt a bit contrived, with some deus ex machina thrown in in the form of an unknown narrator who is only present a few times throughout the book to provide some sense of what might be going on behind the scenes.  It left me feeling as though all of the heroism of the characters was for naught, since there were people behind the scenes continuing to pull their strings that they were unaware of.  

While I did not love this book, I didn't hate it either.  I suspect that there are those who follow this series as faithfully as I followed The Hunger Games or Divergent.    I think it is a good addition to a classroom library, but I'm not sure there is enough substance there to make it a good book to use in classroom discussions.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Araminta Spookie: My Haunted House

Title:  Araminta Spookie:  My Haunted House
Author:  Angie Sage
Publisher:  Katherine Teegan Books
Year: 2006
Pages:  132
Genre:  Fantasy, Ghost Story
Theme:  Home, Family
Age Range:  2nd-5th Grade

Araminta is a little girl who loves her home.  She lives with her Aunt Tabby and her Uncle Drac in a huge, spooky house.  Araminta spends most of her time ghost hunting.  A house as large and creepy as hers must surely come with a few spirits.  But her Aunt Tabby has had enough of the old place, and she lists the house for sale.  Araminta manages to scare away every prospective buyer, until a the Wizzard family turns up.  With the help of two actual ghosts, Araminta pull out all the stops-but will she be able to save her beloved home?

If you're looking for a creepy, spooky ghost story, this is not the book for you.  However, if you are looking for a ghost story with a quirky main character and the friendliest ghosts since Casper, then My Haunted House just might fit the bill.  Araminta narrates the story, and she is definitely no shy, retiring girl.  She has a spirit as big as her house, and she's certainly not afraid to say what she thinks, or fight for what she thinks is right.  The other characters are all take-offs of movie monsters.  Aunt Tabby is constantly fighting with the boiler, leaving her covered in soot and flying around with a broom-sweeping up the mess, of course.  Her Uncle Drac keeps bats in a tower as pets, works nights, and sleeps in a sleeping bag suspended from the ceiling.  And the Wizzards end up, being, well, wizards.  Araminta's love of her home could lead to some interesting discussions with students, but mostly I think this book makes a decent addition to a classroom library.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Clementine, Friend of the Week, by Sara Pennypacker

Title:  Clementine, Friend of the Week
Author:  Sara Pennypacker
Publisher:  Hyperion
Year:  2010
Pages:  176
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Friendship
Age Range:  2nd-4th Grade

Summary: (from Goodreads)
Clementine has been picked for Friend of the Week, which means she gets to be line leader, collect the milk money, and feed the fish. Even better, she'll get a Friend of the Week booklet in which all the other third grade kids will write why they like her. Clementine's best friend Margaret has all sorts of crazy ideas for how Clementine can prove to the class she is a friend. Clementine "has" to get a great booklet, so she does what Margaret says. What begins as one of the best weeks ever may turn out to be the worst. Who knew that being a friend could be so hard?
Clementine, Friend of the Week is a throw back to some of the books I remember from my own childhood.  Both in writing style and in story it brings to mind Ramona and Harriet and any of Judy Blume's characters.  Clementine is a character that is easily relateable for other little girls, and her struggles, which seem so small from a grown-up perspective, are the types of problems that little girls have when it comes to making and keeping friends.

While most of the story is a sweet and rather funny look at how Clementine plans to bribe and cajole her classmates into giving her good comments in her Friend of the Week booklet, it gains some emotional momentum when her kitten, Moisturizer, gets lost.  He is fine in the end, and his disappearance provides the impetus for making up with her best friend Margaret, but while it was happening I felt her pain and fear.  Pennypacker did a great job making the crisis feel exactly like what it was; a heart-wrenching experience for a loving little girl who is miserable with worry.  This would make a good discussion point, either for discussing character feelings, or for discussing how a character changes at different points in a story.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Calvin Coconut, Trouble Magnet by Graham Salisbury

Title:  Calvin Coconut, Trouble Magnet
Author:  Graham Salisbury
Publisher:  Wendy Lamb Books
Year:  2009
Pages:  160
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Friendship, Family, Bullies
Age Range:  2nd-5th Grade

Calvin Coconut lives in Hawaii with his mother and sister.  His father, the famous Little Johnny Coconut, hit it big with his song "A Little Bit of La-la-la Love", and took for for Vegas.  Since then Calvin is supposed to be the man of the house, but trouble seems to follow him wherever he goes.  On his first day of fourth grade, he angers the sixth grade bully, Tito, and even his best friends Julio and Willy think he is going to get pounded.  His cousin, Stella, is coming from the mainland to stay with them, which means he has to move into the storage room in the garage, which comes fully equipped with spiders and other creepy crawlies.  And his new teacher, Mr. Purdy, calls his class "boot camp"  for a reason. Can Calvin manage to avoid all of the trouble that keeps coming his way?

The one thing I can say that Calvin Coconut, Trouble Magnet has going for it is the unusual setting, and the opportunity to learn some new vocabulary as a result of the island location.  Calvin and his friends introduce us to the culinary delights of "shave ice" and "cuttlefish" and "kim chee", and "dried shrimp".  We also learn the Hawaiian word for mainlanders, "haole".  Calvin is a likeable enough character, and the author did a good job of translating the cadences of Hawaiian English into print.  But unfortunately there is not much substance to go along with the novelty of a Hawaiian setting.  As I read I kept waiting for the point of the story to present itself clearly, and I'm still waiting.  Calvin has problems that kids can relate to, but without any clear resolution.  Calvin solves his bully problem by offering up his cousin Stella as a consolation prize to get Tito off his back-not exactly an honorable solution.  The fact that Stella herself is something of a problem for him is not addressed very well in the course of the book.  Calvin forgets to walk his little sister home from school, but there are no consequences as a result, not even from his sister, who could have easily blackmailed him into some kind of amusing situation.  Overall, I'd say that this book might be an ok addition to a classroom library, but there is just not enough there there to make it worth using in a teaching setting.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Frankly, Frannie: Doggy Day Care

Title:  Frankly Frannie:  Doggy Day Care
Author:  AJ Stern
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  2012
Pages:  123
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Careers, Learning a Lesson
Age Range:  2nd-4th Grade

Frannie is a little girl who desperately wants to be a grown-up.  Ever since realizing that a grown-up office was a bestest place ever, she has been scheming about how she can quit school and get a job.  She thinks her time has come when her teacher compliments her on the care she gave the class hamster when t was her turn to take him home overnight.  That's it!  She'll become a veterinarian.  While hatching a plan to get her parents to let her quit school and run a vet's office out of her bedroom, an opportunity falls into her lap.  Her Aunt Magoo, maker of sock dolls extraordinaire, needs help getting ready for a big meeting with a fancy lady from a big toy store.  Magoo needs Frannie and her best friend Eliot to take care of her animals, three slippery cats and a dog named Bark.  Can Frannie prove that she is ready for the responsibility of being a veterinarian?  Chaos ensues when Frannie takes matters into her own hands.

Frannie was introduced in the book Frankly Frannie, and since her first appearance she has tried on a few different jobs.  Each time she learns something new about herself, and she finds that being a grown-up with a job is harder than it seems.  The books are told in first person from Frannie's point of view, and as such the language is sometimes quirky.  I will admit that at times the unusual, child-like way that she speaks and the change in font to show emphasis were distracting for me as a reader, and I imagine that there are some children who would find that distracting as well.  Not to mention that some of the "grown-up" words she tries to use would be challenging for less proficient readers.  However, Frannie herself is a very likeable character, and there are opportunities for discussing the author's word choice not just from a characterization perspective, but also from a writer's perspective.  I think that this series is a good addition to a classroom library, and could be used in a thematic unit on careers.