Tuesday, December 3, 2013

UnSouled, Neal Shusterman

Title:  UnSouled
Author:  Neal Shusterman
Publisher:  Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Year:  2013
Pages:  403
Genre:  Dystopian, Science Fiction
Themes:  Society, Freedom, Social Justice
Age Range:  8th Grade and Up

Summary:  
The third installment in the Unwind dystology continues the story of Connor, Lev, Risa, and Cam, the rewound boy.  Connor and Lev are once again on the run from Proactive Citizenry, the organization that is protecting the process of unwinding through propaganda and manipulation of the government.  Cam, one of Proactive Citizenry's greatest achievements, is on the run too.  Tired of being used by the organization for their own purposes, Cam decides to bring down the organization that created him to show Risa how he really feels about her.  Connor and Lev know that in order to get the answers they are looking for, and to stop unwinding forever, they need to track down a woman that Proactive Citizenry has tried to erase from history.  But will she be able to help them save the hundreds of thousands of teens who are in danger of being unwound?

Review:
UnSouled reads like what it is-a middle novel in a longer arc, where lots of things happen but very few things are resolved.   There are some interesting new developments, including a further exploration of the "storkers" and their leader, as well as the backstory to the unwinding process itself.  Something else that is the same-the sense of horror that the reader feels when the cruelty and inhumanity towards those who are destined to be unwound rears its ugly head.  What makes this book series all the more terrifying is how realistic some of the policies and propaganda that Proactive Citizenry puts out feels, given that this is a work of dystopian science fiction.  We may not yet have the ability to take apart people and use all of their tissue for medical procedure, but anyone who follows the way that certain groups within our society dehumanize other groups (the poor, immigrants, prisoners) can't help but notice some parallels between their world and ours.  I can't really see a future where we allow minors to be given over for unwinding, but there are certainly groups of "disposable" people in our world, people that no one makes a fuss over when they are the victims of violence-state sanctioned or otherwise.

I know that UnDivided, the last book in the series, is being finished practically as we speak.  I am definitely ready to see how the disparate threads of the narrative are wound together (pun intended) to resolve the story of freedom, equality, and ultimate humanity that Shusterman has created.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Running Dream, by Wendelin Van Draanen

Title:  The Running Dream
Author:  Wendelin Van Draanen
Publsiher:  Knopf Books for Young Readers
Year: 2011
Pages:  332
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Overcoming Obstacles, Disability, Loss, Friendship
Age Range:  6th Grade and Above

Summary:  from Goodreads

Jessica thinks her life is over when she loses a leg in a car accident. She's not comforted by the news that she'll be able to walk with the help of a prosthetic leg. Who cares about walking when you live to run? 
As she struggles to cope with crutches and a first cyborg-like prosthetic, Jessica feels oddly both in the spotlight and invisible. People who don't know what to say, act like she's not there. Which she could handle better if she weren't now keenly aware that she'd done the same thing herself to a girl with CP named Rosa. A girl who is going to tutor her through all the math she's missed. A girl who sees right into the heart of her.
With the support of family, friends, a coach, and her track teammates, Jessica may actually be able to run again. But that's not enough for her now. She doesn't just want to cross finish lines herself—she wants to take Rosa with her

Review:
 I wasn't sure what to expect from Van Draanen's book, The Running Dream.  I knew her best as the author of the Sammy Keyes series and the Shredderman series for intermediate age readers, and to be honest while I find the characters in those books pretty endearing, I wasn't sure whether Van Draanen could pull off the level of depth that a story like this seems to require.  I shouldn't have been concerned-The Running Dream is a touching story about a girl who learns to deal with the devastating loss of her dream of running in the Olympics, while at the same time learning the importance of not stereotyping someone based on their disability.

Jessica goes through the well-known stages of grief over the loss of her leg, as well as the death of her teammate in the bus crash.  She alternates between depression, anger, denial, and hope during her time at the hospital, and throughout the process of transitioning back to home and school.  Luckily for her, she has a best friend that won't give up on her, and a team that comes together to get her back on the track.

Her support system is definitely a major factor in her recovery, but what really makes her come to terms with her new reality is her friendship with Rosa.  Like many people, Jessica always assumed that anyone with the type of physical disabilities that Rosa has must also be cognitively impaired, which is often far from true.  Rosa is smart and funny and warm, and she reminded me of the character from Sharon Draper's Out of My Mind, which also busted some stereotypes about the physically disabled.  Their friendship definitely ups the emotional impact of the book.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

How to Steal a Dog, by Barbara O'Connor

Title:  How to Steal a Dog
Author:  Barbara O'Connor
Publisher:  Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
Year:  2007
Pages:  170
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Poverty, Family, Homelessness
Age Range:  4th-6th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Georgina Hayes is desperate. Ever since her father left and they were evicted from their apartment, her family has been living in their car. With her mama juggling two jobs and trying to make enough money to find a place to live, Georgina is stuck looking after her younger brother, Toby. And she has her heart set on improving their situation. When Georgina spots a missing-dog poster with a reward of five hundred dollars, the solution to all her problems suddenly seems within reach. All she has to do is “borrow” the right dog and its owners are sure to offer a reward. What happens next is the last thing she expected. 
Review:
O'Connor does an excellent job with the character of Georgina.  Basically a good girl, she contemplates doing things she knows are wrong to help her family get a place to live.  She is not always likable, to be honest.  She is horrible to her mother, who from all appearances was doing everything she could to earn enough money to provide for her children.  But it is clear where her anger comes from-her father's desertion, the loss of her friendships, and her embarrassment over their situation are a lot for a 10 year old girl to handle.

Given the current climate of shaming the poor and blaming them for their own troubles, O'Connor does a fine job of making you feel empathetic towards Georgina, her mother, her brother, and the other characters in the book.  There is Carmella, the women who becomes the victim of the dognapping, and Mookie, the homeless man who Georgina befriends during their time on the street.  Both have important lessons to teach Georgina about love, loss, and how to live in the world in a way that help rather than hinders others.  This book would be a good jumping off point for discussions about poverty, homelessness, and issues around morality and survival.  In the end it is the kindness of others that allows Georgina and her family to find a safe place to live, and in the end that is the biggest lesson learned, both by Georgina and the reader-being kind is always the right thing to be.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Gone Gone Gone by Hannah Moskowitz

Title:  Gone Gone Gone
Author:  Hannah Moskowitz
Publisher:  Simon Pulse
Year:  2012
Pages:  251
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  GLBT, Relationships, Overcoming Fear,  Terrorism
Age Range:  8th Grade and Above

Summary:  (from Goodreads)

It's a year after 9/11. Sniper shootings throughout the D.C. area have everyone on edge and trying to make sense of these random acts of violence. Meanwhile, Craig and Lio are just trying to make sense of their lives. 
Craig’s crushing on quiet, distant Lio, and preoccupied with what it meant when Lio kissed him...and if he’ll do it again...and if kissing Lio will help him finally get over his ex-boyfriend, Cody.
Lio feels most alive when he's with Craig. He forgets about his broken family, his dead brother, and the messed up world. But being with Craig means being vulnerable...and Lio will have to decide whether love is worth the risk.

Review:
I will admit that I have pretty much avoided any books, fiction or non, that have dealt with 9/11 and its aftermath.  To be honest, I'm not sure that I will every be ready to read accounts, real or otherwise, of that period in America history.  It's not that I'm uniformed-I can listen to the analysis and read about the political/cultural forces that led to the attack, as well as the response of our government afterwards-but reading about what people who were involved went through and the devastating effect it had on their lives leaves me shaky and teary-eyed.

For that reason I almost didn't read this book.  Despite the fact that the main context is the D.C. Sniper murders, I kept picking it up and putting it down again.  What finally made me choose it from my (full to overflowing) shelf of young adult novels comes down to sheer vanity...I like being the go-to person for my friends and the youth I work with for the best in young adult novels dealing with LGBT themes.  In this case, vanity was a good thing!  This was definitely one of the best YA books I've read this year.

I felt very unsettled while reading the book, which I hold up as a testament to the author's ability to accurately capture the mood in Washington, D.C. during the sniper scare.  The general mood of anxiety, dread, and confusion was perfectly mirrored in the way that Craig and Lio felt as they tried to navigate not just the external world, but their own emotional landscape.  Both of them had been scarred in some way, Lio very specifically by the events of 9/11 and his mother leaving the family, and Craig by his ex-boyfriend's mental breakdown.  Both boys felt as though the foundation on which they'd built their lives was shaky, much like we all felt a bit shaky in the year or so after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Basic assumptions they (and we) had made about what was safe and stable in our lives had been called into question.  In fact, it was sometimes uncomfortable to read this book.  Moskowitz did such a good job drawing me into the emotional lives of these two boys that I'd find myself, like them, feeling restless and unsettled while I was reading, but in a way that enhanced the story, rather than diminishing it.  I think this novel is excellent, and I could see it being used in a high school history class as a way to draw students into the way society responded and changed after 9/11.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Legend, Marie Lu

Title:  Legend
Author: Marie Lu
Publisher:  Putnam Juvenile
Year: 2011
Pages:  320
Genre:  Dytopian Science Fiction
Themes:  Oppression, Social Justice
Age Range:  8th Grade and Up

Summary:  from Goodreads
What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic’s wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country’s most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.
From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths—until the day June’s brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family’s survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias’s death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets

Review:
I've read a lot of young adult dystopian fiction in the last couple of years, and like most genre literature it gets to be repetitive in nature.  Repetitive in theme, elements, character archetype.   But what I've come to realize over the years is that good fantasy and science fiction writers are like great chefs.  Two chefs can take the same basic ingredients and make equally satisfying variations on a similar theme.

I would call Lu an adequate chef.  I think that she does a decent job with the basic elements of dystopian fiction-government control of the population through lies and manipulation, characters who fight against that control, manufactured wars, etc...Having June and Day come from such different worlds allowed Lu to invite the reader into the worlds of both the powerful and powerless in the Republic, and proved important to the plot later on when June was able to use her access to help them escape from danger.  It is not a cookie cutter novel, much like the Twilight clones that came out during its heyday.  There are some decent discussion topics that could be developed from the plot, and the book definitely has some merit in comparing and contrasting it to other titles in this genre.  It is the start of a series, so if you are looking to hook a reluctant reader this book provides opportunities for further reading (Prodigy and Champion are the next two in the series).  Definitely a good choice for a classroom library.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Bliss, by Lauren Myracle

Title:  Bliss
Author:  Lauren Myracle
Publisher:  Harry N. Abrams
Year: 2008
Pages:  444
Genre:  Horror
Themes:  Friendship, Good vs. Evil
Age Range:  9th Grade and Above

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
When Bliss’s hippie parents leave the commune and dump her at the home of her aloof grandmother in a tony Atlanta neighborhood, it’s like being set down on an alien planet. The only guide naïve Bliss has to her new environment is what she’s seen on The Andy Griffith Show. But Mayberry is poor preparation for Crestview Academy, an elite school where the tensions of the present and the dark secrets of the past threaten to simmer into violence. Openhearted, naïve Bliss is happy to be friends with anyone. That’s not the way it has ever worked at Crestview, and soon Bliss is at the center of a struggle for power between three girls—two living and one long dead.
Review:
I read my first Stephen King book, Carrie, when I was in eighth grade.  It was scariest thing my 13 year-old self had ever read, but it was more than that.  King has a way of making his characters completely believable, even when they have completely unbelievable experiences or powers.  Obviously King was never a teenage girl, but you'd never know it from the way he wrote that character.  Her loneliness and confusion and rage and painful naivete were things I recognized in myself in some form or another.

Lauren Myracle achieves a similar feat in this novel, and in fact the plot is almost an homage to Carrie.  Bliss is a typical teenager in most ways, though her life on the commune certainly didn't prepare her to deal with the girl-culture of a 1970s prep school.  But she's smart and kind and determined to do he right thing, even when she's not entirely sure what that is.  She befriends the awkward, unliked Sandy, who starts out as a good friend to Bliss, but becomes more and more needy and creepy over time.  Sandy is communicating with the ghost of a long dead witch, who convinces her that a blood sacrifice is necessary for Sandy to get revenge on all of the people who've tormented her.  When Bliss decides to help the most popular girl in school, Sarah Lynn and her African American boyfriend be together, she unwittingly provides the spark that pushes Sandy into action.

Malevolent is not too strong a word to describe the tone of this book.  Bliss's character is torn between wanting to be a friend to Sandy, and being scared of her.  And Sandy herself is afraid of the ghost character as much as she is drawn to her.  But it's not just the supernatural characters that are scary.  Between the mean girl culture and racism the book has plenty of emotional tension.  This is a perfect book for teens who love to be scared, and would make a great addition to a classroom library.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Everlost, Neal Shusterman

Title:  Everlost
Author:  Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Year:  2006
Pages:  313
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Hero's Quest
Age Range:  6th-9th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Nick and Allie don't survive the car accident...
...but their souls don't exactly get where they're supposed to get either. Instead, they're caught halfway between life and death, in a sort of limbo known as Everlost: a shadow of the living world, filled with all the things and places that no longer exist. It's a magical, yet dangerous place where bands of lost children run wild and anyone who stands in the same place too long sinks to the center of the Earth.


When they find Mary, the self-proclaimed queen of lost kids, Nick feels like he's found a home, but allie isn't satisfied spending eternity between worlds. Against all warnings, Allie begins learning the "Criminal Art" of haunting, and ventures into dangerous territory, where a monster called the McGill threatens all the souls of Everlost.

Review:
Love love love Neal Shusterman!  I think that his stories are always so creative and interesting, and after hearing his speak about his process at a conference in the spring, I have a pretty healthy respect for his imagination.  Unwind was one of the best young adult books I read in the last few years.  Everlost has the same inventiveness, and a great sense of heart.  The idea of souls existing in an alternate state, separate from the world of the living while still being able to observe, is not a new one.  But Shusterman adds some new twists, like the fact that only children stay behind, or that some places are so important that they continue to exist in Everlost even after they are destroyed.  The most emotional moment for me as an adult reader was when Allie and Nick discovered the World Trade Center towers in the New York skyline.  Over time, I think that younger readers will lose the sense of what that really means, but for me it was such a beautiful thought-that the emotional impact of the Trade Center towers was so strong that they will exist forever in more than just our memories.

What I really liked about the story was that unlike lots of ghost stories, what made this story scary was not monsters (thought there were some) or violence (though there was a little bit).  What was scary was the idea that living in Everlost caused you to lose your identity.  The longer you're there, the more you forget about yourself, and you fall into routines that create weeks and years and decades and centuries that are exactly the same, day after day after day!  Also, the whole "sink to the center of the earth" thing was pretty scary for this claustrophobic person to think about!

The end of this book sets up a conflict between two of the main character, Mary and Nick, that resembles a typical good vs. evil dynamic, but it more true to life, in that each person is acting out of what they think is best for the other "Afterlights", as the children living in Everlost are called.  The twist-they love each other as much as they disagree about the true nature of Everlost.  I am curious to see how Shusterman resolves the storyline, and whether Allie and Nick and the rest of the Afterlights ever get to that white light at the end of the tunnel.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Secrets of the Cicada Summer, Andrea Beaty

Title:  Secrets of the Cicada Summer
Author:  Andrea Beaty
Publisher:  Harry N. Abrams
Year: 2008
Pages: 176
Genre: Mystery
Themes: Overcoming Loss
Age Range:  3rd-5th Grade

Summary: 
Lily is invisible-not because people can't see her.  Anyone who was looking would see her.  But no one looks her way, not anymore.  After the death of her brother, Pete, Lily retreats into silence, and over time people stop paying attention to the girl who never speaks.  And that is just fine with her.  Lily has a secret, one that she is sure will make her father stop loving her if he finds out.  No one sees through her silence, until Tinny comes to town.

Tinny, 12 years old like Lily,is a rough customer.  As soon as she shows up in the small town of Olena, IL to stay with her Aunt Fern, bad things start happening.  Candy starts disappearing from Aunt Fern's store, and then money.  Tinny blames it on Lily, who can't defend herself without admitting she could talk all along. And then, a mean looking man shows up looking for Tinny.  Lily has to uncover the mystery and save Tinny-but it will mean confronting not just the mean looking man, but her own grief and guilt.

Review:
Cicada Summer is a sweet story about a little girl dealing with some pretty serious issues.  Her mother died when she was too young to remember her, and her brother died in a tragic accident when he was 12 and she was 10.  Despite the loving care of her father and kindly Fern, she has so much guilt over her part in her brother's death that she tries her best to disappear-staying silent, sidling around town just out of everyone's vision.  But this makes it easier for her to learn things that grown-ups might not want a child to hear, which in turn helps her become a real life detective, like her idol Nancy Drew.

 The story goes back and forth between present day and the time period right before and after Pete's death.  Beaty uses the flashbacks to develop Pete's character, so that the emotional impact is heightened when the truth of what happened to him is finally revealed.  By then the reader has also come to care about not just Lily, but her father and Fern and even that rough ol' Tinny.  The narrative structure makes a good model for early writers.  They can practice writing their own story that includes both flashback and present day.

The one criticism I have is that the resolution of the mystery happens very quickly, in just a few pages.  What was meant to be a suspenseful scene with the mean looking man cornering the two girls ended up feeling a little bit rushed to me, lacking in detail.  Perhaps that was to keep it from being too scary for the intended audience, and it may be my reading it as an adult that makes it seem that way, but it did feel like a whole lot of build-up for a pretty slim ending.  But I think this book could be used as a read aloud, in guided reading, or as part of a classroom library.

Teacher Resources:
Teachingbooks.net Lesson Plans
Wild Geese Guides Discussion Guide

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Name of This Book is Secret, Pseudonymous Bosch

Title:  The Name of This Book is Secret
Author:  Pseudonymous Bosch
Publisher:  Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Year:  2007
Pages:  364
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Good vs. Evil, Friendship
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Warning: this description has not been authorized by Pseudonymous Bosch. As much as he'd love to sing the praises of his book (he is very vain), he wouldn't want you to hear about his brave 11-year old heroes, Cass and Max-Ernest. Or about how a mysterious box of vials, the Symphony of Smells, sends them on the trail of a magician who has vanished under strange (and stinky) circumstances. And he certainly wouldn't want you to know about the hair-raising adventures that follow and the nefarious villains they face. You see, not only is the name of this book secret, the story inside is, too. For it concerns a secret. A Big Secret.

Review:
This book felt very much in tone like the A Series of Unfortunate Events books.  There is a presumably adult narrator who continually breaks the "fourth wall" (though maybe that's only a television and movie reference) to speak directly to the reader.  Throughout the book the narrator makes sure the reader understands that reading the book puts them at risk of danger, and purports to have changed the names and places as much as possible to "protect" us from the deadly secrets contained in the book.  It's a cute literary device, if not terribly original.

The story itself is well done.  Cass and Max Earnest are characters I think kids could relate to.  Cass is so traumatized by her father's sudden death that she begins to seriously prepare for any emergency that may befall her and her loved one, going so far as to carry a backpack full of survival supplies everywhere she goes.  Most kids may not have done that, but I think that child readers would be able to empathize with the fear of losing a parent.  Max Earnest has a pretty obvious case of ADHD, though it is never called that in the book.  Either way, kids will recognize a part of him in themselves, or in some other kid they know (possibly the one that sits next to them at school and won't stop talking!). I thought that the specific magical elements were interesting...the idea that using smell to do magic is one I don't remember reading before.  There are some interesting Egyptology references, and the villains are deliciously villainy, as only the best caricature of an evil person could be.  This is the first in a series, which is always helpful if you are trying to hook a young reader, though the story does have a definite ending, and could be read as a stand alone.  I think this is a good book to have available in your classroom library for independent reading, which is how we use it at the school where I teach.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Trash, Andy Mulligan

Title:  Trash
Author:  Andy Mulligan
Publisher:  David Fickling Books
Year:  2010
Pages:  229
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Poverty, Oppression, Friendship
Age Range:  6th-9th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
In an unnamed Third World country, in the not-so-distant future, three “dumpsite boys” make a living picking through the mountains of garbage on the outskirts of a large city. 
One unlucky-lucky day, Raphael finds something very special and very mysterious. So mysterious that he decides to keep it, even when the city police offer a handsome reward for its return. That decision brings with it terrifying consequences, and soon the dumpsite boys must use all of their cunning and courage to stay ahead of their pursuers. It’s up to Raphael, Gardo, and Rat—boys who have no education, no parents, no homes, and no money—to solve the mystery and right a terrible wrong.

Review:
Ok, I'll admit it, I'm conflicted about this book.  As an adult reader I liked it, but I am a little unsure about how appropriate it is for the target audience.   Mulligan addresses issues of poverty, child labor, and government corruption in all its gory detail...he does such an excellent job describing the bone-crushing poverty, the disgusting conditions in the dump, and the despicable way that the boys are treated that I felt a little bit like I needed to shower after reading.  But I think maybe it is a little bit too real for intermediate age kids, though the average to above average readers among them could certainly read it.

I am not usually one who thinks that children need to be sheltered from the harsh realities of the world we live in (see my review of Boy Without Names if you don't believe me!).  But as an adult reader I have a context to place this story in.  A young reader would not have the same background knowledge, and while it is certainly possible to frontload some background with the kids, even then I'm not sure about it.  Among other issues that may arise are the couple of times that one of the boys uses the phrase "what the hell" or "_____ the hell out of me", and there are also scenes that involve the boys (the youngest of whom is only 7) smoking and drinking.  Now, this may be an authentic picture of the lives of dumpsite children in what I think is the Philippines, but I'm imagining angry parent phone calls and long discussions with the principal.

That said, I think that there is a lot of good fodder for discussion in the book.  I am always in favor of holding a mirror up to American privilege, and books like this can help children understand that not everyone enjoys the same rights and freedoms they get from living in a rich society (though we certainly have children in our country living in deplorable circumstances, but that is the subject of another post).  I liked all of the characters, and the plot is actually fairly intricate considering the length of the novel and the intended audience.  The book has been on several "Best Of" lists, including the American Library Association and Publishers Weekly, both in the young adult category.  While I think that the readability level is probably more like 4th or 5th grade, I would suggest it really is more appropriate for mature sixth grade readers and above.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Close to Famous, by Joan Bauer

Title:  Close to Famous
Author:  Joan Bauer
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Year:  2011
Pages:  250
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes: Dealing with Loss, Self-Discovery
Age Range:  4th-7th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
Foster McFee dreams of having her own cooking show like her idol, celebrity chef Sonny Kroll. Macon Dillard's goal is to be a documentary filmmaker. Foster's mother Rayka longs to be a headliner instead of a back-up singer. And Miss Charleena plans a triumphant return to Hollywood. Everyone has a dream, but nobody is even close to famous in the little town of Culpepper. Until some unexpected events shake the town and its inhabitants-and put their big ambitions to the test.

Review:
I've enjoyed all of the books of Bauer's that I've read, and this one is no exception.  Foster is a very likable character, and you root for her the whole time.  When Foster's mother, Rayka, forces them to flee in the middle of the night to avoid her suddenly abusive boyfriend, the reader can worry about them without being overly scared, which is sort of an amazing feat for a children's author to pull off.  Throughout the novel, it is clear that Foster has an unusual amount of maturity and focus for a child her age.  She is determined to be the youngest celebrity chef on The Food Channel, and she is not going to let anything, including her mother's bad taste in men, keep her from achieving that dream.

Foster ends up being an example, not just to her mother, who ultimately does the right thing and turns her boyfriend in, but to a much bigger personality in the form of Miss Charleena, a famous Hollywood actress who went through a messy public divorce and has come home to lick her wounds.  When Foster ends up helping out at her house in Culpepper, she shows Charleena what a person can accomplish when they refuse to focus on the negative, and keep smiling through the pain.  When Foster is in pain, she bakes it away, but Miss Charleena finds her own way to move on after tragedy.

This book is full of charming characters with depth, and as Foster and her mother begin their new lives they are shown caring and support that they never expect, and that helps them realize that the world is not always the mean, painful place that they've experienced.  Foster is also dealing with the loss of her father, who was killed in Iraq, and while she is teaching the adults in her life a lesson about reaching your dreams, she is also figuring out how to keep the memory of her father alive in her heart.  I think that kids will relate to her, and there are plenty of life's lessons to talk about with students.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Zen and the Art of Faking It, by Jordan Sonnenblick

Title:  Zen and the Art of Faking It
Author:  Jordan Sonnenblick
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  2007
Pages:  264
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Friendship, Family, First Love, Identity
Age Range:  5th Grade and Up

Summary:  from Goodreads
When eighth-grader San Lee moves to a new town and a new school for the umpteenth time, he doesn't try to make new friends or be a loner or play cool. Instead he sits back and devises a plan to be totally different. When he accidentally answers too many questions in World History on Zen (only because he just had Ancient Religions two schools ago) all heads turn and San has his answer: he's a Zen Master. And just when he thinks everyone (including the cute girl he can't stop thinking about) is on to him, everyone believes him . . . in a major Zen way.

Review:
I saw Jordan Sonnenblick speak at the Illinois Reading Council Conference this past March, and since then I have been on a mission to read all of his novels.  I had read After Ever After a couple of years ago, and I found it humorous and moving in a way that I don't always expect books about middle school age boys to be.  Sonnenblick, a former middle school English teacher, seems able to perfectly capture the angst, confusion, and general awkwardness of kids at the cusp of adolescence.

There are two things that I really love about this particular book.  The first is the fact that he uses the Zen philosophy as a framework for the events that take place.  While no one in the novel is actually practicing Zen Buddhism in any real way, kids who read it will get a glimpse of a religious cultural tradition that may be completely new to them.  Learning something new in the context of a really good story is never a bad thing.  The other thing that I really like about this book is the way that it looks at issues of family and identity.  San is Chinese, adopted by a white America family as an infant.  Raised by a con man and his hard working mother, who is apparently blinded by love to her husband's faults, San is basically taught that people are gullible rubes who can be manipulated to get you what you want.  When his father is arrested and imprisoned, San must question everything he's been taught about how the world works, and he completely rejects his father, refusing to talk to him.  But he finds himself acting like him, lying to people he cares about in an effort to reinvent himself, and keep people from knowing about his family's past.  Eventually San has to choose between being honest and jeopardizing his budding romance, or living a lie, just as his father did.  This struggle provides rich fodder for conversations about identity, how much our family affects who we are and who we become, and healthy relationships.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Saenz

Title:  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author:  Benjamin Alire Saenz
Publisher:  Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Year:  2012
Pages:  359
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  LGBT, First Love, Coming of Age, Family, Friendship
Age Range:  8th Grade and Up

Summary:
Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz was a Stonewall winner for 2013, and within a month of the announcement I had seen it referenced, or had it recommended to me, at least a dozen times. And it deserves the praise!  It tells the story of 15 year old Ari, a loner living in a Mexican neighborhood of El Paso, and Dante, the quirky, outgoing young man who becomes his first true friend.  Both Ari and Dante are dealing with the usual host of adolescent issues-redefining your relationships with your parents and family, navigating the treacherous waters of the high-school social strata, transitioning to adulthood, and, of course, dating and first loves.  With Dante, Ari finds an unexpected friend; effusive where he is reticent, affectionate where he is reserved, outgoing where he is taciturn.  For some reason, this friendship works for both of them, and the boys share many secrets with each other over the course of their friendship.  Ari finally has someone to talk to about the brother in prison that his parents won't even acknowledge exists, and Dante finally has someone to whom he can admit that he would rather kiss boys than girls.  Ari's feelings about Dante are confusing and unsettling, and their friendship is not always smooth sailing, but in the end both boys find comfort, a deep kindness, and love.

Review:
One of the wonderful things about this book is that while it has strong LGBT themes, it is not just a "gay" story.  Like any "real" person, Ari and Dante are both more than just their sexual orientation, and Saenz does an excellent job of showing the intersection of things family connections, ethnic identity, and sexual orientation in creating identity.  To be honest, while I was certainly drawn into the story of Ari and Dante's friendship, the part of the story that was the most touching to me was Ari's relationship with his father, a Viet Nam veteran who never left the war behind.  Their interactions, and Ari's longing for meaningful interactions with his distant father, are a large part of the emotional engine that drove this story.  Saenz also takes on the issue of gay bashing, which despite the improvement of the general climate for LGBT people in our country is still too often occurring.  The fact that the novel is set in the late 80s, when I myself was about the age of Ari and Dante, gave it a certain resonance for me that a young adult reader wouldn't have, but Saenz did a good job creating an authentic setting that any reader should be able to appreciate.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Museum of Thieves, by Lian Tanner

Title:  Museum of Thieves
Author:  Lian Tanner
Publisher:  Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Year:  2010
Pages:  320
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Freedom, Good vs. Evil
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary:  From Goodreads

Welcome to the tyrannical city of Jewel, where impatience is a sin and boldness is a crime.Goldie Roth has lived in Jewel all her life. Like every child in the city, she wears a silver guardchain and is forced to obey the dreaded Blessed Guardians. She has never done anything by herself and won’t be allowed out on the streets unchained until Separation Day.When Separation Day is canceled, Goldie, who has always been both impatient and bold, runs away, risking not only her own life but also the lives of those she has left behind. In the chaos that follows, she is lured to the mysterious Museum of Dunt, where she meets the boy Toadspit and discovers terrible secrets. Only the cunning mind of a thief can understand the museum’s strange, shifting rooms. Fortunately, Goldie has a talent for thieving.
Which is just as well, because the leader of the Blessed Guardians has his own plans for the museum—plans that threaten the lives of everyone Goldie loves. And it will take a daring thief to stop him. . . .

Review:
I really enjoyed this story.  It is certainly not traditional fantasy, with its elements of dystopianism.  Goldie's character is easy to relate to.  She feels oppressed by the constant supervision and is (literally) chained to her parents, teachers, and even her bed, to keep her "safe".  As an adult reader, the use of the "safety of the children" as the excuse for controlling the population definitely resonated with me.  There are so many actions in our society that are not necessarily just or moral that have been justified through concerns for "the children"-everything from segregated schools to forcing gay teachers to live in the closet to abstinence-only sex education and the "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign.

The premise of the museum as a repository for all of the evil, wild things in society is an interesting one, and the museum itself as a character would be good for teaching personification.  All of the characters are pretty well-developed for a genre novel, and you could have a good discussion about how Goldie changes from the beginning to the end of the story.  Since this book is part of a series, there are lots of opportunities for children who like the story to keep reading, always a good thing with young readers.  Overall, I can see this book being used for either guided or independent reading activities.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Pie, by Sarah Weeks

Title:  Pie
Author:  Sarah Weeks
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  2011
Pages:  183
Genre:  Realistic Fiction, Mystery
Themes:  Overcoming Loss, Family
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
When Alice's Aunt Polly, the Pie Queen of Ipswitch, passes away, she takes with her the secret to her world-famous pie-crust recipe. Or does she? In her will, Polly leaves the recipe to her extraordinarily fat, remarkably disagreeable cat, Lardo . . . and then leaves Lardo in the care of Alice.
Suddenly, the whole town is wondering how you leave a recipe to a cat. Everyone wants to be the next big pie-contest winner, and it's making them pie-crazy. It's up to Alice and her friend Charlie to put the pieces together and discover the not-so-secret recipe for happiness: Friendship. Family. And the pleasure of donig something for the right reason.

Review:  
Everybody loves pie!  Sarah Weeks must have known that going into writing this book.  Each chapter starts with a real pie recipe that goes along with the plot, an interesting literary device that can add to the conversation with students-why did the author choose this recipe to go with this chapter?  And the pies look delicious!  Perhaps the best thing for me as the reader of this book is a bunch of new recipes to try for my next holiday desert!

Alice follows a line of children's book characters with parents that just don't understand her.  Alice's mother is a pretty horrible person for most of the book-greedy and high-strung and rather neglectful.  Her father is portrayed as a long-suffering spouse who really has no control over his wife's over-the-top emotional tendencies.  Luckily for Alice-and the reader-her mother has an epiphany towards the end of the story that leads to a reconciliation between her and Alice that helps round out the books overall sweet appeal.

Alice herself is plucky, a word almost always reserved for a young female character who shows spunk and determination.  Alice had both of those things in spades, and her desire to figure out who is trying to steal her aunt's pie crust recipe is the driving force of the novel.  But the book also explores issues of identity, grief, and friendship, making it ripe with possibilities for discussion and written response.

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic Interview with Sarah Weeks

Monday, April 29, 2013

Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine

Title:  Mockingbird
Author:  Kathryn Erskine
Publisher:  Philomel
Year:  2012
Pages:  224
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Disabilities, Autism, Overcoming Loss
Age Range:  4th-8th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
In Caitlin’s world, everything is black or white. Things are good or bad. Anything in between is confusing. That’s the stuff Caitlin’s older brother, Devon, has always explained. But now Devon’s dead and Dad is no help at all. Caitlin wants to get over it, but as an eleven-year-old girl with Asperger’s, she doesn’t know how. When she reads the definition of closure, she realizes that is what she needs. In her search for it, Caitlin discovers that not everything is black and white—the world is full of colors—messy and beautiful

Review:  
Erskine does an excellent job creating believable, relate-able characters, and Mockingbird is no exception.  Caitlin has Aspergers syndrome, a neurological condition about which much has been written over the past decade or so.  Now considered one of the conditions under the umbrella term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), people with Aspergers syndrome are often highly intelligent, creative people with difficulty understanding and processing pragmatic language and emotions.  Caitlin is very self-centered, but not in the conceited way of a spoiled child.  Caitlin has trouble with empathy, which becomes apparent early on through her interactions with her father, her counselor at school, and her father.  What makes this book about a child with ASD different from others I have read is the emotionally charged context-Caitlin's brother was killed in a school shooting, which forces her to come out of her own Caitlin-centric world and begin to take the needs and feelings of others into account.

Given the years I spent teaching special education, I'd say that Erskine is right on in regards to what she imagines goes on in Ccaitlin's head.  Of course, it's hard to say, since as far as I know Erskine herself does not have Aspergers, but it feels authentic based on my experiences with kids who have ASD.  Sometimes (unintentionally) funny, sometimes heartbreaking, always honest, Caitlin as narrator gives the story an emotional punch that would not be present in third person.  Dealing with the loss of her brother, and the subsequent grief of her father (as well as her own), is the instigating act that sets in motion a period of growth for Caitlin-and for the community as a whole.

While we have had way too many opportunities to read about school shootings and their aftermath, I think that Erskine does a good job framing the story with the shooting without describing it in such detail that it might frighten younger readers.  This book, despite the topic, is very accessible to mature 4th grade readers, and has something important to say to students in the middle grades.  Ultimately, Caitlin is not the only one to discover her empathy within the context of the story, and students can discuss what it means to be accepting of people with disabilities.  Also, any child who has suffered a major loss should find things that will resonate with them, and give them a chance to process their loss and discuss it in a less-threatening way through Caitlin's story.

Teacher Resources:
Lesson Ideas from Six Trait Gurus
Novel Study from TeachingBooks.net
Kathryn Erskine's Website

Friday, April 26, 2013

Smile, by Raina Telgemeier

Title:  Smile,
Author:  Raina Telgemeier
Publisher:  Graphix
Year:  2009
Pages:  224
Genre:  Realistic Fiction, Graphic Novel
Themes:  Coming of Age, First Love, Friendship
Age Range:  6th-10th Grade

Summary:  (From Goodreads)
Raina just wants to be a normal sixth grader. But one night after Girl Scouts she trips and falls, severely injuring her two front teeth. What follows is a long and frustrating journey with on-again, off-again braces, surgery, embarrassing headgear, and even a retainer with fake teeth attached. And on top of all that, there's still more to deal with: a major earthquake, boy confusion, and friends who turn out to be not so friendly.

Review:
 While I've never been a huge fan of graphic novels for my own adult reading, I understand completely their popularity, especially with younger readers.  Connecting strong illustrations with a well-written story is sure to be engaging for readers who are transitioning from picture books to chapter books, and the number and quality of graphic novels for young readers is increasing.  Traditionally looked down upon as frivolous, the rich story telling present in modern day graphic novels-both for children and adults-is revitalizing the genre and allowing stories to be told in new and different ways.

Telgemeier's books, Smile and Drama, are not what people generally think about when they hear the term graphic novel.  The genre, popularized by horror or science fiction authors such as Neil Gaiman (The Sandman), Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (The Watchmen) and Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), is often seen as a way to tell fantastical stories of monsters and heroes.  But Telgemeier's books tell ordinary stories-stories of friendship and love and adolescence, but in a format that appeals to readers who like a side of good art with their storytelling.  Smile is the story of one girl's transition from awkward, brace-faced tween to confident, self-assured teenager.  The story (based on Raina's actual childhood) is literally framed by the many things that happened to Raina's teeth, but the feelings she has and the realizations she comes to are universal for American adolescents.  I think that girls especially will identify with the story, which in itself is unusual in the graphic novel biz, which is much more geared towards male readers.  But I think that all kids, regardless of gender, will appreciate Telgemeier's wit and insight into that most painful, embarrassing time of life-middle school!

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic Lesson Plan
Raina Telgemeier's Website
Graphic Classroom Review

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Boys Without Names, by Kashmira Sheth

Title:  Boys Without Names
Author:  Kashmira Sheth
Publisher:  Balzer & Bray
Year:  2010
Pages:  320
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Social Justice, Child Labor
Age Range:  5th-8th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
For eleven-year-old Gopal and his family, life in their rural Indian village is over: We stay, we starve, his baba has warned. So they must flee to the big city of Mumbai in hopes of finding work and a brighter future. Gopal is eager to help support his struggling family until school starts, so when a stranger approaches him with the promise of a factory job, he jumps at the offer. 
But Gopal has been deceived. There is no factory but, instead, a small, stuffy sweatshop, where he and five other boys are forced to make beaded frames for no money and little food. The boys are forbidden to talk or even to call one another by their real names. In this atmosphere of distrust and isolation, locked in a rundown building in an unknown part of the city, Gopal despairs of ever seeing his family again.
Then, late one night when Gopal decides to share kahanis, or stories, he realizes that storytelling might be the boys' key to holding on to their sense of self and their hope for any kind of future. If he can make them feel more like brothers than enemies, their lives will be more bearable in the shop—and they might even find a way to escape.

Review:
The first book I read by Kashmira Sheth was called Keeping Corner, and told the story of a 10 year widow in early 20th century India, forced to live a life of mourning because her betrothed had been killed before she was old enough to marry him.  I was impressed with both her ability to create such authentic feeling characters, and with the depth of her understanding of the social and cultural factors that were in play, both within the girl's small Brahman community and in the larger historical context.

In Boys Without Names Sheth once again writes a story full of believable characters, characters who change and grow in unexpected ways throughout the course of the story.  As Gopal and his family left their village and traveled to the city, I knew that they would be out of their depth.  It was a little bit like watching a disaster happen in slow motion, at least as an older reader.  I know enough about the region to know that children are often victimized in this way, either because their parents are naive to the promises made by "recruiters", or because poverty forces people to make desperate decisions.  Younger readers may not have the background knowledge to connect the dots while they are reading, but I think that they will be able to identify with Gopal and his friends.  Because I think that there will have to be some robust discussion for students to understand the context for the story, I think this book is best used in a guided reading setting.

Teacher Resources:
Junior Library Guild Reading Guide
Harper Collins Discussion Guide

Monday, April 15, 2013

Graceling, by Kristin Cashore


Title:  Graceling
Author:  Kristin Cashore
Publisher:  Harcourt
Year:  2008
Pages:  471
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Self-determination, Oppression, Hero's Quest
Age Range:  9th Grade and Up

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
In a world where people born with an extreme skill—called a Grace—are feared and exploited, Katsa carries the burden of the skill even she despises: the Grace of killing. She lives under the command of her uncle Randa, King of the Middluns, and is expected to execute his dirty work, punishing seland torturing anyone who displeases him.
When she first meets Prince Po, who is Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change.
She never expects to become Po's friend.
She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace—or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away...a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone

Review:  
I'm a fantasy reader from way back, so I fully expected to enjoy this book, which every other reviewer I've read has loved, and which has on Illinois' Abraham Lincoln list of best books for young adults.  What I didn't expect was it to feel so fresh.  Like I said, I've read a lot of fantasy-it can be hard to bring something truly new to the plot or story structure that I haven't read somewhere before.  But despite some very familiar fantasy elements (people gifted with special powers, kings and queens and princes), Cashore did manage to create a world that is distinct.

The story moves at a good pace, and though explaining the Grace and Gracelings require some exposition, there is enough action interspersed to keep the reader engaged.  But what really made this book for me Katsa-her strength and determination definitely come through, and despite her feelings of self-hatred as a result of her special skill, she is trying so hard to be a moral person, and it is that struggle that made her so interesting to me.  Much of the book deals with the responsibility to wield power to help and not hurt, to be honest and not manipulate others, to do what is best not just for yourself but for others as well.  And despite the love story subplot, this is not a romance at all.  Not even romantic, really, since so much of our ideas of romance come from an uneven power dynamic between the lovers.  Katsa and Po are evenly matched, if not skill for skill, in their overall personalities.  They complement each other in a way that doesn't diminish either, and I found that refreshing.  The book highlights the intersection of power and morality in a way that I think is very accessible to the younger reader.  Katsa is a hero that all young girls should read.  Deeply flawed, but striving every day to be better; strong without being cruel; full of self-doubt, but not paralyzed by it.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Just Juice, by Karen Hesse

Title:  Just Juice
Author:  Karen Hesse
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  1999
Pages:  144
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Poverty, Overcoming Hardship, Perseverance, Literacy, Disability
Age Range:  3rd-5th Grade

Summary:  
Juice Faulstitch doesn't like school.  Letter and numbers just don't make sense to her.  She'd rather skip school and spend the day walking around the North Carolina countryside with her out-of-work father any day.  Her two oldest sisters are in school, her two younger sisters are at home with their mother, and with mom pregnant with baby number six, she doesn't have time to energy to force Juice to school.  Her family is poor, poorer than anyone they know.  Her father is an out of work miner, and the family gets by on government assistance.  Their house was left to them by a relative, but they haven't been able to pay the taxes.  Now the county says they are selling the house for taxes, and Juice and her father have to come up with a plan to save their family.

Review:
There is a lot jammed into this very short book.  I almost listed historical fiction as the genre, until I realized that everything described in the book-the unemployment, the poverty, the illiteracy, the lack of medical care-are circumstances that are still all too common in the Appalachian region of the country, which is presumably where this family is from.  Juice clearly has a learning disability, but is afraid to let her teacher give her the tests that could identify it and help her learn.  Her father, it turns out, is also illiterate, which is what keeps the family from dealing with the tax mess before it was too late.  Juice's mother does what she can to help the family get by, making craft items to sell in a shop in town, but with five children to look after-plus one on the way-and a husband with depression, which the father certainly has, she has about all she can handle.  Their remote location and lack of reliable transportation make it difficult for her to get medical care, and if not for a visiting nurse she would likely have died of gestational diabetes.  Juice and her family have seen a lot of the downside of life.

But despite all of their challenges, there is great love obvious in the family.  The girls all care for each other, and try to help Juice learn enough to "catch up" with school.  Their father obviously feels incredibly guilty about his inability to make a living to support them adequately, and Juice lives to take him out of his head and be as big a help to him as she can.  Mother and Father are clearly in love, and neither wants to burden the other with more stress or bad news.  But if there is one thing that is clear from the story, it is the importance of communication-including and especially the written kind.  The problem of illiteracy was the largest stumbling block for the family, affecting every other part of their lives.  Reading this book is likely to make most children more grateful for the blessings they have, but Juice's character is not someone to be pitied.  She is smart and resourceful, and despite her many challenges she as a strength of spirit that is admirable regardless of a person's circumstances.

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic Discussion Guide
Literature Circles Guide

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, Wendy Mass

Title:  Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life
Author:  Wendy Mass
Publisher:  Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Year:  2006
Pages:  304
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Dealing with Loss, Coming of Age, Overcoming Obstacles
Age Range:  4th through 8th Grade
Summary:  from Goodreads


In one month Jeremy Fink will turn thirteen. But does he have what it takes to be a teenager? He collects mutant candy, he won't venture more than four blocks from his apartment if he can help it, and he definitelydoesn't like surprises. On the other hand, his best friend, Lizzy, isn't afraid of anything, even if that might get her into trouble now and then.
Jeremy's summer takes an unexpected turn when a mysterious wooden box arrives in the mail. According to the writing on the box, it holds the meaning of life! Jeremy is supposed to open it on his thirteenth birthday. The problem is, the keys are missing, and the box is made so that only the keys will open it without destroying what's inside. Jeremy and Lizzy set off to find the keys, but when one of their efforts goes very wrong, Jeremy starts to lose hope that he'll ever be able to open the box. But he soon discovers that when you're meeting people named Oswald Oswald and using a private limo to deliver unusual objects to strangers all over the city, there might be other ways of finding out the meaning of life.

Review:

The death of a parent is an event that is destined to have a profound impact on anyone, but especially a child.  In that regard Jeremy Fink seems to be doing better than most.  He misses his dad, but he was a great relationship with his mom, and his best friend Lizzy's daughter, plus his dad's best friend,  provide positive male role models for him.  But as he approaches his 13th birthday, he can't help but wonder what advice his dad would have for him about navigating the murky and sometimes dangerous waters of adolescence.  When he is given a box from his father labeled "The Meaning of Life", he is desperate to find out what's inside.  The only way to open the box and preserve the contents is to find the keys, which sends Jeremy and Lizzy on a city-wide search for old key collections.  As in many aspects of life, it turns out to be the journey, rather than the destination, where he learns the most about just what the meaning of life could be.

Mass has done a wonderful job creating an authentic emotional landscape in this novel.  Jeremy's very tween-ness reminded me of just how awkward and painful the land between childhood and adolescence can be, and would be very relateable to young people reading the book.  The character of Lizzy keeps Jeremy (and the reader) from becoming too angsty, though.  Their friendship is one of the best parts of the book.  I especially appreciated that it is a boy/girl friendship.  Too often I think we make an artificial divide between "boy" stories and "girl" stories, and Jeremy and Lizzy prove that boys and girls can be close friends, even as their differences become more obvious.  There are tender moments in the story, and hilarity occasionally ensues, but what Mass has given us is a fairly straightforward story of being lost, and somehow finding our way, even if the destination is not the same as the one we thought we were traveling towards.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Sparks, by S.J. Adams

Title:  Sparks
Author:  S.J. Adams
Publisher:  Flux
Year: 2011
Pages:  256
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Identity, Belonging, GLBT
Age Range:  8th Grade and Up

Summary:  from Goodreads
Do you feel lost? Confused? Alone? (Circle one): Yes or No. The Church of Blue can help. We are not a cult. $5 for a holy quest is a good deal. Since sixth grade, Debbie Woodlawn has nursed a secret, heart-searing crush on her best friend, Lisa. But all those years of pretending to enjoyFull House reruns and abstinence rallies with Lisa go down the drain when her friend hooks up with Norman, the most boring guy at school. This earth-shattering event makes Debbie decide to do the unthinkable: confess her love to Lisa. And she has to do it tonight--before Lisa and Norman go past "the point of no return." So Debbie embarks on a quest to find Lisa. Guiding the quest are fellow students/detention hall crashers Emma and Tim, the founding (and only) members of the wacky Church of Blue. Three chases, three declarations of love, two heartbreaks, a break-in, and five dollars worth of gas later, Debbie has been fully initiated into Bluedaism--but is there time left to stop Lisa and Norman from going too far?

Review:  


Adams story of a young girl struggling with her unrequited first love is funny, with a cast of characters that felt very authentic.  Debbie is alternately confused, confident, self-deprecating, and courageous; the mix of emotions felt very much like I remember from my own adolescence.  In a way, that was one of the nice things about the book-even though it deals with a young woman coming to grip with her own feelings towards girls, it shows just how alike the experience is for young people, whether gay or straight.  Of course, Debbie deals with a few things that make her situation unique, but the story is written in such a way that it feels universal.

One of the things I also appreciated about the story was that it didn't demonize the rather conservative Christian values of some of the other main characters.  In fact, it was clear that while Debbie was dealing with her own romance troubles, the "abstinent" kids in the book were also struggling with how to live up to their principles, given all of the urges that overtake us in those years.  While Debbie comes to realize that the world of abstinence only clubs and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes might not be the world for her, Adams doesn't go so far as to suggest that it might not be right for anyone.

Sparks also deals with some of the repercussions of adolescent culture's sometimes rabid insistence that everyone has to fit into a box.  Debbie was a clean cut, feminine girl who happened to like other girls instead of boys.  Her rather effeminate friend Tim is assumed to be gay after a girl he rejected in middle school starts a rumor about him, but he is really in love with his friend and fellow Bluedaite, Emma.  Emma plays the fat, funny, sarcastic girl that everyone thinks she is-until she confesses her love for Tim.  No one is exactly what they seem-not even Lisa, who, it turns out, knew about Debbie's crush on her for years, but stayed her friend anyway.  Overall, I think that high school students will recognize something about themselves in reading this book, and even though Debbie's unrequited love is never, well, requited, the book ends on a positive, hopeful note.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher

Title:  Thirteen Reasons Why
Author:  Jay Asher
Publisher:  Razorbill
Year:  2007
Pages:  304
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Depression, Suicide, Living with Consequences, Interconnectedness
Age Range:  8th Grade and Above

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a mysterious box with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers thirteen cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker, his classmate and crush who committed suicide two weeks earlier.On tape, Hannah explains that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he'll find out how he made the list.

Review:
I originally found this book on a "Best YA Books" list, from Amazon or Scholastic or something, and thought it sounded like an interesting narrative structure.  Which it is, without a doubt.  But what really convinced me to pick it up was the reaction of some of the teenagers in my life to the book.  Without exception, the teens I know who've read it were profoundly moved and affected by it in some way.  And they seemed to fall into two distinct groups-those who identified more with Hannah, the girl who kills herself, or Clay, the narrator and our guide through the tapes.

For obvious reasons I am slightly more concerned by the youth who identify more closely with Hannah, but I also get it.  Hannah was a regular girl-not someone who was seen by others as odd, disturbed, eccentric, quirky, etc...She was just a girl, trying to fit in, with a "reputation" for promiscuity that was completely fabricated by some other kid who was desperately trying to do the same.  Hannah felt that her true self was slowly fading away, being replaced by this persona that was created for her, and which various people she came into contact with either contributed to or failed to confront.  Add to that sexual assault, isolation, and guilt, and you have a pretty powerful cocktail of teenage despair.  What the teens I know identified with was not so much her desire to end her life, but an understanding of how much of our self-image is wrapped up in how other people see us, and how loneliness and the feeling that you don't belong anywhere can damage a person's psyche.

The person I felt myself most drawn to, as did some of the youth I have discussed this book with, was Clay. Because I think that more of us find ourselves in Clay's position than in Hannah's (though far too many teens feel exactly as Hannah did).  Because Clay, even though he was on the list, was a good guy, who failed to do the right thing.  Of course, he didn't really know at the time what the right thing was-he is, after all, a teenager himself.  But of all of the people Hannah traces her suicide to, he is the most innocent, both to the reader and to Hannah herself.  In a way I felt like this was a cop out by Asher, to make the one person who is innocent of any real part in the downward spiral of Hannah's life the sympathetic narrator, but now I'm rethinking.  Because I think that perhaps the most powerful statement the book makes is that what we say and do matters, and that the small cruelties or deceits that we perform have consequences we can't always imagine.  Because despite the fact that Clay's part in Hannah's decision was as a result of an inaction, instead of an action, he still feels a strong sense of guilt and responsibility.  Too many of us do nothing.  We content ourselves with being bystanders, feeling better about ourselves because we are not perpetrators.  But it is our very passivity that allows rumors to go unchecked, unkind acts to go unchallenged, despairing people to remain isolated-doing nothing can sometimes be as bad as doing the wrong thing.

I think that this book would engender good discussion if used in a whole class or small group setting.  Because of the nature of the rumors about Hannah, and the not-at-all-graphic but still horrifying rape scene, I probably wouldn't use this book in the classroom below eighth grade.  But a mature 6th or 7th grader might be able to handle it, especially if they are already having to confront the things that Hannah faces in the book.

Teacher Resources:
Penguin Teachers' Guide
Bookrags Lesson Plans
TeacherVision Lesson Plans