Archive | October, 2014

HOW I LIVE NOW by Meg Rosoff (Penguin Books, 2004)

31 Oct

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GENRE: Adventure

HONORS: 2005 Printz Award Winner, British Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize

REVIEW: Before there was Katniss and Tris, there was Daisy, an American teen sent to live with her aunt and cousins in rural England. Soon after her arrival, terrorists start a world war that leaves Daisy’s aunt stranded in another country—and the kids stranded at home, without a parent or connection to the outside world. Daisy, petulant, angst-ridden, and angry at her father who’s remarried after her mother’s death, is escaping a new sibling and is reluctant to care much about her UK family either. But slowly, she forms bonds with her new relations, including Edmund, who she falls in love with. And as the war hits closer to home, Daisy must summon her courage to save the people she’s come to love. She succeeds in some ways, but as both Katniss and Tris discover after her, sometimes even the toughest heroine can’t save everyone.

OPINION: A dystopian story without the futuristic bent of The Hunger Games or the Divergent series, How I Live Now takes us into a world where children and teens must face adult situations on their own. Daisy has to grow up too fast in many ways as she redefines what family and allegiance mean to her. As she leaves behind a new sibling, she finds a surrogate in Piper and the connection is fierce—Daisy rediscovers what it means to love someone deeply after her mother’s loss. That fierceness also manifests in her love for her cousin Edmund. Neither cares about the societal taboo, rewriting the rules for their own kinds of society. Rosoff’s prose is descriptive yet deceptively simple, growing along with her protagonist’s emotional growth. And like Orwell’s 1984, Rosoff never makes clear who is fighting whom in the new world war, which leaves Daisy and her cousins’ conflict unpredictable and uncontained. There is no order here, which gives the story its edge and the ending its power.

IDEAS: How does Daisy compare to Tris and Katniss? It would be interesting to contrast the three girls’ stories and motivations in a comparison of these books with The Hunger Games and Divergent.


NEVER EIGHTEEN by Megan Bostic (Graphia, 2012)

29 Oct

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GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: None Known

REVIEW: It takes a special kind of bravery to ask people to find their personal truths. So when Austin Parker hits the road with his best friend (and true love) Kaylee to engage friends and family in his mission of revelation, his life is about to change in unexpected ways. Which is good, because Austin only has a few weeks left to live. Dying of cancer has prompted him to make amends, help people tie up loose ends—even appreciate the life they get to live. And a teen with cancer is a good conduit for that message. Before his death, Austin finds his own truth, including revealing his feelings for Kaylee. And while the truth doesn’t save his life, it does helps Austin enjoy the short time he has left.

OPINION: This short, sparsely told story takes a boy’s perspective on the ubiquitous problem novel genre, a unique twist that gives author Bostic opportunities to delve into more traditional male areas of reaction, like anger or violence. Sadly, it’s an opportunity missed. Austin is a likable, warm character, but his response to his illness doesn’t feel real. His mission is noble, but seems forced and contrived. There is never an edge to his trouble: cancer, a dead friend, divorced parents, unrequited love. It feels like an overwhelming list. But Austin never reacts, other than a “first-drunk” experience at a party. Even the epilogue structure with Austin’s last letter to Kaylee is overwrought and rings untrue. There is something lovely about a boy with the conviction to help others in his last moments on earth. It’s just too bad we didn’t get to get inside his head and understand his emotions a little more.

IDEAS: This book is a very simple, quick read and could be part of a series of problem novels for reluctant readers.

FAT KID RULES THE WORLD by K.L. Going (Penguin, 2003)

24 Oct

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GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: Printz Honor Book, 2004

REVIEW: Being obese is never easy. But if you’re a 17-year-old boy, it can make life pretty unbearable. Troy wasn’t always 300 pounds, but after his mother died, he and his judgmental brother and ex-Marine father had to rebuild their lives—and Troy’s way of dealing was overeating. Just as he’s ready to give up by jumping front of a moving train, Troy meets Curt, a sometimes homeless, always interesting virtuoso guitar player. Curt’s had a tough life, but has never given up on it, and sees everything a little differently, including Troy. The two form a friendship and along the way decide to form a band. Troy isn’t a drummer, but Curt is determined to change that—just as Troy is determined to change both Curt and himself. In the end, Troy is jumping again—this time onto a stage as a drummer in a punk band.

OPINION: There are very few books about body image with a boy as the focus, which makes Fat Kid an interesting story with a unique protagonist. Told in first-person from Troy’s perspective with a fun “FAT KID” headline structure, it’s clear that his pain and loneliness are raw—he is fighting many forces that have manifested in his large body. But when he meets his exact opposite, skinny, underfed Curt, Troy feels a connection, especially as they bond over their love of punk rock, a genre of music that welcomes people who are alienated and angry. In fact, punk is the perfect backdrop for this book, and author Going clearly knows her audience well, finding an appropriate outlet for Troy’s angst that gives him a purpose, and even strengthens his tenuous bond with his father and brother. This is a smart, courageous book that doesn’t water anything down and serves an underserved group in an ocean of body image books for teen girls.

IDEAS: There are many facets of Fat Kid that could be tapped for librarians or school libraries. It would be good in a collection of books about body image, but would also be strong in a collection focused on boys lit or music.


THE PROBABILITY OF MIRACLES by Wendy Wunder (Razorbill, 2012)

21 Oct

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GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: None Known

REVIEW: Campbell Cooper—hula dancer, esteemed Disneyworld employee, future Harvard freshman—for all the interesting things Cam can include on her list there’s one she can’t escape: cancer patient. And that’s the one that influences her life more than any others. Her father died of cancer and now she’s next in line. Her mom has other plans. So she loads up a van and takes Cam and her sister Perry to Promise, Maine, a place where miracles are rumored to happen. And for a while, they do. Cam comes out of her loner shell, thanks in part to Asher, a heartthrob with a heart of gold. And when Cam’s bestie Lily, also a cancer sufferer, loses her battle, Cam and Asher make it their mission to make Lily’s “Flamingo List” of last wishes come true for Cam. For the entire clan, miracles can happen, even if they don’t last forever.

OPINION: Cancer kids are showing up in books, movies, and TV a lot lately. And The Probability of Miracles takes up the mantle as ably as it can. The expected turns are here: Cam is (understandably) crabby and isolated. Cam wants to find true love. Cam, with the help of Make-a-Wish, has her dreams come true. There’s nothing new about the story, although Wunder does take us to some interesting settings (behind the scenes of Disneyworld’s Polynesian Village, for one), as well as the wild Maine seaside. But just like in The Fault in Our Stars, the love story feels a little improbable (two cancer kids falling in love seems more likely), and Cam, who is stricken in most of her organs and bones with cancer, is able to surf, hike, and get around with few health issues. It feels a little irresponsible to gloss over the seriousness of her illness with the “miracle” of a fake town. Otherwise, Probability is a perfectly fine book with nothing to make it stand above or below its sick-lit counterparts.

IDEAS: Like The Fault in Our Stars, this could be part of a unit on death or illness and could be grouped with other books like Before I Die or Never Eighteen.


FEED by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick, 2002)

20 Oct

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GENRE: Science Fiction

HONORS: National Book Award Finalist, Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner

REVIEW: Titus just wants to enjoy spring break with his friends. He even sort of hooks up with a cool girl—her name is Violet and she’s “meg.” But then chaos reigns on the moon as Titus and his friends end up in the hospital, victims of a hacker who unhooks their feeds and leaves them unconnected and vulnerable. But while Titus easily recovers, Violet doesn’t. She’s fighting the feed, and as a non-native feed user, it’s fighting her right back. As she loses her battle, Titus must chose between the security of the feed or the humanity of a true personal connection.

OPINION: Written over ten years ago, this book is part satire, part tragicomedy, and just a frightening bit prophesy as it speaks to our reliance on technology and consumerism, exploring how disconnected we have become to our own humanity. With hilarious dialog, a clever lexicon, and situations that are over-the-top in their ridiculousness, Feed also reveals a darkness and sense of dystopian despair—a sick world has bred sick inhabitants. Titus and his friends are pawns of the feed and all it represents, convinced that such things as festering skin lesions are desirable and attractive. The absurdity is engaging; but the message at the core is frightening and makes one want to step away from the iPad, grab a friend, and breath some fresh air.

IDEAS: Feed could start some important conversations about technology’s role in our lives and would be an interesting companion in a display of “Dystopian Comedy” pieces with books like 1984 or The Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart and movies like Brazil.


THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN by Holly Black (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2013)

20 Oct

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GENRE: Fantasy

HONORS: School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, 2013

REVIEW: Tana is just a regular teen who wakes up after a party to a completely changed life. All her friends are dead. Her ex-boyfriend, Aidan, has been bitten by a vampire. And said vampire, Gavriel, is still in the room—warning that other even worse vampires are waiting outside to finish them off. So Tana does the only responsible thing: she rescues Aidan and Gavriel, and heads to Coldtown, where people who have gone “cold” live and cavort (somewhat) safely with vampires, their lives broadcast to the world by the vampire leader, Lucien. Leaving Coldtown is practically impossible. But Tana, who’s own mother went cold and was ultimately killed, decides spending the rest of her life in Coldtown is her only option. Once there, things get even weirder. In the most unconventional kind of love story, Tana and Gavriel grow close—and their relationship is tested when Tana herself goes cold and Gavriel reveals his true identity, and finally, his true self as he helps Tana in ways she never could have imagined.

OPINION: Some books just seem to do everything right. They stick to genre, but push a bit in an unexpected direction. They introduce familiar characters, but give them a bit of unpredictability. They take you where you expect to go, but then switch directions, just a little. That’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, a vampire story that’s a little more (or a little less) than one might expect. Filled with the expected horror and gore, but with a tender heart and compassion that makes a reader care, even about the brutal Gavriel, Black has created a heroine and world both modern and ancient. Tana is a complicated character, torn between her mother’s fate, her love for her sister, and her disconnection to her life and environment. As she makes decisions about her own fate, she begins to draw all three pieces of her life together, even as she realizes her feelings for a vampire who both attracts and disgusts her. For Gavriel, Black has borrowed from Anne Rice’s Lestat, creating a tormented character who may have no soul but still has lines he will not cross. And Lucien’s Vegas-like domain brings a dose of reality TV to the story, portraying the vampire as a media vulture, a fascinating commentary with a sly edge that takes Coldtown to a deeper level. Overall, this is a thrilling ride with a taut plot, vivid descriptions, and unique characters making The Coldest Girl in Coldtown truly a sharp read.

IDEAS: Since this feels like an evolution in vampire stories, it would be interesting to compare and contrast this book with other classics in the genre: Dracula, Interview with the Vampire, and The Vampire Diaries.


HALF BAD by Sally Green (Viking, 2014)

14 Oct

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GENRE: Fantasy

HONORS: None Known

REVIEW: There are White Witches and Black Witches. And in between is Nathan Byrn. Stuck in “half”—the result of his White mother’s secret affair with the most evil and feared Black Witch of all, Marcus, Nathan goes through life with a fight and swagger that belies his half blood status. His sister Jessica hates her brother—and becomes a feared Hunter to keep him in line. His beloved brother Arran sees the good in Nathan, even with his Black blood. And Annalise, a White Witch from a prominent family, falls in love with Nathan despite his status (or maybe because of it). Told in a first-person account (switching to second person in some story arcs), Nathan recounts his life leading up to his 17th birthday, the time when all witches are to receive three gifts, and gives an almost detached account of his dealings with the White Witch Council, who do their best to control Nathan and trap his father, but with half-hearted, almost rote approaches. Nathan and Marcus finally meet in the last chapters of the book and set the tone for an already-planned sequel.

OPINION: Drawing from such YA classics as Harry Potter and Hunger Games, Half Bad feels more like a calculated effort than an original story. The prose and storyline is formulaic with characters who break no new ground in the genre. Nathan has none of the charm or wit of Harry Potter; his inner life doesn’t feel rich or as complex as it should be in his circumstances. The middle of the book sags as Nathan is held captive of a middle-aged badass White Witch woman, and the love story feels like a required arc that never rings true. The most interesting characters are, of course, the evil ones: Jessica, the bounty hunter, even the captor hint at a more compelling characterization. Overall, Nathan isn’t truly compelling—there is no big need to find out what happens next. Which is bad news for the rest of the Half Bad trilogy.

IDEAS: This would be a good compare and contrast with the books it seeks to replicate: the Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games trilogy and even 1984, which it has been compared to.

THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie, art by Ellen Forney (Little, Brown and Company, 2007)

8 Oct

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GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: National Book Award Winner

REVIEW: Life on the “rez” isn’t easy for Arnold (Junior) Spirit. He made it through the hurdle of his birth, but hardships are an every day thing for his family. Somehow, though, Junior survives with his wits and his sense of humor firmly intact. Dealing with poverty, alcoholism, and death in his Native American community has made Junior’s resolve to succeed even stronger, even if it means leaving behind his people for a shot at a good education at the town high school. Still, Junior pines for his best friend Rowdy, who resents his choice, but finds himself drawn to and eventually accepted by the pretty white girl, the nerdy white guy, the white jock, really the whole community. And that acceptance makes it even harder to find his rightful place in the world. As he balances between the Indian and white world and the people who live in each, Junior realizes he’s a part of many tribes, and wholly defined by none of them.

OPINION: Poet and writer Alexie’s first book in the YA world is funny, unpredictable, poignant, and written so deftly and purposefully that you feel almost like you’re spying on Junior in his world—Junior’s profound losses and uplifting victories feel like your own. The richly set scene of the rez and the unique characters who proudly defy stereotype within it are a revelation, a glimpse at a real world that exists on the periphery of most of our experiences. Using his own life as the basis for the story, Alexie takes the reader on a personal journey into his own teenage insecurities. And Forney’s drawings go even deeper, giving more context into Junior’s complex world. This is a hilarious and heartbreaking book that never gets silly and never makes a reader feel sorry for the likeable protagonist. Junior gives us hope because his hope is so complete.

IDEAS: Life on an Indian reservation is mysterious to most of us, but this book gives a realistic look at the troubles many tribes face. Alexie writes about this work often and it would be beneficial to read his poetry along with this book to get a clearer view. This is also a book that would serve well in a unit about social justice and marginalized groups in America.



STUCK IN NEUTRAL by Terry Trueman (HarperTeen, 2000)

7 Oct

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GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: Printz Honor Book, 2001

REVIEW: Shawn McDaniel can’t move, speak—even eating is a complex task. But his mind is perfect, almost brilliant, and he has total recall of everything he’s ever heard. Too bad no one else knows but him. Shawn has a profound disability due to cerebral palsy and is in effect trapped inside his own body. He can’t communicate with his family and they don’t know he’s actually in there. And that’s why he believes his dad is trying to kill him. Will his father, a man famous for his heartbreaking poem about Shawn, go through with what he believes is a mercy killing? We know Shawn’s happiness, intelligence—even his love of his epileptic seizures. But will his father trust that Shawn wants to live—and is even happy with a life that looks hopeless from the outside, but is rich within.

OPINION: Author Trueman offers a beautiful, moving look at the remarkable person inside the crumpled body in this important story, based on Trueman’s own son. Shawn is a revelation—funny, self-deprecating, hopeful, positive—all the things you’d never imagine a person in his position could be. With a deft hand, Trueman builds the anticipation of Shawn’s suspicion of his father, Sydney. He loves his son and wants to end his pain. But through Shawn’s enthralling narrative we realize he’s content with his life, even happy. His pain is only in not being able to share his feelings and thoughts with the family he loves. Sydney’s poem to his son shows the depth of his love—and we realize Sydney’s pain is probably more profound than Shawn’s.

IDEAS: So few books truly give a reader the real sense of what it’s like to have a disability. But this book does it in a welcoming, comfortable, almost disarming way. So this would be a perfect introduction to disability training or even understanding what it’s like to live with a handicap.

THIRTEEN REASONS WHY by Jay Asher (Penguin Group, 2007)

7 Oct

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GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: None Known

REVIEW: When Hannah Baker has enough of the constant bullying she feels in her new high school, she makes the ultimate statement: she kills herself. And if that isn’t dramatic enough, she makes one more gesture that is sure to send shock waves through her class. She records a set of audiotapes and instructions for 13 classmates to listen to them after she’s gone. Told through the eyes of one of those students, Clay Jensen, as well as through Hannah’s last words, we learn how she was wronged and by whom, as well as the depth of the pain and suffering she felt. Clay, who didn’t play a pivotal role in her problems, is devastated by what he could have or should have done, especially since he had feelings for Hannah that never came to fruition. And in the end, he decides he needs to act to help save someone else since he couldn’t save Hannah.

OPINION: An interesting dual narrative structure never really pays off in this clunky story that rings false at many turns. Hannah is never a believable narrator—with her cunning and savvy in making the tapes, it doesn’t feel like she would follow through on suicide. But maybe that is the message author Asher is going for: sometimes it’s the kids you’d never expect that do the most damage. Clay is also problematic; he’s clearly conflicted about his role in Hannah’s pain, but it’s not a logical step that he would be part of the 13. And his storyline feels forced and unnatural at many points in the story. There are valuable lessons here about how the smallest gestures (unkind and kind alike) can have a lasting impact, but overall the characters and plot are all flimsy and underdeveloped.

IDEAS: This book could be a part of a suicide prevention unit or even used as a starting point for a multimedia project about bullying. Students could make their own tapes or MP3s in a StoryCorps environment, sharing information they’d like to tell others but aren’t comfortable in a face-to-face situation.