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PROJECT RUNWAY: THREADS, The Weinstein Company, Full Picture, and Sara Rea Productions

26 Nov

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 10.58.22 PM Episode 1, “Red Carpet,” Premiere October 23, 2014, Lifetime TV

GENRE: Reality TV

HONORS: None Known

REVIEW: Building off the success of the Project Runway franchise, Project Runway: Threads showcases the designing talents of teens in this weekly competitive show. Each episode pits three new designers against each other to create thematic looks with the help from a parent, grandparent, or special helper. One of the three walks away the winner with a prize package of over $25,000.

OPINION: Sewing and designing have become popular pastimes for teens and this show offers a unique way to see some truly talented kids at work. But unlike a similar kid/teen reality show, MasterChef Junior, Project Runway: Threads suffers an emotional detachment that comes from the quick turnaround of the cast. We have no time to form attachments to the contestants (like we do on Project Runway or other reality shows) so there is no reason to care about the story behind the designer. Some episodes hint at the teens’ lives—one girl tells of her hard times, another boy casually discusses how difficult it was to come out. But we never know the motivations that move these kids. And without feeling something for them, we can’t feel much for the show. Contributing the problem is a truly horrible host and judges who never feel genuine in their critiques. Overall, Project Runway: Threads is a missed opportunity with little emotional power.

IDEAS: “Talented teens” is a strong theme and this show could be part of books, movies, or TV shows that focus on motivated teens and their quest to follow their passions.

MONSTER by Walter Dean Myers (Harpercollins, 1999)

26 Nov

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GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: 2000 Printz Award Winner, National Book Award Nominee

REVIEW: Is Steve Harmon a monster? If you consider the crime he’s accused of, one might think so. But if you read Steve’s journal, you might come away with a different picture of a young boy afraid for his life. Which sets up a powerful premise for this book, told in a screenplay of Steve’s trial, interspersed with first-person entries. A man has been murdered, and Steve has been arrested for being the “lookout” in the crime. An aspiring filmmaker, Steve seems to be a good kid with a promising future. But the details revealed in his trial paint a different picture. Was Steve part of the crime? Is he innocent, as his lawyer asserts? Or is there a fine line somewhere in the middle?

OPINION: A strong structure, a compelling story, and a deep moral question propel this book into a riveting tale of race, socioeconomic status, peer pressure, and the complex world urban youth must navigate. Steve must battle the legal system, but the book becomes more of his own moral battle—he fights for his life and his freedom, but we see glimpses of his true self. We never know for sure if Steve is guilty of the crime his is accused of, but we see hints of his internal dilemma that seems to point to his complicity. We can chalk up his poor decision to a youthful indiscretion—but a man is dead. And although we don’t see the full extent of Steve’s life, we do see the love his parents have for him. How can we reconcile the two? Steve seems like a decent kid, but don’t the decent still have an obligation to society? This deceptively simple book is fraught many moral nuances that make it a brilliant examination of right and wrong and the spaces in between.

IDEAS: With its complex moral argument, this book would be a fantastic starting point for a debate class or as part of an exploration of street lit.


SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999)

20 Nov

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GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: 2000 Printz Honor Book, National Book Award Finalist,

REVIEW: Sometimes speaking the truth leaves you without anyone to listen at all. That’s what happens to Melinda Sordino, a teen with friends, plans, and an exciting high school experience ahead of her. Until a wild summer party when she gets raped by a popular senior. She calls the cops but flees and never reports the crime. But plenty of other kids who were there get in trouble—and blame her. So on Melinda’s first day of school, she’s an outcast, her friends have abandoned her and she finds herself more and more unable to talk about anything to anyone. As the year progresses, she finds expression through her art class and when her former best friend starts dating her rapist, she finally decides to speak out. And finally, people listen.

OPINION: Anderson’s first novel is powerful and moving, an anthem of sorts for anyone who’s been quieted by bullies, aggressors, or belittlers of any kind. It takes a while to understand what causes Melinda to be ostracized and there are points when one can’t help but be annoyed with her lack of confidence. Why is she letting people treat her like that? But as she slowly reveals what happened, we can all understand her victimization and why she’s retreated into herself. The parallel between her art project and finding her voice to speak out is poignant and something many teens can relate to—creativity can definitely build confidence. The end is a little too neat and tidy compared to many similar real life situations, but as a metaphor for strength over adversity, Speak is beautifully done.

IDEAS: This book would be a powerful read for teens discussing bullying or victimization of any kind. It would also be helpful for teens in distress, especially victims of rape or sexual abuse.    



BAD GIRLS: SIRENS, JEZEBELS, MURDERESSES, THIEVES & OTHER FEMALE VILLIANS by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple with illustrations by Rebecca Guay (Charlesbridge, 2013)

20 Nov

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GENRE: Historical Nonfiction/Graphic Novel

HONORS: None Known

REVIEW: What do Delilah, Ma Barker, and Catherine the Great have in common? According to this book, they are all the bad girls of history, the women who stood out for their misdeeds, whether real or reinterpreted. Using a clever structure of short historical chapters interspersed with the mother/daughter authors in comic book form discussing their perceptions of each woman, Bad Girls starts conversation about how history interprets strong women. As the author’s ask in the last chapter, would we still consider these women bad today? Or would we consider them victims of bad circumstances?

OPINION: Although this book probably skews to a bit of a younger audience, it is still a deceptively simple approach to examining women’s stereotypical roles throughout history—the “bitch,” the “siren,” the “seductress.” By setting up the crux and circumstances of each woman’s story and having the cartoon version authors engage in a quick debate on the historical female’s “badness,” they are slyly setting up a reader’s own examination of feminism, gender roles, and historical context. Although the cartoon versions are a little corny and contrived a times (did they have to make it about looking pretty and shoes?) this is still an interesting and compelling way to look at history through another lens.

IDEAS: This is a must-read for teens, especially girls, as they begin to find their own place in the world. Reading this book in conjunction with full biographies of any of the women examined would give a broader scoop and understanding of women’s issues throughout history.    

BIG HERO 6 (Walt Disney Animation Studios/Walt Disney Pictures, 2014)

19 Nov

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 8.40.06 PMGENRE: Animated Feature

HONORS: None Yet (Coming Soon)

REVIEW: There’s a point in the animated movie Big Hero 6 where Hiro, the main character, tells his friends to use their brains to think of a new way to solve a problem. His big idea leads to their bigs ideas and they ultimately succeed in their mission—together. This is a simplistic way to look at this lovely bit of storytelling (John Lasseter, the master of movie storytelling is the Executive Producer) that shows what can happen when smart people with big hearts work for something bigger and better then themselves. Set in the brilliant “Sanfransokyo,” Hiro is a science genius who wastes his talents on bot fights—until his brother Tadashi convinces him to apply to his technology academy. Hiro succeeds with nanobots—but the night of his triumph, Tadashi is killed in a fire. Tadashi leaves behind his own triumph a “health care companion” named Baymax whose part medical wizard, part cuddly marshmallow. Together with Tadashi’s group of school friends, Hiro and Baymax look for the person who set the fire exact their own kind of revenge, forming a superhero team who is more brains than brawn—a winning combination.

OPINION: Sweet, funny, gorgeously rendered with scenery that’s charming and dystopian at the same time, Big Hero 6 has the heart of a Pixar movie. Brainiac characters—from the beautiful Honey Lemon who is gawky, girly, and wicked smart to Fred, a surfer dude who’s rich but kind—break the mold of what you expect from intelligent people in the tech industry—these aren’t tech hipsters out to make a buck like the throngs of kids on the Google buses every morning. These are people who use their powers for good—especially Tadashi’s heartbreakingly sweet Baymax who is loveable and loyal. And despite being a robot, he has more humanity and kindness than most humans. Very, very loosely adapted from a comic book of the same name, Big Hero 6 has a long series of sequels ahead of it. Bring on more Baymax!

IDEAS: How do moviemakers adapt books and comic strips into movies? An interesting unit would be to compare this film with its comic counterpart to find similarities and differences.

SAY WHAT YOU WILL by Cammie McGovern (HarperTeen, 2014)

16 Nov

Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 9.20.32 AMGENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: None Known

REVIEW: What happens when two people trapped by illness find each other? That is the central question of Say What You Will, a book that looks into the world of disability, both obvious and hidden, and examines the problems anyone who is “different” must overcome. Amy has cerebral palsy, but that doesn’t stop her from being smart, sassy, and even pretty. Matthew signs on to be her peer aide, and can’t hide his OCD from her, no matter how hard he tries. The two push each other in unexpected ways, butt heads constantly, and find a peaceful truce—that may or may not include love.

OPINION: This double whammy of illness tries to do too much and goes to far to tell a disjointed story that’s long on plot, but short on emotion. Amy and Matthew tell without feeling, resulting in a clunky two-part narrative that makes neither character totally believable. In author McGovern’s desire to make Amy appear strong, she creates a borderline bully. And showing Matthew’s sensitive side creates a fake “too-good-to-be-true” knight. The final straw is a plot twist so soap opera dramatic, it negates any true depiction of disability or mental illness the book mustered in the beginning. An ambitious topic gone off track, Say What You Will feels like a missed opportunity to tell an important story.

IDEAS: Teens and disability issues is an important topic that should be mined in different ways. This book could be part of a unit on disabilities, both physical and mental. It would also be interesting to contrast it with another book where the main character has cerebral palsy, Stuck in Neutral.  

A & E FOREVER by i. Mercy (Lethe Press, 2011)

16 Nov

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GENRE: Graphic Novel

HONORS: None Known

REVIEW: Love isn’t about a boy and a girl, or two boys or two girls. It’s about two people and who they are, rather than what they are. That’s what Ash and Eu, two teens who find each other amidst the confusion of high school, realize as their relationship shape shifts between all the forms that love can take. The lines aren’t hard and fast in their world—there is always room for interpretation. Ash’s androgynous look is attractive to both boys and girls. But Eu, his “butch” best friend sees the beauty beyond his beautiful face. And Ash learns to see that gender isn’t as important as being genuine. Their love story isn’t conventional in any sense. But their love for each other is.

OPINION: Drawing from 90s music and rave culture, with a stark black and white style that belies the gray that frames the story, this is a gorgeously haunting book that channels the angst and agony of teen love. Messy, confusing, and unpredictable, the plot weaves like life—with no clear direction. Ash claims he could never be with Eu in the way she wants, but nothing is ever for sure. And Eu, though steadfast in her feelings, realizes that things in life can always change. The ache of the story is profound—we can all relate to the feelings that Ash and Eu dredge up in us. The one that changed us. The one that ruined us. A & E Forever connects all of us to that time in our lives. This long graphic novel is worth the journey, even if the outcome isn’t happily every after.

IDEAS: This book could be part of a collection on gender identity as it examines what it means to be male or female and explores attraction beyond traditional ideals.

ZAC AND MIA by A.J. Betts (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)

16 Nov

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 11.53.15 AM GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: 2012 Text Prize

REVIEW: After twenty days in room one of the cancer ward, Zac Meier is ready for something interesting to happen as he waits to see if the bone marrow transplant he endured actually worked. And then a new girl arrives in room two. Although he can’t see her, he can feel her pain through their shared wall and they begin to share a distant connection of cancer that brings them closer together through the arc of the story. Zac is an optimist with low odds. Mia is a pessimist with a 98% chance of survival. But having cancer doesn’t make them a number. It only makes them human. And each character must face their fears in their own 100% unique way, leaning on each other for support.

OPINION: While other books in the sick-lit genre use cancer as a means to a love story, Zac and Mia is a story of teens with cancer who find solace in each other, making this a truly beautiful and meaningful book. Love here is not about “when will they have sex?” but more about the humanity of the emotion, as two people reach outside their comfort zones in search of human connection. Cancer has become their crutch (both literally and figuratively) and they hide behind exaggerations of themselves. Yet through their friendship they can uncover more of their true self. Told in each character’s different perspective, we understand how one word, “cancer,” can affect people in a range of ways as we learn the actual details of diagnosis, treatment, and after-effects of the disease. Author Betts spent years working with cancer patients, and her compassion for her characters is evident as small moments are rife with profound sadness and any small victory feels triumphant. One of the truest “teen cancer” books in the genre, Zac and Mia is a real stand out.

IDEAS: This is part of the sick-lit genre so it could be part of a reading collection that focuses on teen illness. The convention of writing from two character’s perspective is also an interesting topic and could be contrasted with Side Effects May Vary, another book that uses the device.

DEAR CREATURE by Jonathan Case (Tor Books, 2011)

14 Nov

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GENRE: Graphic Novel

HONORS: None Known

REVIEW: From the depths of the briny ocean comes a ghastly creature that only the bard could love in this epic tale of unrequited (or is it undigested?) love. Grue is loathsome and his hunger to eat fair organisms of human origin (especially the ones fueled by hormones) is strong. Yet, deep inside his grisly exterior there is a heart that longs for love. And when Grue meets the (not so fair) Giulietta his passions—and his iambic pentameter—are ignited. Told with an incredible Shakespearean flair, complete with a Greek chorus of crabs, Dear Creature is tragedy, comedy, and love story all rolled into one graphic novel.

OPINION: Truly original (and truly weird) this book combines Shakespeare, 1960s monster movies, Italian cinema, westerns, and pulp fiction into a story that’s as complicated as it sounds like it would be. Grue and Giulietta are both oddly loveable, despite their despicable or damaged exteriors. The story, set in a small beach town where weird things happen to teen lovers, is ambitious, maybe a little too much so. And the illustrations, while beautifully done, can be a bit hard to interpret in action-packed scenes. Where this book shines, though, is in the clever dialogue. Grue’s “dext’rous tongue” keeps the hectic page of the book engaging and humorous. But you can’t help but wonder if many teenagers will keep up.

IDEAS: At the end of the book, a funny lesson on iambic pentameter mentions that Grue’s favorite play by Shakespeare is Julius Caesar. It would be good lesson plan to read the two books together and see how the rhythm of the language compares.

SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY by Julie Murphy (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, 2014)

9 Nov

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GENRE: Realistic Fiction

HONORS: None Known

REVIEW: Alice had cancer. But then, like something even her doctor called a miracle, she doesn’t. Incredible news except for one thing: she was planning on dying. Now that she has a second chance at life she’s got to fix a lot of the problems she didn’t expect to have to face, like why she can’t admit her feelings for Harvey. And why she’s already so dead on the inside. Told in past and present day, from both Alice and Harvey’s perspectives, Side Effects examines what happens when plans change from dying to living.

OPINION: We’ve all read the books where the teen protagonist dies of cancer. But this is about the story of what happens when the main character has to face up to all the crappy things she did when she thought there were no consequences. Alice is not the nicest person in the world, but that doesn’t stop the sweet Harvey from loving her completely. It’s not clear what draws him to her—maybe it’s because she’s always been part of a family he’s never really had and their shared history is what he really loves. But what’s Alice’s motive with Harvey? She loves him but is afraid to reveal those feelings, even when she’s dying. And when she realizes she’s going to live, it’s even more complex. Much of the plot—revenge, other relationships—feels a little forced and where this book excels is in the glimpse of the character’s inner lives because of and beyond cancer.

IDEAS: This book is part of the sick-lit cannon and could be read in conjunction with The Fault in Our Stars, Never Eighteen, The Probability of Miracles, and Zac and Mia.