Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Storied LIfe of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014)

Summary from publisher:
A.J. Fikry's life is not at all what he expected it to be.  His wife has died; his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history; and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen.  Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island -- from Chief Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who's always felt kindly toward him; from Ismay, his sister-in-law, who is hell-bent on saving A.J. from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who persists in taking the ferry to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.'s bad attitude.  Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him.  These days, he can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.
And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It's a small package, though large in weight -- an unexpected arrival that gives A.J. the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew.  It doesn't take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J., for the determined sales rep Amelia to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light, for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.'s world.  Or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn't see coming.

When this book was released over the summer, I noticed many of my Nerdy Book Club friends were picking it up and reading.  Deeply immersed in reading for the Amelia Elizabeth Walden book award final rounds, I added it to my "To Read" list.  I'm so very glad I did.

In this book, Zevin has written a love letter to books.  She has structured the book so that each chapter begins with the title and brief summary of a short story and an explanation of why Fikry feels connected to that particular story.  The story is then somehow connected to the chapter that follows.  For example, chapter 1 begins with "Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl.  In this chapter, Fikry's beloved collection of Poe poems is stolen, and we meet Chief Lambiase, who eventually goes on to become a central character in the novel.

Frikry's bookstore is as much a character as the people who frequent it.  More than just a place to pick up a paperback on your way to the beach, Island Books is a refuge for the quirky collection of people who are part of Fikry's life and become more than friends - they are his family.

Thought not technically a YA book, this title would make an interesting addition to a high-school classroom library.  It's a quiet book, one that teen readers with eclectic tastes will find themselves drawn to, and one that adults, who have had life experiences similar to Fikry's as they grow up, have children, age, will find themselves thinking about long after they turn the last page.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Living With Jackie Chan By Jo Knowles

Living With Jackie Chan by Jo Knowles (Candlewick, 2013)

Summary from publisher:
This isn't how Josh expected to spend senior year.  He thought he'd be hanging out with his best friends, Dave and Caleb, driving around, partying, just like always.  But here he is, miles from home -- going to a new school, living with his Jackie Chan-obsessed uncle, Larry.  Trying to forget.
But Josh can't forget.  So many things bring back memories of last year and the night that changed everything.  He thinks about it every day.  The pain, the shame, the just not knowing are never far from his thoughts.  Why is he such a loser?  How could he have done what he did?
There are moments of peace, like when he's practicing karate paired with Stella, the girl upstairs and his one true friend.  When they move together through the katas, Josh feels connected in a way he has never felt before.  He wonders if they could be more than friends, but Stella's jealous boyfriend will make sure that doesn't happen.  Maybe it doesn't matter.  If Stella knew the truth, would she still think he was a true karate man?
Jumping Off Swings told the story of four high-school students and how one pregnancy changed all their lives.  In this heartfelt companion, readers follow Josh as he tries to come to terms with what happened and find a way to forgive.

Living With Jackie Chan is the perfect follow up to Jumping Off Swings.  Even better... it works as a stand alone. Admittedly, I read Jumping Off Swings several years ago.  I remember loving the book, putting it into my classroom library, and talking about it with kids.  I don't remember details of the storyline, so I wondered if I should reread before starting Living With Jackie Chan. I decided to throw caution to the wind, and began reading.

I didn't have to worry.

Knowles weaves just enough of the conflict from the first book into this one to allow the reader to read the books in any order.  In this new title, she follows the story of Josh, the accidental father of a baby who has been put up for adoption.  Full of guilt, both for the casual encounter that resulted in a pregnancy and also for walking away from his responsibility, he decides he needs to make a fresh start and goes to live with his uncle, a karate instructor.

As Josh devotes himself to the study of karate, he begins to feel at peace with himself and realizes in the end that the needs to make things right.  This is not an easy journey for him.  Knowles has a gift for bringing readers along the emotional ups and downs of her characters, and as a result readers come to fully understand Josh's struggles about the baby, the guilt, his parents, his future, and his friends.

Hand this book to readers who enjoy realistic fiction with a touch of romance.  This is one of those books that will appeal to both boys and girls who are looking for a book in which they will see themselves - the themes and struggles are universal ones.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The F It List by Julie Halpern

The F It List by Julie Halpern 
(Feiwel and Friends, 2013)

Summary from publisher:
Becca has cancer.  She doesn't know what the outcome of her treatment will be. 
Alex is Becca's best friend and wants to help.  And if theonly way she can is by completing Becca's bucket list, then so be it.
Sleep on a beach and watch the sunrise?  Check.
Tell off Lottie McDaniels?  Check, definitely.
Fall in love..... Wait! What?
Here is an unforgettable book about living fully, living authentically, and just.... living.

Julie's Halpern's latest is one of those books that I would have devoured in junior high or high school (and admittedly did as an adult) because at that point in my life I loved nothing more than a good cancer book.  The big payoff was if the book could make me cry by about half way through.  While this book was not a complete sobfest, it was an emotionally satisfying story about two friends... one fighting for her life and one fighting for herself.

The main characters here feel real.  These are girls who are quirky... not the queen bees of their high school, but ok with the fact.  They each have their faults, and their friendship is flawed, like real friendships are.  The best thing about their friendship is the loyalty the two girls share.

As Alex works to complete Becca's F It list, she slowly works herself out of the grief of losing her father the year before and learns that perhaps she should think before she speaks and take into consideration the feelings of others.  Becca has let her grief set her apart from everyone - even Becca for a while - as she is so afraid of losing anyone else close to her.

Over time, Alex realizes that she has to open herself up to love and friendship in order to have a full and wonderful life.  Want to know what happens with Becca?  You'll have to read it yourself!

Hand The F It List to older girls who like realistic fiction.  It would make a great read for a reluctant reader as well.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Milk of Birds by Sylvia Whitman

The Milk of Birds by Sylvia Whitman 
(Atheneum, 2013)

Summary from publisher:
Fourteen-year-old Nawra lives in Darfur, Sudan, in a camp for refugees displaced by the Janjaweed's trail of murder and destruction.  A nonprofit organization called Save the Girls pairs her with an American donor, and since Nawra never learned to read or write, she must dictate her thank-you letters to a friend.  Putting her experiences into words begins to free her from her devastating past -- and to brighten the path to her future.
Nawra's sponsor, K.C., is an American teenager from Richmond, Virginia, who hates reading and writing -- or anything that smacks of school.  But as Nawra pours grief and joy into her letters, she inspires K.C. to see beyond her own struggles.  And as K.C. opens her heart in her responses to Nawra, she becomes both a dedicated friend and a passionate activist for Darfur.
In this timely tale of unlikely sisterhood, debut author Sylvia Whitman captures the friendship between two girls who teach each other compassion and who share a remarkable bond that bridges two continents.

Stories of human suffering, like those that come out of Darfur or about kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls or about women and girls who are tortured or killed for speaking out about their lives, surround us.  They are constantly in the news, so much that they almost become wallpaper, easy to think, "That's terrible, somebody should do something about that" or "Wow....I'm glad I don't live there."  With so much sadness in the news everyday, it's hard to assimilate all of it.

This is where the power of a book comes into play.  As an adult who reads newspapers daily and who watches the news on a regular basis, I certainly know about the atrocities committed against the people of Sudan, specifically Darfur.  It wasn't until I read Nawra's story, however, that I allowed myself to enter that world on an emotional level.  A book like this brings the reader into the story, places the reader, however temporarily, into the shoes of the characters living the story.  I have not been able to stop thinking about this book or these (fictional) people since I finished it.  While I am certainly thinking about what I can do that would make a difference in the lives of girls like Nawra, I am also thinking about the power of using my words to tell my story.

Part of the genius of this book is the way Whitman writes from two perspectives.  Nawra's story is full of terror and heartbreak with an undercurrent of hope and love.  K.C.'s troubles are ones that the teenagers I know and work with would be able to relate to: striving to win approval from one's parents, struggles with school, issues with friends.  When reading, I NEEDED these "everyday" problems as a break from reading Nawra's heartbreaking tale.  As the book went on, I was amazed to see how Nawra found the courage and hope to continue to live - to in fact look at each day as a blessing and to think about how to create a better future for herself.  K.C. learned many lessons from Nawra about persistence and valuing family and friends.

This was certainly not an easy book to read.  However, I'm glad I read it.  In fact, I gave it a 5-star rating on Goodreads.  The writing is beautiful, full of Sudanese proverbs and well-rounded characters who grow and change over the course of the story.  It's also an important book for teens to read.  Developmentally, teens are very ego-centric.  Books such as these help to broaden their world view and invite them to think about the lives of others and learn to be empathetic.

School-wise, this would be a great book to add to a world cultures course or a women's studies course.  It also deserves a place in classroom libraries at the upper grades.  I don't think this is a book that most teens would pick up to read on their own... it deserves the hand-selling that teachers and librarians are so skilled at.  I'm sure that once a few students read it, this book will find an audience through word-of-mouth.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

All The Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry

All the Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry 
(Viking, 2013)

Summary from publisher:
Four years ago, Judith and her best friend disappeared from their small town of Roswell Station.  Two years later, only Judith returned, permanently mutilated, reviled and ignored by those who were once her friends and family.
Unable to speak, Judith lives like a ghost in her own home, silently pouring out her thoughts to the boy who's owned her heart as long as she can remember -- even if he doesn't know it -- her childhood friend, Lucas.
But when Roswell Station is attacked, long-buried secrets come to light, and Judith is forced to choose:  continue to live in silence or recover her voice, even if it means changing her world, and the lives around her, forever.
This startlingly original novel will shock and disturb you; it will fill you with Judith's passion and longing; and its mysteries will keep you feverishly turning the pages until the very last.

This is one of those books that is kind of hard to describe.  In the first place, it's written in the second person.  It's not often I come across that addresses the reader as "you" throughout the book, as if the narrator is speaking directly to me.  In this case, Judith is speaking to Lucas, the boy she's loved practically her whole life.  Once I got acclimated to this different voice, I sank right into the story.

Another thing that makes this book hard to describe is the setting.  It's somewhat hard to tell if it is set in the distant past, perhaps during America's earliest colonial days or if it is set in some post-apocalyptic future.  As I read along and looked for clues that would help me settle this question, I decided that it was in fact set in a Puritain town in the eighteenth century.  The description of the clothing and the life in the town gave me the idea, and I didn't find anything to contradict this.

What's not hard to describe is the experience of reading a book where the main character has been silenced.  The story is told through Judith's thoughts about what is going on in her village.  The story of her capture and subsequent maiming unfolds slowly over the course of the book, almost in a spiral.  As the book goes on, the reader learns more and more about what happened to Judith and her best friend.  There are enough twists and turns to keep the reader turning the pages until they know the whole awful, surprising story.  Berry creates characters who are layered and complicated.  Very few of the characters are what they seem on the surface, which also adds to the experience of the unfolding story.

Hand this book to older readers who are looking for something different.  Then talk to them about their thoughts on sharing their own voices... when do they feel silenced?  When do they feel empowered to speak out?  This book could definitely spur some great conversations!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Imperfect Spiral by Debbie Levy

Imperfect Spiral by Debbie Levy 
(Walker Books, 2013)

Summary from publisher:
With her best friend away as a camp counselor, Danielle Snyder's new best friend for the summer was Humphrey, the five-year-old boy she was hired to babysit.  They played in the park.  She taught him to throw a football.  By July, he almost threw a perfect spiral. . . .
Then Humphrey was struck by a car and killed on their way home from the park.
It wasn't her fault, but Danielle's guilt and grief are overwhelming.
As controversy over the driver's identity builds, Danielle wants only to mourn the sweet little boy she grew to love and to avoid the world around her. . . until an unexpected friendship with Justin, a boy she meets at the park, helps bring her back to real life.  Danielle must fine a way to forgive herself, but doing so might require courage she never thought she had.

Lately I've been craving stand-alone realistic fiction that tugs at my heart. Imperfect Spiral fit the bill completely.  Danielle and Humphrey's story unfolds gradually over the course of the book.  Like the spiral of the title, each time Danielle tells her story or thinks about Humphrey, the reader learns a little bit more about what happened the awful night Humphrey was hit.  This slow revelation of details and events kept me reading and asking questions, some of which were answered as I read and others that linger still, several days after turning the last page.

Levy does a great job of capturing the life and attitude of a teenage girl.  Danielle struggles to believe in herself, even before being wracked with guilt over Humphrey's death.  She is unsure of the strength of her friendships.  She fights with her family.  She has a crush on a boy.  All of this is compounded by the fallout from the accident, along with heated tensions in town over undocumented immigrants.

The secondary storyline involving undocumented immigrants could have distracted from the main plot, but in this case, it worked.  Levy made this very contemporary issue and important plot point, and while it could be argued that the conflict around this issue was tied up a bit too simply, there was enough truth included to make the ending plausible, if not completely realistic.

Hand this book to readers who love realistic fiction along with a tear or two.  They won't be disappointed.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

Fire Horse Girl by Hay Honeyman 
(Arthur A. Levine, 2013)

Summary from publisher:
Jade Moon is a Fire Horse -- the worst sign in the Chinese zodiac for girls, said to make them stubborn, reckless, and far too headstrong. While her family despairs of marrying her off, she dreams of traveling far beyond her tiny village, living out a story as big as her imagination.
Then a young man named Sterling Promise offers Jade Moon and her father an incredible opportunity:  the chance to go to America.  As they travel, Sterling Promise's smooth manners and Jade Moon's impulsive nature strike sparks again and again.  But America in 1923 doesn't welcome Chinese immigrants, and when they are detained at Angel Island -- the so-called "Ellis Island of the West" -- Jade Moon uncovers a betrayal that destroys all her dreams.  To get into America, much less survive there, she will have to use every bit of her stubbornness and strength to break a new path... one so brave and dangerous that only a Fire Horse girl could imagine it.
This marvelous adventure is as fiery, bold, and romantic as Jade Moon herself -- and just as unforgettable.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know that I am a HUGE fan of historical fiction.  I love being transported back in time, experiencing life the way it used to be without facing the dangers of actually living it.   In this debut novel, Honeyman does a fantastic job of sending the reader back to 1923, to experience what it was like to be a teenage girl in China, to travel across the Pacific in steerage, to be imprisoned on Angel Island, to hide what you are in order to survive.

While I have read books that have touched on the Chinese immigrant experience in the early twentieth century, I've not read one that explored that experience so deeply.  As a former U.S. history teacher, I certainly had read about the horrible conditions of Angel Island and knew of the anti-Chinese attitudes in America, especially in the West.  Reading about it from the perspective of a desperate seventeen-year-old girl, however, helped me to see this in a different light.  Too many teens today are unaware of this part of our history, and books like Fire Horse Girl can teach them in a way that is approachable and enjoyable.

This book would be a great addition to an Asian-American studies course, especially when paired with primary source documents from the time.  It would be interesting to compare Jade Moon's fictional experiences with those of a real person.  This book also deserves a place in junior high and high school classroom libraries, where books with non-white main characters can be in short supply.