Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner

The Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner (Algonquin, March, 2014)

Summary from publisher:
Summer had begun, the beach beckons -- and Francesca Schnell is going nowhere.  Four years ago, Francesca's little brother, Simon, drowned, and Francesca's the one who should have been watching.  Now Francesca is about to turn sixteen, but guilt keeps her stuck in the past.  Meanwhile, her best friend, Lisette, is moving on -- most recently with the boy Francesca wants but can't have.
At loose ends, Francesca trails her father, who may be having an affair, to the local country club.  There she meets four-year-old Frankie Sky, a little boy who bears an almost eerie resemblance to Simon, and Francesca begins to wonder if it's possible Frankie could be Simon's reincarnation.  Knowing Frankie leads Francesca to places she thought she'd never dare to go -- and it begins to seem possible to forgive herself, grow up, and even fall in love, whether or not she solves the riddle of Frankie Sky.

Recently, I've been reading quite a bit of realistic fiction that deals with various problems of growing up.  This makes sense... young adult readers seek out these books as a way to learn to navigate their way through the tricky world of adolescence.  As a person who was a teen in the 1980s, I wish I would have had the amazing books that are available to teens today.  Almost every book marketed to me as a teen was about a girl who wants a boy, flirts, runs into trouble, and eventually gets the boy.  There was very little of anything to do with the darker side of adolescence.

In The Summer of Letting Go, Polisner tackles the issue of grief in a way that broke my heart.  Not only did Francesca lose her little brother, she holds herself responsible.  In addition, her family is completely different... her mother buries herself in her work with a charitable organization in order to keep herself busy and her father seems to do nothing but work... and possibly have a relationship with the mysterious woman who lives across the street.  To Francesca, these are just further signs that her parents blame her for Simon's death.

Over the course of the summer, Francesca begins to come to terms with her feelings of loss and loneliness, and she slowly begins to return to the world.  It is only through some uncomfortable confrontations and facing some hard truths that Francesca is able to truly embrace her friendships and her family and live fully again.

Writing about these topics in a way that is true to the power of the emotions without being hyperbolic or melodramatic is no easy task.  Polisner pulls this off beautifully.  Francesca could be any one of the teenage girls I know... though they may not have the same kind of loss, most teen girls feel the same confusions and questions that Francesca felt toward her best friend - and her best friend's boyfriend.

Hand this book to readers who love to read realistic fiction that might just make them cry.  Though is is not an overly sad book, it definitely has its Kleenex moments.

Monday, February 3, 2014

It's Monday! Happy February Edition

Holy cow!  Where did January go?  It seems like too many months I ask myself this question.  Even my daughter is starting to wonder where the time is going... in the car on the way to school on Friday, she remarked on how quickly the school year is going.  She said she thought seventh grade would be the longest year of middle school, but she might just be wrong.

Time flying is sometimes a good thing, but the older I get the more I want time to slow down.  I want to have more time to savor my girls while they're still children, to enjoy each and every stage - even these crazy pre-teen years that sometimes drive me nuts.  My girls are pretty cool people with great ideas and deep thoughts, and I'm worried that I'll miss something and regret it later.

I'm lucky my girls share my love of books.  Last Tuesday, during our second emergency day, my 9 year old was reading the second Spirit Animals book while eating her lunch (a common occurrence at the Rench Ranch).  From across the room, I heard a plaintive "NOOOOOOOOOO!" followed by the slam of a book cover.
      "Cliffhanger?"  I asked.  She nodded solmenly.  "You'll have to wait 'till April to find out what happens, you know."
      "Yeah, but at least now I know why the cover is the way it is," she replied.
This made my day.  It is a perfect example of engagement.  My kid got to read a book she WANTED to read, no quizzes... no comprehension questions.  Just reading for the joy of reading.  I know she "got it" because we talked about it.

Similarly, my older girl recently finished Rapture Practice.  She decided she didn't want to share this one with her friends at school because she wanted to hold onto it for a bit longer.  Isn't that cool?  Haven't we book people had similar books that we just wanted to carry around with us, either physically or in our hearts for a while after we finished?

I'm so lucky I get to experience these things as a parent.'s what I read last week:
18.  Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher (finished 1/27) Novel in letters about a girl dealing with the death of a friend.
19.  Panic in Pittsburgh by Roy MacGregor (finished 1/28) A mystery about hockey and concussions and the Stanley Cup.
20.  Escape Theory by Margaux Froley (finished 1/30) Psychological mystery set in a Pacific Northwest boarding school.  Definitely needed to suspend my disbelief for this one.
21.  This is W.A.R. by Lisa Roeker (finished 2/2) Story of a group of girls who come together to avenge a friend's death.
22.  Little Red Lies by Julie Johnston (finished 2/2) Historical fiction novel about post-WWII PTSD (before it was called PTSD).

This week I plan to:
  • finish Rogue by Lynne Miller-Lachman
  • Read a professional book from my ever-growing pile.
  • Read more of At Home as a way to work on my goal of reading more "grown up" non-fiction.
How has your reading week been?  Ready to share? Head on over to Unleashing Readers or Teach Mentor Texts to link your lists.  While you're there, visit some of the other blogs and leave a comment or two!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

More Than This by Patrick Ness

More Than This by Patrick Ness 
(Candlewick, 2013)

Summary from publisher:
A boy named Seth drowns, desperate and alone in his final moments.  But then he wakes.  He is naked, thirsty, starving. But alive. How is this possible? He remembers dying, his bones breaking, his skull dashed upon the rocks.  So how is he here?  And where is this place?  The street seems familiar, but everything is abandoned, overgrown, covered in dust.
What's going on?  Is it real?  Or has he woken up in his own personal hell?  Seth begins to search for answers, hoping desperately that there must be more to this life, or perhaps this afterlife.

Have you ever read a book that has you asking, "What the heck?" throughout and on past the end of the story?  This, my friends, is one of those books.

I'm not saying this is a bad thing.

It's actually a pretty good thing.  The story is complicated, with lots of twists and turns, and I was never quite sure if I knew what exactly was going on from one minute to the next.  Ness has a way of doing that - I felt the same way when I tried (unsuccessfully, mind you) to read The Knife of Never Letting Go.  In this case, I kept trying to figure out what Seth's truth was.  WHERE was he? Why?  Is he a reliable narrator? Is this all in his head?

I'm still not quite sure about the answers to these questions.  I want desperately to talk to someone about this book, but no one I know who's nearby and could meet me over a cup of coffee or a piece of cake has read it!

It's definitely a book for older readers who are willing to stick with a story that they don't quite get.  Hand this one to readers who like to challenge themselves or who like quirky books that might not have mass appeal.  And after one of those kids read this book, let me know what they thought.  I can't wait to find out.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky (Candlewick, 2013)

Summary from publisher:
"Next stop Hollywood!" Django yelled as the bus transporting the Nazi's Gypsy prisoners turned west.
Django and fifteen-year-old Lilo are picked out of a lineup by Hitler's favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, to work as extras in her new movie.  The route to the filming location seems to lead away from the labor camps being built in eastern Europe, but does it really offer anything more than a bizarre detour?
Lilo, her mother, and her new friend Django soon find themselves in the alternate reality of a film set.  Amid glamorous surroundings, the Gypsy extras are barely fed, closely guarded, and kept locked in a barn when they're not working.  At the center of this strange world is Riefenstahl herself -- beautiful, charming, but ultimately deadly.  Faced with unanswerable questions about her own survival, Lilo takes matters into her own hands with remarkable bravery and strength.

This was a Holocaust story I had not read before, and in my time as a seventh grade language arts teacher, I thought I had read them all, or at least those published for middle school readers.  Lasky has very obviously researched this book to great detail.  She puts the reader into Lilo's world, helping to bring the story scarily to life.  Though this book is not as scary as others set in this time period, it does convey the feeling of dread and uncertainty the prisoners faced in a way that is approachable and appropriate for a younger reader.

I am left with some questions about some of the events in the story, and I'm going to do some research to find out whether or not events like these really happened.  I'm not going to detail them here, as they are spoilers for parts of the story.  I don't see this as a problem with a book such as this.... shouldn't a reader sometimes feel compelled to learn more.. to seek out answers the author might not have anticipated?  I'm lucky to live in an area with a fabulous Holocaust museum, and of course, I have a world of resources at my fingertips, unlike when I first read The Diary of Ann Frank as a seventh grader myself.

Readers who enjoy historical fiction in general and Holocaust stories in particular (yes... they're out there) will enjoy The Extra.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher 
(Little, Brown, 2013)

Summary from publisher:
Zoe has an unconditional pen pal -- Mr. Stuart Harris, a Texas Death Row inmate and convicted murderer.  But then again, Zoe has an unconventional story to tell.  A story about how she fell for two boys, betrayed one of them, and killed the other.
Hidden away in her backyard shed in the middle of the night with a jam sandwich in one hand and a pen in the other, Zoe gives a voice to her heart and her fears after months of silence.  Mr. Harris may never respond to Zoe's letters, but at least somebody knows what it's like to kill a person you love.  Only through her unusual confession can Zoe hope to atone for her mistakes that have torn lives apart, and work to put her own life back together again.

Ketchup Clouds is an intriguing story written as a series of letters from Zoe to a death row inmate in Texas.  Because she uses a fake name and address, she never gets any response to her letters.  Instead, writing these is cathartic... she does it to get some of the guilt over a friend's death off her shoulders and to make sense of the changes happening in her family.

It took me a bit to get into this book; at first I didn't feel a strong connection to Zoe, and I wondered about her reliability as a narrator. Eventually, though, I wanted to find out which of her friends died and what role she really played in the death.  I ached with her as she tried to help her sisters cope with their parents' deteriorating relationship and when she learned the truth about some things in her family's past.

Readers who enjoy realistic fiction will enjoy Ketchup Clouds.  It's a bit predictable, full of expected YA tropes, but the characters are relatable, if not fully fleshed out in all cases.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass 
by Meg Medina (Candlewick, 2013)

Summary from publisher:
"Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass."
That's what some girl tells Piddy Sanchez one morning before school.  Too bad Piddy doesn't even know who Yaqui Delgado is, let alone what she's done to piss her off.  All Piddy knows is that Yaqui hates her -- and she better watch her back because Yaqui isn't kidding around.
At first Piddy just focuses on trying to find out more about the father she's never met and how to balance honors courses with her weekend job at the neighborhood hair salon.  But as the harassment escalates, avoiding Yaqui and her gang starts to take over Piddy's life.  Is there any way for Piddy to survive without closing herself off and running away from her problems?
In this poignant and all-too-realistic story from award-winning author Meg Medina, Piddy is forced to decide exactly who she is versus who others are trying to make her become -- and ultimately discovers a rhythm that is all her own.

I first heard about this book earlier in the summer when it was the target of a challenge.  I'd been meaning to get it from the library, but finally it landed in my hands last week.  I read it in one day.

This is a story about bullying in a high school.  It illustrates the point that sometimes the targets don't know the person who is bullying them or why they're being bullied.  This is the case for Piddy.  New to her school, she gets told that another girl wants to beat her up.  She spends weeks trying to avoid Yaqui Delgado, even going so far as to change her appearance and her schedule.  For the reader, it is almost a relief when Piddy gets jumped on her way home one night, since it brings Piddy's torment to a head.  I wondered if FINALLY Piddy would tell someone about what was going on, but no.

Medina paints a sad but realistic picture of life as a target and the psychological torture that goes along with the physical abuse.  It's definitely for an older reader, I'd say 8th grade and up.  I found myself thinking about Piddy and her troubles for days after finishing the book.  It definitely could lead to some great conversations about the realities many teens face without being too preachy or didactic.  It would be interesting to hear what others would have done in Piddy's place.

This is definitely worth a read, by teens and adults alike.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg

Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg 
(Point, February 2014)

Summary from publisher:
For Macallan and Levi, it was friends at first sight.  Everyone says guys and girls can't be just friends, but these two are.  They hang out after school, share tons of inside jokes, their families are super close, and Levi even starts dating one of Macallan's friends.  They are platonic and happy that way.
Eventually they realize they're best friends -- which wouldn't be so bad if they didn't keep getting in each other's way.  Guys won't ask Macallan out because they think she's with Levi, and Levi spends so much time joking around with Macallan and maybe not enough time with his date.  They can't help but wonder...are they more than friends or are they better off without making it even more complicated?
From romantic comedy superstar Elizabeth Eulberg comes a fresh, fun examination of a question for the ages:  Can guys and girls ever really just be friends?  Or are they always one fight away from not speaking again -- and one kiss away from true love?

Better Off Friends is one of those books that's perfect for a snow day; a book you can settle into and be thoroughly entertained.  Just like it's predecessor When Harry Met Sally, it's a romantic exploration of friendship, but this time the focus is on teens.  While the answer to the question "Can guys and girls ever really be just friends?" might be different for each pair, the question certainly comes up for almost every mixed-gender pair.

Eulberg's writing sparkles, and her characters have a great combination of heart and humor.  She traces the path of their friendship from first meeting across five years of great fun and great heartbreak.  From time to time through out the book, current Levi and Macallan tell a bit about what each of them was thinking in interstitial vignettes.  Know those vignettes in When Harry Met Sally?  Same thing here, only just with Levi and Macallan.  I loved these glimpses into Levi and Macallan's future - these small sections is where much of the humor in the book lies.

If you want to get a feel for Levi and Macallan, check out the Scholastic spring preview video here.  In the first segment of the YA preview, Eulberg and her editor and friend David Levithan talk more about the book and their own friendship.  It's a great way to get Eulberg's voice in your head before reading the book.

Hand this book to kids who like their realistic fiction with a bit of humor and heart.  They won't be disappointed!