Saturday, April 30, 2011

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
(Penguin, 1999)

I have a hard time summarizing this story without giving too much of it away.  I also want to do the book justice, since it is such an important, powerful story.  Laurie, if I don't get it right, I hope you'll let me know!

Speak is the story of Melinda's freshman year at Merryweather High School.  What should be an exciting time of getting to know new people, experiencing new classes and clubs, and flirting with new boys turns out to be nothing but one painful experience after another.  An outcast after calling the police from a party in August, just before the start of school, Melinda tries to navigate through the treacherous waters of high school.  Her only lifesavers are art class and the abandoned supply closet she outfits as a hideaway.  Completely unable to deal with the emotional turmoil she's experiencing, Melinda chooses to speak as little as possible.  Will she ever find her voice again?

I reread this book last week.  I decided to start a book club at my school where teachers read young adult books and then talk about them.  As I was thinking about our first book, my mind kept coming back to Anderson.  I knew that eventually I wanted to suggest either Speak or Wintergirls to my colleagues because Anderson manages to get inside the head of a troubled teen better than almost any other author I can think of.  This is a book that anybody who works or lives with teens should read.  It makes me think about what the kids I interact with every day are NOT telling me, are NOT asking for help with, are NOT handling on their own.  Melinda very easily could have become a statistic, one more teen who takes her life because everything seems so hopeless.

Speak has been challenged over and over again across the United States.  A recent challenge spurred high school teacher Paul W. Hankins to start a twitter campaign called #SpeakLoudly.  The response was overwhelming!  Hankins and author David Macinnis Gill started a Speak Loudly, a website devoted to issues surrounding censorship, and Teri Lesesne, a YA blogger and university professor commissioned special SpeakLoudly buttons and passed them out to teachers at conferences such as the National Council of Teachers of English national conference in Orlando last November.  I proudly display my SpeakLoudly button on the backpack I carry to school each day.

When I hear of yet another challenge to this book, I wonder what the adults in that particular town are afraid of.  This is not a book full of gratuitous sex scenes.  It is not full of F-bombs or drug use.  I wonder if the people mounting these challenges have actually read the book.  Yes, it is hard to read at times, but ultimately, it shows young people the importance of having a voice. Perhaps THAT'S what scares some adults. 

I currently have two copies of Speak in my classroom library, and both are almost always checked out.  The copy I managed to get a hold of is falling apart, it has been checked out so many times.  The cover is folded and torn, pages are starting to come loose, and the pages are dog-eared.  That, to me, speaks volumes about what this book means to teens.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent by Veronica Roth
(Katherine Tegen, May 2011)

Ever read one of those books that just so enthralled you that you just didn't want to put it down and then couldn't stop thinking about it once you did? Divergent is one of those books.

I'm not even sure how to go about summarizing the story without giving too much of it away.  Sixteen year old Beatrice lives in a world where people belong to one of five factions:  Erudite, Candor, Dauntless, Amity, and Abnegation.  Growing up in the Abnegation faction, Beatrice has been taught to be selfless, to always consider the needs of others before her own, and she has struggled.  Soon, though, she will have the chance to choose to join one of the other factions; one where she might just be a better fit, even though that means leaving her family forever.

Set in a post-war Chicago where Lake Michigan is now a swamp and most of the high rises are abandoned, Divergent is reminiscent of The Hunger Games in that the heroine is a teenager who lives in a brutal, violent world where choices are limited.  I felt that Divergent, while violent, was not as in-your-face with the violence as HG was.  I was really bothered by the whole tribute-killing-tribute in an arena aspect of HG, even though I understand the point Collins was trying to make.  Roth is a bit more subtle in creating her dystopian world.

I really liked the Tris's character.  Roth creates a character that is neither all good nor all bad; just as real people are a mixture of assets and flaws, so to is Tris.  Her inner struggle to figure out exactly who she is mirrors that of most teens; she wants to separate herself from her parents as an individual but realizes her family will be a part of her.  She questions her place in society, weighing what she has to give with what she needs, something her Abnegation upbringing has taught her to suppress.

I can't recommend Divergent highly enough.  My only complaint is that Roth leaves the reader hanging at the very end, waiting to find out what happens next.  I have a feeling that readers will keep coming back for more.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Powerless by Matthew Cody

Powerless by Matthew Cody (Yearling, 2009)

Summary from back cover:
As Daniel and his family drive to their new home, he spots the sign "Welcome to Noble's Green--The Safest Town on Earth."  Couldn't sound lamer.  But Daniel's new friends--who are nice but odd, with a tendency toward mysterious disappearances--are far from lame.  In fact, he comes to learn that they each have a power, a superpower:  one can fly, another can turn invisible, yet another controls electricity.  Incredible.  Together, this secret group of six superkids watches over Noble's Green while its residents enjoy their safest town on earth, oblivious. But not for long.  The young superheroes are fading away, one by one:  the moment they turn thirteen, their special abilities disappear.  Is a supervillain sapping their powers?  The answer lies in a long-ago meteor strike, the green-flamed Witch Fire, a World War II-era comic book, a hidden Shroud cave, and--possibly, unbelievably-- powerless, regular old Daniel himself.

I read this book because it is one of the twenty books nominated for the Rebecca Caudill Young Reader's Award here in Illinois.  I've made it my goal to read all twenty of the nominated books this year, so I'm plugging through them, whether I like them or not.  I hate to say it, but Powerless falls in the not category.  Don't get me wrong... it's an okay story.  I think it will appeal to a certain kind of kid, but the story moves more slowly than one would expect for a book nominated for a young reader's award. 

I liked the character of Daniel.  He knows he's at a distinct disadvantage being the new kid in a small town where everyone knows everyone else.  He attracts the attention of the town bullies from the very first day, and he has to use his wits (and his friends' super abilities) to stay out of their way.  Daniel loves reading, specifically Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and he uses this love of mysteries to figure out what's going on in the town of Noble's Green.  I did like that Cody did not just make the path of fitting in with new friends in a new town a smooth one for Daniel; his struggles on that front seem very real.

The things that bothered me about this book were the pace and the relative predictability of the mystery's solution.  Perhaps as an adult I bring too much schema of how a mystery works to this particular book.  Perhaps my students will enjoy it more than I did.  I'll let you know.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins

Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins
(Delacorte, 2009)

Summary from paperback edition:
When her father loses his job and leaves India to look for work in America, Asha, her older sister, Reet, and their mother must wait with Baba's brother and his family, as well as their grandmother, in Calcutta. Uncle is welcoming, but in a country steeped in tradition, the three women must abide by his decisions.  Asha knows this is temporary--just until Baba sends for them.  But tension builds.  Ma finds it hard to submit to her mother-in-law,  Reet's beauty attracts unwanted marriage proposals, and Asha's promise to take care of Ma and Reet leads to impulsive behavior.  What follows is a firestorm of rebuke--and secrets revealed.  Asha's only solace is her rooftop hideaway, where she pours her heart out in her diary, and where she begins a clandestine friendship with Jay Sen, the boy next door.  Asha can hardly believe that she, not Reet, is the object of Jay's attention.  Then news arrives about Baba... and Asha must make a choice that will change their lives forever.

I picked up Secret Keeper on the recommendation of my friend and fellow book lover, Donalyn Miller.  I'm so glad I did.  I have not read many books set in India, unless you count the beginnings of A Little Princess or The Secret Garden.  This book was like a window into a whole nother way of life.  Asha is a teen in the 1970s, a time of political unrest, and she lives in a very traditional family.  As a girl in such a time and place, her choices and options are limited.  Books like Secret Keeper help me to realize how lucky I am to be a woman with options and choices.  It makes me thankful my daughters have even more.  Ultimately, Secret Keeper is a book about family and friendship and self-discovery, just as many YA books are.  Teens will see themselves in Asha, even if they aren't Indian.  Asha's journey is as familiar as apple pie.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Ashes by Kathryn Lasky

Ashes by Kathryn Lasky (Viking, 2010)

Summary from book flap:
Berlin, 1932:  In many ways, thirteen-year-old Gabriella Schramm lives a charmed, carefree life.  She loves her parents and her sister, Ulla.  She loves her family's summer lake house, next door to Albert Einstein's.  And most of all, Gaby loves books.  But soon she begins losing all these things, one by one, as Hitler unstoppably climbs to power.  People Gaby thought she could trust turn out to be Nazis.  Many of her friends are fleeing, or, worse, being taken away.  And then there's something troubling about Ulla's boyfriend that Gaby can't quite figure out.  As always, she turns to her books for comfort--but even those are disappearing.  

Ashes is a look at one German family's experiences as Hitler gains power in pre-World War II Germany.  It's a different perspective than most of the books I've read on this topic.  Gaby and her family are not Jewish, though many of their friends and colleagues are.  Gaby's father is a professor of astronomy at the University in Berlin and is close friends with Albert Einstein.  Her mother is a music teacher whose best friend is a Jewish journalist.  It was interesting to read about Hitler's growing power through the eyes of a thirteen year old girl, someone who knew something was wrong, but couldn't necessarily put her finger on exactly what.

While the book has a few slow spots, overall I enjoyed it.  Lasky does an admirable job of putting the reader right there in Berlin in the early 1930s.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Small Persons With Wings by Ellen Booraem

Small Persons With Wings by Ellen Booraem 
(Dial, 2011)

Thirteen-year-old Mellie Turpin once declared to her kindergarten class that she had a fairy living in her bedroom.  But before she could bring him in for show-and-tell, he disappeared.  Years later, she is still trying to live it down.  When her parents inherit an inn and the family moves to a new town, Mellie sees a chance to finally leave all that fairy nonsense behind.  Little does she know that the inn is overrun with... you guessed it.  Oh brother.  There's no such thing as fairies, she tells herself.  And even if there were, they'd be nothing to worry about.  Right? (summary from book flap)

Last weekend, I was in the mood for something a bit more lighthearted than what I'd been reading, so I dug Small Persons With Wings out of my GINORMOUS to-be-read pile.  I'm so glad I did.  Mellie is an engaging character.  From the very first time she mentions her fairy Fidius at school, I knew nothing good would come of it.  Already a target for bullying from her classmates, her claim of a fairy friend only makes the bullying worse.  I held out hope that things would get better for Mellie once she moved to her new town, but of course, a move is never easy and brings its own new challenges.

Booraem kept me guessing throughout the second half of the book, as Mellie and her new friend Timmo try to solve the mystery surrounding her grandfather's inn.  The book is whimsical while at the same time teaching an important lesson about friendship and self-acceptance.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Where She Went by Gayle Forman

Where She Went by Gayle Forman 
(Dutton, 2011)

Three years ago, Adam's girlfriend Mia almost died in the car accident that killed her parents and younger brother.  As Mia lay in a coma, Adam told her that he would let her go if she would just stay.  After an almost miraculous recovery, Mia regained her gift for playing the cello and off she went to Julliard... and out of Adam's life.  Fast forward three years.  Adam now a famous rock star in a downward spiral.  His life is on of anxiety and depression until the night he happens upon Mia's recital at Carnegie Hall.  The two end up spending an amazing evening together, which begs the question, "What will happen next?"

This sequel to the amazing If I Stay is written from Alex's point of view, rather than Mia's, and I really enjoyed the change of viewpoint.  At first, I wasn't sure if I wanted to read this book because I loved the first one so much.  I often find second books in a series to be disappointing, but this time I was happily surprised.  Even though I spent much of the book frustrated with Adam because of his wallowing, I understood why he was acting the way he did.  The book felt real to me, and I found I couldn't put it down.

I know that several of my students have been anxiously waiting for me to bring this book to school.  I'm sure it'll get snapped up tomorrow as soon as I put it on display.  For me, I'm eager to talk to them to see if they love it as much as I do.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Two More Caudill Nominees

This year I've set a goal for myself to read all twenty of the Rebeca Caudill Young Reader's Book Award Nominees.  The following books have been nominated for the 2012 award (so far, I've read those that are highlighted):

One-Handed Catch
All the Broken Pieces
Wild Things
Extra Credit
The Girl Who Threw Butterflies
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
The Rock and the River
Every Soul a Star
Greetings from Nowhere
Heart of a Shepherd
Woods Runner
The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg
The Magic Thief
Knucklehead: Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories about Growing Up Scieszka

One of the things I like about the Caudill awards is that the nominating committee chooses a wide variety of genres and topics, and then the kids of Illinois read the books and vote on the one they like best.  Last year I read seventeen of the twenty!

This week I read two more of the nominees, Flygirl and One Handed Catch.

Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith (Speak, 2008)

One-Handed Catch by MJ Auch (Square Fish, 2006)
Flygirl is the story of Ida Mae Jones, a girl who loves nothing more than to fly.  When World War II breaks out and her older brother Thomas enlists in the army, Ida Mae feels helpless.  She wants to do something to help Thomas.  One day, her younger brother brings home a newspaper article about the Women Airforce Service Pilots, and Ida decides she wants to join.  The problem? Ida is a black girl living outside New Orleans, Louisiana, and the WASP will not take black pilots.  Ida decides to try to pass as white in order to fulfill her dream.  Will she succeed?  If not, what price will she pay?

I really enjoyed Flygirl.  As a former US history teacher, I thought I knew quite a bit about the US role in World War II.  I certainly had heard of the WASP, but I had no idea what their training or jobs were like.  I was truly worried for Ida Mae, not only about what might happen if the other women discovered she was not what she said she was, but also for her safety when flying the planes.  Several of my students report that they find the beginning kind of boring, but the action soon picks up.  I can see why they think so, but the description of Ida's life as a house cleaner is necessary to understand her motivation to escape her every day life.
One-Handed Catch is the story of Norm during the summer before his eighth grade year.  The book opens on the Fourth of July, 1946.  Norm is helping his dad out in the family store, when Norm's life as he knows it ends as a result of a tragic accident.  Norm must adjust to life without his left hand, and his biggest hurdle of all is trying to figure out how to play baseball without that left hand.

I was surprised by how much I liked this book.  On first glance it appears to be a baseball story, but it is much more than that.... it's the story of perseverance and of pursuing a dream.  I think boys will come to it for the baseball storyline, but they'll learn a life lesson without realizing it. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Shine by Lauren Myracle

Shine by Lauren Myracle
(Amulet, April 2011)

For the next few blog posts, I'm playing catch-up on my spring break reading.  In interest of time, I'll be using the publishers' summaries rather than my own.

When her former best friend, Patrick, is found near death, tied to the pump of the local gas station, sixteen-year-old loner Cat is forced into action.  The local sherrif blames out-of-towners, but Cat knows someone in their tightly-knit Southern community is guilty of the crime.  And only she has the will--and the fury fueled by a still raw wound--to find him.  Against a backdrop of poverty, clannishness, drugs, and intolerance, Myracle has crafted a searing coming-of-age story:  a tale of loss, guilt, and fear, and, finally, the transcendent power of love.

Holy cow!  I don't even know where to start when it comes to talking about this book.  It is amazing; it is powerful; it is incredibly hard to read.  When one hears news stories like that of the murder of Matthew Shepard, killed in 1998 because of his sexual orientation, it's somewhat easy to say, "I'm outraged that someone would do such a thing, but that wouldn't happen here."  Myracle makes such stories harder to dismiss; she brings you right into a world where that kind of brutality and discrimination exists, right here, right now in 2011.

Myracle holds nothing back.  As Cat tries to solve the mystery of who attacked Patrick that night, she is forced to look into the seedier side of her community, and possibly even her family.  She must face the reality of her father's alcoholism, her aunt's unwillingness to tackle unpleasant subjects, and the drug use that is rampant among the teens in her town.  She must also face the burden she, herself, has been carrying since the day one of her brother's friends sexually assaulted her in her own home.  By working to save Patrick, she ends up saving herself.

This book is not for younger readers.  The age range on the book is 14 and up, and I understand why.  I'm going back and forth on whether to put it in my classroom library. 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen (Knopf, 2011)

For the next few blog posts, I'm playing catch-up on my spring break reading.  In interest of time, I'll be using the publishers' summaries rather than my own.

Sixteen-year-old Jessica is a runner.  It's not just what she does, it's who she is.  So when a tragic accident causes her to lose one of her legs, she is shattered--inside and out.  Though the doctors say she'll be able to walk with a prosthetic limb, recovery is slow and full of pitfalls.  Jessica wonders if the girl who died in the accident didn't get the better end of the deal.  But as she struggles to reclaim her life, Jessica gets to know Rosa--a girl with cerebral palsy whom she and her friends had always overlooked.  Not only does Rosa come to Jessica's rescue in math, she also helps her reach for a future that is full of unexpected opportunities.  And Jessica starts to wonder:  Is it possible not only to run again, but to run?

I can't tell you how much I loved this book.  From the first line of the first page, I was hooked... I wanted to find out what would happen to Jessica and how she was going to deal with the loss of her leg.  Van Draanen is a runner herself, so she has insight on the life of a runner.  How she got inside the head (and heart) of a sixteen year old amputee is another story.  Jessica's struggles felt real... and even though one might think she comes to accept her injuries and resulting life changes a bit quickly, Van Drannen shows that it's the strength Jessica finds inside herself and within her family and friends.

The story line involving the friendship between Jessica and Rosa reminded me a bit of Sharon Draper's Out of My Mind, one of the best books I read in 2010.  It is important for teen readers to meet characters with physical challenges that aren't stereotypical or relegated to sidelines. 

So far in 2011, I've read almost 40 books, and this is one of the best.  Pick it up; you won't be sorry

The Girl Who Threw Butterflies

The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mick Cochrane
(Yearling, 2009)

For the next few blog posts, I'm playing catch-up on my spring break reading.  In interest of time, I'll be using the publishers' summaries rather than my own.

For an eighth grader, Molly Williams has more than her fair share of problems.  Her father has just died in a mysterious car accident, and her mother has become a withdrawn, quiet version of herself.  Molly doesn't want to be seen as Miss Difficulty Overcome; she wants to make herself known to the kids at school for something other than her father's death.  So she decides to join the baseball team.  The boys' baseball team.  Her father taught her how to throw a knuckleball pitch, and Molly hopes it's enough to impress her coaches as well as her new teammates.  Over the course of one baseball season, Molly must figure out how to redefine her relationship to things she loves, loved, and might love:  her mother; her brilliant best friend, Celia; her father; her enigmatic and artistic teammate Lonnie; and of course, baseball.

I picked this book up because it is nominated for the Rebecca Caudill Young Reader's Award here in Illinois.  I read it in the car on the way home from our spring break trip.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, however, I did feel that Molly's problems were solved a bit too easily and quickly.  As a seventh grade teacher, I get to see kids work through all kinds of problems, and rarely do I see kids get them solved as nicely as Molly does in this book, including the bullying she received from the boys who don't want her on their baseball team.  Those feelings aside, I think kids will be able to relate to Molly and her friends, even if they haven't experienced significant loss.  This is a sweet story that deals with friendship and family.

Friday, April 8, 2011

On The Blue Comet by Rosemary Wells

On the Blue Comet by Rosemary Wells
  (Candlewick, 2010)

For the next few blog posts, I'm playing catch-up on my spring break reading.  In interest of time, I'll be using the publishers' summaries rather than my own.

Oscar Ogilvie is living with his dad in a house at the end of Lucifer Street, in Cairo, Illinois, when world events change his life forever.  The great stock market crash has rippled across the country, and the bank takes over their   home -- along with all their cherished model trains.  Oscar's dad is forced to head west in search of work, and Oscar must move in with his no-nonsense aunt Carmen.  Only a mysterious drifter who stops by each day for food after school helps alleviate Oscar's loneliness -- until Oscar witnesses a crime so stunning that it catapults him into a miraculous, time-hopping train journey.

I enjoyed On the Blue Comet, but it did have its slow spots.  I found the beginning of the book, where Wells focuses on what life was like during the Great Depression to be the most interesting.  As Oscar moved through his time-travels, I wasn't as into the story, especially the parts in New York.  I thought putting a young Ronald Reagan on the first train of Oscar's journey was a cute twist, and "Dutch" does end up playing an important role in the story.

Overall, I recommend On the Blue Comet to those students who enjoy historical fiction.  I think it would appeal to both boys and girls with a sense of adventure.

Friday, April 1, 2011


Demonglass by Rachel Hawkins
(Hyperion, 2011)

Sophie Mercer is back, although not at Hex Hall.  In this installment of the Hex Hall novels, Sophie is in England with her dad, the leader of the Council.  During her time with her dad, Sophie learns that she's betrothed to Cal, the hunky groundskeeper of Hex Hall, the war between the Prodigium and the Eye is heating up, and, oh, yeah, someone is creating demons to use as weapons against the Eye.  Sophie spends the summer trying to solve the mystery of who is making the demons while at the same time trying to decide who really has her heart, Cal or Archer. 

Demonglass is great fun to read, just as Hex Hall was.  The paranormal element is not overwrought as it is in some books I've read.  Rather, Hawkins seems to have fun thinking up new ways for Sophie to use (or in many cases, misuse) her powers.  The pacing of the book was also great, right up until the ginormous cliffhanger ending.  At that point, I found myself saying, "WHAT????!!!" since I wanted to find out what happens to Cal, Archer, Jenna and the rest of the characters at Thorne Abbey.  Now I have to wait a whole nother year for the third Hex Hall novel to be released.

Girls who enjoy the paranormal genre will enjoy Demonglass, especially if they already know Sophie from Hex Hall.  I'm sure this one will enjoy heavy circulation in my classroom library.