Jun 22, 2013

We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March

Whenever I think about how civil rights was (and still is) such a controversy, it blows my mind.  Reading this book was nothing different.  Levinson covers the basics of the civil rights movement - MLK Jr., Rosa Parks, the KKK - but focuses on the lives of the children and teens who risked so much to make a statement and push for the rights they knew they rightfully deserved.  To explain the history, she highlights the experiences of four particular children: Audrey Faye Hendricks, Washington Booker III, James W. Stewart and Arnetta Streeter.

Levinson relied on personal interviews with her subjects, along with other written records of the events.  I love how she explains how witnesses and participants memories can change over time and how it was necessary to do extra research to make sure the facts aligned (i.e. no shortcuts kids, do your work).  She also mentions that despite living through the civil rights movement and teaching history, she didn't know about the children's march until she was an adult.  I didn't know about it either, which really stresses the importance of incorporating these nonfiction narratives into students' education - unfortunately, textbooks can't cover it all. 

My only complaint is that I think the book could benefit from more pictures to further explain the history and also to break up the endless text and ease the reading experience.  Despite the great narrative flow to the information, children and teen readers can often get bogged down with large amounts of reading, especially nonfiction. 

P.S. My last book in the 2013 Hub Challenge!  Woo!!

Jun 21, 2013

In Wonder Show, Hannah Barnaby tells the tale of a young girl's search for family.  Portia grows up in a world full of laughter and stories with her family of gypsies, but one by one they leave until she has only her aunt.  Her aunt, unable to handle Portia's active imagination, sends her to a boarding home for wayward girls. Desperate to reunite with her father, Portia escapes the evil Mister of the home.  She hides with a traveling sideshow, hoping all the while that she will see her father's face in the crowd.  There, while outcast as a "normal" amongst the "freaks," Portia finds the true meaning of family and what it means to leave one behind.

The freaks at the sideshow are inspired by real attractions found in the Barnum & Bailey circus and sideshows during the depression era.  The description of the family element that they share reminded me of the "peculiars" in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.  That got me thinking of bouncing these two books off of each other in a book club and exploring their similar themes.

Wonder Show has a few references to some nude Siamese twin dancing, but because it's not incredibly explicit and Portia's reaction to it is important to her growth, I'd say that this novel would be great for middle school readers and up. 

Jun 18, 2013


Gretchen McNeil's Ten is a modern YA retelling of the Agatha Christie classic And Then There Were None.  Megan and nine other teens are invited to an unchaperoned party on an island, leaving them to believe they're about to have the time of their lives.  But when they discover a DVD that declares vengeance on the party guests it all changes.  Over the course of three days, the bodies start piling up, each death indicated with a red slash on the wall.  Megan must work as fast as possible to not only figure out who is behind the murders, but more importantly, escape the island alive.

I'll be honest, when I first realized that Ten was a retelling, I wasn't expecting it to be that great. It was especially groan-worthy when Megan "pulled out a copy of the Facebook invite," because it seemed like a halfhearted attempt to inject teen culture into the Christie story.  But once the mystery took off and characters were fleshed out, it became a gripping thriller.  The ending also involves a new twist that I did not see coming, so kudos to McNeil. 

I think teens who aren't familiar with the Christie thriller will enjoy it the most, but those who have had exposure to the classic will appreciate the new ending.  The book trailer for Ten is the DVD played in the novel.  It's actually pretty great and playing this would be a simple way to book talk this novel. 

Jun 15, 2013

My Friend Dahmer

Derf Backderf was a classmate and semi-friend to Jeffrey Dahmer.  My Friend Dahmer is a graphic novel recounting the high school and familial experiences that played a role in shaping Dahmer's murderous future.   The reflections on Dahmer's high school years not only foreshadow what is to come, but also cause the reader to question why no adult interfered to help the situation. Are they to blame for what happened? Can anyone but Dahmer even be blamed?  In the novel's introduction, Backderf emphasizes that he feels no sympathy for Dahmer post-murders, but while reading his presentation of Dahmer's early history, you can't help but feel sorry for what he lived with and wonder what could have been done to prevent the monstrosity to come.

This excerpt from the earlier parts of the novel is very "The Road Not Taken."
Backderf accounts for all of his sources that he relied upon to put this work together, including interviews with teachers, students, FBI files, and his own memories.  He does his best to present facts, not speculation, and he makes notes throughout the novel to explain the few artistic liberties taken (i.e. leaving Dahmer's younger brother out of the story).  The artwork is spooky and bears a great (and nerve-wracking) resemblance to Dahmer. 

This graphic novel can work on so many levels.  It's great for readers of history, graphic novel enthusiasts or novices, and readers interested in serial killers - fictional or nonfictional.  I especially believe that teens who enjoyed titles like I Hunt Killers and The Name of the Star, recent popular YA novels that feature serial killers,will also enjoy this graphic novel.

Jun 13, 2013

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is Greg's, a high school senior, account of his time spent with Rachel, a girl recently diagnosed with leukemia.  But no, it's not that kind of Nicholas Sparks novel. There's no wedding to live out a dying girl's last wish, no life-changing lessons learned, no dramatic court scene to get her the treatment she needs.  Greg tells the reader of this right off the bat.  Alternating between lists, scripts, and prose, Greg explains how he was forced by his Mom to befriend the dying girl, how he is a failure at cheering up the soon-to-die, and how he realized he was the worst filmmaker of all time.

This novel is for the older teen with the twisted sense of humor - aka my favorite patron. This novel is all kinds of dark. It also contains a LOT of crude language, some violence, discussion of death, and various references to drug use, including one hilarious scene where Greg, who doesn't do drugs, is accidentally high and is afraid that the silence in the room is "possible racist silence."

The sheer ridiculousness, but also insightfulness (I made up a word) of the accidental high scene caused me to erupt into laughter while on an un-airconditioned subway stuffed full of miserable people trudging to their jobs who were unappreciative of my glee. 

Anyway, this novel is darkly hilarious, a little depressing here and there (the words "dying girl" are in the title, after all), and a great reminder of how we need to take a break from putting ourselves first all the time.  It's Jesse Andrews' debut novel and I'm excited to see what he does next. 

Jun 11, 2013

Monstrous Beauty

I tackled this audiobook during my sister's high school graduation ceremony.  When 863 kids are graduating, you know you're in for a long night. Always be prepared - audiobooks are great for the stealth factor.  When I began listening, the mythology initially confused me and I thought that my preparedness was going to kick me in the butt. But then I was immediately sucked in and I fell in love with this fantasy novel.

Hester's family is cursed, each mother dying immediately after giving birth to their first child.  As a result, she has sworn not to fall victim to this curse, shunning love and the pain it ultimately causes.  Where I thought that this would turn into a boy trying to convince her otherwise (which still kind of technically happens), instead of becoming a cliché fluttery mess, Hester decides to take action and research (at the library!! YAY!!!***) what could have cursed her family all those generations ago. Alongside her research, Monstrous Beauty brings the reader back and forth between the 19th century and present day to learn what ties Hester to legends of the sea. 

The novel is a great mix of fantasy, romance, and suspense.  Also, while the reader knows more than Hester at various points of the novel, there are still surprises at the novel's climax, which is fantastic.  On Shelfari (my digital bookshelf of choice), I saw this novel tagged as a retelling. I'm unfamiliar with mermaid mythology, so I can't speak to that, but if it is, then this novel definitely peaked my interest in wanting to learn more about the mythology of sea creatures.

***Sidenote: then she steals from the library, which I can't condone.  DON'T DO THAT!

Jun 9, 2013

Gone, Gone, Gone

Gone, Gone, Gone takes place about a year following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the DC-area sniper was at large.  The novel captures the heightened fear that the sniper brought to the nation. It also comments on the way we often try to take ownership of the tragedies that happen to our communities and the nation as a whole.

The novel utilizes dual narration, with alternating chapters of Lio and Craig's perspective on the terror and its impact on their burgeoning relationship.  Craig is an ultra-sensitive teen, still reeling from the loss of his first love, and Lio is a cancer survivor from NY who is new to the DC area. The two have an immediate connection with each other, and work toward a relationship all the while working through their feelings on who can claim ownership of the tragedies, who is allowed to feel scared, why they personally shouldn't feel scared, etc.

It can get pretty angsty and at times, confusing, but the teen's dramatic interactions ring true.  They are informed by the author's (Hanna Moskowitz) own experiences during the sniper attacks and I think that many readers who have experienced a tragic national event will understand the emotions Lio and Craig experience. I personally won't forget how freaked out I was by the DC sniper and I was all the way in Boston when that happened. [Seriously, I once had a nightmare that I was a victim. I woke up the next day to news that there was, in fact, another victim. My father then walked past me in the hallway when I said good morning and I was convinced for about 5 minutes that I was a ghost.] Fast forward to the Boston Marathon 2 months ago and while I was terrified, I wanted nothing more than to go about my normal routine and prove that I was strong (Boston Strong, if you will).

What I liked best about the novel was that all of the conflicts were related to the national tragedies and not LGBT matters.  There are no negative consequences - broken hearts aside - from the main characters' homosexuality.  It's just a normal thing.

Jun 8, 2013

Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy

Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy, by Bill Wright, is featured as a popular paperback in the 2013 Hub Reading Challenge.  Carlos is a gay teenager dead-set on getting a makeup sales job at Macy's.  Along with working toward his loft goal, Carlos grapples with his sister's homophobic and abusive boyfriend, his mother's unemployment, his crush on a straight boy, his best friend's image issues, and his chance to help a TV star with sensitive skin.  It's a lot for a teen to handle. 

I would classify this novel as realistic fiction for it's portrayal of homophobia and bullying, as well as the concentration on familial relationships.  But the realism definitely takes a backseat when Carlos is at work, particularly when working for a celebrity.  And that's fine, because it incorporates some fun alongside difficult topics.  The book is funny, emotional and overly ridiculous at times, but I can understand why teens would find the often self-absorbed Carlos an empathetic and entertaining character.  It's a great touch that Carlos acknowledges throughout the novel that he is self-absorbed, but then just keeps on being himself.  He's a great son, brother and friend. He knows he doesn't have to change; he knows he's fabulous.  Without the acknowledgment, he might be a little more tough to take. 

That being said, I'll be honest, I wasn't a big fan of this selection.  While certainly funny with a few poignant moments of self-realization, family and friendship, ultimately the novel lacked some sort of oomph. Perhaps, Wright bit off more plot than he could chew. The novel ends without closure for basically every story element.  While it's not an unusual tactic for an author to take, in this particular novel, it felt a little lazy.

There is mention of domestic abuse and one scene of physical bullying. Outside of these instances, the novel is fairly mild in language and plot, so I would definitely recommend this to mature middle-schoolers through 10th graders.

Jun 5, 2013

The White Bicycle

I just found out that this Printz Honor book is actually the third in the Wild Orchard series. So right off the bat, I can tell you that you don't need prior knowledge of the first two in order to fall in love with this novel.

19-year-old Taylor has Asperger's Syndrome, and is traveling to France with her mother in order to work as a "personal care assistant" to boost her resume in her continued attempts at achieving total responsibility.  While making decisions and learning about the world around her, Taylor grapples with her mother's constant life interference and inability to let her be a woman. The ultimate reveal of  betrayal is both heartbreaking and uplifting as Taylor keeps on keeping on toward her personal goals.  I'm definitely going back and reading the other novels in the series when I get a chance.

I've encountered many young adults who love the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as well as Marcelo in the Real World, both of which focus on a main character with Asperger's.  In the past, they have asked me for more books with similar plots and themes, and I'm definitely adding The White Bicycle to my mental list.  Brenna paints a realistic depiction of Taylor's thoughts and confused emotions throughout her experiences.  I believe teens will relate to Taylor's conflicts with family and life; the way she describes her understanding of events and emotions are peculiar yet insightful and even without the perspective of a person living with Asperger's, they apply to the angst and emotional rollercoasters that can be a teenager's life.

Jun 3, 2013

The Running Dream

If you have someone looking for a happy ending book about someone going above and beyond overcoming adversity, The Running Dream, by Wendelin Van Draanen, is what you need to reach for.

Jessica wakes up in the hospital after a severe car accident.  Her leg has been amputated.  Her days of track team and running seem over. She struggles with adjusting to her new life: simple tasks are difficult, she's behind in school, track is no more, insurance woes plague her family; she just can't seem to put one foot in front of the other (don't groan, the book is chock full of puns like this!).  But slowly and surely Jessica adapts to the changes in her life and takes on new challenges as she learns what is truly important in this world.

My only major issue with the book is something that only happens in a brief section: Oscar Pistorious named as a role model for Jessica.  While other famous disabled runners are also mentioned, he comes first and, with 2 missing legs, understandably has a bigger impact on Jessica.  However, due to recent events, people have shifted on their feelings about him and that recent history pulls at the reader quite a bit when his name comes into play.  Obviously, this happened after the book's release, but it's akin to reading a story about someone being inspired by OJ Simpson.  So much yikes.

Also, the constant stream of successes for Jessica as she works toward her happy ending might bother some readers for being unrealistic.  The way she soars through recovery sometimes makes it seem like her bigger challenge is her crush on a boy, not her missing leg.  But it didn't bother me, because I liked feeling uplifted by the character's successes, particularly her new friendship with a fellow classmate with cerebral palsy.

I'm not a runner, but being from Boston, this book really resonated with me.  The cynic in me could say that this novel is overly optimistic at times, especially with how fast Jessica makes her recoveries and easily (as easy as it can be with one leg) overcomes every obstacle she faces, but the stories of hope that keep coming from the Boston Marathon bombing victims erase my cynicism and make me appreciate the hopefulness of the story.

I think The Running Dream could work in so many displays: sports, marathons, health, quick picks, etc.  It is a fast, interesting read that incorporates overcoming adversity with typical teenage obstacles that young adult readers will appreciate reading, with or without an interest in track.  

Jun 1, 2013

The Name of the Star/The Madness Underneath

I recently reread Maureen Johnson's (follow her on Twitter if you haven't already) The Name of the Star to prepare myself for the sequel, The Madness Underneath.  While I still love NotS, I had mixed feelings about MU.

NofS is a paranormal mystery.  Someone in London is recreating the murders of Jack the Ripper.  Rory, a new American boarding school student with the new ability to see and interact with ghosts, is pulled into a ghost police task force in order to aid the investigation - all the while dealing with school, friends, boys, and the ever-increasing "Ripper Mania" that engulfs the area as the people await more murders.  It's a thrilling adventure, often funny, and a great commentary on the celebrity status of monstrous people.

I loved it as much as I did the first time I read it.

However, the sequel didn't live up to its predecessor.  Too much of the novel is spent rehashing the events of the first, with a great focus on Rory's discomfort about her abilities and fear for what will happen to her now. While that focus is to be expected as she went through a terrible ordeal, too much of the novel is spent dissecting her thoughts and not enough focus on the current paranormal adventure. There are people inexplicably dying and not enough explaining.  It frustrated me.

The ending did pick up, however, and there will be a third installment to the series.  I hope that the third book is more like the first.  I've recommended NotS to many students and they've all come back saying that they loved it.  I just hope they appreciate the sequel as well and will stick around for the next book.