Thursday, January 20, 2011
Monday, January 17, 2011
Joanne and I both feel that this one is not the winner. It is basically an attempt at kid-lit recreating "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy. A kid and an older man set out on a survival mission as a war ravages the countryside. They meet travelers and stuff happens - a really good idea that is not developed as thoroughly as it could have been. The kid is overly philosophical to the point that his thoughts - and a lot of the imagery - feel largely contrived. It tries to be touching but the author is too guarded and doesn't allow the characters to ever reach a true point of vulnerability. I think teens would feel that it is "fake." There are some tender moments in it that start to work but fall short. It needs a few more rewrites to loosen it up.
Joanne and I picked Amy & Roger's Epic Detour as the clear winner. This is a story about Amy, a high school girl, who has to move from California to Connecticut and has to get there by car with the help of Roger. He is the son of her mom's friend and a college student. The plan is that he, with his own reasons for traveling cross country, will drive Amy to Connecticut on a four-day route predetermined by mom. Of course, the two adventurers, right off the bat, take a different course.
Morgan Matson does a great job of weaving humour in with mystery, romance, and angst to create a really fun, fast, touching read. It's like a "Sleepless in Seattle" with a big bowl of popcorn and a Snuggie on a couch and no one to judge you 'cause you're a teary-eyed guy. There are plenty of elements that keep resurfacing to the reader's amusement and well-placed flashbacks fill in blanks along the way. Varied text presentation - pictures, journal entries, receipts - makes it feel all the more real. The characters are believable and fallible and you can't help but hope that everything will turn out okay in the end. Definitely a read for mature kids, and since it takes place across the States, some knowledge of U.S. geography, landmarks, and the interstate highway system would help kids to visualize and make connections.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
Have you ever experienced the annoyance of attempting to read a book (that you expected to love and adore) multiple times, but find yourself unable to be drawn into the narrative? This is what happened to me with Sisters Red....a seemingly, modern retelling of Red Riding Hood by Jackson Pearce.
What's in a cover? Yes, I often tell kids not to judge a book by the cover, but when I opened my tinted blue, plastic folder at our inaugural meeting of the Mighty Smackdown, the icy blue cover embellished with snowflakes and the pic of a Icelandic blue-eyed blond - I was drawn to this book. Isn't it fascinating how often we (as avid readers) sense something about a story worthiness from the cover art?
Friday, January 14, 2011
When I first saw my books I have to admit I was looking forward to reading one much more than the other. A book set during the Vietnam War with a child elephant trainer seemed much more up my alley then one about ghosts and goths reviewed by writers of vampire books -- as shocking as it may be, I have not even read the Twilight books because I do not like vampires or that genre of writing.
A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata
The story begins with a young boy, Y’Tin, watching his mentor work with elephants. He wants to become a trainer one day, and takes every opportunity to be with the animals. Y’Tin soon becomes one of the best trainers in the village and much to his mother’s dismay, would rather be with the animals than in school. As the story progresses, we learn that Y’Tin’s father had been helping the American troops during the Vietnam war assuming they would provide protection for the village. As the war continues, the American troops pull out, and Y’Tin’s village is soon under attack. They are forced into the jungle, although Y’Tin and some others are captured before they can escape.
The story continues with the devastation and destruction that Y’Tin sees in his village and he must complete some terrible tasks before he eventually escapes and is reunited with his villagers and the elephants. Y’Tin continues to work with Lady, his special elephant, and must make some difficult decisions regarding her future. Throughout his ordeal, as a captive during the war and trying to survive in the jungle, he is forced to think about who his real friends are, and what is important to him.
Although I felt the book had a lot of potential with the story line, the plot was underdeveloped and quite dull. It took a long time to get into the book and I kept waiting for something exciting to happen. If I was a junior high student, I probably would have stopped reading it long before the end. The book could allow for some interesting discussion with students, but there are others that are much more interesting and engaging that provide the same thoughts.
The Ghost and the Goth by Stacey Kade
I was pleasantly surprised by this book and thoroughly enjoyed The Ghost and the Goth.
As the story begins we learn that Alona Dare, the queen bee of the school, has died in a tragic accident and is learning that she is now a ghost. As her so called “friends” move on from her death with very little disruption to their lives, she quickly begins to realize that her life was extremely shallow and she did not accomplish anything worthwhile. Ghost Alona begins to fade and disappear and soon realizes that she must do something meaningful before she disappears for ever.
Enter Will Killan, a senior in high school who is known as the freak and nicknamed “Will Kill.” Will detests school and just wants to make it a few more weeks so he can graduate and leave forever. We soon learn that Will is able to communicate with the dead and is able to see and talk to Alona as well as many other ghosts with interesting personalities found throughout the school. This inherited ability from his father (who committed suicide because of it) is a curse to Will because everyone around him thinks he is crazy and should be committed to an institution. Will and Alona soon realize that they are able to help each other do things they never would have been able to on their own.
This book is a smart and engaging read as it is told from first person point of view alternating from Alona then Will’s perspective. It touches on many of the stereotypes found in schools between the “cool kids” and the “uncool kids” and we realize that no ones lives are truly as they seem. With attacking ghosts, realistic views of high school, a lot of humor, and a touch of romance, this book would appeal to both girls and guys and has something in it that everyone would be able to relate to and enjoy. There is a sequel to be released later this year and I look forward to reading it.
The Ghost and the Goth is definitely the winner to advance to the next round.
O.K.. Here I go. Why do I feel like this is some sort of examination? O.K.. Ready. On to the two books:
Plot in a nutshell: Graphic novel. Tom Taylor’s father wrote an incredibly popular series of Harry Potter-esque Y.A. novels, but has since disappeared (one of the central mysteries of the series: has he simply become reclusive, a la Salinger? Something more nefarious?). The boy-wizard protagonist of the series, Tommy Taylor, may or may not have been killed off in the final novel. And then…the real world and the constructed fantasy world begin to collide, as characters from the novels start appearing in the real world. And Tom may, in fact, actually be Tommy, as in, a fictional character living in the real world. Meta-hi-jinks ensue.
First of all, I have to say I’m not a fan of fantasy as a genre, but I recognize this as a failing on my part. I can’t make it through The Lord of the Rings movies. I read the first four Harry Potter books, and enjoyed them, but wasn’t moved to read the final books. I can recognize that they are great, but I just can’t wrap my pea-sized brain around the strange names of the characters and the worlds of swords and spells and unicorns. I lack the “suspension of disbelief” chip in my brain, and have trouble giving myself over to the narrative in Fantasy books. So for me to even like something in this genre is a feat in itself, and I really liked this text, enough to even purchase the next volume in the series and read it as well.
The Unwritten is one of those great opportunities to put a graphic novel in someone’s hands to say “This is a graphic novel that will change your perception that comic books are ‘kidstuff.’ No kidding. This is really smart and clever and academic. And engaging and fun.” The Unwritten is peppered with literary allusions (note: brush up on your Frankenstein, Dickens and Mark Twain for full effect), and really interesting choices in form: we often oscillate back and forth between both print and film versions of the Tommy Taylor series and reality, each informing the narratives of the other. Embedded web pages are used, as are CNN-style news scrolls to great effect. You find yourself scrutinizing these pages for clues and extra information to confirm your suspicions of key plot points. Great fun.
it appropriate for Young Adults? Well, the language is pretty salty at times (absolutely every one of the “big” swears is used, often with wild abandon). The violence can be a bit graphic (more in possibility than in actuality though) and there are a few double entendres that might just be entendres, if you know what I mean (although this is more prevalent in Volume 2 of the series). I’m not entirely sure I’d feel comfy sitting down with the kids explaining some of it. Teachable? Maybe not. It sure is fun though.
Plot in a nutshell: Novel. Danish 14-year old climbs a tree, decrying the meaningless of the world; his classmates try to get him down by establishing a “heap of meaning,” a pile of their most prized possessions that give their lives purpose. But…in order to ensure that what a person adds to the pile truly is his or her most prized possession, someone chooses for him or her what he or she have to add to the pile. The hideousness of humanity is exposed. Painfully.
Clearly, Danish Young Adult fiction is a tad stronger than North American Young Adult fiction. Nothing is, quite honestly, one of the most disturbing things I have ever read. Disturbing, disturbing, disturbing. No joke. And, while there is plenty of physical violence, it is the psychological violence that gets under your skin and festers. The dustjacket draws parallels to Lord of the Flies, and I can certainly see it, although Nothing, for me at least, was way more shocking and upsetting. To be honest, I wouldn’t ever visit this sort of horror on a class of students, not even a class of Grade 12 I.B.s. And I’m no prude. It’s just that horrific.
But having said all that…
As troubled as I was, I was riveted. Horrified and troubled, to be sure, but it is a well-written, cleverly crafted novel of savagery and cruelty. Janne Teller is absolutely exacting and relentless as events meet their inevitable and logical conclusion; as much as your mouth hangs open as each child dictates what the next child must add to the “heap of meaning,” it is always coolly realistic and plausible. Not that I like to ponder the, perhaps boundless, capacity for cruelty that we possess, but it is something to consider and reflect upon.
And, I’m going to read it again. The novel is pretty clearly an allegory, but I couldn’t keep track of the roles each kid “plays” the first time through the novel—I lost myself to the narrative, like in all good fiction, and the “Teacher/Thinker” part of my brain was overruled entirely by the “Reader/What Happens Next?” part of my brain. Like I said, it is exceedingly clever and smart, demanding, I think, a second or third read.
The question, for the purposes of The Smackdown however, is does it go into the next round, considering that I would never put it in the hands of a class? Clearly someone thinks it is fine/appropriate for young adults; as I type this, Dia has informed me that Nothing was named one of the Printz Honour books. Maybe I’m just getting older and more easily schocked….
SO….Which Goes Forward…
I can’t imagine asking someone to read Nothing. However, I sure would like it if someone would, so I could talk about it to someone. Hammer out some of the complexities. It’s the kind of book that demands discussion during and afterward. BUT, it is a thoroughly unpleasant experience, the kind that makes you want to take a bleach shower afterward. And The Unwritten is pretty fun. So…The Unwritten it is!
 But I might put it in the hands of a kid that might be able to handle it. But I can’t think of one that I currently teach.
Robin Benway’s The extraordinary Secrets of April, May and June is written using the power of dialogue to create three distinct characters and is used as the common thread throughout the book. The story is not complex and is quite an easy read that our young teen girls might enjoy. The book opens with the three sisters, April, May and June bantering back and forth like typical siblings while departing from school to go home. Their parents recently shared that they are getting a divorce, so the first part of the book is the girls adjusting to their new life. The surreal aspect of the story is they bring an element of “magic powers.” They move to a new town where all three girls recover special childhood powers and adjust to high school. Readers may relate to this book if they enjoyed the sitcom Charmed, since it follows a similar plot of each character has a special power that is used to solve problems.
April, the narrator, is the oldest, and the story is told in her perspective; she is motherly, and protective, where her younger siblings may perceive her as bossy and perfect. May is a typical middle child, who does not want to be noticed by anyone, and tries to blend in so she does not stand out. But her personality is quite likeable because she is witty and quite sarcastic. Lastly, May is the youngest and wants to be popular and friends with everyone- a little shallow but sweet nonetheless. The girl’s powers are quite aligned with their characteristics as people: April can see into the future, May can disappear and June is able to read minds. The book is centered on the girls getting used to their powers and how they use them in their daily world. A difficult situation arises and the girls all come together, demonstrating that the true power to solving their problems is to rely on one another.
This quick read will keep students engaged and shares a heartfelt message of the importance of SISTERHOOD.
This graphic novel follows a plot that is simply, BIZARRE! Two troubled adolescents, Lucas and Jenna, are sent to summer camp that appears to be preparing them for SAT’s. The setting seems like a true camp: the food sounds tasteless, the bunks are lumpy, and there are tons of activities. Kids can relate to the setting which might draw them in alone. The illustrations are funny, and humorous. The plot itself was just plain odd. A handful of students, are supposedly sent home, which Lucas and Jenna later finds out are being kept in an abandoned house. They sneak up and look inside. What they see is just plain crazy! There are feathers and chicken guts seeping out of their foreheads. Lucas and Jenna work together to create a serum to stop these kids from turning into chickens.
The oddity of the conflict may cause students not to connect to this book. However, kids might enjoy this far- fetched plot line and want to read it for a laugh. For me, by the end my brain was scrambled!
Robin Benway’s The extraordinary Secrets of April, May and June moves to the next round.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
The Great Wide Sea by M. H. Herlong
Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins is the story of war and aggression in a part of the world that has been filled with armed conflict for decades. The newspapers are full of stories of human right infringements and continued fighting between the Myanmar army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) of Thailand. In this story, Chiko, a young man living with his mother in a large city in Burma, is captured and forced to join the military as a child soldier. His story continues through training in an isolated jungle camp and eventual insertion into the zone of combat. During this time Chiko learns the stories of other child soldiers as friendship are created. At the same time in Thailand, another young man is part of a rebel force who has been fighting against the Burmese army. The lives of these two will eventually become one as both sides of the conflict are presented. I found this book a very interesting look into the way in which young men are forced to become part of armies and the issues behind the use of children as soldiers. As a story, it was refreshing to read a book about boys that does not involve a strong female character who “rescues” them or an involved love relationship. Basically a book about boys for boys but still captures the bonds of friendship and comradeship.
Overall winner, Bamboo People.
I'll be first to admit, even though I teach Social Studies, I'm not a fan of most historical fiction. Give me action!!
When I first picked up Donna Jo Napoli's alligator bayou, it wasn't a book that I was exactly looking forward to reading. Maybe because it took place over a
hundred years ago and I know nothing about Italian immigration.
When you think of stories of race and discrimination, you don't usually think of people from Italy facing the brunt of it. This story helps readers to understand what it may have been like to be an immigrant and a visible minority in the United States around the turn of the19th Century.
I began reading this book on the beach in Mexico and sadly, the 70 year old man in his speedo was capturing more attention than the story. However, I did finally get into it about half way through.
Each chapter is its own adventure for the main character, 14 year old Calogero, who moved to America from Italy after his mother died, to live with his cousins and Uncles. (His dad had traveled to America when Calogero was a small boy but they never heard from him again). Throughout the story a thread is woven through the chapters culminating in an ending that I didn't see coming!
Despite what I thought was definitely a slow start compared to what I enjoy, once the story got going, I had to find out what was going to happen. Although I am not minimizing the discrimination any immigrant has faced, it wasn't a story that really grabbed my attention. In the end, I didn't like the outcome and really don't think teens will enjoy the read, especially reluctant readers, but am glad I read until the end. I even learned something!
Rating: 2 Speedos out of 5
Whisper by Phoebe Kitanidis
I hear whispers...When is this class going to be over? How much
longer until lunch? Who cares how the Canadian government works? Ms. Overacker is so amazing......I can't imagine being able to hear people's thoughts, or even worse, have them hear mine - especially in the middle of a staff meeting!
Phoebe Kitanidis' novel Whisper was definitely a different start compared to that of alligator bayou. It captured my attention from the opening chapter and although I have limited experience reading fantasy I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn't too over the top or unbelievable and had a little bit of everything including action, suspense and romance for every dreaming teenage girl.
The main character, 14 year old Joy, has an extra special power for hearing people’s thoughts or whispers as they call them. Both her mother and older sister have the same gift but all use their talent in very different ways. Joy uses it for good and her older sister evil. As a result, their relationship is far from stable. I think many girls will relate to this sisterly or sibling battle and although rooting for Joy, will still enjoy the evil stunts that her older sister pulls to make her life miserable. As Joy's 'gift' intensifies, her older sister also continues to struggle with her own. How will they make it through? What will they do with their power? Read to the end!!
The story was very strong and sucessfully held my attention in it's entirety. Its weaknesses? The only part I really didn't like was the end. Not the outcome necessarily but how fast it occured. I felt a bit let down that the entire story built up to the conflict and was over so quickly. I wanted more!
Hopefully it is obvious that I am choosing this book to continue over alligator bayou.
Can you hear my whispers now?.....I'm just new at this! Did I write enough? Is this book good enough to go to the end? What will Dia MacMighty think? Is anyone going to lay the smackdown on me when they read this book....hmmmm. Bring on the next set!
Rating: 4 Whispers out of 5
As for the books:
First, I read When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. Frankly, I should confess that I chose to read it first because I thought it would be the least enjoyable for me. The characters are in sixth grade, and I wasn’t sure that I would see it as a good fit for my junior high students. I was very pleasantly surprised by how engaging I found the book. In the opening of the book, the protagonist, Miranda, tells us that her mother has been invited to be a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid gameshow. Cleverly, each chapter is titled like categories on the gameshow (“Things That Smell,” “Things You Forget”). I worried my students wouldn’t get it, but many of them claim to know a bit about $20,000 Pyramid and the rest of the rules are explained in the book. The real story, though, is that Miranda is revealing these facts in a letter to an unnamed person who predicted these events. During a time when Miranda is struggling to define herself (her best friend since babyhood, Sal, is not speaking to her after she witnessed a bully punch him), she begins finding notes left for her, offering her “proof” by revealing facts that nobody could know. One note tells her, “I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.” The desire to find out who is in danger, who is coming to save them, and whether the rescue will be a success makes this book a compelling read. With frequent references to A Wrinkle In Time, the answers became predictable a bit early for me, but the characters are interesting enough that wanting to know how they will figure it out was enough of an incentive for me to want to keep reading. I enjoyed this book far more than I thought I would and I felt that the characters seemed closer in age to my grade sevens or eights, so I would recommend it to them.
The book that I thought would be my more interesting holiday read was Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve. Fever is the protagonist. She was a foundling, adopted by the Order of Engineers in a future London. The Engineers value reason and logic, suppressing all emotion. They also believe women are irrational creatures, so there are no female Engineers, except Fever, who has been raised by the Order. This future world seems a bleak place. There have been a series of wars and invasions which have resulted in a world where technology, from electric lights to airplanes, have become the realm of archaeologists. Most recently, London was ruled by a race of beings called Scriven, who have genetic mutations that cause long life and markings on their faces. Londoners revolted and killed off the Scriven. In the opening of the book, an archaeologist named Kit Solvent goes to the Order of Engineers looking for an assistant to help him in a top-secret case. Fever goes with him on an assignment that involves helping Kit to unlock a mysterious room that once belonged to a Scriven overlord. When she gets there, she begins experiencing memories that are not her own, which seems to interest Kit even more than the room itself. Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, perhaps because they deny their emotions, I found the characters unsympathetic. I couldn’t connect to them or care too much about their fates for at least half of the book. When I got to the point where Fever’s history is finally revealed, the plot starts moving along and I finally found myself interested. I can’t imagine many of my students waiting that long to get caught up in the story. Or perhaps I am just unwilling to forgive a book that has a setting of a pub called “The Polished Turd.”
My winner for this round is When You Reach Me.
But really, I am looking forward to receiving my next round of books.
Monday, January 10, 2011
Throughout the book, more and more of Tod's issues are revealed, and we discover the reasons for his behavior. We also discover that he is actually a really good kid, and his is more of a victim than anything else. I liked this book. Tod's voice is authentic, and I think kids, particularly kids who are being bullied, will identify with Tod.
The Nobody by Jeff Lemire is a graphic novel which makes the book more accesible - especially for reluctant readers. This book takes H.G. Wells' Invisible Man character and puts him into a modern small town setting. The invisible man is befriended by a young girl in the town whose mother has recently left the family, and she becomes his only friend as everyone in the town eventually turns against the mysterious, tortured newcomer. Of course, he is just holed up in his hotel room trying to hide (the experiement that allowed him to become invisible also plays havoc with his mental state, and he has done something nasty) and survive, but the people's curiosity and fear lead to his ultimate demise.
With a better message and more wide-spread appeal, I am going to have to choose Scrawl as my winner.
Thursday, January 6, 2011
I do think I could book talk Epitaph Road and it will got out. The story of a world dominated by women with men carefully controlled is very interesting. Immediately I felt it would pair nicely with The Knife of Never Letting Go, a book set in a world with no women. However interesting the premises, though, I had trouble feeling for the characters. Kellen is one of the few boys around and his dad one of the few survivors of the virus that wiped most men out. His mother is powerful and Kellen has a good relationship with her, supposedly. However, when secrets come out and Kellen tries to get to his father this relationship gets strained but you feel none of Kellen’s angst about the change in this relationship. That aside, there is a rushing plot that will make reluctant readers move through the book. I kept wanting the author to flush out details of the early plot and make more interesting plot twists. Instead you can pretty much see the end from the beginning. In talking with Arlene I suspect both of us are just suffering from loving The Chaos Walking series and everything pales in comparison.
So I’m back to my dilemma….the book I liked most, or the book more kids will be interested in? Stinking kids….Epitaph Road moves on.
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Hothouse by Chris Lynch
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Monday, January 3, 2011
Demons’ Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan
“The pipe under the sink was leaking again. It wouldn't have been so bad, except that Nick kept his favorite sword under the sink.” From the opening lines of this supernatural novel, the author hooks the reader with the seemingly normal co-existence of magic and mortal worlds. Nick and Alan have spent their lives running from magicians who are seeking the boys’ mother and a charm that she stole from the magician, Black Arthur. The magicians and demons have driven their mother mad and killed their father and continue to hunt the family
Complicating matters is the introduction of Jamie, who has been marked by demons and his sister Mae who come seeking help from Nick and Alan. Alan’s natural empathy results in disaster when he too is marked, and Nick will do almost anything to save his brother.
The four set out to kill a magician as this is the only way that Alan and Jamie can be saved. As they delve deeper into the chase, Nick uncovers several inconsistencies in past experiences with his brother, which lead him to believe that Alan has been lying to him.
Nick is right about the lying, but the twists and turns that the author introduces are totally unexpected and quite horrifying. The intertwining of human qualities and emotions with the cold and raw realities of Brennan’s magical/demonic world make the story a gripping and compelling read.
While the story is complete in itself, there is lots of room for the all kinds of adventure in the books that will follow.
The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco Stork
Pancho and DQ are both facing death – DQ because he is suffering from a rare form of brain cancer, and Pancho because he has decided to avenge his sister’s murder. The two teenage boys come together in New Mexico at a Catholic orphanage.
Pancho has not had an easy life. –Motherless at a young age, his father is killed in a freak accident at work because of an alcoholic co-worker, and his developmentally delayed sister is murdered. When Pancho arrives at the orphanage we meet a boy with little concern for himself or fear for consequences, as he plans to get his sister’s killer.
DQ was dumped at the orphanage when his single mother who suffered from a bi-polar disorder realized she could not care for him. After many years, seeking medical help and finding herself in a happy marriage she finally decides to come back for DQ, who does not wish to reconcile with her. When DQ is diagnosed with a rare brain cancer she decides to try to take over his care, as he is still a minor and must succumb to her wishes.
The third character whose story intertwines with the others is Marisol, who becomes the object of both boys’ affections. She works at a home for children who are ill with cancer, where DQ and Pancho come to stay.
DQ has written a “Death Warrior’s Manifesto” which outlines a set of rules for living, accepting the certainty of death, and not wasting time on bitterness or living half-heartedly. The changes that these teens influence in each other sets the scene for possibilities that are at times poignant, occasionally humorous, and often dramatic.
As Pancho plans and contemplates his revenge, and DQ tries to emancipate himself from his mother’s care, this slightly sentimental story takes a fairly predictable, yet highly compelling road to an open, yet satisfying conclusion.
And the winner is...
Tough decision!! I enjoyed both books but found that the intended audiences were very different. I wouldn't say that I loved either, yet I would have no trouble recommending either to different students. I think, based upon mass appeal, I would have to choose The Demon's Lexicon.