Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Radius of Us by Marie Marquardt

The Radius of Us is first and foremost a love story. Phoenix and Gretchen come from different worlds but they fall in love but they may never be able to be together due to forces outside of their control. Phoenix is an asylum seeker from El Salvador. His life is in danger due to gang violence in his home town and he has made an arduous journey north with his younger brother. At the U.S. border the brothers asked for asylum, and Phoenix is put into the Stewart Detention Center (a for-profit detention center in south Georgia) and his brother is put in a different facility in Texas. Phoenix meets a couple of women who get him released into their custody in an Atlanta neighborhood. That is where he meets Gretchen, a young woman who is having panic attacks due to a traumatic event in her life. As you read you discover what happened to Gretchen and what happened to Phoenix to bring them to that Atlanta neighborhood. It's a lovely story with a timely backdrop that makes it all the more heart wrenching. It is easy to blame immigrants on problems in America, but much harder to paint such broad strokes when you know their stories and the dangers they have faced in their quest for a better life. I have visited the Stewart Detention Center and written letters to detainees there, and it is a troubling place that people should be more aware of. I have also hosted Marie Marquardt at my school, and she writes from a place of deep knowledge and empathy for undocumented immigrants based on her research as an Emory University professor and her work with the nonprofit El Refugio.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

The Outsiders is a story that is almost universally loved by generations of young teenagers. I hadn't read it since my own childhood--probably when I was in middle school in the 1980s. so I decided to read it again for a middle school book club. It is the story of three brothers who live in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1960s. Their parents have died and the oldest brother, who is only about 20 years old, is the guardian of his younger brothers. The main character is Pony Boy, only 14 and a quiet, sensitive boy who misses his parents and adores his brother, Soda Pop. In this town there are rich kids called "socs" who drive fancy cars and there are "greasers" who wear leather jackets and smoke cigarettes and get in fights with the socs. Because this story is told from the point of view of a member of the greasers, readers empathize with the greasers, who by and large aren't bad kids, just kids who happen to have less money and less access to power in their community. They get their power from their gang and from fighting with the socs, who like to come to their side of town and torment greasers. Pony Boy is almost strangled in a fight, and his friend Johnny stabs a soc in the process of saving Pony Boy's life. They know that their story won't be believed so they go into hiding in a deserted rural church. S.E. Hinton gives us fully fleshed out characters in Pony Boy, Johnny, and the other greasers. They all have their life stories, their disadvantages, and the traits that make them unique and worthwhile. They become real people to the readers, and for 50 years kids have empathized with their situation and how they are treated by the socs. When tragedy strikes the greasers (in several forms), kids feel their pain and recognize the injustice they face. They say that reading fiction can enhance emotional intelligence, and I believe this book has stood the test of time because of its ability to draw kids into an emotional connection with complicated characters.

The Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Milo lives in an isolated inn at the top of a cliff. It's known to be a hideout for smugglers, but is usually deserted at Christmas time. Milo is looking forward to a relaxing week, but one by one, mysterious guests arrive at the inn, all with connections to the house that are revealed as the book goes on. Milo and the cook's daughter, Meddy, take on characters from a role playing game and start to hunt for objects that go missing, and find out some revealing secrets about the inn and themselves. This is a book for bright kids with good vocabularies--I found it a little hard to keep track of the characters and their motivations--but I have students who had no trouble with it. I also wasn't crazy about a twist in the story, but it made for a good discussion point. Recommended for good readers who are willing to stick with a tricky plot.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by

Violet Diamond is biracial but she lives in a white world. Her father, who was black, passed away when she was young and she lives with her mother and sister, who are white, in a mostly white community near Seattle. Violet is getting older and realizing that she knows nothing about her father's side of the family. When she finds out that she has a grandmother she has never met, she comes up with a plan to meet her in spite of the fact that her grandmother has never been willing to meet with her. There is no action or adventure here, but it's a well-paced realistic story about a girl searching for her identity and finding out more about herself.

Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

Jonathan Grisby is being sent to prison--a creepy old juvenile detention center on an island. It's a terrible place, but Jonathan thinks he deserves the punishment he is getting. After just one miserable night, disaster strikes, leaving 16 young criminals without any adults in charge. It's a Lord of the Flies scenario for younger readers, and when one boy gets power hungry it could endanger everyone's lives. A good book for kids who like action, adventure, and books about troubled kids. Recommended for grades 4-7.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

This year's Newbery Medal winner is a fantasy about a witch, an abandoned child, and a village under the power of an evil influence. Each year a baby is left in the forest. The people of the Protectorate think that they must sacrifice a child to a witch. The witch, Xan, wonders why the people heartlessly abandon their children. You, the reader, aren't quite sure why the people are forced to sacrifice a baby each year. In this particular year, Xan falls in love with the abandoned baby girl and accidentally/on purpose feeds her moonlight, which fills the baby with magic. This is the story of how that girl, Luna, grows up in the forest with Xan and a couple of other magical creatures as her family. There is much going on in the Protectorate and in the forest, and it all comes together in the end of this charming yet complex story. Fantasy readers from 4th-7th grades will enjoy this book.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan

Habo does not have the brown skin and hair of his family members. In his Tanzanian village he is an outcast, with even his own brothers treating him badly. When his family must leave their village and go to live with relatives in a larger city, he discovers a name for his condition. He is an albino and in Tanzania that puts his life in danger. Golden Boy is the story of how he bravely sets off to find a place where he will not be in danger from the cruel practice of killing and dismembering that is a reality in Tanzania even today for albino people. This book is both a good story and an interesting glimpse into life in Tanzania.

Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith

Imagine winning 140 million dollars in the lottery! That's what happens to Teddy, who happens to be Alice's best friend and secret crush. Teddy has just turned 18 and Alice buys him the lottery ticket for a birthday gift. Alice doesn't want any part of the money--she just wants Teddy to fall in love with her. But when Teddy starts spending money like crazy and skipping school, it seems less and less likely that he will remain the same old Teddy that she has always known. Alice is the type to volunteer at a homeless shelter and apply to Stanford University, and this book follows the end of their senior year of high school and the choices that they make as they move toward adulthood. Jennifer E. Smith is a great choice for readers who like romance and intriguing stories. Recommended for grades 6-up.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Girl on a Plane by Miriam Moss

This fictional story about a teenage girl on a hijacked plane is based on the author's own experience of being on a hijacked airplane in 1970. Anna is on her way to boarding school in England when Palestinians take over the plane and demand that a prisoner be released. The plane ends up on a remote airstrip in Jordan, where it is wired with explosives. The hijackers say they will blow up the plane in 3 days if their demands are not met. It's an inherently interesting story, but the reality of the hijacking is surprisingly monotonous. The captives are hot and sweaty and hungry and waiting in terror to discover what might happen to them. Anna and the other young people on the plane manage quite well in spite of not having adults traveling with them, and their story spoke to me as an adult reader with an interest in history. By sticking so close to what really happened, the book seemed to me to be almost a memoir, although the author states it is solidly fictional.  I'm afraid that younger readers might wish for more action in the story or more relationship-building between characters, but readers who like fiction books based on reality will appreciate Anna's story of surviving a hijacking.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Daniel is a poet who believes in fate, but is feeling trapped by his parents' expectations for his life. Natasha is rational, a science geek, who also loves music. She is not the kind of girl who would fall in love and let it change her life. But Daniel and Natasha are fated to meet and spend an incredible day together. Unfortunately, it is the day Natasha's family, who are undocumented immigrants, are scheduled to be deported to Jamaica. And it is the day that Daniel's Korean parents have scheduled his interview for Yale University. They meet and connect and the entire book takes place in that one day. Fans of romance will love this book--it's compulsively readable and the characters really come alive. And there are first-person snippets from other characters (real and inanimate) that make the book even more charming. Fans of realistic YA fiction (especially The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor and Park) will love this book. Recommended for 8th grade-up.

Monday, January 09, 2017

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

At first this seemed just like a charming tale about a robot who finds herself on an island where she learns how to adapt to her surroundings, how to care for an abandoned gosling, and how to bring the island creatures together in a community. But later in the book the modern world comes into the story, larger issues come into play. This was an enjoyable book that made me think. I was surprised at how much I liked it. This would make a good read aloud for a middle grade classroom, and would also be good for book club discussions.

Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet

To call this book merely a biography of E.B. White would be to do it an injustice. Each page of this visual masterpiece is a work of art that incorporates original drawings, as well as quotes, letters, and New Yorker cartoons in order to bring to life the man most famous for writing Charlotte's Web. White, who also wrote for the New Yorker and other publications for many years and co-wrote The Elements of Style, wrote copious letters in his lifetime and left behind a lot of information for author/illustrator Melissa Sweet to pull together. It's a sophisticated book that will appeal to some children, but there is much here for readers of any age to enjoy. This work of art should be given to any adult who loves the New Yorker, who has ever referred to Strunk and White's Elements of Style, or who has ever read Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

Betty is a new girl in school, and she is more than a bully. She is a likely sociopath, who doesn't hesitate to kill a bird with her bare hands or to harm other children. Annabel becomes Betty's first victim, and is navigating how to handle the cruelty she sees and how to make adults believe her, when someone is gravely injured. Annabel knows that Betty is the most likely suspect, but Betty deftly throws the blame on Toby, a shell-shocked World War I veteran who is a fixture in the rural Pennsylvania community of Wolf Hollow. What follows is the complex, ominous, and haunting story of how Annabel tries to do the right thing when it is hard to know what the right thing is. This book will make you angry and sad, but will also inspire dialogue about how important it is to stand up for what's right. This is a book that students, teachers, and adults will all love. I would not be surprised to see this win a major book award for 2017.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Neal Shusterman never fails to amaze me. Whether his books are funny, scary, or unsettling, they always fully entertain me and make me think about complex issues. Scythe has a mind-blowing premise. In the near future, humans have created a perfect society by eliminating disease, poverty, hunger, and even old age. It's a utopia except for over population, so society has respected public servants called Scythes whose job it is to kill people. A good scythe kills without bias, chooses victims carefully, and causes little pain. Most importantly, a scythe should not enjoy the killing. In this first book of a new series, two teenagers are chosen to be apprentices to a venerated Scythe. Only one will become an official scythe, though, and it soon is determined that only one will survive the apprenticeship. The relationship between the teens and the Scythes is fascinating, and there is enough action to keep young readers on the edge of their seats. There are a few holes in the utopia (Why would a scythe ever kill someone with a weapon when there are painless pills that can be given? And how does the Thunderhead really replace government?) But this will make for great discussions with students about the fragility of life and the benefits of being (or not being) mortal.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Plot to Kill Hitler by Patricia McCormick

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young man in Germany in the years leading up to World War II. He chose to become a pastor, and believed strongly in peaceful resolution of conflict. However, Bonhoeffer began to witness great evil building up around him in the Nazi regime that was taking over his country. As the Nazis began to strip Jewish citizens of their rights, they also took away the right of free speech for all Germans. Bonhoeffer believed that the church should speak out against Hitler but could not find other religious leaders willing to speak up. In short, readable chapters, McCormick tells how Bonhoeffer tried in many ways to alert other governments to the horrors that Germany was inflicting on Jews and how Bonhoeffer eventually came to the conclusion that to do nothing in the face of evil was to be evil yourself. He became a spy and joined in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler and overthrow his government. His was an incredibly courageous life, and even though he was killed by the Nazis, there is much to learn from his example.