Thursday, August 21, 2008
This book was a pleasant escape from edgy YA fiction. It's the story of four fifth graders (all with very different personalities—the popular kid, the brainiac, the unmotivated student, and the type-A student) who use the smart kid's computer to complete all of their homework. The scheme draws them together while parents, teachers, and other students can't figure out why in the world these four kids hang out together every day after school. The story is told in small snippets from the points of view of numerous characters. There are touching moments as well as reflections on the ethics of the homework machine, but overall the tone is light and the book is a breeze to read. I appreciated that the kids were multicultural and there was also one suspenseful surprise at the end that I didn't see coming. I think this would be most popular with 4th and 5th graders, but it's definitely worth a look for 6th graders also.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
This is the only novel I have read about the Iraq war, and as is typical, when I read young adult historical fiction, I learn so much from the details of the story. Robin is an 18-year-old African American soldier from Harlem. He's part of a Civil Affairs Battalion that includes male and female soldiers. Their job in Iraq is not to enter into combat, but to "win the hearts and minds" of the people. However, nothing is that clear-cut in Iraq in the weeks and months following the fall of Baghdad. Robin sees firsthand the horrors of war and participates fully in them. Myers gives readers a variety of personalities in Robin's comrades. Their variety of motives, opinions, and political views make this book a really balanced look at a controversial war. The female characters were especially interesting to me. Of course, this book contains violence and the atrocities of war. Iraqi children as well as American soldiers are killed. But that is what war is like and Americans should not hide from the truth. I know this book will be deservedly popular with middle schools boys.
This is a strange little book. It's a spoof of old-fashioned stories in which plucky orphans triumph over nasty adults with the help of equally plucky nannies. The four Willoughby children aren't yet orphans, but they wish they were since their parents are so horrible. When a baby is abandoned on their doorstep (another old-fashioned story element) they take it to a decrepit mansion and abandon the baby all over again. This sets off a chain of events leading them to a predictably happy ever after ending. It's not a book with deep ideas or character development. Rather, it seems that the author is just enjoying herself and reveling in telling a quirky tale. Lowry is writing for adults as well as kids--she frequently mentions other old-fashioned stories such as The Bobbsey Twins, The Secret Garden, Little Women, and many more. In this satire, some of the adults are truly evil or truly stupid (ala Roald Dahl and Lemony Snickett), and kids will enjoy the dark side of this tale. The Willoughbys could be read by kids from 4th-7th grades. Younger kids will enjoy the story while older kids will see more of the humor.
Terry Trueman is known for short, hard-hitting novels that are edgy and a little bit controversial. This is a switch for him. Hurricane is about a Honduran family whose village is nearly destroyed by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The story is told through the eyes of José, a young teenager, who must take on adult responsibilities because his father and older siblings are missing (and possibly dead). The village of La Rupa is devastated by a mudslide, leaving more than half of the people dead. In the hours and days following the disaster José works to save lives, find dead bodies, uncover buried food, and get help for his sick brother. I have a particular interest in this story because I traveled to a village in Nicaragua that was destroyed by a mudslide in Hurricane Mitch. Two years later the people still lived in squalor in a Red Cross tent city. The despair and hopelessness was something I will never forget. Fortunately for young readers, Trueman's story ends on a hopeful note (perhaps unrealistically). I think American kids might have trouble picturing rural Honduras, but once they get into the story of José's survival they will be hooked.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
I will start off by saying that I don't think this Chris Crutcher book is written for middle schoolers. Mature 8th graders, maybe, but it's not for everyone. It had been a few years since I had read a Chris Crutcher book, and once again I was just blown away by his writing. This is a book I would recommend to teenagers as well as adults. It's almost a cliché to have a teen novel with characters who are mentally ill, dying, abused, etc. etc. Yet somehow Chris Crutcher can take a whole bunch of big real-life problems and weave them into a book that is believable and touching and also hilarious at times. Here's the story in a nutshell: Ben Wolf finds out before his senior year that he is dying of an aggressive blood disease. He's 18 years old and he refuses treatment and refuses to let his doctor tell his parents because he wants to live his last year to the fullest. His big plans are a) to go out for the football team (he's a tiny guy), b) to go after a smart, attractive classmate he's had his eye on, and c) to stick it to his conservative social studies teacher by campaigning to name a street in town after Malcolm X. The setting is great—Trout, Idaho has 943 residents, and they love their football heroes. This book is all about football and love and telling the truth and racism and living life to the fullest. Parts of the book are mature, and it's also pretty deep at times. I think the philosophy and the humor would be most appreciated by high school students.
I think I am officially the last person to read this book. I heard years ago from a 7th grade boy that this book was great, and he was right. The author manages to take Greek mythology and tie it into a modern day action book that is also hilarious. Percy Jackson is our hero, but he's just a 6th grader with ADD who keeps failing out of school. (He finds out later that most of the children of Greek Gods have ADD--it's what helps them in their quests and fights with supernatural beings.) After a minotaur chases him to Camp Halfblood and vaporizes his mother, Percy starts to learn the truth about himself and the identity of his father. Eventually he makes Zeus pretty mad and is given 10 days to find Zeus's stolen lightning bolt and return it to Mount Olympus. He takes along his Satyr friend Grover and one of Athena's daughters, Annabeth. Together they have an action-packed quest involving an incredible amount of Greek Mythology. As I said before, the best part of this book is all the humor. This is the perfect series for middle schoolers, especially guys.
In my opinion, a really good sports book isn't really about sports, it's about life. There's a lot of life in this book (but also a whole lot of baseball). Michael is an amazing pitcher and his dream is to pitch in the Little League World Series. It was his father's dream also, but his father is not around and he and his brother are trying to keep that a secret. Michael is so good at baseball that other Little League teams are trying to make him prove he is 12 years old. Unfortunately he has a lot of trouble getting a birth certificate from Cuba. I liked Michael's best friend Manny, his brother Carlos, and the kind neighbor woman who takes care of them. I thought at times that the conversations between these 12 year old boys were much too clever and urbane to ever come out of the mouths of real kids. The happy ending was not a big surprise, but heck, I wanted things to work out for Michael. While there are non-sports issues in this book, there is so much baseball play-by-play that I do think the intended audience is kids who love the game. It might be hard for other kids to get through, but baseball fans will love it (and probably learn some great baseball strategies at the same time).
First I should say that I am a huge fan of the book Shabanu, which tells the story of a Pakistani girl who is forced to marry a much older man with multiple wives. That book opened my eyes to a part of the world I had never even thought about. This is the third book about Shabanu, but this book focuses more on her daughter Mumtaz. Shabanu faked her own death ten years ago to save Mumtaz's life, and now Mumtaz is a teenager and finds out she is expected to marry her cousin, Jameel. Jameel is a skateboarder from San Francisco and it is a surprise to him that he is expected to return to Pakistan, marry Mumtaz, and become the tribal leader for his clan. The best things about this book are the setting (life with the upper class in Lahore) and the insight into Pakistani culture (including the clash between modern thinking and the old-fashioned male-dominated culture). I did not like the supernatural "Djinn" which is a spirit that exists to teach people lessons. I also thought that the complex family and all their names and the use of Pakistani words will probably turn off many middle school readers. Even I was confused some of the time. I enjoyed finding out the fate of Shabanu and her daughter, but I think this book will probably only be appreciated by readers who have also read Shabanu and Haveli.
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
This is a fun romance with lots of references to one of my favorite books, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Julie tells the story about how her overly enthusiastic best friend Ashleigh becomes obsessed with Jane Austen's books and decides that the girls will wear vintage dresses and crash a dance at a local all male prep school. Remarkably, when they crash the dance they meet a couple of nice guys and both girls develop crushes on their own perceived "Mr. Darcy." Unfortunately, their crushes are on the same boy, but since Ashleigh speaks up first, Julie never lets on that she too likes handsome, smart Parr. The story moves along with lots of misunderstandings and mis-signals, and ends up predictably happily. This book was well-written and fun and kept me entertained the whole way. It's appropriate for middle schoolers, and while you don't need a lot of background on Pride and Prejudice, it probably would be most enjoyed by someone familiar with the book (or the fabulous BBC movie version).
This book, told in simple free verse, has stayed on my mind since reading it last week. It's the well-written and accessible story of a 13-year-old girl from Nepal who is sold into prostitution in India. It's a tough subject that we in America hate to even think about, but since it is a reality for many girls we need to know more about it. McCormick handles the topic as delicately as possible without understating the horror and desperation of Lakshmi and the other girls in the brothel. The relationships between these girls are what makes the story so interesting and heartbreaking. Their search for joy and hope in the smallest details of life is what keeps them alive. I'm not doing it justice here, but if it sounds intriguing, try it out. I would highly recommend this to mature teenagers (8th grade or older) who are ready to learn more about the harsh reality of the world.
Girls are going to be drawn to this book because it looks like quite a romance. In the end, it's really not about romance at all, but it is about a 16-year-old girl in search of the perfect "crimson kiss" she has read about in a trashy romance novel. Of course, when this straight-A student starts grabbing boys and kissing them in the hallways people start to talk (and write on the bathroom walls). As she fails to find any satisfaction in her many kisses, she comes to realize that her quest is really more about her anger at her father (who cheated on her mother and now wants to be forgiven). I thought all the kissing was a bit unbelievable, and therefore I couldn't really be too sympathetic with Evangeline. But by the end of the book when things got more serious and introspective I really wanted to finish this book. There's a lot of substance here about friendship, forgiveness, and finding your own talents (and a lot of classic rock and roll music as well). Probably most appropriate for 7th graders on up.