Monday, January 30, 2012
Get out your kleenex. Any time you read a book about two teenagers with terminal cancer you know it's going to be emotionally rough, and probably full of cliches about facing cancer bravely and living in the moment. But in the hands of John Green, it's refreshingly funny and touching and illuminating and frequently surprising. Hazel, who has thyroid cancer and needs assistance to breathe, meets Augustus, who had a leg amputated due to bone cancer, at a cancer support group. They share a sarcastic sense of humor an intellect beyond their years. They bond over a favorite book and contact the author to ask him some questions that lead them on a journey to Amsterdam. But the plot really isn't the point here. It's the characters and how they make something special in the midst of the rotten luck they share. Like many excellent young adult books, it's definitely for older teens and will be embraced by adults as well. I was serious when I said get your kleenex, though. Read this book somewhere where you can wallow in delight and in sorrow.
This book won the Newbery Medal last year and I finally read it one year later. It's a historical fiction book about a girl named Abilene who is sent to Manifest, Kansas by her father who spent some of his childhood there. While her father is off working a railroad job, Abilene moves in with Shady, a local character who is a minister and appears to be a moonshiner. When she finds a box of mementos and letters she and two new friends set off on a quest to find a spy known as the "rattler." Along the way they discover stories about two long-gone local boys, one of whom went off to fight in World War I while the other stayed back in Manifest. They also discover how the town full of immigrants once stood up to the owner of a local mine and demanded better conditions for the local workers. Abilene's journey is one of self-discovery and along the way she helps the town of Manifest remember its past and look to the future. The story is a little bit complicated so I would recommend it to good readers who like historical fiction and appreciate a more complex plot.
Friday, January 27, 2012
Look at the cover of this book and notice the figure in Anya's hair. That's the ghost that follows her out of a deep well and becomes her friend and an ally in her awkward efforts to get the attention of her crush at school. Anya, a Russian immigrant to the U.S. who has worked hard to lose her accent and fit into American high school life, doesn't have a lot of friends and Emily (the ghost) is an appealing friend...at first. This graphic novel paints a realistic picture of Anya and her day-to-day troubles as well as the spooky story of how Emily turns out to be a not-so-friendly ghost. This one will be liked by fans of graphic novels as well as by younger teens who just want to read a good story about a girl they can relate to.
The year is 1958, and although Little Rock High School was integrated the previous year, racial relations have not improved in this southern city. In fact, all the public high schools in the city, both white and black, have closed this year to try to stop any further integration. Marlee is a 12-year-old girl who almost never speaks outside of her own family. Her older sister sits at home because her school is closed, but Marlee still attends her all-white junior high. She is thrilled to meet a new student named Liz who becomes her friend and helps her so speak up more and more at school. But one day Liz is gone and rumor has it that she left school because it was discovered that she is really black but passing as white in order to go to a good school. Rather than give up on the friendship, Marlee finds ways to keep in touch with Liz, but Marlee doesn't understand the danger she is putting Liz in by continuing their friendship. This historical fiction book is both a good story and a good lesson in American civil rights history. Middle school readers, especially girls who like historical fiction, will enjoy it.
If you want to live (or re-live) the joy and pain of first love, read this book. Essentially, it's a very long break-up letter from a girl named Min to her ex-boyfriend, Ed. She's dumping a box of items on his doorstep along with this letter and each item means something in the history of their relationship. Min loves old movies and good coffee and is in the "artsy" crowd. Ed plays basketball, dates cheerleaders, and secretly loves math. None of their friends understand why they fell in love but they did. Handler's brilliant writing captures all those small moments of wonder at the beginning of a relationship. I enjoyed this as an adult (even though I got bogged down by the many allusions to old movies referenced by Min) and I think it will find it's niche with smart, artsy teenage readers. Like many other YA books, it contains sexual situations and other mature content, so I recommend it for older teens and adults who enjoy savoring good writing. I admire the way Daniel Handler, also known as Lemony Snicket, was able to understand and convey how it feels to be a heartbroken young woman. This book was just named a Michael Printz award honor book.
Monday, January 23, 2012
"They pulled my arm hair.
They threw rocks at me.
They promised to stomp on my chest."
Imagine that your father was taken prisoner years ago and has never returned. You live with your mother and brothers, in the shadow of a war, always hoping for his return. When the war does reach your home, you flee on a ship at a moment's notice and find safety in a refugee camp. Soon you learn that you have a sponsor in the United States of America—in a place called Alabama. You show up ready to begin a new life and instead of being met with kindness you are bullied, harassed, and humiliated. This is Há's story—a remarkable year in the life of a 10-year-old girl from Vietnam. It is also semi-autobiographical so you know that many of Há's experiences are grounded in the author's own childhood. It is beautifully written in free verse and is full of language to savor. It won the National Book Award and was named a Newbery Honor Book today.
Secrets at Sea is about a family of mice that lives with a family of humans in New York state. When the humans plan a voyage to England to find a husband for their awkward oldest daughter, the mice fear for their own livelihood (no more crumbs!), but then decide to take fate into their own hands and stowaway on the ship with the humans. Helena, the narrator and oldest sister, tells of the family's adventures aboard the ocean liner in 1887. Once on board, the mice meet aristocrats, become involved in romances, and face the dangers of cats, long corridors, and the sea itself. This Victorian adventure could be enjoyed by children of all ages. It does have a lot of 19th century vocabulary unfamiliar to younger kids, but I read it with my first grader and he thoroughly enjoyed it. I think that it could appeal to readers all the way up through 6th grade.
Valli spends her days picking up coal in her home town of Jharia, India. It is a dirty and dangerous job and she would much rather be in school learning to read. On the other side of the train tracks she sees the "monsters"—a community of people with leprosy who are feared and abused by the coal-picking children. When Valli discovers that the people she lives with are not actually her biological family, she hops on a coal truck and escapes to Kolkata where she is homeless but surviving day-to-day. In a chance encounter with a doctor she discovers that she herself has leprosy and she must decide whether to accept help or remain on the run. This slim book paints a picture of the life of the poor in India that is not often found in children's books. Intermediate and middle school children could learn a lot from Valli's story and it would make a good introduction into a discussion of poverty, human rights, and global issues.
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
This book has a great premise. It is 1996 and two teenagers, Emma and Josh, log on to the internet via AOL for the first time. There they discover their own Facebook pages from 15 years in the future. Josh likes what he sees (he's married to the hottest girl in school, living in a big house, and the father of twins) but Emma, whose future self is caught up in a bad marriage, isn't so happy. They both decide to play around with the present to see how it affects the future, and even little changes turn out to cause big ripples in future events. The underlying tension of the book is that, while Josh and Emma are best friends, Josh wants to be more than friends and Emma is busy dating other people. I would classify it as a fun romantic comedy and an entertaining read. I think it could have had more depth to it or more reflection on how bizarre social networks might seem to a pre-internet person. It's not too racy but I would recommend it for 8th grade on up.