Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Prince of Venice Beach

I've read two of Blake Nelson's novels before and my feelings varied greatly; I loved Recovery Road and was bored by The New Rules of High School. Happily, Nelson's latest, The Prince of Venice Beach, falls into the love category. It was a great airplane read: a mystery that is light and engaging, with an endearing protagonist.

Cali is a homeless runaway who has somehow found a way to make things work. He's got a treehouse where he crashes, friends with whom he can play basketball, and a boardwalk where he can skateboard all day. When private investigators and the police begin asking him to help find missing people, Cali thinks he has found his calling. Since he knows everyone in Venice Beach, it's an easy job. But when he starts to learn the repercussions of finding people who are hiding on purpose, he starts to question if he's doing the right thing.

The major appeal of this novel is in the characterization. Cali has managed to stay sweet in spite of the hardships of life as a runaway. Critics could argue that Nelson sugarcoats the life of a homeless teenager, but I wasn't reading the book to learn about that. I enjoyed solving the mysteries of the missing people alongside Cali and watching how he and his friends looked out for each other. While definitely not as wacky or out there, The Prince of Venice Beach has a touch of Weetzie Bat to it, with its offbeat characters and obvious love for California. Fans of Francesca Lia Block's work might enjoy this, too.

Rather Be Reading has done a fun gift pack with items from the book. It's definitely worth checking out after you finish the book (to avoid any spoilers).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Caribbean Picture Books

I want the students at my school in The Bahamas to have more experience with literature from the Caribbean. The options are more limited than from other regions of the world, so I am encouraging them to check out books that may be below their reading level, but will add to their understanding of the cultures of the Caribbean, as well as give them more exposure to characters like themselves in books. I want to talk to the students about what they relate to in these books and what is missing, ultimately, with the goal of some students writing their own books about The Bahamas.

Rachel Isadora's Caribbean Dream is a gorgeous picture book with simple poetry about daily life in the West Indies. I like that the poems are easy to read and relate to the images, but really, the appeal here is in the illustrations. Every page in the book should be framed and displayed as an example of the natural beauty of the Caribbean. The moments Isadora captures will be recognizable to anyone who has visited the area. I will definitely be picking this up as a birthday present for all my friends who have toddler and primary aged children.

Rachel Isadora's breathtaking artwork

As a Hispanic Studies major in college, I read many novels by Julia Alvarez, centered on Dominican characters. I've never read any children's books by her, though, so was excited to offer an option about the Dominican Republic to my students, who are too young for Alvarez's other novels.

The Secret Footprints is based on the folktale of the ciguapas, creatures who live in underwater caves and have backwards feet so that humans could not follow and find them. The book tells the story of Guapa, a brave ciguapa who gets too close to humans and teaches her fellow creatures that people can be kind. This is a story that would have enchanted me as a child, imagining that every pair of footprints I see on the beach could belong to a ciguapa.

Illustrator Fabian Negrin created dreamy images that had me focusing on the feet to see what we would look like if our feet were on backwards. In discussing this book with students, I would ask what details Negrin uses to anchor the book in a place. I would also ask what folktales from Bahamian culture would make a good picture book and why. This book is a treasure.

The streamer-tailed hummingbird is better known as Doctor Bird, the national bird of Jamaica. The three folktales in  Doctor Bird: Three Lookin' Up Tales From Jamaica are about how he uses his magical powers to impart lessons to Mongoose, Mouse, and Owl. While Ashley Wolff's illustrations gave plenty to look at and Gerald Hausman used descriptive language, these are stories that beg to be told orally. At the end of the book, Hausman credits the Jamaican storytellers who inspired this work. Unfortunately, I would prefer to see them perform or listen to a recording than to read this book, which I found weighted down.

Mongoose learns a lesson from Doctor Bird.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Song for Bijou

I'm back in The Bahamas, the country of my heart, and building a collection of Caribbean novels with the goal of having all students read at least one before graduation (with the future goal of one a year, when there are more options). I was excited to find another middle school novel with a Haitian character, and even better, A Song for Bijou does not fall into the typical tropes that "Haitian books" tend towards.

Set in Brooklyn, we meet Alex Schrader, a Catholic school boy who falls in love at first sight with Bijou Doucet, a recent Haitian immigrant. The novel follows the development of their first love: a sweet seventh grade love story that deals with cultural differences in addition to the usual middle school romantic drama.

I appreciated that author Josh Farrar gives readers a different example of a Haitian person; Bijou comes from an upper class background and learned English from watching "All My Children." In the book, Bijou complains that Americans view all Haitians as desperately poor, and this tends to be the case in the books I've read. It's really important for readers to see Bijou as someone who is just like them.

The writing isn't spectacular, but it was serviceable and didn't detract from the story. Of all the Caribbean literature I've read, A Song for Bijou is probably the most relatable to readers from around the world. I hope to find more books with Caribbean characters that break the stereotypes that are commonly put forth.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Nightmarys - Abandoned

After discovering Dan Poblocki, I wanted to read more of his books to expand the scary book section of my library. While I really enjoyed The Ghost of Graylock, I just could not get into The Nightmarys and found myself skipping through the last hundred pages to read the ending. If it felt too long and boring for me, a middle school student would abandon it far earlier than I did.

It's a shame, because the title and cover are amazing, but there were too many hallucinations and dreams, and the mystery was convoluted. Not for me.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Are We There Yet?

Goofus and Gallant argue over a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in Italy.

That would be my Twitter-style review of David Levithan's Are We There Yet? I was so disappointed by this novella because I normally adore everything Levithan writes.

The Silver brothers have been tricked into a trip together in Italy that their parents hope will heal the rift between them that nobody understands. Danny, the older responsible brother, is a caricature of a work-obsessed ad man. Elijah, a sweet sixteen year old stoner who loves everyone, is clearly Levithan's Gallant. Which just sets Danny up to be the cranky old man (at twenty-three). Levithan hammers us with their differences:
"Elijah's problem, in Danny's mind, is that he has no sense of what it takes to make a living.
Danny's problem, in Elijah's mind, is that he has no sense of what it takes to make a life."

Levithan's dislike of Danny makes me feel defensive of his character, especially because I pictured him in my head as Danny Castellano from "The Mindy Project." His polar opposite, Elijah, doesn't seem that appealing to me. At first, I thought he had some developmental issues, but he is really just set up as someone who is so kind that he will do anything to make others happy.

This book didn't work for me and I won't be recommending it, but it doesn't change my love for David Levithan. Everyone has bad days.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Dangerous Girls

I should be kicking off October with a scary book, but what's scarier than being accused of the murder of your best friend while vacationing abroad? I zoomed through Dangerous Girls in a nail-biting day and spent the evening reading about Natalee Holloway and Amanda Knox, as the plot held similarities to both cases.

Anna and her clique of popular friends travel to Aruba for spring break, but when her best friend Elise is brutally murdered, Anna and her boyfriend Tate are held as the prime suspects. The novel takes us through the girls' entire friendship, as well as the trial and the media storm surrounding it.

Author Abigail Haas has the reader guessing about what really happened that night until the absolute end of the book, making the reader want to rush ahead to the conclusion, and then sitting stunned afterwards. Similar to her recently published Dangerous Boys, the ending leaves the reader wanting to start again, knowing all the secrets and seeing the subtle clues that Haas left along the way.

This is a mature book: the situations are very adult and would upset many parents, but the writing is also mature and doesn't dumb itself down for the reader. Older high school students and up will be hooked by Dangerous Girls. I highly recommend it to people who enjoy books like Liar by Justine Larbalestier or anyone who followed along with the Knox and Holloway cases.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Unstoppable Octobia May

Bestselling and award-winning author, Sharon G. Flake, delivers a mystery set in the 1950s that eerily blends history, race, culture, and family.

Octobia May is girl filled with questions. Her heart condition makes her special - and, some folks would argue, gives this ten-year-old powers that make her a "wise soul." Thank goodness for Auntie, who convinces Octobia's parents to let her live in her boarding house that is filled with old folks. That's when trouble, and excitement, and wonder begin. Auntie is non-traditional. She's unmarried and has plans to purchase other boarding homes and hotels. At a time when children, and especially girls, are "seen, not heard," Auntie allows Octobia May the freedom and expression of an adult. When Octobia starts to question the folks in her world, an adventure and a mystery unfold that beg some troubling questions: Who is black and who is "passing" for white? What happens when a vibrant African American community must face its own racism?

And, perhaps most important: Do vampires really exist? In her most and probing novel yet, Sharon G. Flake takes us on a heart-pumping journey.

Unstoppable Octobia May is the first book I read on the Kindle app on my phone. What took me so long? I read this book in a flash because I was always able to sneak in a page or two, no matter where I was.

I'm a big fan of Sharon G. Flake; all of my students, no matter where I live, have read The Skin I'm In. Now that I'm back in The Bahamas, I like being able to add to the collection of titles with main characters that are African American. Even better, this is a mystery that will have readers puzzling until the very end.

Still, I didn't adore this book the way I enjoyed others by Flake. At times, I found it confusing to follow the plot, or even who was speaking. It's very rare that I have this problem, so I think it would be a big issue for younger readers. While Octobia May and her best friend Jonah were very developed, there were far too many other adult characters to keep track of, often with only one or two distinguishing characteristics and no physical descriptions. Despite being geared towards middle grade readers, it may be challenging for them to read.

For me, the best part of the book was the friendship between Octobia and Jonah. It reminded me of the relationship between Scout and Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird: the mischief, loyalty, and closeness that comes from growing up together and being through so many adventures. I often ask my students what is the residue of a story, what sticks with them. For me, it will be the image of Octobia forcing Jonah to perm her hair and then being angry with the results. This affected me more than any of the mystery that followed.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Just Listen

I've read and reviewed all of Sarah Dessen's novels:

The Moon and More
What Happened to Goodbye
Lock and Key
This Lullaby
That Summer
Someone Like You
Along for the Ride
Keeping the Moon
The Truth about Forever

But when I was reading Dessen's Five Facts on Twitter about the books, I realized that I had never read Just Listen. What a treat!

From the outside, Annabel looks like she has the perfect life: she is a model, literally lives in a glass house with her beautiful sisters, and was one of the most popular girls in school. In reality, she hates modeling, her family has its share of problems, and she has been shunned because of some gossip started by a former friend. Exiled to eating lunch alone, Annabel meets Owen, another loner who is committed to honesty and "enlightened" music, and learns that telling the truth is the most important thing you can do.

I loved this book, and can't tell if it is because it was a surprise gift of unread Dessen, or if it was the story. Owen is an amazing character and I hope that he inspires teenage readers to give a chance to students that they might dismiss as weird or losers. I also think his honesty policy will help all readers to consider their words before they speak, or at least not fall back on the default "I'm fine" when they really aren't. This would be a perfect "light" accompaniment to Laurie Halse Anderson's classic, Speak.

Hooray for reading surprises! Sarah Dessen forever!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Beneath a Meth Moon

I've been trying to track down Beneath a Meth Moon for awhile; hooray for inter-library loans! I just finished reading an adult zombie novel (Patient Zero), but I really think that a story about a teenager using meth is far scarier than anything related to zombies.

Laurel moved to a new town after the deaths of her mother and grandmother during Hurricane Katrina. When her new boyfriend, T-Boom (girls, never date a guy named T-Boom) introduces her to "moon", she quickly becomes addicted and her life disintegrates. Much of the story is told in a series of flashbacks Laurel has as she sits on a street corner, begging for change. The moon has replaced everything she loved and left her with nothing.

It's hard to find cautionary drug stories that are appropriate for middle school students. So many are graphic, like Ellen Hopkins' novels. Author Jacqueline Woodson strikes the right balance here. She references the physical deterioration of Laurel, with a mother asking, "How could you not have seen your daughter wasting away in front of you? Your daughter's darting eyes, her broken-out face, the tiny burns on her lips and fingers?" But Woodson never gets into the very grim realities of life as a meth head. It is scary enough to be a conversation starter, but still age appropriate.

I haven't always enjoyed Woodson's books in the past. Beneath a Meth Moon is an important book to make available to adolescents; just make sure you are available for discussion after they finish.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Saving Lucas Biggs

Marisa de Los Santos is one of my favorite adult writers; I've read all of her books multiple times. A poet, de Los Santos always manages to select the perfect words, so I was eager to see how that would translate to her first middle grade novel, Saving Lucas Biggs. This book, written with her husband David Teague, was a satisfying page turner.

It was a bold choice to go from adult contemporary fiction to a middle grade time travel novel. Margaret's family has the "quirk" that they are able to go back in time, but they have all sworn never to do so. But when her father is sentenced to death for a murder he didn't commit, she must use this quirk to change the past to save his life. Going back to the 1938 mining community where her best friend's Grandpa Joshua grew up, she must convince 13 year old Josh to help her before she runs out of time.

It was fun to see how de Los Santos transitioned her writing to a lower level. Her trademarks shine through: she always uses the word "reconnoiter", in this case, she defines it for the reader. The language is stripped down a bit, but still gorgeous and poignant: "Charlie and I hadn't spent one second of our lives without parents who loved us. We lived inside that love the way we loved inside our own bodies, without thinking about it, and definitely without thinking what it would be like to live without it." And it wouldn't be de Los Santos without some impressive food descriptions, like caramelized banana pancakes with maple syrup and peach pancakes with creme fraiche. Saving Lucas Biggs solidified my belief that I will love anything she writes.

Parents often ask me for "innocent" books to recommend to their children, and this novel is a perfect example. It has lots of good lessons about peace, friendship, and doing the right thing, without being preachy. I can't wait to see what's next for Marisa de Los Santos.