Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Black Juice

I really love short story collections: the satisfaction of reading a tale in a short amount of time, the completeness of a world in a few pages, the feeling of "oh I wish this was a novel" when I finish a great story. When they are fantasy stories, it's even more exciting because anything could happen next. That's the way I felt while reading Margo Lanagan's excellent Black Juice.

There were many times when I had no idea what was happening, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. These ten stories merit many re-reads and discussions. After reading the stories, I would hop on the internet to see if I could find out more...I needed to know what was happening in these worlds. This is subtle fantasy; it could be in the future or in an alternate world. Lanagan never spells things out for the reader, she just slides in details that make the reader pause. For example, in "Perpetual Light", the family cat catches wild animals as most pets do, "But sometimes he lost his head and ate half, and brought us the rest, the light gone out of their eyes and the mechs and biosprings trailing." There is no more explanation given, even though the reader is desperate to know what this means.

As I mentioned in my review of Tender Morsels, Lanagan is a talented writer whose choice of words leave the reader aching. In the eerie "Yowlinin", the protagonist says, "Who did I think I was, all these months, following and watching him? This must be what they call lovesickness. But the love has fallen from my eyes now and left only the sickness." Lanagan takes the ordinary and shows it in a way that challenges, unsettles, and enchants her audience.

Younger readers could be frustrated by the lack of resolution to the stories, but I loved it. I look forward to one day further exploring these stories with my students, pondering how Lanagan can do so much in so few pages.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Boy Book

I forced myself to wait and read The Boy Book because E. Lockhart has a finite number of novels and I am coming to the end of them. Now that I've finished it, though, I just want to dig into the third book in the Ruby Oliver series.

Ruby Oliver is a girl after my own heart. In her own words, “I like to swim,” I said. “And read. And watch movies. But can you imagine a catalog description for that? ‘Exploring the Shallow Life: Students will enjoy a double feature of Love Actually and Bridget Jones’s Diary, wallowing in the hotness of Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, followed by thrift-store shopping, intensive reading of mystery novels, and a dip in the pool. Evenings will be spent consuming Popsicles and experimenting with cosmetics.’" This is almost the exact conversation I had with my mother when she asked what I wanted to do while visiting for Easter. I'm 31 and choose not to see myself as stunted, but rather that the character of Ruby is realistic and mature.

The Boy Book joins Ruby at the start of her junior year at Tate Academy. She's still a leper (but it's getting better), she still crushes on her ex-boyfriend (but it's getting better), and she's still trying to figure out who she really is (...). The plot is amazing and bittersweet, but any reader of E. Lockhart knows that's guaranteed. Ruby's growth is gradual, has its setbacks, and wrapped up in a satisfying final chapter.

What I love most about this book is Ruby's positive relationship with sexuality. Lockhart honestly explores what it feels like to have sexual feelings and be able to act on them. I really appreciated the scenes where Ruby fumbles through getting groped; I would have loved to read something so frank when I was in late middle school. When Ruby tries to figure out if she actually likes a boy, or if she just likes the way it feels to kiss him, I find it humorous and spot-on. Sister, let me know when you figure that one out!

E. Lockhart and Ruby Oliver are simply awesome.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Emako Blue

Emako Blue is a gorgeous teen with a good heart and an amazing gift for singing. Unfortunately, this is not enough in her South Central neighborhood. The novel begins with Emako's funeral and then the various friends in her life flashback to what led to the sad event.

This is a novel that I know my students would love; they are wild for any urban tragedy, and if one of the main characters is aspirational, it's even better.  I am always happy to add a book to the library if I know it is going to get shared through word of mouth. I have a great reputation when it comes to recommending books, but there is nothing better than when the students are handing them to each other.

Still, I am conflicted by the writing in Emako Blue. While I appreciate that the "tough guys" in Brenda Woods' novel show their softer side, I don't think the characters are fully fleshed out. Emako is whatever the narrator needs her to be, Monterey is the everygirl, Savannah is the bad girl who's hurting inside, Eddie is the boy with a future, and Jamal is the player who goes good for Emako. There isn't much complexity in how they relate to each other. I also feel like there were so many conversations that just consisted of greetings: "hey" and "hi". This is pretty realistic with adolescents, but is a truth that better YA authors don't include.

I won't be pressing this novel on students, but I won't need to. They'll do it themselves.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


What a lovely little delight! I read Seedfolks in about twenty minutes before falling asleep and it was the perfect bedtime story. The seedfolks of the title are members of a Cleveland neighborhood that turn a vacant lot into a garden, while turning themselves into friends. I kept waiting for a major conflict to spring up, but the characters' troubles are mainly in the past, or at least begin to heal from their time in the garden. This lack of turmoil is refreshing.

In only 69 pages, Paul Fleischman is able to inhabit thirteen different characters from many different backgrounds. This would be an excellent novel to read with students who are struggling with characterization in their writing. It would partner really well with any unit on tolerance, as well as with the recently reviewed Vive La Paris. I love the idea of inundating students with books about community building and reaching out to neighbors.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Vive La Paris

Esme Raji Codell's writing makes you feel good. She has the ear of a teacher who has sat in the back of the classroom and really listened to what matters to young people. She shows the heart in all of her characters, including the ones that you really want to write off.

Vive Le Paris is the companion novel to Sahara Special, which I loved so much. It's fun to check back in on the characters in Miss Pointy's class and see how they've grown under her care. For the most part, though, Paris' story takes place outside of the classroom. She's got a fun, loving family with four older brothers and takes piano lessons from Mrs. Rosen, an elderly Holocaust survivor. Over the course of a few months, she learns about bullying, ignorance, nonviolence, and seeing the world through 'rose-colored glasses'.

There is so much to love here, as a reader and as a teacher. At my middle school in The Bahamas, none of the students had heard about the Holocaust before we began a unit on it. I also remember that middle school was when we really delved into learning about World War II. Vive La Paris is geared towards a younger age group, so could be used as an introduction to the Holocaust. It could be read independently over the summer, and then referred back to during the year. This is a novel that kids will love to read, with lots of lessons tucked in.

Vive La Paris is also really funny. In describing her brother's friend, Paris says, "He wears button-down shirts and has glasses like Malcolm X, but he's white, and believe me, on a white boy those glasses got a whole different effect." At first I wanted to say that there are so many humorous throwaway lines, but the reality is that all of the lines are beautifully crafted and intentional.

Finally, I appreciate that the cover actually reflects what happens in the book. There are a lot of details that show the illustrator (whose name I couldn't find) read the novel. She probably loved it too!

Saturday, June 4, 2011


I've read hundreds of young adult books over the years, but usually just donate them to whatever school I am working at when I read them. Now that I am attending graduate school in the US, I want to be able to lend books out to my own students. My personal YA library is pretty puny at 21 books. I am trying to add to my collection as cheaply as possible, so was thrilled when I found a new copy of Schooled in our library sale section. This is my first Gordon Korman novel and I enjoyed every page.

Written from the perspectives of multiple characters, Schooled tells what happens when Capricorn, a hippie raised by his grandmother in a commune of two, is suddenly thrust into a modern middle school. All of the expected bullying and adjustment misunderstandings occur, but they never feel trite or condescending. This is all due to the excellent characterization of Capricorn. He is the heart of the novel and quickly becomes the heart of the school. I love that his innocence and kindness never wavers, even when people are being cruel to him.

"Assume Goodwill" was a buzz phrase among the staff at my former school. I am now realizing that we should have made more effort to say it to students as well. What could be a more important lesson for middle schoolers who are learning how to communicate maturely? Schooled would be a great book for the entire community to read and discuss. I would love to talk in small groups about how Cap persevered, what students think of the somewhat strange ending, and how this applies to their lives. On a less formal level, I will be recommending it to any student who loved Stargirl. I am so happy to have this book in my little library.