Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Thirteen Plus One

It's the first week of school and I am celebrating with a week of Middle Grade reviews.

Lauren Myracle, I can't quit you. 

If I was ever going to write a YA novel, I'd have to pick a new plot because so many of the things I'd want to write about are included in Thirteen Plus One. I'd be bummed if Myracle wasn't such a great writer.

Winnie, our heroine since she was eleven years old, is finally fourteen and preparing for high school. Her sister is leaving for college, her relationship with Lars is evolving, and she and her friends are trying to figure out who they are. The only solution? Volunteer doing sea turtle rescue on Pawley's Island, SC. I've done turtle rescue with students in Costa Rica and the author really nailed the experience. The communal living, the strange hours, the rules about protecting the turtles were all included (the only things missing were the zillions of mosquitoes).

The reason I keep coming back to Lauren Myracle's novels is her gift for dialogue. Her characters speak exactly like my students. While I imagine the books won't age well, they are so completely current that it would be easy for a middle school reader to believe that Winnie and her friends were real people. The writing shows students that it is possible to be poignant and clever and thoughtful using the latest slang and vocabulary.

I'm curious about how many more installments there will be in the Winnie series. Part of the joy of the books is their innocence. I would be perfectly happy for this to be the close of the books on Winnie, as long as Lauren Myracle promises to write many more other novels for me to enjoy.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Inside Out and Back Again

I'm celebrating going back to school with a week of Middle Grade novel reviews.

I admit it: I'm not much of a nonfiction reader. Unless it's a professional development book, nonfiction doesn't hold much sway for me. So, I am especially excited when I come across some YA fiction that teaches me. In the case of Inside Out and Back Again, it's about an Vietnamese immigrant's experience in 1975.

At ten years old, Kim Hà loves her life in Saigon with her three brothers, mother, and papaya tree. While she longs for her missing father, she is proud of her city and being a smart girl. Everything changes when The Vietnamese People's Army takes control of the city and Hà's family has to flee, first to a refugee camp in Guam, and then to Alabama. Having moved from The Bahamas to South Korea, I can appreciate some of Hà's trepidation and frustration in settling in.

My favorite aspect of the book (besides the stunning cover), is how Lai approaches bullying. This Vietnamese family was not embraced by its new community and each of the children deals with bullying in his or her own way. It is poignant that when Hà begins to learn English, she understands the cruelty of her schoolmates even more, stating,

"I understand
and wish
I could go back
to not understanding."

Written in verse, Inside Out and Back Again reminds me of Katherine Applegate's Home of the Brave. While the two protagonists are from different places, the themes of immigration, fitting in, and loneliness would be compatible in literature circles or class novels. Best of all, both novels make readers consider their behavior towards immigrants and hopefully increase the kindness that they show.

This novel is a must-read for fans of historical fiction and novels written in verse.





Monday, August 29, 2011

Loser

I'm celebrating going back to school with a week of Middle Grade novel reviews. Hooray for teaching the sixth grade!

Jerry Spinelli creates subtle and amazing anti-bullying propaganda in Loser. I almost didn’t realize it was happening, so I am sure that my students wouldn’t either. Instead of diving in to Donald Zinkoff’s days as a middle school loser, Spinelli starts the story with Zinkoff’s first day of school. Over the course of 100 pages, the reader falls in love with Zinkoff—his sense of humor, optimism, kindness, and heart. Even though we know that he is the loser of the title, we wonder how it could be possible that everyone around him doesn’t feel the same way we do.
Loser is one of the best examples of “show, don’t tell” that I’ve come across. Sometimes the discussions of bullying that we have in school can fall on deaf ears. When literature is able to do some of the teaching for us, it is a gift. Maybe students will recognize Zinkoff’s uncontrollable laughter, poor penmanship, or clumsiness in a student they would be inclined to tease. Maybe they’ll see the desperation to be accepted in themselves. I’d like Zinkoff to become part of our school’s vernacular and integral to our campaign to ‘assume goodwill’. Spinelli’s loving characterization of Zinkoff makes the middle school bullies seem like the true losers.

It’s interesting that the Wikipedia page for Loser mentions that Zinkoff is autistic, yet I haven’t seen any other mentions of that anywhere else. I think not mentioning a reason for Zinkoff’s behavior is a better choice, so that he becomes more of an “everyman” who is more likely to be similar to someone in the reader’s community.
I always enjoy Jerry Spinelli’s novels. His simple sentences and short chapters encourage reluctant readers to get their eyes on more words and to press on to read one more chapter. His heroes are usually outcasts and his themes are clear, but not cloyingly moralizing. The cover and title of Loser had never appealed to me, but I am so happy that I finally decided to read it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How I Made It to Eighteen

Now that I have access to some great libraries, a new goal of mine is to always have a graphic novel going. They tell narratives differently, students love them, and they are usually pretty quick reads. Tracey White's How I Made It to Eighteen fits easily into all of these categories.

This story tells how the author's alter ego Stacey Black's self-destructive tendencies led to committing herself to a mental institution. Stacey has a variety of issues to contend with: bulimia, drug and alcohol use, a distant mother and deceased father, past sexual abuse, and an unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend. The author doesn't sugarcoat her past, nor does she finish the year with a happy ending. Still, I really wanted Stacey to have a chance to start over. Throughout the book there is a question put forth to Stacey's four closest friends; their answers show us the influences in her life. I hope that once she left the institution, she never spoke to any of them because they were so self-involved and negative. It was really clever of White to give us these glimpses of Stacey's previous life.

While they cover wildly different topics, How I Made It to Eighteen reminded me of Raina Telgemeier's Smile because they are graphic novels about girls coming of age. I like that these books are accessible to all students and present the girls in my classes with a different way to tell their stories. Still, I would probably recommend borrowing it from the local library rather than spending $16.99 on a book that will be breezed through so quickly.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

We'll Always Have Summer

I don't know how to feel about We'll Always Have Summer. I suppose that it does give me closure as a reader, and perhaps I am too attached to the characters after reading the trilogy in three days, but I was a little disappointed by this final installment. Perhaps it is because there is no way that Belly's story could have ended without at least one broken heart. If author Jenny Han wanted to break the readers' hearts a little as well, she did an admirable job. Note: I just checked her blog and she said that she loves breaking hearts. So there you go.

Set two years after the last novel, Belly is now in college and still dating Jeremiah. I really don't want to give too much of the plot away, but I will say that Han offers a lot of redemption in We'll Always Have Summer. Belly isn't childish anymore, Taylor proves herself to be a true friend, Belly's mom shows more of who she really is.

My favorite part of the book is that we finally get chapters from the perspective of Conrad. After being fiercely pro-Jeremiah for so long (three days, ha!), this peek into Conrad's mind shifts my opinion. It turns out Conrad isn't just a James Dean/Edward Cullen hybrid; learning his motives makes Belly's feelings for him more understandable.

I think my disappointment comes from the portrayal of Jeremiah. It's hard to tell if it is because Jenny Han wanted the readers to have doubts about the golden boy, or if the messy frat boy side of him never really came out during the summers at Cousins Beach. It's hard to say, but it let me down a bit. I didn't need Jeremiah to be bad in order to like Conrad, in fact, part of the appeal of this series is that readers can relate to Belly's love for both.

While I didn't adore this book as much as the first two, this is a series that I will be recommending to readers for years to come, always asking, "Conrad or Jeremiah?"

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ship Breaker

Yay diversity!

The characters in Ship Breaker are casually diverse and it's probably the thing we have to look forward to most in Paolo Bacigalupi's vision of the future. In the post-apocalyptic Gulf Coast, there is nothing else positive. Nailer is a ship breaker, tearing apart wrecked oil rigs for the valuable copper they contain. It's a brutal life, made even worse by the unpredictability of his drug-addicted, violent father. When a storm strands a ship that could be Nailer's only chance for wealth, he needs to decide if he should try to appease his father with the discovery, or if he should align with the mysterious Nita, a swanky girl who survives the storm.

All of the characters have led difficult lives, displayed by their tattoos, identifying facial scars, and piercings. Their struggles would make for excellent classroom debates: in a world where it's scavenge or starve, why should Nailer help this lost stranger? Setting the novel in the area of Orleans II (the original is underwater) makes this future seem more possible and the consequences more frightening.

In addition to the ominous future it presents, Ship Breaker has some of the most intense action scenes I've encountered since The Hunger Games. Bacigalupi's inclusion of half-men--hybrids of humans, dogs, and hyenas--ups the science fiction quotient and makes the fights more lethal. I wish that there were better descriptions of how the half-men looked; I actually looked them up on google to see if any other fans had drawn them. No luck, but my interest was definitely piqued and I believe there will be a sequel to this novel.

This is not an uplifting novel, but it is addictive and the plot never lets up. I highly recommend it and believe that male students, in particular, are going to be competing to read it next.

Monday, August 8, 2011

It's Not Summer Without You

When reading The Summer I Turned Pretty, I didn't cry until then end. Its sequel, It's Not Summer Without You, had me crying at page two. Early on, author Jenny Han writes, "You think you know love, you think you know real pain, but you don’t. You don’t know anything." She then proceeds to tell us a story of extreme love and pain.

Just like the first book, It's Not Summer sucked me in and kept me reading until I finished. It could be that I read both books in the span of two days, but I feel very emotionally invested in the characters of Belly, Conrad, and Jeremiah. As they struggle with a great loss, the other characters and even the setting of the beach become less important. Everything is centered on the love triangle.

Rather than using flashbacks to their childhood again, Han writes brief chapters from Jeremiah's point of view. This serves to (1) make me love him, and (2) make Conrad seem even more aloof and mysterious. As I mentioned in my review of the first book, I think being older has led me to just want Belly to end up with Jeremiah, the nice guy. Unfortunately, her feelings for Conrad are like the tides, constantly ebbing and flowing. Han beautifully describes the agony of (believing to be) moving past a first love: "I loved him longer and truer than I had anyone in my whole life and I would probably never love anyone that way again. Which, to be honest, was almost a relief."

Should I even pretend that I am going to read another book before diving into the final book about Belly, Conrad, and Jeremiah? You wouldn't believe me anyways. I will be so sad when this trilogy ends, but not enough to show any restraint.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Before I Fall

Right from the start, we know Samantha Kingston is going to die. The prologue of Before I Fall tells of Sam's final moments, although in a YA novel there's always the hope for a happy ending. I spent most of the afternoon engrossed in the 470 pages of Lauren Oliver's novel, wanting Sam to survive and to get that happy ending.

The basic plot is very familiar--Sam relives the day of her death, trying to change minor details and find a way to make things work out in her favor. Settling into the novel, I reconciled myself to a combination of Our Town, Miracle on 34th Street, Groundhog Day, Sliding Doors, and Heathers. I was so happy to find that Before I Fall was so much more than that.

As we follow Sam through her last day, we see her interactions as a member of the most popular clique in school. The steal parking spaces, gossip, flirt with teachers, cheat, get drunk, call each other "slut", and intimidate younger students. Suddenly our heroine doesn't seem so heroic. This is the beauty of Before I Fall: the characterization makes you love and hate them all, like real people. No one is the straightforward villain, and almost everyone has a chance to be the hero. I applaud Lauren Oliver's writing, as she essentially wrote the same day over seven times, but managed to make the novel so gripping that I couldn't put it down.

Talking too much about the plot will spoil some of the surprises--of which there are many-- so I will just highly recommend that teen readers check out Before I Fall as soon as possible.