Monday, July 30, 2012

Saving Francesca

Hooray for a standalone contemporary novel that tells a complete story! I've read far too many series lately, so it is a welcome to change to finish a novel without a cliffhanger. I haven't read any of Melina Marchetta's books before (I started Jellicoe Road and it wasn't for me, sorry!), but will be seeking out others after enjoying the excellent Saving Francesca

When her private school closes, Francesca is forced to attend the newly co-ed St. Sebastian's, where females aren't exactly welcome. Francesca would turn to her outspoken, wild mother for advice, but unfortunately, she is depressed and won't get out of bed. (Side note: this has come up in so many YA novels I've read lately.) Friendless, unsupported, and adrift in a sea of smelly, obnoxious boys, Francesca needs to figure out how to save herself. 

In Saving Francesca, Marchetta writes about a part of high school life that I haven't seen before: the relationships between teenagers who take  public transportation (particularly buses) home from school together. It is such a small slice of life, but one that I remember clearly. Different from a school bus, where you know everyone, the public bus is where kids who would never regularly talk to each other end up sitting together. Similar to The Breakfast Club, but twice a day for four years. I had my bus friends: CJ, who would stub out his cigarette on the bottom of his shoe; Angela, who once rolled my socks down into doughnuts and wouldn't let me pull them up, who smoked a tampon on a dare; Shawn, who lied about taking classes at Harvard, but introduced me to the best lip gloss. I loved seeing how the misfits who happened to live near Francesca slowly became the people who knew her best. 

Marchetta is skilled at developing characters and making them feel real. I was excited to see that this same group is revisited in The Piper's Son, which has just shot to the top of my TBR pile. My quibble? Who chose these awful covers? The first looks like typical chick lit from 2004 and the second looks like it could be for a WWII novel. There is no justice from the cover gods in this case! Rip the cover off or read it on a kindle, because this novel shouldn't be missed.

Friday, July 27, 2012


Liz is a photographer who has a monthly sleepover with her "forever-best" Kate. When they argue one night and sleep in separate corners of the house, something happens between Kate and Liz's older brother, Mike, who is home from college and drunk. What follows is an exploration of justice, conscience, and friendship.

Exposed tackles the subject of rape from a unique standpoint, with Liz feeling guilty that it happened, and unsure of what justice would mean. If Mike is convicted, her brother is sent to jail and she loses her best friend. If he isn't, her brother walks free from a crime and her former best friend has been victimized twice. Either way, she loses everything and will spend the rest of her life regretting the fight that she picked with Kate.

Kimberly Marcus was wise to write Exposed as a novel in verse. This style allows her to highlight the important aspects of the story, while speeding through the long wait for a trial. Liz's confusion over what she wanted was palpable. With a plot like this, there is no way to have a happy ending. I wanted Liz and Kate to find their peace, and for Mike to fall off a cliff, and by the end, at least two-thirds of my hopes were on their way to coming true.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My Bahamian Book Camp: Part Two

In Part One, I described my experience running a week-long book camp in The Bahamas. Today, I'll share the links that I found useful in making my preparations.

Thalia's Kids' Book Club Camp
Thalia Book Club Camp Blog
The Reading Zone's Book Camp

Author Interviews
Walk the Walk's links to author videos
Skype an Author Network
Kate Messner on Author Interviews
Kate Messner's Skype Tips
Tips for a Skype Author Visit
An Author in Every Classroom - School Library Journal

Sites specific to Wonder and Origami Yoda
Wonder author R.J. Palacio's website
R.J. Palacio's Tumblr
Wonder Read-Aloud Resources This site is a goldmine with photos of most references from the novel
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda author Tom Angleberger's website
Our photo on Tom Angleberger's website!!
Evolution of the Origami Yoda cover

During our chat with the amazing Tom Angleberger

Monday, July 23, 2012

My Bahamian Book Camp: Part One

The idea was sparked years ago, when I read a quote by SARK (or was it Sandra Dodd?) that expressed a wish for a summer camp that honored kids who love reading. That's exactly the kind of camp I would have loved to attend as a child. The idea was rekindled when I found information on the amazing Thalia's Kids' Book Club Camp in New York, where young readers read tons of new books, meet authors, and take book-related field trips throughout the city. I sent the link to my awesome former principal at the school where I taught for four years in The Bahamas, and she wrote back, "Why not do it this year?" 

Tom Angleberger speaks to our Origami Yoda fans.
(Yes, he's projected onto a towel on the wall! Island living...)
Through lots of work, on- and off-island, we created the Book Camp. Fourteen students (a full class at our small school) completed applications and received a copy of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, the first of three books they would receive during the week-long camp. This book was to be read before camp began, so that we could prepare questions to ask author Tom Angleberger, who kindly agreed to speak with us over Skype. During the week we read Wonder by R.J. Palacio, who also agreed to an interview, but was on vacation, so we emailed her our questions. Our third interview was with Kate Heald, Publisher from Macmillan's Caribbean division, who gave us insight into the industry. 

Chalk haikus on the old airport walls
Four hours of original content each day is a lot of planning, and it never went as expected, but this camp was so much fun. We did a lot of activities that don't fit into my regular English classes, as well as some classics that I know everybody loves. This included: writing six-word memoirs as introductions, a book cover scavenger hunt, word games, book title poetry, writing stories based on The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, writing book reviews, chalking our haikus on the walls of an abandoned airport, and even creating an original silent film. 
Students complete a book cover scavenger hunt.
One of my favorite moments of the week happened during our conversation with Tom Angleberger. I've always wanted to do an Oprah-style giveaway, so while we were speaking with Mr. Angleberger, we told the campers that we had a surprise, then brought out the second book in the series, The Revenge of Darth Paper. It had to be a great feeling for an author to hear cries of "Yes!" and see kids dive into the novel before the conversation even ended. Some of the sweet comments that students made: "I'm going to love this book forever, even when I'm twenty-one" and "I'll dust this book every day!" 

Another great moment was during the last day, when I made the campers cookies and gave them the surprise gifts of several recent releases, which I reviewed for Young Adult Books Central. They were so excited and ready to dive into a summer of reading. 

One of my favorite examples of Book Title Poetry.
In Part Two, I'll share the resources that were useful to me while I prepared for camp.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Far From You

Far From You is the only Lisa Schroeder book I haven't read, and I was hesitant to check it out because I am not a fan of angels, which the cover emphasizes. Fortunately for me, I ignored my reservations and read this novel in verse, and there were hardly any references to angels anyway.

Alice is a teenager who has felt sad and angry since her mother's death years before. While her father has moved on to a new wife and a newborn daughter, Alice continues to write sad songs and complain about her family to her tattooed boyfriend Blaze and her best friend. Even they are tired of her inability to accept her stepmother, Victoria, into her life. When Alice, Victoria, and the baby are stranded in a car during a snowstorm, they get to know each other better and hope that it isn't too late.

I've never lost a parent nor had to watch the other move on, but I think I need to take a break from books that feature this trope, as I always end up on the side of the step-parent, not the mopey teen! That may also have something to do with my age. Regardless, I found Alice to be a prickly narrator and difficult to love. I usually mark the pages with quotes that I'd like to share, yet none stood out in this novel. The combination of those factors make me recommend this book to hardcore Lisa Schroeder fans only. Everyone else, read Chasing Brooklyn instead!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Drowning Instinct

Ilsa J. Bick is a master of dark novels that suck in the reader. Her post-apocalyptic Ashes kept me up all night, and Drowning Instinct is a book that will stay with me, as well.

Our heroine, if she can be called that, is Jenna, a sixteen-year-old who has been dealt a rotten hand. She was almost killed in a fire during childhood, leaving her with scars (aside from the ones she gives herself), her mother is an alcoholic who is losing her bookstore, and her father is controlling and abusive. Usually young adult characters with miserable lives have one bright spot, yet Jenna's is in the past--her brother has shipped out to Iraq and left with no support. It is in this state that she meets the charismatic science teacher, Mitch Anderson.

As a teacher, I am particularly squeamish about student-teacher romances in novels, yet Bick is successful in portraying the relationship as objectively as possible. I still thought Mr. Anderson was a creep, but Bick makes it difficult to condemn him wholeheartedly. He is the only adult who cares about Jenna, and if his kindness is a welcome respite for the reader, one can only imagine how important it is to Jenna. Even as Mr. Anderson's character became darker, I wanted to postpone the inevitable end of their relationship because it provided temporary hope for Jenna.

Anyone who is familiar with Bick's work knows that this novel is challenging, gritty, and exquisite. It's worth picking up, if only to make you grateful for what you have.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Dear Dumb Diary Series, Year Two

Jamie Kelly might be my middle school alter ego, and not just because of our last names. She hates math, believes more food should be served in stacks, has a snarky sense of humor, and would die if anyone read her diary. Let's face it, she could be my alter ego today. After twelve books, each following a month in her life, Jim Benton's hilarious middle schooler is back and fired up. 

Jamie can't believe she has to go back to school and deal with things like vocabulary bees, perfect girls who somehow make glasses look adorable, and the possibility of summer school. She handles all of her life's crises with humor that had me giggling. Benton has a gift for writing Jamie's voice exactly like the girl you'd want sitting next to you in class, whispering terrible comments. Some gems include, "Teachers have the very difficult job of teaching dumb things to even dumber people" and telling her mom, "I love it when you use my middle name...let's use it all the time." 

The Dear Dumb Diary books are extremely popular, so most readers won't be starting the series with this volume. If they did, they would not miss out on any of the jokes and would probably be motivated to catch up with the previous 12 books. This book is perfect for your humor-loving middle grade student.

Jamie Kelly is back, and this month she is focusing on manners. Of course, in Jamie's writing, that looks like, "You are cordially invited to stop reading my diary. If you can't accept that invitation, I'd like to offer you an invitation to the emergency room." When the handsome lunchroom monitor (!) sits with them at lunch, and the kids start to get crushes on each other, Jamie's crew decides to start having better manners. This is easier for some than others, but always funny to experience.

It's Jim Benton's little details that make the DUMB DIARY series a pleasure to follow. This includes Jamie's dream of six-inch thick Pop Tarts, her medical condition known as "blonde intolerance", and the idea of addressing someone who has been married twice as Mrsrs. My favorite is Jamie's fantasies is bumper stickers as literature. They are sprinkled throughout the book and are really just summaries of movies, such as this gem: "Find a golden ticket and win a prize. Not really. Just kidding, you do." 

Fans of the series will love this addition and be eager to see what topics Jamie tackles next.

Check out these reviews and more at Young Adult Books Central.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Abandoned Novels in Verse

Not all novels in verse are for me. These are a few that I have abandoned recently.

If the point of Allan Wolf's Zane's Trace is to imitate the mental instability of the main character, it is successful. Zane's life is difficult: he has a seizure condition, his mother killed herself, and he believes he killed his grandfather. He decides to travel in a stolen 1969 Plymouth Barracuda to his mother's hometown to kill himself. Along the way he meets a bossy girl named Libba and a host of mysterious characters. That was where Wolf lost me; the mystical appearances worked my nerves and neither Zane nor Libba were interesting enough to hold my attention. This one was returned to the library, unfinished.

I've been told that if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all. But as a book reviewer and teacher, I think it's important to share when a book doesn't work for me. Heaven Is A Lot Like The Mall is one of those books. Tessa is probably the only person to ever be killed by a dodgeball, and her afterlife ends up being the mall where she spent most of her life. There, in a nod to A Christmas Carol, Tessa is forced to review her life and learn that she should be a better person. At least, that's where I assume it was going, but I found Tessa to be so repugnant that I couldn't finish the novel. Unless an author is Charles Dickens, it's probably a good idea to skip writing an entire book about the negative qualities of the main character. I won't be recommending this, even to Wendy Mass fans.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


I can measure how good a book is if I finish it after midnight, willing to sacrifice a few hours sleep because I can't put the novel down. I finished Swipe at about 12:15 because I needed to know how it would end. I should have known that it was the first in a series; I'm ready for the sequel! I know a ton of sixth grade boys who would eat this book up. It has so many elements that appeal to them: a dystopian society, untrustworthy adults, futuristic technology, and relatable heroes.

In the alternative world of the American Union, everyone gets a Mark on their thirteenth birthday so they can get jobs, pay for things, and become full citizens. Since his sister passed away during her procedure, Logan Langley has been nervous. As his thirteenth birthday approaches, he becomes more paranoid that he is being followed. When the new girl, Erin, tells him that her father is investigating Markless teenage criminals and Logan receives a flaming note in his bedroom, he is the most unlikely secret agent ever.

It isn't perfect: at one point Logan recaps everything that happened thus far, and the whole novel could benefit from editing. Also, the cover and even the general feeling of the book are reminiscent of Neal Schusterman's Unwind. Still, these minor quibbles don't detract from how much I enjoyed Swipe.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

After learning that The Perks of Being a Wallflower has been made into a movie starring Emma Watson, I decided to finally read this book, which I've always skipped over because the cover doesn't appeal to me.

I was torn while reading it because I love epistolary novels and found Wallflower to be full of interesting quotes, yet I didn't think the writing was amazing and I found the main character, Charlie, to be bizarre. I understand that the point of the novel is his alienation and passive approach to life, but I also found his simplicity and innocence to be worrying. Author Stephen Chbosky doesn't say that Charlie is autistic, but I think that he has to be somewhere on the spectrum. Unfortunately, Charlie never feels real to me, or like a character with whom I can connect.

Still, there are those beautiful quotes, like, "Maybe these are my glory days, and I'm not even realizing it because they don't involve a ball." I could also really relate to Charlie thinking about his teachers, "It's like looking at all the students and wondering who's had their heart broken that day, and how they are able to cope with having three quizzes and a book report on top of that." I'm a good listener, so I know much of the drama surrounding my students, and I realize that my vocabulary lists won't be remembered in a few years. That's why I like focusing on the big ideas, which leave more of a residue. (Not that I'm recommending this book for middle school is way too mature for them.)

I'll see the movie, because of Emma Watson and because I am curious about how they will take the topics of the novel (lots of drug use, plus various forms of consensual and non-consensual sex) and edit them to receive a PG-13 rating. Still, I won't be re-reading the novel, nor recommending it to other fans of YA literature.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Rubber Houses

Seventeen-year-old Kit has her life all planned out. Between her AP classes, social life, and plans to spend the summer road tripping with her best friend, she lives a happily high-pressured life. When she learns that her younger brother has cancer, everything changes.   Her family is swept up in the futile task of trying to help Buddy survive, and when he doesn't, they are spinning in their own directions.

Written in simple prose, Ellen Yeomans novel is one of the most poetic I've read in awhile. Grouping the poems in sections named after parts of a baseball season ("Warm Ups", "Spring Training"), her writing had a way of seeping into my thoughts. One of the poems that particularly affected me was "Children's Hospital":

A giant giraffe
of plastic or papier-mâché
looming in the lobby.
A wall of fish
swimming beside the gift shop.
Brightly colored walls,
animal-wallpaper borders
and paw-print confetti carpeting.
A bright, welcoming place for children.
But in the mural beside the elevator
in tall teal and lime grass,
I spy a crouching lion.

I've been to the Boston Children's Hospital before, but never noticed this detail. 

I enjoyed Kit’s process of rebirth. A fit of productivity leads her to a local hardware store, which leads her to a job. The only way that she can cope with her brother’s death is to relieve the self-imposed pressure she’s felt for her entire life, take on a new name, and become useful. The book does not have a simple happy ending, and it shouldn't when a brother dies. Yeomans handles a difficult subject artfully.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Okay for Now

There are a lot of elements in Okay for Now that made me keep moving it to the bottom of my stack: it’s set in the Vietnam War era, the protagonist loves baseball, there’s an abusive father, and the coming of age is spurred by Audubon paintings. If those are things that typically turn you off, move past them because this is a special book that will appeal to all readers.

When his father loses his job, Doug and his family move to Marysville, NY (aka nowhere), and no one is happy about it. While his father spends time with his drinking buddy, Doug’s mother worries about her oldest son in Vietnam, middle son Christopher gets in trouble with the police, and Doug clashes with his new teachers. Author Gary D. Schmidt packs so much drama into this novel, events that shocked me and brought me to tears several times. A past incident of abuse that Doug suffered is the worst I have ever read, one that haunts me and breaks my heart.

Despite the darkness of the novel, there is sweetness to balance it out. I was particularly moved by the evolution of Doug’s relationships with his teachers. His English teacher says, “There are some things in this world that we cannot fix, and they happen, and it is not our fault, though we still might have to deal with them. There are other things in this world that we can fix. And that is what good teachers like me are for.” Aside from the last line, this quote could be Schmidt’s thesis statement. Doug makes the decision to improve his life, and despite setbacks, is a success.

Best of all? Schmidt’s writing brings Doug to life. His voice is incredible: a mixture of snarky attitude and joy. Doug speaks directly to the reader, revealing himself slowly and inviting us to his world. I put Okay for Now down with a happy sigh. This is the companion to a Newbery winner, The Wednesday Wars, which I have not read, but will remedy this week. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Black Stars in a White Night Sky

Black Stars in a White Night Sky is a collection of JonArno Lawson's whimsical poetry for middle grade and early adolescent readers. With characters named Merciful Percival, Ingomar Baltazar Caiaphas Copps, and Winsome Billy Willoughby, Black Stars has plenty of fun wordplay. Lawson fills his poems with alliteration and nonsense words, yet they are well-balanced with deep poems like my favorite, "An Adventure Begins," which is the first poem in the book.:

An adventure begins,
when the one who was grimacing
suddenly grins.

An adventure begins,
when the one who was losing
suddenly wins.

An adventure begins,
when the one who acts saintly
suddenly sins.

When the smooth surface pops up with circling fins,
when soft drums surrender to bold violins,
when the light of the moon starts to shine on our skins,

an adventure begins. 

Accompanied by Sherwin Tjia's illustrations which emphasize the actions in the poems, this collection will be enjoyed by young poetry fans.