Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Delirium

I'm so happy to finish my month of reviewing every day with a novel that I absolutely loved. Somehow, I read two Lauren Oliver novels in the first week of 2012, Delirium and Liesl and Po. These books couldn't be more different, although both feature fantastic writing and imaginative plots.

Delirium is a dystopian novel based on an interesting premise: what is life like in a society where love is illegal? In Lena's world, everyone receives an operation at age eighteen which prevents them from feeling love. They are paired with a spouse by the government and spend the rest of their lives in a sedated tranquility. Only a few months away from her surgery, Lena meets a mysterious stranger named Alex and begins to question everything around her.

Delirium was suspenseful and had me glued to my kindle (yay!), eager to learn what would happen next. Lauren Oliver's writing draws the reader in; she has the gift of being able to phrase everything beautifully. My favorite aspect of the book, though, were the small details that showed what a world would be like without love. Romeo and Juliet become a cautionary tale, indifferent parents are not attached to their children, and no one has heard of poetry. I loved that Oliver slid these details into the story and let them sit, tugging at my mind.

This is the first novel in a trilogy, with its sequel Pandemonium releasing in a few weeks. Sometimes it pays off to read a book so late; I hardly have to wait at all to learn what happens to the characters to whom I've grown attached.

PS. I apologize for any typing errors, my apartment is freezing right now!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Across the Universe

Looking at an old planner, I realized it's been exactly one year that I have been waiting to read Across the Universe. When I saw it in my local used bookstore as I prepared to visit my old school in The Bahamas, I thought it would be the perfect novel to read on the beach and then leave behind for my students. The sexual references will earn it a slot on the "Grade 8 Only" shelf, but I think the students will enjoy Beth Revis' debut novel, probably more than I did.

Amy and her parents are being frozen aboard a spaceship headed towards a new planet; they will be thawed in three hundred years, after their arrival on Centauri Earth. When Amy is unthawed fifty years early, she is justifiably angry that she has lost her past, as well as her future with her parents. Then she realizes that by unplugging her, someone was trying to murder her and may strike again soon.

Perhaps I was expecting too much after a year of waiting, but Across the Universe dragged for me. The novel's narration is divided between Amy and Elder, one of the residents of the spaceship who happens to be the only person Amy's age and its future leader. At over 400 pages, too many of the scenes are told from both Amy and Elder's perspectives, which slowed the pace and made me feel like I was reading the same chapter twice. Although they came from different worlds, their interpretations of events were too similar to merit telling twice.

My other problem with the book was that the surprise twist was anything but. The hints were heavy-handed, yet it still took Revis until Chapter 70 to make the big reveal. Perhaps my students will be patient enough to wait that long, but I prefer my plot to move more quickly.

It wasn't a bad book; the plot idea is very interesting and, well, I can't really think of a second example to support that statement. So I leave the book behind in The Bahamas, shrugging and wishing it was better.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Liesl & Po

Liesl spends her life locked away in an attic, mourning the death of her father. One day, a ghost named Po appears, asking Liesl to draw it a picture and passing along some words from her late father: “I should never have eaten the soup.” The pair escapes and set out on an adventure that would allow her father to rest in peace. Along the way they meet another orphan named Will who happens to be delivering the most powerful magic in the world for an evil alchemist. They join forces and spend their journey avoiding the various adults that are chasing them, using magic, friendship, and luck.

You know you are in for some sadness when the first sentence in a book is, “On the third night after the day her father died, Liesl saw the ghost.” Our heroes are mistreated orphans or ghosts, all but one adult is evil, and the sun has not come out in 1,728 days. Still, many of the best children’s books (The Graveyard Book, The Giving Tree, anything by Roald Dahl) mix darkness and light, and Liesl and Po is an example of how to share difficult subjects with a young audience. Liesl’s optimism, Po’s loyalty, and Will’s kind heart are the traits that everyone hopes to maintain in the face of loss. Author Lauren Oliver’s preface states that she wrote the novel in response to the death of her best friend. What was a lifeline for an author became a gift to the reader.

There is a timeless quality to Liesl & Po which brings to mind many of my favorite books from childhood. While some readers may dislike the familiarity of the characters and plot, I believe that those books are classics for a reason and one can never have enough beautifully written stories about friendship and love. With its vaguely Victorian setting and lack of details that place it in a particular time period, this is a novel with enduring appeal.

It was easy to predict the ending of the story, but I was happy to follow the twists and turns that Oliver takes to get us there. Her writing is beautiful, and the vivid descriptions would make this an excellent read aloud. The illustrations by Kei Acedera are dreamy and fit in with the magical atmosphere of the story. If I had any complaint, it would be that the evil characters did not receive harsh enough punishments, although that may be the vindictive adult in me.

While Liesl and Po is a standalone novel, I hope it is only the first of many middle grade novels by Lauren Oliver.

Read this and more reviews at Young Adult Books Central.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Frenzy

The Frenzy is not the Francesca Lia Block that I am used to reading. From the cover blurb, I was hoping to read about the slinkster cool world of Weetzie Bat, with some werewolves thrown in. Instead, I got a paranormal story that was lacking the whimsy that makes Block's work shine.

My mild disappointment might not be the fault of The Frenzy; I think it is time for me to take a break from paranormal novels. Since I know from the start that a character is going to become a vampire/werewolf/ghost, I grow impatient while waiting for the character to realize it. The process of becoming the creature is not what interests me, but rather what they do with their new powers. Protagonist Grace takes too long to discover the meaning of her desire for red meat, penchant for walking on her toes, and dreams about running in a pack. While I appreciated that Block wrote about the negative sides of being a mystical creature--being covered in downy red hair would be terrible, especially as a teenager--she left out the mystical element that is the best part of her writing.

Block devotees should read the novel, everyone else should just re-read Weetzie Bat.


Friday, January 27, 2012

Like Mandarin

After finishing Imaginary Girls, I wasn't sure if I was ready for another "young girl admires wild girl" novel, which was what Like Mandarin promised to be. I'm very happy I decided that I didn't care, because Kirsten Hubbard's novel was completely different and, in my opinion, far more enjoyable.

Protagonist Grace is an awkward, bony fourteen. She is too smart for her Wyoming town full of cowboys, beauty pageants, and dead-end futures. When Grace is paired up for a project with rebellious, beautiful Mandarin Ramey, she is swept up by the prospect of getting attention and finally living. When Grace discovers the roots of Mandarin's behavior, she has to decide if this is someone she wants to follow.

Hubbard's triumph is in her characterization of Grace. Every adolescent has an older girl who she wishes to emulate. I remember an older girl at camp who wore a Colby sweatshirt. For some reason, I thought that was her name (I wasn't brilliant), and thought it was the coolest name in the world. Grace's feelings for Mandarin are similar: she knows her class schedule, she practices sauntering like her, and she keeps tabs on the many men with whom Mandarin is rumored to have affairs. This kind of infatuation is difficult to describe, but Hubbard does it beautifully, making the reader cringe while understanding that this is a part of growing up. I particularly love that Grace's younger sister has the same feelings for her...we are all the cool older girl for someone else.

There are many affecting scenes in the novel, but the one that sticks with me is when Grace is invited into Mandarin's bedroom for the first time. It is described as having scuff marks all over the bottom third of the walls. As if I was a gossipy native of their small town, I immediately assumed it was something sex-related, as Mandarin doesn't deny being promiscuous. When she angrily kicks the wall, leaving another scuff mark, I realized that the truth was so much sadder: this lonely girl is so caged by her identity and the lack of possibilities in her town that she has to lash out. Mandarin's scuff marks on the wall are the residue that remains with me after finishing this novel.

One minor nitpick: While the cover of the novel is gorgeous, it doesn't seem to be a picture of either of the two girls. Mandarin is famous for her black hair, angular cheekbones, and tea-colored eyes. Grace is too young, awkward, and plain to be the girl on the cover. Read the first chapter here and decide who you think it is.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Imaginary Girls

Imaginary Girls has some major hype behind it. With rumors of magic realism and an incredible cover, I was excited to read Nova Ren Suma's debut novel. All of the buzz was well-deserved: this is a book that needs to be discussed to be understood. Not a breezy beach read, this is one for the book club.

Chloe has always lived in the shadow of her older sister, Ruby. Growing up with only each other to count on, Ruby takes on mythical status with her sister. But maybe it isn't just Chloe that sees the magic. When a local girl is found dead, Chloe leaves town for two years and Ruby will do whatever it takes to get her back.

Imaginary Girls belongs to Ruby, the mysterious center of the story. As I started reading, I thought that she was just another Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Like most people, I am drawn to these characters; Alaska Young and Weetzie Bat. Still I have never met one in real life because girls like that don't really exist. When I read about "The store where she got her signature shade of wine red lipstick, how they held her color behind the counter so no one else could wear it" and "Ruby’s way of doing dishes—leaving them piled in the sink and on the stove for a week at a time until there was no other option but to crate them over to the bathtub for a good soaking", I thought I was in for another MPDG. Suma surprised me, though. As the novel progressed, I realized that there was a much darker side to Ruby's charisma.

For me, this wasn't a comfortable read. None of the characters were very likable and I felt myself dreading when everything would inevitably fall apart in the world of Ruby's creation. Despite this, I was satisfied with the eerie ending and will most likely read the novel again, picking up more in my second reading.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Pink Smog: Becoming Weetzie

For the past twenty years, Weetzie Bat has been an icon for outcasts who choose to see the world through rose-colored glasses (preferably cat-eyed and pink). Francesca Lia Block has returned with Pink Smog: Becoming Weetzie, an origin story that takes us back to 1970s Los Angeles, before Weetzie was slinkster-cool, when she was just awkward, thirteen-year-old Louise Bat.

Fans of the series know that Weetzie’s parents, Brandy-Lynn and Charlie, had a poolside fight that ended their marriage and shattered both adults forever. In Pink Smog, we get ringside seats to the collapse of their relationship and how Weetzie coped. While the novel is focused around this event, the plot is usually beside the point in Weetzie Bat novels. What we get is an escape into the glittering lives of the dangerous angels of Shangri-L.A. When it comes to magical realism, Block has got everyone beat. I wish that my brain worked like Block’s, churning out beautiful ideas like, “Once I was stung by a jellyfish and the pain felt just like the thing looked—gelatinous and cold and veined with hurt.” Block creates a mystical world of jacaranda blossoms and vintage cars that encourages readers to find the beauty in their own lives.

Pink Smog is more grounded than any of the others in the series and it suffers slightly for it. For the first time, the novel is written in the first person, so the reader knows Weetzie’s thoughts and feelings. While it might be reassuring to younger readers to know that such an amazing character has insecurities, part of the fairy tale fun of the novels is lost in the process. Another misstep is that too much time is spent in Weetzie’s high school, a setting that feels out of place and uncomfortable in Block’s world. It’s always risky to return to a beloved character, but Block has done it before with Necklace of Kisses (review), which takes Weetzie into her forties. That foray was more successful because she was still able to be the independent spirit that readers love, untethered to school and parents.

This slim volume could be read in an afternoon, but Block’s writing deserves to be savored. Her descriptions are gorgeous, particularly when describing the city that she and Weetzie love. If you haven’t read any of the books in the series, I recommend reading Weetzie Bat first, in order to understand the references at the end of Pink Smog. Once you are firmly entrenched in Weetzie’s world, you will enjoy this and the other novels in the series.

Read this and more reviews at Young Adult Books Central.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In Darkness

The 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti has trapped fifteen-year-old gangster Shorty under the rubble in the hospital where he has been recovering from a gunshot. As his hope for survival slowly fades, he maintains his sanity by telling his life story to the darkness that surrounds him.

This plot would be enough to hook me, but author Nick Lake makes In Darkness more compelling by alternating Shorty's story with a third person account of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian slave who led a successful revolution against the French in the late 18th century. It is a powerful juxtaposition to pair Toussaint's hope and love for his beautiful nation and Shorty's despair in the slums of Port au Prince. Touissant's life is fascinating; as an older, unattractive, and uneducated slave, he is not the typical hero. Yet he accomplishes the seemingly impossible with wisdom and grace.

As much as I enjoyed learning more about Toussaint L'Ouverture, I found myself looking forward to Shorty's chapters. His plot feels so immediate and vital. The transformation of the character of Shorty is very clever. Initially, he comes across as an innocent victim of the earthquake, then his story slowly unfolds and the reader learns about the terrible things he has done. Just when he borders on unsympathetic, Lake deftly reminds the reader that there are few options available to youths in the slums and that Shorty manages to keep his humanity. Shorty describes his best friend, saying, "Sometimes I'd look at him and it was like he'd forgotten to put the shutters over his eyes, and I'd see right down to his soul, and see how much he was hurting. He was unprotected, is the best way I can say it. His manman died when he was little, and there was nothing about him that could keep bad stuff out." At times it is difficult to remember that the characters are children, but that is the power of In Darkness; the reality hits the reader unexpectedly.

We need more young adult literature about Haiti. This is a country that is frequently in the news for tragedies, yet there is a dearth of narratives that encourage a personal connection with the people being affected. When teaching a unit on Haitian immigration to Bahamian students, we read Frances Temple's Taste of Salt, but that was the only fiction text that was available for middle school readers. In Darkness is for older readers; the violence is explicit and the dead-end lives of the residents of the Site Soley slums weigh heavily on the reader. The publication of Lake's novel will hopefully only be the beginning of a wave of novels informing readers about life in modern Haiti.

Read this and other reviews on Young Adult Books Central.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Mameshiba: On the Loose!

I am predisposed to like Mameshiba: On the Loose! after living in Korea and Japan. After a few years in countries that idealize cuteness, one of the top ways to appeal to me is by anthropomorphizing objects. Put two cute eyes and a mouth on anything and I will buy it, sad but true. So I lit up when James Turner's graphic novel arrived in my mailbox.

"Mameshiba" comes from the Japanese words for "bean" and "dog", and the characters are basically beans with dog ears. Still, Turner manages to infuse the shapes with a lot of personality. The book begins with a guide to the mameshiba which introduces the reader to their characteristics. For example, our hero Edamame is "the brave, determined leader of the pack". It helps that artist Jorge Monlongo constantly has the mameshiba in action: running, jumping, and riding unicycles. The illustrations are detailed and colorful, which will appeal to the young readers who are the target audience.

Also appealing to young readers are the short plotlines. There are several stories in the book, involving adventures into the sewer, as well as outer space. They are interspersed with one-page "shorts" by Gemma Correll which are bizarrely random and cute. Best of all, it will be easy for readers to mimic the drawings and create their own mameshiba comics. There are enough characters and potential stories that this short book can lead to many afternoons of fun.

This graphic novel was provided by the publisher in consideration for The Cybils. This did not influence my review.



Sunday, January 22, 2012

Luz Sees the Light

Hey Kids,

Want to read a black/white/brown graphic novel that lectures you about climate change?

Yes, me neither.

I dislike when agendas are shoehorned into books, hidden in the guise of "It's a graphic novel, they'll like it." I am an environmentalist and an educator, but know that for a message to be effective, it has to be appealing. Multiple pages in Luz Sees the Light feature quotes like, "If we keep relying on imports, eventually we won't be able to afford the things we need. So we should buy from local farms and businesses and produce our own stuff." This is the ultimate in telling-not-showing, which turns off readers and prevents the message from being communicated.

From electricity blackouts to rising gas prices to vegetarianism to composting, there is just too much crammed into Luz Sees the Light. While environmental issues are interconnected, author Claudia Davila should have focused on just one aspect so that her target audience could better digest these important lessons.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Classics To Consider

Does it get better than Number the Stars? Lois Lowry's novel is the gold standard for adolescent Holocaust literature. I can't think of any novel (and I have read a ton of them) that better introduces the tragedy in a gentle yet informative way. I am so happy that it continues to be read and cherished by students. I remember reading it when it was first published and my sixth graders currently list it as one of their favorite novels.

The story of Annemarie Johansen's family and their efforts to save their Jewish friends is a beautiful example of loyalty, courage, and friendship. If you haven't read Number the Stars since middle school, it is worth reading again. It definitely stands the test of time.


I would have loved The Egypt Game when I was growing up. I was fascinated by the chart of hieroglyphics on the wall of my social studies classroom, and spent way too much time trying to write my name using birds and other symbols. Protagonists April and Melanie do this, and more: they recreate Egypt in a vacant lot in their neighborhood, using research and their imaginations to make it as realistic as possible.

Published in 1967, the novel introduces readers to childhood before video games and television. While parts of the novel seemed to drag, at the same time there is so much story packed into this novel. It's interesting to note that a neighborhood child murderer was a casual plot point in the 60s, something that would be very controversial today. Still, I hope that today's readers are inspired to engage in more creative play after reading The Egypt Game.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Divergent

Divergent is a novel that makes me jealous of the adolescents who get to grow up with this as their contemporary literature. The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins were fine, but if I came of age with Divergent and The Hunger Games, I feel like I might be the queen of a new planet by now. No pressure, kids.


In future Chicago, the society is divided into five factions designed to cultivate a specific virtue: Candor (honesty), Dauntless (bravery), Abnegation (selflessness), Erudite (knowledge), and Amity (the peaceful). When citizens turn sixteen, they may choose to continue in the faction of their birth, or disavow their upbringing and select a new faction. Born into Abnegation, Beatrice has never felt selfless or good enough for her faction, but fears leaving everything she knows behind. She thinks that selecting a faction other than Abnegation of Choosing Day will be the most difficult thing she has to do, not knowing that it is only the beginning of her troubles.

Debut author Veronica Roth took an incredible idea and managed to provide fully realized characters and suspense. There is ample time given to character development, but it never drags or feels unnecessary. These efforts on Roth’s part draw the reader in and bind them to Beatrice and her friends. I was genuinely concerned about the characters and stayed up until 2:00am because I could not wait to find out how things would resolve.

Divergent has gotten tons of publicity, and it deserves all the attention. There are two more novels planned in the trilogy and the movie rights have already been sold. Comparisons to The Hunger Games are easy to make, but aside from having a strong female protagonist and being dystopian novels, they are very different, which is great news for fans of the genre. What's better than having another series to hand off to new dystopian converts?


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Page by Paige

Quiet artist Paige moves to New York City with her parents and is quickly intimidated by how different life is from Virginia. She decides to be her own friend first, purchases a sketchbook, and follows her grandmother's rules for being an artist (check them out here). These rules serve as chapter titles and give a preview of the events that will occur in that section.

Page by Paige's coming of age story will be instantly relatable to introspective readers. Paige vacillates between the safety of keeping to herself and her desire to make friends. Every time she pushes herself beyond her comfort level, she is rewarded: with increased creativity, new friends, and more confidence.

The art is the true star of the novel. Laura Lee Gulledge's black and white illustrations beautifully express Paige's emotions. Many of the issues that Paige faces are common to middle and high school students, who will hopefully get strength from seeing them represented as true art. If I was a guidance counselor, I would buy one copy to keep
in my office and one copy to cut up and frame for my walls. One of my favorite drawings depicts the line, "I tell myself that everyone else feels alone, too." A small box shows the high school hallway and the rest of the page features each student in their own rowboat. Each page must have taken so much work that Page by Paige deserves a place of honor in everyone's classroom library.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My Boyfriend Is A Monster

The new graphic novel series, My Boyfriend Is A Monster, explores teen relationships under the most trying circumstances: zombie invasions and monster attacks.

I Love Him to Pieces pairs up athletic Dicey Bell and budding scientist Jack Chen to co-parent an egg for health class. Their paths would not have normally crossed, but they find that they really enjoy each other. Jack's scientist parents are often travelling, and Dicey's exuberance fills the void in his life. Unfortunately, there is a zombie outbreak on their first date and Jack is bitten, causing them to spend the rest of the book trying to survive while searching for a cure.

I Love Him to Pieces is pure fun. Without feeling didactic, author Evonne Tsang presents the reader with protagonists who are fully realized and contrary to stereotypes. I always enjoy a story with an Asian male love interest, and the scene when Dicey ogles Jack mowing the lawn shirtless is particularly endearing.

With engrossing illustrations (Dicey's expressions are really sweet) and a plotline that ties up neatly, I recommend adding this quick read to your library.


I did not connect as much with the second book in the series, Made for Each Other. Paul D. Storrie's entry to the series is confusing and not nearly as charming.

Centered around Maria McBride, a shy orphan violinist, and the burly new student Tom B. Stone (yep), this strange take on Frankenstein lacks the quirky romance of the first book. Neither Maria nor Tom is a likable character, so when they fall for each other for no reason, the reader is not intrigued to learn more.

While any book in a series about monster boyfriends is expected to be campy, there are too many plot holes in Made for Each Other. I might use it as an example of "telling not showing" in writing; Storrie deliberately points out the humor in character names like Hedy Stone, rendering them unfunny and flat.

Skip this second entry to the series and check out books three and four; clearly the quality of the books varies greatly.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Fracture

"What would you do if you only had one day left to live?" This is the question that haunts Delaney Maxwell after she spends eleven minutes under a winter lake. Her heart and brain stopped working; Fracture's protagonist dies in the first seven pages of the novel, but somehow she doesn't stay dead. Despite all medical reason, Delaney survives as good as new. Almost.

After drowning, she finds herself inexplicably drawn to the dead and dying, and she's not alone. The mysterious Troy, an outsider who also came out of a coma, always seems to be around when someone is dying. Troy is the opposite of Delaney's lifelong best friend, Decker, who saved her from the lake and is suddenly unrelatable. The distance increases between Delaney and all her loved ones, but when Troy reveals himself to be less noble than he seems, she has nowhere to turn.

Wintertime in Maine is the perfect setting for this story about isolation, where Delaney is frozen out of the life she once had. Author Megan Miranda is skilled at creating a cold atmosphere in the local hospital and Delaney's home. Rather than giving her characters the warmth and celebration that should follow a near death experience, Miranda keeps her characters metaphorically trapped beneath ice.

Delaney can be a frustrating character. While she has been given a second chance at life and spends much of the novel asking others what they would do if they only had one day left to live, she does not live her words. She expresses herself poorly to Decker and her parents, and is paralyzed to act when she knows a situation is wrong.

Fracture is far darker than the plot synopsis implies. When I started reading, I expected a paranormal plotline, but it is more of a thriller than anything else. There are few bright spots for Delaney, so much of the narrative feels like a heavy weight on the reader's chest. Still, I could not stop reading, hoping that the ice would thaw for Delaney.

Read this view and more like it at Young Adult Books Central.







Monday, January 16, 2012

Sita: Daughter of the Earth

I think I’m similar to my students in that if I’m going to learn about something new, I enjoy doing it via graphic novel. I was really excited to receive Sita: Daughter of the Earth, which tells about characters from Hindu mythology. This graphic novel is Saraswati Nagpal’s retelling of the Ramayana, focusing on Sita, Rama’s wife.

Sita’s mother is the goddess Bhudevi, but she is adopted by a king. Beautiful and intelligent, she has a happy life until it is time to marry. After hearing of the brave exploits of the warrior prince Rama, she decides to issue a challenge to claim her as a bride. The palace holds a great bow, which was magically built to be impossible for a mortal man to life. No surprise—the hero Rama breaks the bow, beginning their lives together.

Like any epic heroine, Sita faces many trials. Nagpal’s story has a feminist slant; Sita is courageous and loyal, plus she speaks up for herself and others. At the end of the book, she makes a choice that shows that she is a truly principled heroine.

Manikandan’s illustrations are lush and gorgeously detailed. Readers will pore over the gods and goddesses whose beauty will incite imaginations. Sita: Daughter of the Earth is an engrossing graphic novel and an excellent introduction to the Ramayana.

Text provided by the publisher for review for the Cybils.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ten Things I Hate About Me

Ten Things I Hate About Me is written from a perspective I've never encountered before--an Australian Lebanese-Muslim teen. Jamilah has a double identity. At home she lives a traditional and highly structured life with her strict father and older siblings. At school, she is Jamie, a blonde (thanks to hair dye) and blue-eyed (thanks to contact lenses) girl who will do anything to hide her ethnicity and become more popular.

This dual personality is a balancing act which prevents her from being truly comfortable with anyone. Enter her new email buddy, with whom she can finally be honest. You can probably guess how that storyline ends.

What I appreciated most about this novel was the insight into the life of a Lebanese-Australian family. Author Randa Abdel-Fattah sprinkles facts throughout the novel which broadened my knowledge of the culture. While obviously heightened to propel the plot, it was interesting to learn about the cultural tensions that could exist in an Australian high school. For example, people from New Zealand experienced a lot more prejudice than I expected.

There were a few instances of sloppy writing that took me out of the story. At one point, the descriptor "bottle green" was used twice in as many pages. Also, multiple scenes end with Jamilah storming from the room in tears. While this may be typical teenage behavior, it felt more like lazy writing and a lack of direction.

Minor complaints aside, Ten Things I Hate About Me is a novel that will appeal to many female readers and is worth checking out.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn

I lived in Japan for a year so was thrilled to find The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn, a YA mystery set during the Tokugawa period. Even better that it's genuinely interesting and well-written. And what's more? It's the first in a series by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler.

Seikei is a tea merchant's son who idolizes samurai, but can never be one because they are born, not made. Still, he holds himself to the samurai ideals of honor, loyalty, honesty, courage, and respect. When Seikei witnesses the theft of a jewel and sees a girl unjustly accused, he risks his life to stand up for what is right. This action pairs him in solving the crime with a famous samurai, Judge Ooka. Suddenly, Seikei is surrounded by intrigue: kabuki actors, stolen gems, cowardly samurai, and the all-powerful shogun. 

While the criminal is clear from the beginning, the motive is less obvious and truly educational. This is true historical fiction, yet it never felt too didactic. I love that Ooka is a real historical figure, known as the Sherlock Holmes of Japan. I would love to teach The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn, but know that I don't have to make it a class novel in order for it to be popular. Written for younger readers, this novel will entertain everyone who encounters it. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Graphic Novels for Younger Readers Part Two

Read Part One of my graphic novel suggestions for younger readers here.

Freddie Pickle and the Mathematical Menace is a little gift to math teachers from author Eric Wight. This book, written in prose with many comic-style illustrations sprinkled throughout, cleverly shows how math is used in daily life.

Freddie is touted as the kid with the world's most amazing imagination, so a simple math quiz turns into a trip to a dragon's lair, battling number creatures. The illustrations are detailed and fun to examine. Developing chapter book readers will be happy for the frequent illustrations. (Plus, Frankie Pickle looks a lot like the author)

The story felt slightly didactic to me, or at least more moralizing than the books I usually read. Perhaps it is because its target audience is so young. It would be fun to read a chapter of this novel aloud in math class and let students take turns reading it.


Although Binky Under Pressure is the third book in the series, it was my introduction to Binky, a space cat who lives on Earth to protect 'his' humans, which amounts to lots of napping and occasional snuggling. Binky's goal is to rise in the ranks of F.U.R.S.T. (Felines of the Universe Ready for Space Travel), but he gets sidetracked when a new cat moves into his home. Gracie is cuter and better-behaved, so Binky must use all his Space Cat skills to compete with this interloper.

Ashley Spires' illustrations are clean, detailed, and appealing. It could be difficult to draw pictures of a cat who spends all day laying down and occasionally swatting at flies, but Spires' talent ensures that readers will examine each drawing for the slight differences that bring a giggle. Get all three of the books out of the library and watch your readers happily breeze through them.




Thursday, January 12, 2012

Son of the Mob

Gordon Korman is quickly becoming a favorite author of mine. Son of the Mob is my second Korman novel and it couldn't be more different from Schooled. The fact that Schooled hippie Capricorn and Son's mob prince Vince Luca are so fundamentally different, yet so realistic, inspired me to create a new unit. I'd love to teach units where students read a variety of texts written by masters of each aspect of author's craft. For voice, I would definitely choose Gordon Korman.

Vince Luca's father is a criminal kingpin, which means Vince can have anything he wants: fancy cars, pretty girls, tons of money. The family business doesn't appeal to him, so Vince drives a busted Mazda and has no social life. Staying crime-free is a noble goal, but it becomes impossible when he meets Kendra, the daughter of the FBI agent who is investigating Vince's dad.

Korman's version of Romeo and Juliet is pure fun. Both Vince and Kendra are fairly typical; aside from their bizarre circumstances, they could be any teenager on the street. This relatability makes it easier to imagine yourself in Vince's situation, unable to play football because no one wants to tackle you, unable to run for homecoming king because it would draw attention to your family. Korman's gift is that he can take insane situations and make them totally believable.

I thought this book skewed a bit mature for my sixth grade students; it references call girls and hitmen, plus features lots of making out. I was surprised to have two of my students see me reading the book and telling me how much they had loved it. So there you go. It includes nothing that isn't on television at 8:00 and is good enough that fairly quiet boys get excited when I mention there is a sequel. I'll be reading that, and plenty more of Gordon Korman's works.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Crispin

Crispin: The Cross of Lead is one of those classics that I missed along the way. Luckily and happily, I am currently taking a historical fiction class that will help me fill in the gaps. Get ready for lots of historical fiction reviews!

At the beginning of the novel, Crispin has a miserable life. He is a medieval serf, uneducated and penniless, who never knew his father. When his mother dies and he is unjustly accused of a crime, Crispin needs to flee his village in order to survive. While he dodges those who pursue him, he makes an unlikely friend and moves closer towards learning who he really is.

Avi's ability to convey complex historical information to a young audience is admirable. I don't know much about the medieval period, so I learned a lot about the era and lifestyle. One prominent theme is the role of religion in everyone's lives, which lends this book to a great cross-curricular unit with social studies.

One thing that irritated me was Crispin's complete lack of common sense. As an uneducated peasant, I did not expect him to know the ways of the world. But his inability to heed the advice of more knowledgeable people was frustrating. At times, I wanted to shake him and just say, "Whatever you think is right? Do the opposite!" I'm curious if this is the mature adult in me speaking or if students will feel the same. I'll be able to find out as some of my students will be reading this novel later in the year.

I can't help but compare Crispin to Avi's other Newbery honored novel, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. Both novels feature a protagonist who is thrust into a world for which they are unprepared, who later become independent and heroic. I greatly prefer Charlotte, because the novel is more suspenseful, while Crispin's plot twist is fairly evident from the beginning. Still, the more the merrier when it comes to historical fiction that will hook young readers.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

All the Broken Pieces

There is a special nerdy joy that comes from finding the exact perfect pair of books for a literature circle. When I started reading All the Broken Pieces, I knew it would be an excellent 'boy book' to compliment Inside Out and Back Again. Both books are written in free verse and document the experiences of a Vietnamese child that moves to the US in the 1970s.

All the Broken Pieces is far darker, though. It focuses on Matt, a talented pianist and baseball player, who is adopted. His family has a younger biological son and Matt feels tentative, as if maybe his family would return him. Much of the novel occurs internally, as Matt processes the trauma he's survived. He carries a lot of guilt about the mother and brother he left behind. He also deals with bullying from classmates whose brothers were killed in the war.

My heart grieved for Matt, who just wants to keep everyone happy, while he is eaten up inside. Ann Burg's novel was affecting and could lead to profound class discussions about how Muslims are treated in the US today. Since both All the Broken Pieces and Inside Out and Back Again are such quick reads, I would have students read both books, to give a more well-rounded view of young Vietnamese immigrants.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Inconvenient

This was a definite case of judging a book by its cover. I've had Inconvenient by Margie Gelbwasser on my bookshelf for months. The cover art did not appeal to me and the title is forgettable (I read it a few days ago and had to recheck before writing the review--was it Irreversible? Inconceivable? Ah, Inconvenient!) I am happy I finally picked it up because this is a debut novel worth reading.

Alyssa is a Russian-American teen living in a judgmental New Jersey town. She and her friend Lana are eager to fit in with the popular crowd at school, with Lana willing to go to ever-greater lengths for status. Gelbwasser beautifully describes the feelings of growing apart from a best friend, particularly the realization that you have been excluded.

The real focus of the novel is Alyssa's mother's increasing dependence on alcohol and how it is dealt with in a Russian Jewish community where alcohol is a part of the culture. Seen as "inconvenient" by Alyssa's workaholic father and normal by the other Russian adults, the responsibility of running a household and keeping the secret falls to Alyssa. The depiction of an alcoholic parent is extremely realistic and refreshingly unique with the added cultural element. I've never read a novel from this point of view before, and it was eye opening for me.

There is some sexual exploration and a few innuendos in the novel, which is disappointing because it limits the age range for the novel. Without those aspects, I'd consider it appropriate for most middle school students. As it is, I will be recommending it to alumni who love realistic fiction and are better than I am at ignoring lame covers!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Clique

It's not often that I start out disliking a book and change my mind by the end. The Clique by Lisi Harrison is the exception.

At first I thought The Clique was akin to Gossip Girl for seventh graders, full of stereotypical characters and flashy brands. I cringed to read about the mean girls who are held up in an aspirational manner, the clique of the title being Massie Block and her trio of popular followers. Would-be heroine Claire is middle class and living in Massie's guesthouse with her family, providing plenty of opportunities for social competition and mishaps. Midway through the book, things got interesting. Claire turns out to not be such an angel, some of her actions are underhanded and nasty. And I liked it! Too often, these formulaic novels show characters as one-sided: Massie is rich and bad, Claire is nerdy and good. Harrison ably shows that it is impossible to be one or the other.

Do I hope my students will be like any of the characters in this novel? Definitely not. But I would be curious to discuss the novel with them: what do they find realistic? Does any of it seem ridiculous to them? Sometimes reading fluff can be fun and lead to more in-depth conversations than expected.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Shrink to Fit

Shrink to Fit reminds me of the problem novels I used to read when I was younger. There was always the "issue of the week" which taught me about abusive boyfriends, divorce, and alcohol use. The issue in Shrink to Fit is anorexia.

Leah is a star basketball player whose mother is a former model, hoping to reclaim her glory through her daughter. With increasing pressure to be thin from all sides, Leah slips into anorexia and manages to hit every symptom and side effect in 200 pages: hair loss, heart troubles, black-outs, and chills. While the writing felt a bit heavy handed and possibly inaccurate (how tall does a girl have to be to be a size 00 at 140 pounds?), the story moved along quickly and Leah's character was enjoyable. The writing isn't brilliant but it conveys the necessary information in a way that doesn't feel condescending.

I've been wanting to check out the Kimani Tru books for awhile. According to the imprint's website, their target audience is African Americans aged 14 - 20, older than my middle school students. I am dedicated to diversity in my classroom library, so will continue to read Kimani Tru books, looking for titles that are appropriate for my students. Shrink to Fit features "near-sex" and a few curses, but would be suitable for the older and more mature of my students.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Rapunzel's Revenge

Rapunzel’s Revenge belongs in your library. This fairy tale is fractured in just the right way—rather than wasting away, waiting for a prince to rescue her, Dean and Shannon Hale’s heroine is feisty and in control.


Locked away by the evil Gothel, Rapunzel spends years growing her hair and getting strong. She rescues herself from an enchanted tower, promptly dispatches of a prince, and then teams off with the trouble-prone Jack to seek revenge.

I loved this book. The authors have constructed an interesting world full of action and diverse characters. The illustrations were excellent; I was not surprised to learn that artist Nathan Hale (no relation to the authors) spent a year working on Rapunzel’s Revenge. It was time well spent. The panels were laid out in various ways, which kept the reader’s interest and added to the story. The cartoon-style drawings brought the action of the plot to life.

I highly recommend this graphic novel and am eager to check out its sequel, Calamity Jack.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Al Capone Does My Shirts

Set in 1935, Al Capone Does My Shirts tells the story of Moose, a boy whose family moves to Alcatraz so that his father can work as an electrician. Moose's older sister Natalie has autism (before this was an official diagnosis) and his mother is desperate to find a school that will help prepare her for adulthood. Unfortunately, the by-products of this desperation include the neglect of Moose and overworking herself and her husband.

Despite these heavy themes, this coming of age story includes plenty of humor. Moose is a likable character with whom most readers will be able to relate. The adventures that Moose and his friends get into are clever and take full advantage of the setting.

There was one thing that I disliked about this novel. It's very rare that I actively hate a character in young adult fiction, but Gennifer Choldenko's troublesome character Piper raised my ire like none other. The beautiful daughter of the warden, Piper is cruel and leads to constant trouble. One of the recommended literature circle questions provided at the end of the novel states, "If you could give Moose some advice about how to handle Piper, what would you say?" My best advice would be: run as fast as you can and don't look back.

Al Capone Does My Shirts was far more serious than I expected, but still enjoyable. There is a sequel, but the thought of reading any more about Piper deters me from picking it up.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Viola in Reel Life

I really wanted to like Viola in Reel Life: I ordered it from a different library, gazed covetously at the cover in the bookstore, and avoided reviews so as not to be spoiled. Unfortunately, all that effort didn't pay off because I really did not enjoy this novel.

The story seemed so promising on the book jacket. Viola, the Brooklyn daughter of two filmmakers, is sent to boarding school in Indiana for the year while they film a documentary in Afghanistan. Viola dreads the move and does not want to get along with her optimistic roommates. Strangely, this conflict is wrapped up by page 60 and the rest of the novel flits between minor troubles and successes for the protagonist.

This is not to say that I don't like 'light' novels. My real issue with Viola in Reel Life was that it constantly felt like it was written by an adult, particularly one who wants to share her knowledge of film making and perhaps works for the New York tourism board. I was never able to lose myself in the story because I felt like the novel was constantly trying to teach me. There is an audience for this kind of book, but it's just not me.  

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Come Juneteenth

I was unprepared for how serious Come Juneteenth was. For years, I've seen Ann Rinaldi's novels and assumed they were adolescent historical romances. I was completely wrong and look forward to reading more of her work, because she presented an interesting and educational story in an unexpected way.

The novel centers on one family's experiences leading up to Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when Texas slaves received their freedom, a full two years after the rest of the confederacy. The narrator, Luli Holcomb, is the daughter of slave owners and is raised alongside Sis Goose, a slave who has been adopted into the family. Although they love Sis Goose (particularly older brother Gabe), they keep her emancipation a secret. But when the union army arrives, the revelation of her freedom has devastating consequences.

It was a bold decision to tell the story from the perspective of the slaveowners, particularly in a sympathetic way. Luli knows it is wrong to hide the truth, but rationalizes it by citing potential financial ruin without people to work in the fields. As Luli said, "Did it matter? we asked ourselves.  Who would be hurt with a couple of more months in bondage?" (89) The answer: everyone.

Come Juneteenth did not give me one thing I wanted: Sis Goose's point of view. While she is central to the story, she remains elusive. Rinaldi missed an opportunity to share how Sis Goose felt upon learning of her family's betrayal. Luli's moral issues are thoughtfully explained, I would have liked for Sis Goose to have the same chance.

I posted the two covers because I read the version on the right, but prefer the cover on the left. I think that Sis Goose on the left looks more like I imagined, and has the serious expression that the subject matter deserves.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Unfinished Angel

I'm a longtime admirer of Sharon Creech. I love her deceptively simple stories and charming characters. When I saw The Unfinished Angel at the library, I snagged it for the weekend. I was instantly plunged into the story of an angel who lives in a tower in Switzerland. He spends his directionless days watching the people of the village, thinking, "I am also not having a special assignment. I think I did not get all the training."

When an American man and his eccentric daughter, Zola, move into the tower, the angel's life is disrupted. Zola constantly beseeches him to "do something", which makes the angel feel unfinished. Zola soon finds a project for him in the shape of a group of needy children hiding in a chicken shed.

This is where the story breaks down. The plot wraps up quickly, yet the novel continues for many more chapters. These can be confusing and made me wonder who the novel's intended audience is. I'm a skilled reader and I still had trouble tracking the story. The narrator does not have a firm grasp on English, so he often combines and invents words, which would be a challenge for Creech's regular readers.

This would be an excellent mentor text to teach the use of voice in writing, but I don't think the novel is a necessary addition to the classroom library. A few photocopies of choice pages would be sufficient.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Blog Birthday

Happy 2012 and Happy Two Years of Book Blogging!

The past few months have been really amazing for Devour Books. From being named a judge for the Cybils to joining the team at YA Books Central to actually telling people in my real life about the website, I am really proud of everything that has happened. To celebrate (and because I read far more than I am able to review), I will be posting a review each day in January. Thanks for joining me.

PS. The Cybils short lists are out, please check them out here.