Friday, September 28, 2012

The Death of Jayson Porter

Brace yourself before reading this one. Author Jaime Adoff presents us with a grim look at the life of one teenager living in the projects. Jayson Porter's life doesn't have a bright spot: his neighborhood is dangerous, his mother is a nasty abuser, his father is a homeless crack user, and he has about 137 other worries. His only relief is fantasizing about ending it all, committing suicide by jumping from the balcony of his 18th floor apartment. Actually, the first poem in this novel in verse describes his fall, leaving the reader to await his plunge.

It's a dark journey, and Adoff is unflinching in his descriptions. The Death of Jayson Porter begins with far denser text than I've ever seen in a verse novel before, but towards the end the poems become sparse and simple, a clever choice by Adoff. Fans of Ellen Hopkins (particularly males) will be drawn to this book and the difficulties that Jayson faces.

I was impressed by Adoff's decision to have the male protagonist be abused by his mother. This is an uncommon dynamic in novels about abuse, yet one that frequently occurs in reality. Jayson's emotional response to the beatings is further complicated by the shame he feels as a sixteen-year-old "man" who is afraid of a woman. This aspect of the novel is devastatingly authentic. Yes, the ending wraps up a bit neatly, but I like at least a little hope in my YA novels and know that most readers do, too. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Stitches

Thrilled to be joining the Cybils graphic novels panel for a second year, it's time for me to step up my game when it comes to this genre. My school librarian recommended Stitches, a 2009 National Book Award finalist from illustrator David Small. This bleak memoir is a testament to survival despite a truly awful childhood.

After a cancerous growth on his neck leaves him voiceless, young David realizes that silence is what is most appreciated from his deeply unhappy parents, who may have given him the cancer and then tried to hide it from them. As befitting the subject, many of the illustrations have no words, just images of David's agony. Small is a brilliant artist, lending ugliness to all of his memories and only allowing his kind therapist a touch of happiness (in the guise of the white rabbit from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland).

Readers who enjoyed Maus and have an appreciation for dark personal histories will want to read Stitches. While it's not appropriate for my middle school students, there are many older readers who will devour Small's story.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Shadows

Somebody's been reading her Stephen King. Ilsa J. Bick's follow up to Ashes has been highly anticipated, and for the most part, was worth the wait. If you thought that the first book was dark, Shadows is going to surprise you.

The world is still a mess after an electromagnetic pulse has changed most teenagers into cannibalistic zombies. Shadows jumps right into the action, where we learn that the Changed are becoming more organized and adept. The descriptions of the Changed are far more graphic--from their constant mating habits to their penchant for wearing the tattooed skin of their victims as bandannas. Our heroes are the same people, Alex and Tom, yet they have been changed irrevocably. Bick's frequent shifts in narration and gory details remind me of Stephen King in the best possible way. I love that I never can tell if a character is becoming a Changed, or if they are just weary, starving, and stressed.

Shadows isn't as tight as Ashes. There were a few incidences when my eyes glazed over due to descriptions of old mines and days in Vietnam. I also wanted a cliffhanger that would leave me hungry for the third in the trilogy. Perhaps it's a bit much to ask, although some editing could have given me just that. I'm excited for the final installment of the series, if only to see how much more bleak Bick will make things.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart

I haven't read many novels in verse that are written for the very young, so it was interesting to see how similar Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart was to the other books I've been focusing on. The most important similarity is that these books don't shy away from difficult topics.

Even though it is appropriate for second grade readers, the novel describes two sisters who spend most of their time alone because their father is in jail for forging a check and their mother works all the time. The girls' reality is harsh: there is never enough food, sometimes the utilities get shut off, and there are rats in the walls. Yet the poems are uplifting because Amber and Essie are imaginative and able to create their own world.

Accompanied by author Vera B. Williams' sketch-like illustrations, this is a book that can be enjoyed on multiple levels. It's worth checking out of the library to share with the young readers in your life.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Raven Boys

I was really torn on Raven Boys.

Our protagonist, Blue, lives in a house full of psychics and gets dragged into a shaky friendship with the boys from the local boarding school, as they search for the ley line, a place where the dead walk. Each has their own reason for wanting to locate the line, and while she doesn't want to spend time with the Raven Boys (a prediction that you will cause the death of your first true love will do that), Blue can't help falling into their plans.

On one hand, Maggie Stiefvater is the author of some amazing YA novels, like Shiver and The Scorpio Races. I adore her writing style and some of the phrases in her latest novel blew me away, like, "What it did was make him look more fragile and dirty, somehow, like a teacup unearthed from the soil..." I particularly enjoyed her descriptions of the titular Raven Boys, privileged students from a local boarding school. I feel like I am right in the room with the characters when I read, "They filled the hallway to overflowing, somehow, the three of them, loud and male and so comfortable with one another that they allowed no one else to be comfortable with them. They were a pack of sleek animals armored with their watches and their Top-Siders and the expensive cut of their uniforms." Despite the engrossing writing, I didn't connect completely with The Raven Boys.

I understand that the first book in the series must set up those that follow, but I found some of the plot decisions really bizarre. A tree that characters stand in to tell them the future? Check. An unexplained pet raven and a tattoo that changes shape? Check. An increasingly psychotic teacher? Double check. The Raven Boys gave me the strange experience of wanting to savor all the writing, without having to process the plot.

I'm in the minority in not adoring this book; Goodreads.com is blowing up with excitement. Still, it wasn't the right fit for me and I look forward to other books from Stiefvater that aren't part of this series.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

It's the most wonderful time of the year...


I am so excited to announce that I will be a Round 2 judge in the graphic novels category of the Cybils this year! I absolutely loved reading for Round 1 last year, and am grateful that I can participate again, this time from Colombia. I look forward to reading with all the excellent people listed below.

Round 1
Maggi Idzikowski
Mama Librarian
@mamalibrarian
Debra Touchette
Guys Lit Wire(Library Lass) Adventures in Reading
@threelefthands
Round 2
Dave Elzey
The Excelsior File
@delzey
Kimberly Francisco
Stacked
@kimberlymarief
Emily Mitchell
Emily Reads
@emilyreads
Alysa Stewart
Everead
@everead

Monday, September 17, 2012

Burn For Burn

Oh man, the ending of Burn for Burn! I knew it was the first in a trilogy, but didn't anticipate how much I'd want to read the next installment in this series. I should have known better; I love everything that both Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian have written. A novel written by the pair could only be twice the fun. While the hallmarks of each author remain (a beach setting from Han and feminist messages from Vivian), the story is seamless and engrossing.

Lillia, Mary, and Kat are three very different high school students who all desire revenge. Their pasts haunt them and they can only get their vengeance with each other's help...after all, who would suspect a teen queen, a rebel, and a shy new girl would be working together to take down Jar Island High's most popular students?

With shades of The Craft, Carrie, and even The Breakfast Club, this novel features so many qualities that keep me turning the pages. The girls' revenge feels justified because the bad characters in Burn for Burn are genuinely evil. It's always good when the reader wants to someone to be taken down, even better when there are multiple characters who need to be taught a lesson. I look forward to a day when I don't feel the need to point this out, but an Asian protagonist (who is featured on the cover) is always welcome.

This is the book that everyone will be clamoring to read, and then tapping their feet impatiently for the rest of the trilogy.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Locomotion

Before I was halfway finished with Locomotion, I added it to the Amazon wishlist for my former school in The Bahamas. This is a book that the students there will adore (feel free to donate it, wink wink).

Lonnie Motion, better known as Locomotion, has experienced a lot of upheaval in his eleven years. After his parents' died in a fire, Lonnie and his sister were passed around until they were finally placed in two separate foster homes. Written as poems, Jacqueline Woodson explores Lonnie's feelings about his family, classmates, religion, and other parts of life.

As a teacher, there's something so special about novels in verse that are written from the perspective of a student learning about poetry. Sharon Creech did it in Love That Dog and Hate That Cat and Woodson does it so well here, which dispels the question of how many young boys write poetry. Not enough! My students' feelings are perfectly summed up in "Poetry Poem":

"You don't just get to write a poem once
You gotta write it over and over and over
until it feels real good to you
And sometimes it does
and sometimes it doesn't
That's what's really great
and really stupid
about poetry."

Insight like this makes Locomotion a surefire addition to my classroom library. Even better, there is a sequel called Peace, Locomotion.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Every Day


I’m jealous of all the young people who get to grow up with David Levithan’s novels in their lives. He is a master of painting the lives of adolescents in all their permutations, and in Every Day, he does this in a way unlike anyone who has come before him. Known only as A, our hero is a soul who wakes up every day in the body of a different teenager. After almost six thousand days of living like this, it has become normal for him (her?) to spend each day in a different life, fitting himself into strangers’ lives temporarily. When he meets Rhiannon, he wants to stay in the same life for the first time and let someone know his secret.

Every Day is magical, built on a complex premise but with the most basic of morals: everyone wants to be seen and loved. I want to hand this book to all the teenagers I know, telling them, “David Levithan speaks the truth.” This book is full of simple lessons which are beautifully phrased and never condescending. I want to hang my classroom’s walls with phrases like, “Kindness connects to who you are, while niceness connects to how you want to be seen” and “…being best friends is always about the benefit of the doubt.”

One of Levithan’s many gifts (meaning his talent as a writer and also his present to the reader) is how he embraces sexuality in all its forms. Everyone is welcome in his world, as seen in his previous novels like Boy Meets Boy and The Realm of Possibility. One of A’s most affecting days is spent as Vic, biologically female and gendered male. Levithan writes, “It is an awful thing to be betrayed by your body. And it’s lonely, because you feel you can’t talk about it. You feel it’s something between you and the body. You feel it’s a battle you will never win…and yet you fight it day after day, and it wears you down. Even if you ignore it, the energy it takes to ignore it will exhaust you.” Fortunately, Vic has a loving relationship with Dawn, parents who care for him, and friends that see him for who he is. These few pages will go a long way for young readers who may be in the same position, or know someone who is.

There are some unanswered questions in Every Day, and that is to be expected. A doesn’t know how he became this way, so the reader doesn’t either. It doesn’t matter. This is the most creative love story I’ve ever read.

Monday, September 10, 2012

La Linea

In her afterword, author Ann Jaramillo calls her novel La Linea a story of "optimism, courage, and determination." I agree with all of these descriptions, but would definitely add "grueling" to the list. Miguel and his sister Elena have long dreamed of heading north from Mexico to the States, so that they could be reunited with their parents. For seven years, Miguel waited for them to send for him, and finally the time has come. Unfortunately, no trip to the norte is easy, and Miguel seems to face every obstacle possible.

I first chose this book because of the title, hoping it would be in Spanish. While there are plenty of Spanish words sprinkled through, this isn't what I was looking for. I finished the book, but it took me a lot longer than usual, and I also put off the review for ages. Even now, I'm not sure what to say about it.

Some books grab you, but some don't. For me, La Linea is the latter.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Girl Coming in for a Landing

If it takes me two weeks to read a novel in verse, then I know it's not the right book for me. I usually gobbled them up, but I dawdled over April Halprin Wayland's Girl Coming in for a Landing. This may be a strange thing to say, but it was too poetic for me. This series of poems follow a young girl through a year in her life and all the ups and downs of adolescence.

Unfortunately, there was nothing new covered and writing did not grab me the way it would need to for such a typical topic. And although I don't have to love every book in my classroom, I wouldn't be able to include this one because one of the illustrations features a topless girl, which would not be acceptable at my school.

Aside from that one addition, Elaine Clayton's artwork was my favorite part of the book. She uses a variety of media to illustrate Wayland's poetry, some of them quite humorous. Still, they weren't enough to redeem Girl Coming in for a Landing. On to the next!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Miracle's Boys

Miracle's Boys follows three orphaned brothers as they struggle to hold their family together. Ty'ree, the eldest, had a promising future at MIT, but had to give it all up to raise his brothers. Charlie is the bad child, recently released from juvenile detention and determined to keep the hard reputation he earned upon his arrest. Our narrator is Lafayette, the youngest, and the one who feels the reverberations of his brothers' moods most. Still young, Lafayette can't understand how Charlie continues to risk their safety and happiness just to seem tough.

Jacqueline Woodson's novels are hit-or-miss for me, and this was the latter. I couldn't quite connect with the characters, and even the title fell short for me. There seemed to be nothing miraculous about Miracle's Boys.



Monday, September 3, 2012

Legends of Zita the Spacegirl


Zita has discovered that intergalactic fame isn’t all she thought. Hounded day and night, she is relieved when she meets her exact clone. What could it hurt to send the clone out to pretend to be her while she plays? Unfortunately, the clone volunteers to save the Lumonians’ planet and in return they will send her home to Earth. When Zita steals a spaceship to chase her down, she begins her next great adventure.

Author Ben Hatke has a gift for creating action-packed scenes. You’ve got to love villains that are heart-shaped planets! The aliens are always interesting and Hatke’s sketches and guidebook entries about them show that he has carefully considered how they fit into Zita’s universe. The illustrations are gorgeous, particularly the silent shots of the spacecraft hurtling through the stars. The most powerful drawings have no dialogue but convey so much.

Zita and her clone learn about heroism and sacrifice, setting the series up for a third installment. Zita the Spacegirl was the book I was rooting for when judging the Cybils and I plan on nominating Legendsof Zita the Spacegirl this year. I’m looking forward to seeing where in the universe she goes next.