Showing posts with label taking a stand. Show all posts
Showing posts with label taking a stand. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Quick(est?) Hits - Part III: Of Assassins and Candor

I'm seven five three books behind in posting, not including posts already in draft. A bunch of new books just came in, which is going to get me even further behind. So I'm just going to do a some quick impressions of a few of the books I've recently finished.

Day of the Assassins by Johnny O'Brien
3Q 4P; Audience: M/J

Jack and his mother live together in a small cottage. His father is long gone under circumstances that Jack thinks were never adequately explained to him. He appears in Jack's life only on rare occasions, mostly in the form of an annual birthday present. This year's gift is a history book about WWI. One of Jack's favorite games is Point of Deception, a first-person role-playing game about WWI, but even so, this present doesn't cut it. But when he becomes a pawn between two groups of scientists who have discovered how to travel in time, he begins to wish he’d had more time to read that book. Before he knows what's happening, one side transports Jack to 1914 Austria and the days leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The other side is hot on his heels. Jack has no idea which side to trust or believe. All he knows is that he’s being forced to make a decision that will affect the future of thousands of people. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was the event that triggered WWI. Should he stop the assassination or let it happen? When two groups of scientists disagree on how their invention should be used, things can get very nasty, especially if you're an innocent caught in the middle.

The non-stop action in this book will make it popular with boys who like action and suspense, but are tired of or have already read all the teenage spy novels. Multiple chases and narrow escapes keep interest high and ratchet up the tension chapter after chapter. Jack's friend Angus and the professor (who rescues Jack from his first close shave in 1914) add bits of humor here and there, which will also be welcome. The science of time travel is glossed over, which probably won't bother the target audience, though it's a bit of a cheat to mention Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, and Schrodinger and then complete the explanation with, "All you need to know is that the world of subatomic physics is an extremely mysterious one." I also found it contradictory and illogical that the scientists trying to prevent the past from being changed bring weapons and tanks back in time. Isn't that running the huge risk of winning the battle and losing the(ir) war? Many readers will be so swept up in the action that they won't care. Given the subtitle ("a Jack Christie novel") and the open-ended resolution, I suspect that fans of this book will be seeing Jack and Angus again in another.

Candor by Pam Bachorz
4Q 3P; Audience: J/S

When parents get tired of their kids misbehaving, they move the family to Candor. In Candor, the kids don't get in trouble. They aren't disrespectful, and they always do the socially responsible thing. Why? Because that's what the Messages tell them to do. Messages play all day every day in Candor. Everyone hears and obeys them, but only one person knows that: the founder of Candor and creator of the Messages. At least, that's what he thinks. He has no idea that Oscar, his son and Candor's poster child for model citizen, knows all about the Messages. Oscar knows how to counteract them, and he knows how to create his own. He uses that knowledge to protect himself from the Messages and to sneak kids out of town before they're so far gone on the Messages that they wouldn't dream of running, let alone rebelling. Make no mistake about it. Oscar isn't a model anything. He doesn't do it because he cares about any of those kids. He does it because they pay him very, very well and because he enjoys sticking it to his father while making everyone think he's the perfect kid. And that's how things stand until Nia moves to town. Nia, with her goth girl looks, her defiant attitude, and her love of art. Nia, the opposite of nice. Nia, the kind of girl who should never be forced to conform to a place like Candor. Oscar is determined to get her out of town, even if she doesn't want to go. Even though he has to break all his own rules to do it. Even if it costs him in ways he never expected to have to pay.

What a great concept for a book. You can't help but be creeped out by the thought of parents who would use mind control to keep their kids in line. How twisted is that? It certainly makes you want to root for Oscar. On the other hand, Oscar is not a particularly likable person. He's very much out for himself, and as much as he pretends to be humble (the Messages at work), he also very much thinks of himself as superior. It takes meeting Nia for him to begin to approach being the kind of person his father wants him to be and thinks he is (at least in terms of being selfless and thinking of the greater good), and Messages have nothing to do with it. His growth is realistic, with a lot of struggling over what's right for him versus what's right for Nia and debating with himself over the tactics he's using and what he's risking and losing. Father-son issues take on additional dimensions in this novel, with themes of grief, abandonment, and control playing a significant role. Fans of dystopian novels will enjoy this, while those who prefer realistic fiction are likely to find that this science fiction novel goes down pretty easily. Readers who like to chew on the books they've read will find plenty of food for thought in this one.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Choose This

The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams
5Q 4P; J/S

At thirteen, Kyra is just beginning to realize that there are two things she loves almost as much as she loves her family: books and Joshua. But she needs to keep both of those loves secret, since both are strictly forbidden in her religious community. Books bring the outside in and expose readers to Satan's teachings. Boys...well, boys and girls aren't to look at each other or talk to each other unless the Prophet allows it. If a boy and a girl are found together, even if they are doing nothing but talking, the punishment will be swift and severe. Kyra and Joshua are doing more than talking. They are sneaking out at night to be together. They are sharing books and music. They are kissing and dreaming of being together forever.

The Prophet and his Apostles run everything in the Compound. They make the rules, and the God Squad makes sure they are enforced. The Prophet also decides who will marry whom, and there is no arguing with his decision. So when the Prophet decrees that Kyra is to marry Apostle Hyrum, her uncle, the family is in despair. Try as Father may, there is no way to avoid the inevitable. Kyra is devastated. Her family can only understand part of her anguish. There is no way to tell them that as much as she's revolted by the idea of marrying her sixty-year-old uncle and becoming his seventh wife, she's also shattered at the thought that she and Joshua can never be together. She wants to refuse, to say she just won't do it. But defying the Prophet means bringing his wrath down upon her family, and that thought is just as painful. She loves her father, her three mothers, and her twenty-one (soon to be twenty-three) brothers and sisters fiercely. What will the Prophet do to them if she runs away with Joshua, as she so badly wants to do? And what will he do to her?

Favorite quote:

(Kyra has just been informed that she and her mothers are going into town to buy fabric for her wedding dress. It's the final confirmation that there is no way out of this wedding.)

Outside, it is a lie of a morning. Everything is beautiful: The air fresh. The sky so blue it hurts my eyes.


I've had the pleasure of reading a few beautifully written books lately, and this is another to add to that list.

Polygamist communities have been in the news lately. The idea of plural marriages is certainly foreign to most of us in this country. Among the things that struck me as I read this book was that although she fights against this kind of marriage for herself, Kyra doesn't actually seem to mind being part of a polygamous family. She views her family as loving and supportive and derives a lot of her strength from all of her parents and siblings, making  little or no distinction between them.

Family relationships in plural marriages must be very complicated things. Imagine having three (or more!) mothers to listen to and have to please! Mother Sarah, Kyra's birth mother, is caring and understanding, but her difficult pregnancy leaves Kyra as her caretaker rather than the other way around. And though Kyra views Mother Clare as "the mean mother" and sometimes resents her, it's Mother Clare who most clearly understands Kyra's feelings and tries to help her accept her fate. The moments she shares her own story with Kyra make her surprisingly sympathetic. (Mother Victoria rather fades into the background between Mother Sarah and Mother Clare.) I particularly liked the contrast between Kyra's relationships with her sisters Laura and Margaret. The love Kyra has for both sisters is undeniable, but they are very different people. Laura is the voice of the status quo and Margaret ...well, I suspect that Kyra is not the only  sister in the family who will give the Prophet fits. She's going to be a formidable woman.

I wonder how Kyra's story might have played out under a different Prophet. Would she still have hated her life and wanted to run? It's this Prophet that Kyra says she'd like to kill and leave for the termites to eat. He has very narrow and rigid ideas of what is godly, and he disallows many things (such as freedom to leave the Compound) that the previous Prophet allowed. He is running off the younger men and marrying the young girls to much older men. But the previous Prophet was not that sort of man, and the compound was not always run that way. I wonder if Kyra would have been content to stay under a Prophet who allowed his followers more freedom and allowed her to be with Joshua, even given that she would still have had to share him with other women.

Being a librarian, naturally I love that books give Kyra comfort and support and a means of escape in more ways than one, and I honor Patrick as a true hero.

While I wouldn't classify this as a violent book, there are violent incidents that were shocking and troubling to read. Those images stuck with me for a long time. I am frankly in denial about at least one probable death. Message received: It's hard to think this way about religious groups, but there's no denying that it can be dangerous to take a stand against them.

There are several important issues left unresolved at the end of this book. I found myself wondering what the fallout of Kyra's decision would be. I have no idea if Carol Lynch Williams intends to write a sequel, but I think it would be fascinating to explore the "what happens next?" in a situation like this.

To be honest, this wasn't a book I was dying to read. But I was curious to see if I agreed with all the positive, even glowing, reviews I'd seen and heard, so I decided to read it anyhow. I was caught at the very first page, and my interest never waned. I absolutely believed the people and the situation. I cared, and I think many of my teens will too. I highly recommend this book for both pleasure reading and as an excellent choice for a book group.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What I Read and How It Felt So True

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell
5Q 4P; J/S/A

It's 1946, the war is over, and life is beginning to get back to normal. For Evie, that means her stepfather Joe is home, Bev, her mother, can stop working, and Evie can just relax and enjoy being a young teenaged girl. While her best friend is boy crazy and ready to jump into romance, Evie's not interested yet. She lives in the knowledge that her mother is gorgeous and that she will never be able to attract a man's attention the way her mother can. All that changes when Joe impulsively decides the family should take a vacation in Florida.

They soon discover that summer is the off-season in Florida. They're practically the only people in their hotel, other than the Graysons...and Peter. While Joe quickly gets involved in business dealings with Mr. Grayson, it's Peter who captures Evie's attention. He's a young, handsome, utterly charming war veteran. They first connect when Peter finds Evie hiding in the shadows of the pool after being bitterly disappointed by an "is that all there is?" experience at her first real dance. Peter invites her to dance, and Evie is smitten. This is a man. This is a dance. She can't stop thinking about him, and for the first time, she understands what all this talk of boys and love really means. In the days that follow, she finds (makes!) every opportunity to spend time with Peter. And it's not her imagination - he seems to be seeking her out, too. He takes her for drives and to the movies. And sure, they often take her mother along, but that's just for cover. It's Evie that Peter is interested in.

Evie begins to blossom. She's been so sure for so long that she will never be as pretty or enticing as her mother is. But Peter doesn't seem to feel that way. And Mrs. Grayson takes her shopping to buy her clothes that are a far cry from the little girl dresses her mother always buys her, and Evie can't help realizing that she can do these grown-up dresses justice. Peter notices, too. The kisses he gives her are not the kisses you give a little girl.

But things take a darker turn when Evie realizes that Joe doesn't like Peter and doesn't trust him. Peter says they spent time together during the war, but Joe doesn't want to talk about it. There are hints, whispers, suggestions that there is more going on here than meets the eye, that Peter's presence at the hotel isn't mere coincidence. Peter seems to know something that Joe wants kept a secret. Joe and Evie's mother begin to fight, and Evie realizes that one of the things that they're fighting over is Peter and his relationship with her mother. Well, that's ridiculous. All those times that she and Bev and Peter went to the movies and out for a drive or to restaurants, they brought Bev along so nobody would give Peter a hard time for spending time with a girl her age. It's Evie that Peter is interested in. Isn't it?

Joe, Evie's mother, and Peter charter a boat and take it out on the open sea just as a hurricane starts up along the coast. Only Joe and Bev come home alive.

What really happened out on that boat, and why did it happen? It's not just Evie who wants to know. So do the police, the judge, the jury, and the tabloid reporters. And Evie has to decide what to tell them. What did she see, and how does she lie?


It's easy to see why this book won the 2008 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. I'm awfully glad I wasn't on the award committe, because it was up against some wonderful books : Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharpe (just realized I have an unfinished post on this spectacular book), The Underneath by Kathy Appel (which I haven't read and don't have in our Teen collection), and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (I never uploaded my post on this one, either). I would never have been able to choose a winner, though I know my vote would have gone to either Anderson, Tharp, or Blundell. All three books feature exceptional writing about characters dealing with heartbreaking situations, and they all really moved me.

Blundell does a beautiful job capturing the joys and miseries of leaving girlhood and innocence behind. I'm writing this up over a month after finishing the book, and as I try to write and capture what I felt so many weeks ago, the feeling of being pulled and stretched is what keeps coming back to me. Evie is reaching for something that seems at first to be just out of her grasp. Then it's in her hands, but yanked away so that she has to chase after it again. I picture her being pulled and stretched in all directions, at first welcoming the feeling, but then being stretched so far it's painful, wanting to pull back to her comfort zone but unable to do it. I wanted to shield her from the pain I knew was coming, and I wanted to give her support when she faced the hard decisions with her new-found and hard-won maturity. Evie's growth is a masterpiece of writing.

Though I'm focusing here on the girl-becomes-woman aspect, there's a lot going on in this book beyond that. Guilt and innocence come up again and again in various situations. There's food for thought on every page.

What I Saw and How I Lied is begging to be made into a movie. (Please, would-be producers, don't cast Dakota Fanning in it! This one needs a Jena Malone/Evan Rachel Wood/Clare Danes type.)


I loved these for the vividness of the descriptions, the traces of humor from a serious person in a very serious book, and the perfectly captured moments of stepping out of childhood and into adulthood.

...every time I saw a palm tree it was a little shock, like life was yelling in my ear that this was me, and it was really happening. (p. 113)

Mom took golf lessons, which proved tome how much a place can change you, because Mom's old idea of exercise was crossing her legs. (p. 119)

I don't know when it happened, but things started to turn, just a little bit, like when you smell the bottle of milk, and you know it's going to be sour tomorrow, but you pour it on your cereal anyway. (p. 119)

Squandered virtue was a sin, Margie told me. But she had eight kids in her family. It seemed to me that her mother squandered her virtue all over the place. (p. 121)

I wanted to of music, of dances, of falling in love and getting married before he shipped overseas. And the songs - (italics) I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places(/italics) - all that longing, all that waiting. It made sense to me now. Every lyric. It wasn't about just hearing it on the radio. The strings were stretched and quivering and going crazy inside me. If Peter and I had met during the war, would we have gotten engaged? Would things have moved faster? I knew girls who were pre-engaged at school. I used to laugh at their smugness. Now I wanted it. Time rushed at me like a subway, all air and heat. (p. 129)

I could have fought her. I could have taken what I knew about what he felt and thrown it at her, proved I was an adult now, just like her. But feeling grown up? I discovered something right then: It comes and it goes. I was still afraid of my mom. (p. 153)

I saw wanting in Wally's eyes. Now I could recognize it as easy as Margie waving at me across Hillside Avenue. What would happen if I got hold of that want and rode it like a raft to see where it could take me? Joe had left me behind like a kid. I didn't want to be a kid. (p. 171)

I didn't know where [Mom] had put her pizzazz. Maybe she had squashed it in that little lace-trimmed pocket of her dress. (p. 232)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Peeled: Getting to the Core of the Truth

Peeled by Joan Bauer
3.5Q, 3P; Audience: J/S

Banesville, NY has a problem. But not everyone agrees on what that problem is. Some people think it's the hard economic times the town is going through after two bad harvests in a row. Some people think it's the strange things happening in and around the old Ludlow mansion. And some people think it's the way the town newspaper, The Bee, is using those events to create a climate of fear and unease in the community. Hildy Biddle is in the latter camp.

Hildy is a reporter for the school newspaper, The Core, and she and her fellow reporters are disgusted by The Bee. A newspaper is supposed to be about facts, not about fear-mongering. But the Bee seems fixed on the latter rather than the former. Someone is posting signs saying things like "Danger to all ye who enter" and "You Didn't Think It Was Safe, Did You ?" on the old Ludlow House property. Instead of trying to get to the bottom of who is posting them and why, The Bee is writing about ghosts, haunted houses, and how they're making property values decline. When the body of a man is found in a grove of trees on the Ludlow property, the Bee proclaims it a murder, though the police have refused to comment or confirm that. By the time the truth comes out, fear has gripped the community. People are afraid to leave their homes at night, they're looking over their shoulders during the day, and some are even talking about moving out of town.

Hildy's only in high school, and she has better journalism skills than the Bee's reporters. Where are their facts? Who are their sources? Why aren't they investigating and finding out what's really going on? Well, if they won't do it, then she and the other Core reporters will have to. With the acerbic help of Baker Polton, a former reporter and managing editor of a respected newspaper, they go after the story. They get the facts, and they report them. People begin to listen. There's definitely more going on in Banesville than meets the eye. But some adults don't take kindly to the idea of teens showing them up. The principal shuts The Core down, saying the school system can't afford the lawsuits The Bee and others are threatening. Hildy is incensed and discouraged. What happened to freedom of the press? But what can they do? They're only teens. They have no power. Or do they? Maybe a school-run paper isn't the only way to get the real story out there.

Joan Bauer is noted for her strong female characters and her ability to write with humor about serious subjects. This book is no different in that regard. While many books for teens focus on the main character's social life, Bauer's main characters usually have their eyes on the wider world as well. Hildy is certainly interested in her friends and boys, but they have to ride shotgun while she focuses on protecting the First Amendment and ensuring that the citizens of Banesville get the truth, not manipulated. Hildy won't be fobbed off with a glib answer. An equally strong aspect of Bauer's writing is her ability to create dynamic, believable relationships between characters. In particular, scenes with Baker Polton crackle with energy. Her scenes with her cousin are much lower key, but the affection and understanding between them, despite their very different personalities, is clear in every one of them. The growth of her relationship with Zach is sweetly delineated, and Minska is every bit as inspiring to the reader as she is to Hildy.

So, with all of those positives, why am not giving this book a glowing review? As good as Bauer is in creating three dimensional main characters, others are far less believable, having little or no shading. And in a realistic fiction book, is it realistic that only a handful of teens and senior citizens are suspicious and willing to look beyond the surface, while most of the rest of the population is so easily frightened by tales of ghostly sightings and sensationalistic reporting? I found it hard to swallow that most of the adult population in town is so gullible and/or quick to cave in to bullying behavior, and I think teen readers will be equally skeptical. There's a fine line between making teens the heroes of a story and making them superheroes, and I think this time Bauer stepped a bit over that line. Hope Was Here did a better job finding the balance point, showing teens playing a very important role in galvanizing a community without making it seem as though they were pretty much the only ones aware that it needed galvanizing in the first place. I think a few more Bakers and Minskas were needed in this one, for believability's sake.

(This post was begun a month ago and finished today. If it gets buried beneath my more recently written posts, that's why.)

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Big Brother Is Watching You...What Are You Going to Do About It?

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
4Q 4P? Audience: J/S/Adult

This book won't be everyone's cup of tea, but for readers who are politically-minded and/or love technology and intrigue, it's ::ahem:: the bomb. It is certainly a book cause he won't give up his email passwords. Because he can't believe that the Constitution of the United States no longer protects him.

When Marcus is let out of prison a few days later, he leaves behind one good friend and most of his illusions. He barely recognizes the world he steps into. His laptop has been bugged. The government is tracking people through their debit cards and arphids encoded into transit system passes, so it knows exactly what people are buying and when and where they traveled. Closed circuit cameras are installed in classrooms, businesses, and on public streets. If more than three or four people gather together, the police force them to disperse. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has turned San Francisco into a police state.

Marcus isn't about to lose his civil liberties without a fight. What can one kid do? When you're as smart as Marcus, as technically proficient as Marcus, as scared as Marcus, and as determined as Marcus, you can do plenty. He creates Xnet, an underground computer society that the government can't monitor. Through Xnet, dozens of small acts of rebellion are launched, ranging from simple debates over government policies to disseminating instructions on how to disable arphids so the activities of innocent people can't be tracked. They plan peaceful protest gatherings. And they simply chat, game, and develop friendships and solidarity. When crisis time comes, Marcus is awed by just how powerful his movement has become. The government isn't awed. It's angry. In this battle, who has the stronger army, Marcus or Homeland Security?


As I read and after I finished the book, I wondered just how much of the technology that Doctorow describes really exists. That's surely a sign of hooking the reader's imagination and interest. My web surfing proved that I was not the only one to be intrigued, but these guys aren't just wondering. They actually hope to create the Paranoid Linux operating system. Talk about a book making an impact on a reader!(In the book, Paranoid Linux is described thusly:)

*Paranoid Linux is an operating system that assumes that its operator is under assault from the government (it was intended for use by Chinese and Syrian dissidents), and it does everything it can to keep your communications and documents a secret. It even throws up a bunch of "chaff" communications that are supposed to disguise the fact that you're doing anything covert. So while you're receiving a political message one character at a time, ParanoidLinux is pretending to surf the Web and fill in questionnaires and flirt in chat-rooms. Meanwhile, one in every five hundred characters you receive is your real message, a needle buried in a huge haystack.
~Cory Doctorow (Little Brother, 2008)

Doctorow's writing is somewhat uneven. There are some gripping scenes. For instance, Marcus's terror is visceral when he begins to comprehend just how different a government interrogation is from being called to the principal's office. He can't bluff his way out of this, and brashness only makes things worse. Reading this section made me realize just how easily one can be reduced to feeling powerless and too afraid to fight back. However, he occasionally gets too technical, slowing down the narrative. He also repeats himself fairly frequently. I was caught up in the story enough that neither problem stopped me from wanting to read more, but less patient readers may not be able to overlook them as easily. Doctorow also stacks the deck by making almost every character on the side of Homeland Security one-dimensional cardboard villains. I can't help wondering if that's the mark of an overly confident author or one who isn't confident enough.

With questions to debate such as
  • Do we sometimes need to give up some freedoms for the sake of a larger goal?
  • At what point does civil disobedience become terrorism?
  • Is Doctorow too extreme?
  • Whether Andrew Huang's afterword on the virtues of computer hacking has merit
this book is an excellent choice for classrooms and book discussion groups.

If you like this book, you might also enjoy Hacking Harvard by Robin Wasserman. The setup: Can three accomplished hackers get a totally unqualified student accepted to Harvard? The stakes are high (higher than some of them know), but if they can pull this off, it'll be one of the greatest hacks in history. I recommend it to readers in high school and beyond.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Insist on Yourself

The Fortunes of Indigo Skye by Deb Caletti
4Q 4P J/S

When I first started reading about Indigo Skye, she made me think of Joan Bauer's Hope in Hope Was Here and Jenna in Rules of the Road. All three characters share a joy in their jobs and a deep sense of satisfaction in knowing they do the job well. Indigo and Hope are both waitresses. Indigo doesn't understand why people think it's okay to work as a waitress but not to be a waitress. She loves waitressing so much that she would happily make it her lifelong career, much to her mother's consternation. As far as Indigo is concerned, waitressing is about giving nourishment and creating relationships, not just about bringing the ketchup. As a result, Indigo is quite invested in the lives of the regulars at Carrera's, and they are equally invested in hers. It's a tragedy when Trina has to sell her car. When she finds Leroy by the side of the road dressed in an outlandish costume, she wants to know why. They all burn when Nick is taunted by coworkers who think it's funny to call him Killer. In short, they care for each other at Carrera's.

Maybe that's why the Vespa guy intrigues them so much. It's immediately clear that he's not the type they usually get at the diner. It's not just that the clothes he wears mark him as someone far too well-off to frequent a diner. It's the way he comes in and orders "just coffee" and then sits alone at a table staring out the window. He does this day after day, refusing to be drawn into the easy camaraderie the rest of them share. Though they're dying to know his story, Indigo and the regulars respect his obvious wish to be left alone. That is, they do until Indigo spots the cigarettes on his table and reams into him for being a smoker and ruining his health and the health of those around him. In most cases, Indigo's little tirade would cause the customer to demand to see the manager. It might even have cost her her job. But Indigo doesn't lose her job. Instead, she becomes 2.5 million dollars richer practically overnight.

Indigo has been very happy with her life up to this point. She loves her mother, sister, and her twin brother. She has a boyfriend she's crazy about and who is crazy about her in return. The fact that none of them has any money to speak of has never been a significant problem. But $2 million will change anyone's life, and not always for the better. Before she knows it, her job is in jeopardy, she's barely speaking to her boyfriend, and she doesn't know who she is anymore.

I love Deb Caletti's writing. It's not just that she creates interesting three-dimensional characters I enjoy reading about and think I'd like to know or that she puts them in interesting situations (some of which I can relate to better than others). I like her writing. She knows how to turn a phrase. I find sentence after sentence that are evocative, telling, and immensely satisfying. She has the ability to make you laugh and think in the same sentence. That could be said about this whole book, though it's a book with humor, not necessarily a humorous book. Mostly, it's a book about caring about people and about discovering and staying true to what's important to you.


You can tell a lot about people from what they order for breakfast. Take Nick Harrison, for example. People talk about him killing his wife after she fell down a flight of stairs two years ago, but I know it's not true. Someone who killed his wife would order fried eggs, bacon, sausage -- something strong and meaty. I've never served anyone who's killed his wife for sure, so I don't know this for a fact, but I can tell you they wouldn't order oatmeal with raisins like Nick Harrison does...I once heard someone say you can destroy a man with a suspicious glance, and I'm sure they're right. Nick Harrison was cleared of any charges, and still he's destroyed. Oatmeal with raisins every day means you've lost hope. (p. 1)

People like to have something to turn down, though. They want to be able to say no to some things, because it makes their yes more meaningful. Even if that's just scrambled instead of poached or fried, wheat and not sourdough or rye. And "no" -- it's also a handy, accessible mini-capsule of power. Maybe you can't destroy your asshole boyfriend, but you can at least reject apple crumble pie. (p. 25)

What I am is happy. And maybe that's the closest definition for the word we can get, a life equation: an absence of wanting equals happiness. (p. 44)

Her room is a technological amusement park -- TV, DVD, computer, stereo, video games. Apparently, this way you could watch anything you wanted all by yourself in your own room, nudging yourself at the funny parts and telling yourself to be quiet because you couldn't hear when you were talking. (p. 55)

In my opinion? It's fine to have a reasonable amount of self-doubt. Maybe it's even necessary to avoid being an obnoxious human being. Cavemen did not do affirmations. Pilgrims fighting disease and freezing temperatures did not focus on eliminating the negative self-talk. The dusty and disheveled folks trudging on the Oregon Trail made it without one-year and five-year goals tacked to the insides of their covered wagons. I don't think they even had self-esteem in those days. (pp. 55-56)

The willingness to embrace the idea of "a surprise" is dependent on our past surprises being good ones. Maybe this is obvious, but I don't think so. Pessimism and caution and cynicism and the inability to be spontaneous are character flaws to those who've had good fortune, and common sense to those who haven't. (P. 111)

I guess forgiveness, like happiness, isn't a final destination. You don't one day end up there and get to stay...It's in and out, like the surf...Sometimes forgiveness is so far away you can barely imagine its possibility, and other times, surprising is a sudden, unexpected visitor who stays briefly before moving on. (p. 138)

We are swayed too much, (Emerson) said, by the wrong things, by what each other has, not what each other is. We must be nonconformists, he wrote. We must think for ourselves, because the only sacred thing is the integrity of our own minds. Insist on yourself, he said. (p. 276)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Black & White - booktalk

by Paul Volponi

(Note: This book is recommended for mature eighth graders and high school, due to the topic and language.)

On the basketball court, Black and White are an unbeatable team. Off the court, they’re best friends. It doesn’t matter that Marcus is black and Eddie is white. They always have each other’s back. They’re inseparable. They even plan to accept scholarships to the same college, either St. Johns or UConn. Another thing they have in common is that neither has much cash to spare. And that’s a problem, because they need to come up with money for the senior class trip. Their parents can’t pay for it. The boys can’t get jobs, because they have practice every day. And drugs aren’t their thing, so they’re not about to deal. They decide the only thing they can do is pull a couple of stickups. They don’t plan to make a career of it. They’ll stop when they get enough cash.

Of course, nobody’s going to just hand over their cash, so Eddie takes his grandfather’s gun with him. He doesn’t intend to use it, but it’ll certainly help to make them more convincing. And they’re terrified, so anything that makes them look fierce is welcome. Their first victim is a white lady with $92 and a Walkman. Sweet. That’s half the cash they need and a little bonus. Their next victim is an old white man with $129 in bills. Now they’ve got enough for the class trip, so it’s their last stickup. But no…the guys on the team want everyone to wear the latest sneakers, which neither Black nor White own. They’ll have to pull one more job. This time their victim is a middle-aged black man, and this time, everything falls apart. This time, Marcus realizes, too late, that he knows this man from somewhere. This time, White fires the gun. They can see the blood on the back of the man’s head. Panicked, they run as far and as fast as they can. Did they kill the man?

A couple of days later, it’s the Black and White show on the basketball court. By halftime, the team is up 43-18. They’re the stars of the game and everyone is slapping them on the back. Fifteen minutes later, the police are slapping handcuffs on Marcus. Black is under arrest. What about White? At the end of the game, Eddie accepts a basketball scholarship to St. John’s.

When it comes down to friendship, guilt, and innocence, is everything really black and white?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Do You Dare Take a Step Out of Line?

Unwind by Neil Shusterman
4Q 4P M/J

This didn't turn out to be quite what I thought it was going to be, but I still liked it and thought it gave lots of food for thought.

Imagine a world in which there is not a Bill of Rights, but a Bill of Life:

The Bill of Life states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen.

However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively "abort" a child...

...on the condition that the child's life doesn't "technically" end.

The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called "unwinding".

Unwinding is now a common and accepted practice in society.

Creepy, no?

Connor's parents decide he's too uncontrollable. Risa is a ward of the state. She hasn't gotten any talents that make her particularly valuable, so she's expendable. Lev was conceived specifically as a tithe, his family's donation to God. All three are scheduled for unwinding. Lev goes willingly, even gladly, but Connor and Risa are desperate to save themselves. They can't imagine that someone would be happy to be unwound, so when they get the opportunity to save themselves, they save Lev, too. At first, they find reason to hope. But Lev doesn't want to be saved, and his actions bring them close to disaster before they find people who will help them. But the question they should always keep in mind is "Why?" In this book, much is not what it seems to be. It will certainly leave you questioning.

Shusterman is scrupulous about playing fair to both sides of the abortion question (though that term is rarely, if ever, actually used). Unwinding is presented as a good thing, in that it enables others to live (every scrap of an unwind is used to prolong or enhance the life of another human being). Unwinding is also presented as an evil, robbing a person of his/her life without recognizing the value of that life except as it exists to help someone else. There's one truly freaky scene when we actually read from the point of view of someone being unwound. For that reason (especially), this one isn't one for the faint of heart. And you like to read for pure pleasure, without thinking about what you read, you'll probably want to give this book a pass, too. But if you like putting yourself into many character's point of view and thinking about moral issues, give this one a try. I promise lots of action, too. These are not kids who go willingly into that dark night.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

It's a Runescape Kind of World

EPIC by Conor Kostick
4Q 5P J/M

The teens here are Runescape fanatics. Battleon used to be really popular too. I've been known to play both. When I was younger, I loved the Zork games (boy, does that date me!) and any other adventure game that centered around solving puzzles (as opposed to the ones that feature endless battles). There's something about these games that's addicting and exciting. But what if you had to play? And what if everything you did in the game affected your real life? If you are a sixtieth level warrior with +20 magical weapons and armor, you're golden. In the real world, you'd have enough points to have a pretty good life. But what if you meet a stronger foe with better weapons and more magic? Well, then you die and wind up back as a level one character with maybe a rusty dagger and a leather arm guard to protect you as you scramble to kill anything weaker than you are just to gain a paltry coin or two. Now real life's not nearly such a picnic, because you've lost all your assets there, too. Welcome to Erik's world.

In Erik's world, everything depends on how well you play the virtual reality game called Epic. As the book begins, Erik is supposed to be preparing for what seems to be the equivalent of his final exams. But that doesn't mean cracking the books. It means he has to get online and play Epic to hone his skills and improve his stats. That may sound like fun to us, but to Erik, it's no fun at all, particularly because he knows it's an exercise in frustration. The game is stacked against them. Erik, his mother, and his father are, like everyone else in their village, struggling to meet their quotas and fill their duties in the real world. But in order to do that, they need things they can only get by winning in Epic. And that just isn't going to happen. In fact, it's so impossible that they're about to be reallocated and sent to work in the mines. So instead of preparing for the graduation tournament, Erik is trying to find a way to challenge Central Allocations, the governing body that decides who gets what. A successful challenge is the only way the family will be able to stay where they are. Unfortunately, his characters keep dying.

This last death is the final straw. He has to play, yes. But he's through with playing the game by the rules; he's through with playing strategically. His new character will be different from anything he's ever created before. For one thing, she'll be female. And instead of maximizing all the typical skills, such as fighting or crafts, and instead of trying to get as much magic and the best weapons he can afford, in a moment of whimsy he decides to throw all his attribute points into his character's physical features. She's beautiful. In a game where all the players are gray, angular blobs, Cindella the swashbuckler is going to really stand out.

Stand out she does. The very first time Erik plays Epic as Cindella, he realizes that everything has changed. For the first time ever, the NPCs (the characters controlled by the game, not other players) interact meaningfully with him. In fact, sometimes they even initiate conversations, which is unheard of. But what they tell him is even more amazing. It seems that there's a treasure to be found. If Cindella can find the treasure, she'll be rich. And if she's rich, then Erik is, too.

Erik soon realizes that this is the character that just might survive long enough to be able to mount that challenge against Central Allocations. But if Cindella wants to find that treasure, she's going to need some help. And Erik is going to need help, too. Fortunately, Erik has four very good friends in Bjorn, Injeborg, Big Erik, and Sigrid. Together, they make a formidable team, becoming famous throughout Epic and in the real world. But are they good enough and strong enough to beat Central Allocations, the most powerful people/players in both worlds? They had better be, because Central Allocations doesn't like its power threatened, and the council members are prepared to take whatever steps necessary to make sure that Erik and his friends are put in their proper place. In a world where even the merest hint of violence is outlawed, all disputes are supposed to be solved inside the game of Epic and only through tournament combat. But certain members of Central Allocations think rules are for other people. Erik might not know it yet, but his life is in danger, and not just in the game.

Epic has all the elements of a great role-playing game adventure: a quest, villains, vampires, ogres, trolls, a truly fearsome dragon, treachery, magic, and ::ahem:: epic battles. Some characters turn out to have secrets that have a huge impact in the way the story (book and Epic) turn out. In a sense, this is two treats in one. It's a great read, and at the same time, there are sections when it manages to make you feel as though you truly are participating in the virtual reality world.

I highly recommend this book to teens who like action and adventure. Even kids who are more interested in playing on their computers than in reading will enjoy this one. And when teachers assign their students to read a science fiction novel, this will be one of my first suggestions to the kids who hate science fiction. I think they'll be pleasantly surprised.

The author is planning to write at least one sequel/companion novel to Epic. In fact, I see that it's already been published in the United Kingdom and Germany. I'm glad to see that it doesn't seem to be precisely a sequel, because I don't really think it needs one. (But it does seem as though at least 80% of J/YA fantasies and a significant percentage of J/YA science fiction come with "sequel" or "trilogy" written into the contract!). But sequel, companion novel, or stand-alone novel, I will be buying it for my library.

No quotes this time, because it's not a book that particularly lends itself to that. But here are a few links that might be worth checking out:

Bible Grrrl says Jesus and Darwin Agree

Evolution, Me, & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande
4Q 3P J/S

"...I hoped my first day of school -- of high school, thank you, which I've only been looking forward to my entire life -- might turn out to be at least slightly better than eating live bugs. But I guess I was wrong."

So says Mena Reece, who might have had the first day of high school she'd been dreaming of if she only hadn't written that letter. If she hadn't written that letter, then her friends might be talking to her now. If she hadn't written that letter, her parents would be speaking to her. Her parents would look at her. But she did write that letter, and now she's been kicked out of her church, her parents are being sued, and she's being harassed at school. Mena and her family belong to a strict fundamentalist church. They believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, that homosexuality is a sin, and that anything that involves magic and wizards is of the devil. None of this is negotiable. If you stray from the church’s teachings or question the pastor, you are asking for trouble. Mena “asked” for trouble when she wrote that letter. Is she sorry she wrote it? Not really. It was the right thing to do. But that doesn’t mean she’s happy with the result. She never imagines her salvation will come at the hands of an evolution-teaching biology teacher and a science-loving lab partner.

Biology is not Mena's thing, but her lab partner is Casey Connor, who sweeps her along in his enthusiasm for science and admiration for Ms. Shepherd, a dynamic teacher who teaches her students how to think and observe. Mena can’t help but get interested. Each year, Ms. Shepherd gives her students the opportunity to earn extra credit by creating their own special project. Casey is determined to do the best project Ms. Shepherd has ever seen. Unfortunately, his idea requires going to his house after school almost every day. Mena knows that that just won’t fly with her parents (#1, she’s grounded; #2, she’s not allowed to be alone with a boy for any reason), but she goes anyway. She’ll figure out how to do deal with her parents later. In the meantime, she's trying to deny the obvious: Casey's a pretty cool guy. In fact, Casey's whole family is pretty cool, and very different from her own.

Casey’s sister Kayla is just about everything that Mena is not: excitable, strong, loud, and opinionated. While Mena wishes she'd never called attention to herself, Kayla relishes making waves. As editor of the school paper, she’s about to make a big one: Pastor Wells and his church’s youth group are protesting the teaching of evolution in Ms. Shepherd’s biology class. He wants creationism taught instead. It’s their own Scopes Monkey Trial, and Kayla is thrilled that Mena and Casey are right in the middle of it. They can be her sources on the scene while she blows this story wide open. Casey, Kayla, and Ms. Shepherd know exactly how they feel about evolution vs creationism. But Mena is torn. Ms. Shepherd is a brilliant scientist, and her lectures are very convincing. Still, Mena’s not used to questioning her church’s teachings. And the last thing she needs to do is get everyone in the congregation and her parents even angrier with her than they are now, if that’s even possible. No, she’s not going to take a stand on this one. But Kayla has other plans for her, and almost before she knows what’s happened, Mena has a piece in the school newspaper and her own blog. She’s Bible Grrrl, and what she has to say about the Bible and evolution gets her more attention than she ever dreamed of. Suddenly, people want to know what she has to say.

Just by being who they are, the Connors and Ms. Shepherd make Mena think about things in a new way and question things she's always accepted without much thought. Will having a boy friend (not even a boyfriend!) really inevitably lead to having sex? Can you really be corrupted just by reading a book or watching a movie? How do faith and facts interact? Can you believe in evolution and still believe in God? Can you disagree with your parents and still have them love and respect you and love and respect them in return? Is it wrong to stand up for the things you believe in, even when your stand isn’t a popular one? Is it time she thought for herself?


If I were creating a Best Books List of 2007, this book would be on it. I like books that make me care and make me think. This one did that. I think Brande did a fine job making Mena a well-rounded character. She's not a perfect girl, and she doesn't pretend that she is. Watching her grow and figure out what she believes is as empowering to the reader as it is for Mena to actually do. It's also fun to watch her struggle with admitting that she's not as impervious to Casey's charms as she'd like to think, and I could empathize with her having a hard time believing that he might actually feel the same way about her. Casey and Kayla are great characters, and if Josh's t-shirts ever go on sale for real, I'm there. I do think that Brande does make Pastor Wells too one-dimensional and stereotypical, but on the other hand, his daughter is portrayed as equally sincere in her beliefs, but far more nuanced as a character.

This book has a lot going for it. I suspect that firm creationists won't be happy/satisfied with it, but those wondering how or if faith and science can coexist are likely to find that this book provides them food for thought.

I'm not going to quote anything because
  • I have lost page one of my notes. This proves that 1) sticky notes aren't always the best things to use and 2) reading in bed is not conducive to good organization.
  • Page two of my notes is full of things that are too close to the end of the book to quote.
  • It's already taken me three weeks to get this post up, and it's high time I stopped agonizing and posted it already. Yeah, I know. It doesn't read like something that took three weeks to write (okay, not twenty-one days of writing, but definitely more than one session of "why won't the words I want come?!" frustration). But I tried.

I was going to point to the URL listed in the back of the book, but when I tried to visit it, I discovered that it doesn't really go to anything about Robin Brande specifically. Random House has turned it into a page to promote several authors. You also need a user name and password. Boo! hiss!

Edited on Jan. 11, 2008 to add Robin's web site, thanks to the comment below. This one actually does work! Check out Robin Brande's web site at

Edited on August 30, 2008 to add a couple of missing words. I hope I caught them all, but no guarantees.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Silence is Not Golden

The Silenced by James Devita
4Q 3P/ J S

Wow. I just finished this book and even though I have two other books I should be writing about first, I need to write something about this one now, while the feelings are still fresh.

Wow. Talk about an atmospheric book. There are some books you don't want to stop reading because they're so good. There are some books you have to stop reading, even if you don't want to, just to give yourself a chance to breathe and your heart to stop pounding. I put this book down at least six times because I needed a break. I couldn't stand the tension or the fear of what I thought/knew was coming. I needed to do something mindless for a while, so that I could give myself a chance to process what I'd read and what was coming.

No long summary here. In a nutshell, this book takes place in an unspecified future time in an unspecified country (but I still read it as the U.S., though that may be U.S.-centric of me). A war was fought within recent memory, and the Zero Tolerance party is now in power. We're not talking about zero tolerance for teasing, or zero tolerance for drugs, or zero tolerance for weapons in the schools. We're talking about zero tolerance for tolerance. Zero tolerance for individual thought. Zero tolerance for different religious beliefs. Zero tolerance for deviation from the official government line. Zero tolerance for different. In the initial phases of the new government, many of those who fought or protested were "neutralized" - government-speak for killed. But it wasn't enough to hold those people responsible for their actions. Their families are held responsible as well. The families have been sent to readaptation communities all around the country. Suspect spouses are put on house arrest, while the children are re-educated in schools that are nothing more than indoctrination facilities.

Marena is one of those children. She only has brief flashes of memory of what happened the night her mother was taken, but she can remember what her mother believed. And one of the things her mother believed was that you do not have the right to stay silent when evil is happening around you. Marena is already resisting in as many ways as she can: she mouths the words of the anthem and the loyalty oaths they are forced to repeat, she refuses to give up her precious paper, pens, and papers when writing implements are outlawed, and she refuses to believe what she is told to believe. But when a favorite teacher is taken away and a new and stricter administration is brought it, Marena knows that it's time to take a harder stand. She convinces her would-be boyfriend Dex and the new boy, Eric, that it's time to actively rebel. They slash tires. They vandalize the school with slogans. They spread leaflets. They spread the word: The White Rose will not be silent. But their rebellion comes at a very high cost.

Any similarities to the Nazi regime are completely intentional. This book is a tribute to Sophie Scholl, her brother, and the other members of the White Rose resistance group, who fought the Nazis with pamphlets, leaflets, and graffiti, spreading the idea of resistance throughout their university and beyond. It's also, I think, a protest against the people in our own country right now who insist that voicing objections to actions of our political leaders is nothing short of traitorous. But if the people don't remind their government to have a conscience, then we open ourselves to nightmare scenarios. Sophie Scholl, Nelson Mandela, and Marena could testify to that.

Lest I have made this sound like a book that only those of a political bent could enjoy, let me assure you, it is not. Despite its length, I think many teens who don't really like to read could get caught up in this one. Rebellious teens fighting against the authorities. Questions about who you can trust (can you even trust your own father?). Midnight trysts and post-midnight illegal actions. Short, cliff-hanger ending chapters. This is a compulsively readable book that will have many readers riveted to the last page.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Boy? Girl? Other? Neither?

Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger
4Q 3P J/S

A few years ago, the acronym GLBTQ started showing up all over the place. Suddenly, we weren't just talking about sexuality in terms of straight, gay, or lesbian. Now bisexual and transgender were added to the mix (along with queer/questioning, depending on who you asked about the acronym). I understood what bisexual meant, but what did it mean to be transgendered? If it's confusing for me, how much more confusing is it for teens? I read articles explaining it, and those helped, but I didn't really get it until I read Luna by Julie Ann Peters. And now I can add Ellen Wittlinger's Parrotfish to a very short list of books about being transgendered. Books like these peel the label away to show you the person underneath, and that's incredibly important and valuable. But Parrotfish isn't just an issue book. It's also just a darned good read, which isn't surprising, given its author.

After I wrote that paragraph, I wondered if I should be using the word "issue" at all. Is sexuality an issue? Should it be? As far as Grady is concerned, it shouldn't be. But Grady was born Angela and lived the first fifteen years of his life as a girl, and so he knows that yes, sexuality is an issue for a lot of people. But it bugs him. Why is whether you're a boy or girl so darned important? Why does it have to be a simple answer? One or the other? Not everyone fits so neatly into the category we get saddled with on Day One. Angela always knew she was different somehow. When her teachers told the class to line up in a boys line and a girls line, the other kids never seemed to have any question which line they belonged in. Angela knew she was supposed to go in the girl's line, but inside she knew she belonged with the boys. She also knew she'd get in trouble if she stood there. So for years, Grady allowed people to think of him as a girl. But now he's in his junior year of high school and he's tired of pretending to be someone he's not. Last year he let people think he was just a butch lesbian, or maybe just a freak. But that was pretending, too. He's not a girl, even if that's what his body tells the world he is. He's a guy. He's not Angela, he's Grady. And the world is just going to have to accept that.

Of course, it's not that easy. The reactions are varied, even in his own family. His father is surprisingly okay with it. His little brother is confused, but accepting. His sister Laura is angry. She's afraid that Grady is ruining any chance she has at being popular. And Grady's mother is just plain freaked out by it. She's not angry or rejecting, she's just...avoiding. She can't even look him in the eye or call him by name. When she finally does say Grady instead of Angela, it's a big moment for both of them. And it's not just his family Grady has to deal with. He also has to go to school and face the music there. Grady's best friend, Eve, is even more concerned than Laura about being seen with Grady: "Angie, this is too confusing. I'm not like you. I need to have friends -- I don't want people to think I'm a weirdo...Angela was my friend, but I don't know who Grady is! I'm sorry, but I can't call you that in front of other people. I can't be a part of this whole thing. it's just too bizarre." With friends like that, who needs enemies?

But if old friends and family sometimes let Grady down, he also discovers new friends where he least expects them. He would never have predicted that Russ, one of the most popular boys in school, and his (gorgeous) girlfriend Kita would turn out to be his strongest allies, or that Sebastian, the nerdy guy from her TV Production class, would become her new best friend. Sebastian's reaction to learning that Angela is now a boy named Grady? "Wow! You're just like the stoplight parrotfish!" In the world of stoplight parrotfish, it seems, changing gender from female to male isn't at all unusual, and Sebastian can't see why it should be any different among humans. He's happy to take Grady as he is, whoever that is. It won't surprise anyone to learn that Sebastian is unusual in that regard. Most of the other students think Grady's a freak and treat him accordingly. His high school principal and most of his teachers aren't supportive at all. But Sebastian, Russ, Kita, and Ms. Unger (the gym teacher) always have his back.

But gender identity isn't the only thing on Grady's mind. Like every teenager, he worries about family stuff and romance, too. For instance, he's desperate for a way to tell his father that the rest of the family has outgrown a family tradition he cherishes. This is going to take some delicate negotiating. But that's nothing compared to the tightrope he's walking with Russ and Kita. What do you do when you have the hots for a girl who's going out with your friend? When they're having trouble, do you root for them to work it out or do you root for them to break up so you can move in? And can you move in? Does Kita really see him as a guy, or would it totally freak her out to know that Grady desperately wants to kiss her?

These are things that everyone can relate to. And that's a hallmark of Ellen Wittlinger's writing: her ability to make her stories real and personal. No matter what the overall topic, be it a transgendered teen, a lonely boy who falls in love with a girl he can never be with (Hard Love), or a girl who made some poor choices for the sake of popularity (Sandpiper), the "issue" never overwhelms the story. When all is said and done, it is the characters you remember and care about. You will remember and care about Grady, too.

Wittlinger breaks some stereotypes here. For once, the father is the family member who is the most accepting. That's not a typical scenario. And it's about time a gym teacher is not only not a Neanderthal, she's the teacher Grady can most rely on for help and understanding.

I have to admit that I wasn't a fan of Grady's made up conversations. I understand why they're there, and I think a lot of people do this (I know I do!), but they still felt a little jarring, maybe because the voice used in them seemed too different from the voice used in the rest of the book.

I realized it wasn't just that I became uninterested in girls when I hit puberty and started figuring out sex. I was a boy way before that, from the age of four or five, before I knew anything about sex. On one of the websites it said that gender identity - whether you feel like a boy or a girl - starts long before sexual identity - whether you're gay or straight. In my dreams at night, I was a boy, but every morning I woke to the big mistake. Everyone thought I was a girl because that's the way my body looked, and it was crystal clear to me that I was expected to pretend to *be* a girl whether I liked it or not. (pp. 18-19)

It occurred to me that the male members of my family seemed to be taking this better than the females, and I wondered why that was. Did the women feel like I was deserting them by deciding to live as the opposite sex? Maybe for Dad and Charlie, it didn't seem strange to want to be male, since that's what they were. But Mom and Laura -- and, of course, Eve -- acted like I was betraying them somehow. Would I have to give them up if I wasn't a girl anymore? I hoped not. I hoped that changing my gender wouldn't mean losing my entire past. (pp. 33-34.)

Does a hamlet fish carry around a skull and ponder suicide? (p. 71). Hee.

Sebastian and Grady have a conversation on pages 98-99 that struck me for several reasons, not least of which was that Sebastian helps Grady realize that he's not the only person who feels like a freak. It just his reason that's different. But it also struck me when Grady thinks, "...were there other people who thought I should off myself so their world wouldn't be spoiled by my presence?" Now there's a thought to make you shudder. Later, Grady thinks, "I couldn't imagine what it would be like to be so sure of yourself. To be scornful of anybody who wasn't just like you." Food for thought.

Other reviews on this book: Bookslut and Teen Reads

Cynthia Leitich Smith interviewed Ellen in 2005.

Ellen has an official web site, but it doesn't seem to have been updated with information about Parrotfish yet.

Edited to fix a couple of typos.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

PEAK booktalk

Booktalk for Peak by Roland Smith

As you know from an earlier post, I loved this book. It's a booktalk waiting to happen, so I don't know why it's taken me so long to actually put one on paper. Too many other books to read, too little time to write, I guess! If you've read the book (and if you haven't, what's taking you so long?), you'll see that the climbing sequence is taken directly from the book. See what I mean about the booktalk writing itself?

My fingers were numb. My nose was running. I didn't have a free hand to wipe my nose, or enough rope to rappel about five hundred feet to the ground. I had planned everything out so carefully, except for the weather, and now it was uh-oh time. A gust of wind tried to peel me off the wall. I should have waited until June to make the ascent, but no, moron has to go up in March. "Moron!" I shouted.

Option #1: Finish the climb. Two hundred sixty-four feet up, or about a hundred precarious fingerholds (providing my fingers didn't break off like icicles

Option #2: Climb down. A little over five hundred feet, two hundred fifty fingerholds.

Option #3: Wait for rescue. Scratch that option. No one knew I was on the wall. By morning (providing someone actually looked up and saw me) I would be an icy gargoyle.

Up it is, then.

I timed my moves between vicious blasts of wind. The sleet turned to hail, pelting me like a swarm of frozen hornets. This is it, I told myself. Fifteen more handholds and I've topped it. I reached up for the next seam and encountered a little snag. Well, a big snag, really...My right ear and cheek were frozen to the wall.

To reach the top you must have resolve, muscles, skill, and...a FACE! Mine was anchored to the wall like a bolt, and a portion of it stayed there when I gathered enough resolve to tear it loose. Now I was mad, which was exactly what I needed to finish the climb. Cursing with every vertical lunge, I stopped about four feet below the edge, tempted to tag this monster with the blood running down my neck. Instead, I took the mountain stencil out of my pack, slapped it on the wall, and filled it in with blue spray paint.

And that's when the helicopter came up behind me and nearly blew me off the wall. "You are under arrest!"

Busted. Hey, I'd rather have been climbing a mountain, but there aren't many of those in Manhattan, so I've had to settle for climbing skyscrapers. I had no idea how much trouble that could get me into. They wanted to send me to juvenile detention for three years! I don't know what shocked me more, the idea of a three year prison sentence or the fact that it was my father who rescued me. I hadn't seen Josh since I was about seven. What was he doing here?

See, Josh is a big time mountain climber. He's famous. But all his climbing has left him with no time for me. He's never even sent me a birthday card or answered the letters I've sent. I'm not sure I can remember the last time we talked on the phone. So having him show up at my trial and offer to become my guardian and take me out of the country really blew my mind. I should have felt great about being with my father again, but I had a feeling there was more to this than met the eye.

I was right. My father didn't come get me because he was being a good dad. He came for me because now that he knows I can climb, he wants me to be the youngest kid to ever scale Mount Everest. Now here I am, sitting at Base Camp, wondering what I should do. Things here are really tense. Nobody in the group he's leading wants me here. Josh barely pays attention to me. Instead, he's got an old Buddhist monk training me. A nosy reporter is watching my every move, and so are the Chinese officials, who think we're up to something. Maybe we are. Preparing to climb Mount Everest is grueling. I can barely breathe and I feel sick all the time. Still, it would be cool to be the youngest kid to climb Mount Everest. But I don't I really want to make my father's dream come true?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Boot Camps Mess With Your Head

Boot Camp by Todd Strasser
3Q 3P, J S

Chilling. Disturbing. Horrific. Tense. Disheartening. Gripping.

Garrett admits that he is skipping school, stealing money, and having an affair with his (former) teacher. He doesn't see why is parents are so angry, though. Does it matter that he's not in class every day? Even attending school two or three days a week, he is still easily maintaining an average that will allow him into almost any school. Yes, he has taken money from his parents. But that's because they've refused to give him any sort of allowance because they disapprove of his girlfriend. What else is he supposed to do? And it's not like they can't afford the $20 he takes here and there, since his mother runs her own crisis management company (protecting an image is everything to her) and his father is a corporate lawyer. And yes, he is dating his teacher. He and Sabrina connected almost from the first day he walked into her class. Despite every obstacle thrown in their paths, he is not willing to give her up. For these crimes, Garrett is sent to a boot camp to straighten him up.

He is taken to the camp in handcuffs. When he arrives, he's strip searched and manhandled at every opportunity. And he's told,
"Your parents have signed and notarized a consent form allowing Lake Harmony to use restraint whenever necessary. The type and degree of restraint administered shall be at the discretion of the staff. Lake Harmony and its employees will not be held liable for any injury sustained by you during the administration of restraint as it is understood that such injury is the result of willful disobedience on your part."

The introduction to the camp's Bible (information for inmates) reads:
You are now a member of the Lake Harmony community. You will be released when you are judged to be respectful, polite, and obedient enough to return to your family. During your stay here you will have no communication with the outside world, except for letters to your parents. After six months your parents may visit you for a day if they choose.

The treatment that Garrett receives at the camp is brutal. His "father" (each group of campers is assigned a "father" or "mother" leader) is determined to break him down and make him admit that his actions were wrong and that he is sincerely sorry for causing his parents so much trouble. Higher level campers are used to keep lower level students in line, and there are no lines drawn at how they can do this, with the exception that any bruises can't be in a place that shows. (The same holds true for the staff.) Another common punishment is TI, Temporary Isolation, where the inmate is forced to lie facedown on a cold concrete floor for twenty-four hours a day.

Garrett is a very strong-minded boy. He knows that some of his actions were technically wrong, but he refuses to admit that loving Sabrina is wrong in any way. He also knows that it is wrong to stand idly by while kids are beaten by thugs and bullies, and he can't help coming to their defense (in particular, he stands up for a boy named Paulie). He also refuses to suck up to the staff. For these infractions and insubordinations, he is often sent to TI, and he is often beaten. Still, Garrett refuses to give up. He listens during group meetings as kids on higher levels say things like, "I'd be dead if it weren't for Harmony Lake" and "I deserved every punishment I got" and can't imagine those words ever coming out of his mouth.

There are two other inmates who have also refused to get with the program. Sarah has been at the camp for two years. Paulie has been there for well over a year. Both are still at Level One, meaning they've made no progress in accepting their guilt or misbehavior. When Garrett first arrives, Sarah is still defiant, but as the weeks go by, both she and Paulie begin to lose their will to fight. They know if they don't get out of the camp, they'll die. But neither will give in to get ahead, so their only chance is to escape the camp. And their only chance to escape successfully is if Garrett comes with them.

I thought that Garrett's situation couldn't get worse, but I was wrong.


As I said above, I found this book chilling to read. I also have to admit, though, that I kept asking myself if Strasser wasn't exaggerating the conditions of camps like this. But he provides a list of resources he used to research this book, and he certainly has evidence on his side.

I did find, though, that the villains of the piece were too one-dimensional. Almost every staff member is rotten any way you look at him (we meet only one female staff member), never having even a moment of doubt about what he's doing and never having even a moment of looking at these kids as though they're fellow human beings. I can easily believe that there are a few people on staff who glory in sanctioned bullying and sadism, but I find it harder to believe that every staff member is like that. And of the teens, only Garrett, Sarah, and Paulie are developed in any way. Only three or four other teens are even named, and they exist only to perpetuate and perpetrate the bullying. I think the book would have benefited by having more shades of gray in these characters.


To learn more about Todd Strasser, check out his web site.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Don't Judge a Girl by Her Cover

Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah
3Q 3P M/J/S

Amal describes herself and her situation like this:
I'm an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian. That means I was born an Aussie and whacked with some seriously confusing identity hyphens. I'm in eleventh grade and in four days' time I'll be entering the first day of my third term at McCleans. My Jennifer Aniston experience couldn't have come at a worse time. I mean, it's hard enough being an Arab Muslim at a new school with your hair tumbling down your shoulders. Shawling up is just plain psychotic.

"Shawling up"? "Jennifer Aniston experience"? Hunh? What does that mean? Okay, let's backtrack just a minute. Over winter break, Amal watched a Friends rerun in which Rachel (played by Jennifer Aniston) is a bridesmaid in her ex's wedding. Her dress is hideous, and at first, she's embarrassed and lets the teasing get to her. But midway through the event, she decides the heck with that and jumps up to sing "Copacabana" in front of all the guests. Seeing Rachel/Jennifer refuse to be intimidated by what anyone else thinks is a turning point for Amal. It's what makes her decide to become a "full-timer" -- to wear the hijab (headscarf) all the time, not just at the mosque or as part of a school uniform.

Wearing the hijab is not an easy decision. Amal knows it's going to make her a target for scathing comments, prejudiced remarks, and curious glances. And she's scared about all of that. But at the same time, wearing the hijab just feels right. It's taking a stand for her beliefs. It will make her feel closer to God. She's proud of who she is, and her religion is very important to her. And too many people think that Muslim women are downtrodden and repressed. She wants them to know that Islam honors women and encourages them to live full and complete lives. Wearing the hijab is one way that she can honor her belief and send a signal to those who don't understand. But that doesn't mean it isn't a scary thing to do. Anything that marks someone as Arab or Muslim, whether it be the hijab, a name, or physical characteristics, makes him or her a target. Is she ready to deal with that?

Wearing a hijab isn't just about wearing a headscarf. Wearing the hijab sends another kind of signal, too. It means that the wearer is modest in all things, from dress to romance. And that means that not only will a devout Muslim girl not have sex before marriage, she also won't have a physical relationship of any kind. That means no hugging and definitely not kissing. That doesn't mean that a girl can't fantasize, though, and Amal is really good at fantasizing over Adam. Mmmmmmm...Adam! Yeah, he's got a bit of acne and a tendency towards a unibrow, but those muscles! That hair! Not only that, but he's a popular jock who is also an excellent student. Of all the kids in school, she's most worried about what Adam will think about her wearing the hijab. Unfortunately, even though they were chem lab partners last term, Amal knows she isn't really on Adam's radar. So it surprises and delights her no end when, instead of dividing them, wearing the hijab actually attracts Adam's attention. They soon become good friends, and Adam joins her group of friends. Amal savors his IMs and phone calls at night and their deep conversations during the day. But does Adam really understand what wearing the hijab means? What if he doesn't understand the line between friend and girlfriend?

There's a lot to like about this book. For one thing, I enjoyed the peek inside a culture that isn't my own (it's a far cry from my own, in fact). Amal often has to deal with people who think of her as a foreigner, even though she's lived her entire life in Australia. Abdel-Fattah does a nice job showing that Amal and her family and friends are no different from anyone else, while at the same time showing us what is unique about their culture. Another plus is that the book manages to be quite funny while still dealing with some serious and significant topics. Amal has a great sense of humor and a wry eye towards her family and friends, which makes for several laugh-out-loud moments. It's also refreshing to read a book where the relationships between the main character and her parents and friends are honest, caring, and supportive. You won't see any backstabbing here. And for parents and teens who prefer books with minimal swearing, sex, and drinking, this one is right up your alley.

Abdel-Fattah takes great pains to be inclusive and to show a well-rounded view of a typical Australian-Arab teen. Amal has two very good friends who are also Muslim, and all three girls are very different. Yasmeen is the worldly girl, very into shopping and fashion. Leila is determined to be a lawyer, but her mother comes from a culture which expects the girls to sublimate themselves to the men in their lives (the girl's brother comes off looking like a real jerk), and there's no reason for a girl to be educated, let alone go to college, as far as she's concerned. A girl only needs to know how to maintain a home and keep her husband happy. She's desperate to marry Leila off now, before she gets too old (say, 18). Amal/Abdel-Fattah makes it clear that this is a cultural thing, not a religious thing. The way Leila's mother is bringing up her daughter reflects the culture of her village, not Islam. This is obviously something the author wants us to understand, but I wish she had been more subtle about it.

Amal also has several good friends who are not Islamic. There's Josh, who is Jewish and understands what it feels like to be an outsider. So does Amal's friend Eileen, who is of Japanese descent. A significant subplot in the book involves their friend Simone's body image issues. Eileen is round and voluptuous instead of model-thin, and it's a serious problem for her and for her mother. Despite all evidence to the contrary, she can't believe that a boy would actually find her attractive, when she is (as far as she and her mother are concerned) so fat. Abdel-Fattah and her characters come down squarely in the "be comfortable with yourself the way you are" corner, and reading those scenes feel like a big warm hug. Amal and all her friends are people you would like to hang out with.

I do have some reservations, though. At times, Amal had an anxiety attack about wearing her hijab in situations where it felt odd to me. In the middle of a tense debate, would people really be concentrating on what she's wearing, not what she says? Would it really be her main reason to be nervous about beginning her section of the debate? I didn't think so. (On the other hand, the scene in the mall when she applies for a job made it very clear that Amal has reason to be wary about people's reactions.) There's a subplot with a Greek neighbor that not only plays out predictably, but somewhat unrealistically. My biggest problem, though, was that I found that what started out as one of the book's strengths became a weakness. I frequently found myself reading a scene and thinking first that the conversation was very interesting/fun/whatever, then that it was informative, and finally that it felt as though it was in the book so that Abdel-Fattah could make something clear to her readers (culture vs. Islam, romance in Islamic culture, female empowerment issues in the Muslim community, etc.). I would have rated this book a 4Q 3P if this had happened less often.

Overall, I definitely recommend this book. I don't know if it's a book that everyone will love, but I think it's a book that may do very well by word of mouth.


Here are a few lines that made me smile:

"Who cares what normal is, Simone? Let's protest. From now on we're the anti-normal, anti-average, anti-standard. You can eat what you want to, I'll wear what I want, and we'll die with a bag of chips in our hand and a tablecloth on our head."

I can't bear to sit through another night manicuring my nails with Justin Timberlake, so I say yes.

The way I see it, I'd rather follow God's fashion dicates than some ugly fake-tanned old fart in Milan who's getting by on a pretty self-serving theory of less is more when it comes to female dress.

About reading Cosmo:
According to Cosmo, Adam and I are perfectly matched, although June's edition gave us a low score on physical compatibility so I threw out that issue. All my Cosmo are stacked under my bed because my mom hates me reading such "filthy magazines with nothing but sex and skinny girls." She think that if I read them I'm going to spend my Saturday nights bouncing away in cars and throwing up my lunch.

(This is Simone speaking:)
"You think that's my dream? To get checked out my guys? Guys would check out a streetlamp if it had boobs."

Friday, July 13, 2007

A Peak Experience

Peak by Roland Smith
4Q 5P M/J

Peak lives in New York City, which isn't exactly the ideal place to live if your sport is mountain climbing. On the other hand, NYC does have really tall things to climb, as long as you don't get caught climbing them. Unfortunately, Peak does get caught, just as he finishes tagging the Woolworth Building (his tag is little blue mountains) and hauls himself onto the roof of the skyscraper. He's under arrest, facing several years in juvenile detention. Fortunately, his father shows up just in time and makes a bargain with the judge and prosecutors: he'll take Peak out of the country and make the story go away if they will drop the charges. Little do they, or Peak, realize that Peak's father has big plans for Peak: He's going to be the youngest climber to summit Mount Everest.

Musings as I read this book:

I loved the first couple of chapters. "The Hook" really is a great hook. I love the way Smith makes you think one thing is going on and then switches it up just enough to make you realize he was thinking "Gotcha!" as he reached the end of the chapter.

I don't much like Peak's father. Talk about an "it's all about me" guy! When Peak asks him if he'd have come to New York (to bail him out of serious trouble) if he had already been fifteen and his father says no, I wanted to kick the guy.

I also like that Smith wrote a really good adventure/survival story, but doesn't sacrifice humor to do it. Talking about a reporter who has insinuated herself onto the climb but who is clearly neither mentally nor physically prepared for it, Peak writes:
    "Inside a tent her voice was shrill enough to sour yak butter. She was no longer gasping, which I missed because the pauses gave my ears a chance to rest."

You've got to laugh at that!

If you want to know more about Roland Smith, check out his web site. You can find his Cryptid Hunter in the children's department (I'm waiting for a sequel!) and Jake's Run and its sequel Zach's Lie in the Teen Room.

Update: I will shortly be posting a booktalk for this book. I'll use "booktalk" as a tag because it's not one of the ones I did for the Connecticut Library Association.

Monday, June 18, 2007

I'm With Murphy and Stein

What My Girlfriend Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones
5Q 4P, J/S

Just to catch you up on things, in the prequel (What My Mother Doesn't Know) to this book, Sophie finds her true love...several times. The magic dies with Dylan, the first guy. Chaz, her chat room friend, turns out to be the kind of guy you're warned about when people start talking about the hazards of Internet romances. And then there's Murphy. Murphy...the guy who is such a nerd that when someone does something stupid, the kids say, "You're such a Murphy!" Not the kind of a guy most teens want to be seen with, including Sophie. But there's more to Murphy than meets the eye, which Sophie discovers when she goes to the museum to see her favorite painting and finds Murphy there, too. Now this is true love.

What My Girlfriend Doesn't Know takes up where the first leaves off. Winter break is over, which means that Sophie and Murphy have to go back to school. What will Sophie do when she gets to school? Will she sit with her friends and pretend she doesn't know Murphy, or will she put her social life in jeopardy by joining Murphy at his lunch table? Murphy is sure he knows the answer. Any girl in her right mind would never be seen with him. So he is shocked when Sophie does it - she sits down with him! In front of the entire cafeteria! The room gets dead silent. All eyes focus on them. And then they turn away, as though the sight is too disgusting to tolerate. Even Sophie's best friends turn away. They refuse to be seen with her. Sophie and Murphy are determined to stay strong and stay together. But is their love strong enough to survive being ostracized, teased, and harassed?

There's another wrinkle, too, and Sophie doesn't know anything about this one. Well, she knows that Murphy has been invited to participate in an art class at Harvard. But she doesn't know the details. This is a mind-blowing experience for him. Not only is he Robin* here, not Murphy, but nobody thinks he's a Murphy, either. Here, everybody thinks he's just another kid. In fact, they seem to think he's another college-aged kid. And here, girls call him "babe" and invite him to join them for a snack after class. Would that be cool with Sophie? Maybe she'd think it was fine. After all, some of the guys are in the group, too. But would she be fine with the nude models? Would she be fine with the way Murphy thinks about those nude models? Sophie always says that "sometimes (she) just knows things", but maybe this is the kind of thing she'd be better off not knowing.

I love Sonya Sones's writing. With most verse novels, I read them and wonder why the author didn't just write it in prose instead. But when Sonya Sones writes a free verse novel (as all of her books are so far), I never find myself thinking that. It's very difficult to make characters in a free verse novel as three-dimensional as they are in well-written prose novels, but if anyone can do it, Sones can. She also develops the story arc well, so each poem builds on the one before. But the beauty of her writing is that she uses the form so naturally. She uses similes and metaphors (not all verse novels do that very well), and the cadence of the lines fit the character and situation. There's nothing artificial or forced about it, and the stories are deeply involving. This one is no exception.

*Robin is Murphy's first name.

Musings: Some lines I especially liked

    Murphy describes himself:
    Let's face it
    I'm the type of guy
    who doesn't even have any buddies
    on my buddy list

    When We Finally Come Up for Air

    Sophie's eyes/are smiling into mine.

    And it's amazing, really,/because all she has to do is look at me

    and my lump of a nose/straightens out

    the muscles on my arms/start to sprout

    the circles fade/under my eyes,

    my ears shrink down/to a normal person's size...

    If only everyone else/could see

    what Sophie sees/when she looks at me

    From I Crack Open the Front Door

    My parents are great listeners./Which is why I never tell them/anything.

    From Tuesday Morning

    "Why didn't you pick up?" Rachel says.
    "We were way worried about you."
    "And we still are," Grace says.
    "Friends don't let friends commit social suicide."

    And when I hear these words,
    my heart detonates in my chest.

    From I'm Just About to Leap on Their Offer
    (note: Students from Murphy's college art class have invited him to join them in an after-class outing.)

    And a second later, I'm racing down the stairs,
    my feet in a Road-Runnery blur,
    when this real bizarre feeling comes over me --
    like I'm the male equivalent of Cinderella,

    and if I don't make it to Mom's Volvo
    before the clock strikes twelve,
    it's gonna turn back into a pumpkin.

    And *I'm*
    gonna turn back
    into Murphy.

    From Saturday Afternoon

    I've been lying on my bed for hours,
    feeling as demolished as Van Gogh must have felt
    right before he slashed his own ear off

    My Heart Catapults Up Into My Throat

    Then boomerangs
    right back down
    into my feet.

    I never knew a person could feel
    like jumping for joy
    and jumping off a bridge

    at the exact

    There's a section in the book where Murphy feels that he has to break up with Sophie for her own sake. It's killing him to think about it, so he tries to put it off by avoiding her. Sophie lets that go for just so long before she forces a confrontation. I love what happens next: the two of them sit side by side on Murphy's bed, but instead of talking, they write their own little graphic novel, drawing the story out and using a few words here and there when necessary. Sometimes a picture is worth 1000 words, and picturing this scene in my head was worth 2000.A couple of lines from this scene:

    From So I Start Working on the Second Frame

    Even though
    just *thinking* about doing that

    makes him feel like
    he's having open-heart surgery --

    with*out* an anesthetic.

    From When I Finish the Girl's Face

    And I draw the boy,
    standing at the window,
    watching the girl walk away --
    a small figure hunched against an icicled world.

    And finally:

    from I Try to Tell Myself

    And *I'm* happy *for* her.
    I really am.

    It's just that, until now,
    I never realized

    how sad
    being happy

    could make a guy

I don't know about Murphy's girlfriend, but I know I loved this book.

Edited to add a link to Sonya Sones's web site. Not only does she provide a biography (she's worked with some very famous people) and information about her books and writing, she's also generous enough to provide a list of other author's books she thinks you'll enjoy. (She suggests the books for readers twelve and up. I'll add that they cover a range of ages, from books for younger teens to YA books for older teens and adults.)