Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Six Rules of Maybe... or Definitely

The Six Rules of Maybe
There are some books that just simply surprise you, usually by being more than they seem. The Six Rules of Maybe, by Deb Caletti, had just that effect. There were times when it was a typical girl meets boy (who she isn't supposed to like) YA, but then there were times where this book was putting my innermost thoughts out there on paper!

Scarlet grew up in her older sister Juliet's shadow. Juliet was beautiful, always had boyfriends (bad boys, of course), and never worried about how her actions affected other people. Their mom worked hard to raise them, and their father left them long ago, leaving plenty of abandonment issues behind him. When Juliet comes home married and pregnant, Scarlet and her mother aren't surprised by the whirlwind situation, but are surprised Juliet chose to stick with the commitment of a baby and a husband.

Hayden and his dog Zeus may be unexpected additions to the house, but to Scarlet, they are incredible and surprising. Scarlet begins to have feelings for Hayden she knows are wrong, but she can't help. When she realizes Juliet is sneaking around with her ex-boyfriend, she is conflicted- she is furious that her sister would hurt Hayden, but elated because she is falling in love with him herself. But nothing is more forbidden than your sister's husband, no matter how perfect he is.

There are parts of this story that are like windows into a high schooler's soul. In particular, it is a glimpse into the soul of a pleaser. If you aren't a pleaser yourself, you definitely know one. She is that girl who can't reject even the most annoying guy for fear of hurting him. She is a weirdo magnet because she will never do anything that might make someone feel bad. She also never thinks about how this all affects her, because she is too worried about everyone else. She seems so strong, so impervious, but really? She is a mess. She questions everything she does, feels trapped, and can't stand up for herself. Scarlet is a piece of all of us we wish we could squash but know will always be there.

This book is interesting, but is more in Scarlet's head than anywhere else. There is little dialogue or action, but when there is some, it is well done. The insights are incredible, but I am afraid it might be lost on a punchy teenaged reader who just wants gratuitous entertainment. This is a brilliant story with beautiful writing, but might not capture the attention of many of my students. I wish it would teach them a little about themselves or the people they know, but the lessons might be too subtle. I think this book is more valuable for the teacher or mother who deals with adolescent girls than for the girls themselves. While Ophelia Speaks gave us a glimpse into the minds of real girls, The Six Rules of Maybe can do so with a fictional girl who seems so real, you will swear you know her.

Would it Be the Same without Men?

In my quest for more and more dystopias, I found two books about a future where there are few men, if any. One was written by a man, one by a woman. I couldn't wait to see the difference between the two! Nomansland by Lesley Hauge is the woman's perspective of what life would be like without men.

Keller is a Tracker "in training". Trackers protect the Foundland from interlopers... men in particular. Foundland has survived for generations as a woman-only civilization and would like to keep it that way. After sickness and mutations decimated the population, a group of women moved north to a college campus where they have learned to survive. Everyone has a job, but everyone may be subject to impregnation if the Committee suspects a wave of fertility is spreading. Impregnation is not optional, and is done from sperm saved from a sperm bank, but Trackers are rarely impregnated.

When the rebellious Laing finds a house from before, the girls sneak off every chance they get to revel in the found objects. They still don't know why the Committee members are at the campus, but they can't resist the house and its forbidden objects like high heels, makeup, magazines, and most forbidden in Foundland, mirrors. But there is more to Foundland than they are told. While found objects and fashion are forbidden, the Committee uses them regularly. They have to come from somewhere. Keller begins to suspect there is more to Foundland and the world than they have been led to believe. But can she stand up against what she has always known?

This book had a really great premise, but I am afraid it fell a little short for me. It was really good, but I wouldn't say it was excellent or my favorite dystopian world. The characters were interesting, but you don't learn about anyone other than Keller in much depth until the very end. Amos, the experienced Tracker, is a wonderful mix of obedience and rebel that will keep you wanted more. But the book starts a little slow. Just when things really picked up and got interesting, it ended! And search as I might for the possibility of a sequel, I think I might not got any closure. If Hauge knew what was good for her book, she would continue the story.

The writing is fairly simple, but the terms used and descriptions are sometimes difficult to understand. You know the objects they are describing are things we are familiar with, but sometimes it takes a bit to figure out what they are talking about. I think my students would have a difficult time understanding the blind obedience, but maybe it would be a great lesson for them! In Nomansland, rebellion for rebellion's sake is pointless, but rebellion for freedom is impossible to ignore...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Where do You Draw the Line?

The Line
With a huge amount of dystopian and post-apocalyptic YA fiction out there, it is no wonder I found this little gem! After reading Birthmarked, I wasn't sure how another dystopia would sit, but The Line, by Teri Hall, was such a page-turner I finished it in one sitting!

Rachel and her mother live on The Property and work for Ms. Moore. The Property boarders The Line- the protected and sealed boundary line of the Unified States (US). When the US sealed the boarder without any warning to protect their country from war, they left a fair amount of citizens outside the border who could never return and were doomed to live in Away if they could survive the bombings and radiation. Rumors are rampant about what has happened to the Others in Away, but Rachel isn't prepared when an other makes contact and begs for help for his father.

When Rachel's mom and Ms. Moore learn of the cry for help, a story unravels that reveals more about Rachel's parents and Ms. Moore than Rachel could ever have imagined. Now they must somehow find a way to take down The Line in order to get the medicine and supplies across to Pathik in Away so he can save his father. Can they do so before the Enforcement Officers arrive at the Property?

The Line is a fast-paced read and is relatively short compared to most YA these days (just over 200 pages). The characters are interesting and multidimensional, which draws the reader in quickly: you know everyone in this book is hiding something! The history of the Unified States is delivered in a very interesting way- Rachel is quizzed on the history of her country by her mother who home schools her. This saves from endless back story that could get boring, yet still gives enough history to understand how things have gotten this oppressive.

The writing is fairly simple and I would suggest this book for any middle school to high school student. It would be particularly good for a low-skilled 9-12 grader because the story is very interesting while the reading level is rather accessible. As a dystopia, it isn't overwhelming with background, but is still easily understood with the information given. While any dystopia is kind of grim, it still has the hope of the Others in Away. My only complaint about this book is it just ended. With a sequel coming out next year, I understand keeping the reader wanting more, but this was so abrupt! Just as one action sequence ended, 50 more questions were developed and then.... The End. Now we have to wait for the next book! I don't know if I can do it!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What's in a Name?

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is a collaborative novel by two of my favorite authors, John Green (author of Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, and Paper Towns) and David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist).  I ordered it the second I was made aware of its existence, and I loved every minute I spent with Will Grayson and Will Grayson.

High school junior Will Grayson hasn't cried since he was seven and watched the movie All Dogs Go to Heaven.  He believes that crying is "totally avoidable if you follow two very simple rules:  1.  Don't care too much. 2.  Shut up." He asserts that everything bad that has ever happened to him resulted from his failure to follow those rules. The truth is that his rules also keep him from making meaningful connections with people, which, if you ask Will Grayson is just fine with him.

Will Grayson did have a social group once; for a short time he was legitimately popular, but he is now a social pariah because of Tiny Cooper.  Will and Tiny have a friendship that dates back to fifth grade, and although Tiny is a loving and caring kind of guy, being his friend is social suicide.  Tiny is the catalyst behind Will breaking Rule One AND Rule Two and his "honest-to-God Group of Friends" ending up "Never Talking to Me Again."

As Will describes, "Tiny Cooper is not the world's gayest person, and he is not the world's largest person, but I believe he may be the world's largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world's gayest person who is really, really large." The actions that demoted Will Grayson to Outcast?  After a school-board member complained about gays in the locker room, Will "defended Tiny Cooper's right to be both gigantic...and gay in a letter to the school newspaper that I, stupidly, signed." When Will's friends attack him for his defense of Tiny, he walks away from the Group of Friends and is left with Tiny, openly gay, openly mammoth, openly emotional, and in love with someone new every ten minutes. Tiny his friend "Possibly Gay Jane" (Will and Jane meet when Tiny forces Will to join the Gay Straight Alliance) comprise Will's social life. And he's okay with that. He gets up in the morning, goes to school, interacts with his parents, doesn't care too much, and keeps his mouth shut. It's sort of easy, he thinks, until the GSA receives funding from the Student Council to stage Tiny Cooper's musical Tiny Dancer, a memoir about Tiny that features prominently a character named Gil Wrayson, who is more than loosely based on Will.  For Will, this is the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

Meet Will Grayson. We'll call him the "Other Will Grayson," or OWG, for simplicity's sake since that's what the Will Graysons do.  OWG lives in another state and has no relation at all to Will Grayson.  OWG has a single Mom, a vaguely labeled "friend" named Maura who wants him to admit he's gay, and not too many other alliances in his own public school. OWG is in love with Isaac, who he met in an online chat room. He spends every waking minute thinking about Isaac or IM'ing him. Finally, OWG and Isaac agree to meet. When OWG shows up at the meeting place, Isaac is nowhere to be found.  What follows is an almost Shakespearean meeting on a curb in Chicago:  Will Grayson is abandoned by Tiny and Jane at a concert when his fake ID only proves him to be 20, and they go in without him; he meets the lovelorn and abandoned OWG who is stood up by the nonexistent Isaac.  What ensues is comical and heartbreaking in turns as we tease apart whether or not "Possibly Gay Jane" is gay (not), whether or not she and Will Grayson love each other, whether a relationship between OWG and Tiny Cooper can survive Tiny's mammoth personality, whether Will Grayson can survive Tiny's putting him in the spotlight, whether Will Grayson will break his rules, and whether Tiny Dancer will be a masterpiece that catapults Tiny Cooper to Broadway fame.

I loved this book from the first page and would have read it from cover to cover if I had had the time. I found the characters completely likable. I was a little in love with both Will Graysons, for different reasons. Although it could seem confusing to have two characters with identical names, the authors' different styles distinguish the characters enough from each other that it never really becomes confusing.  Will Grayson writes in complete sentences, in narrative form; OWG writes only in lower case and primarily in dialogue. At times it is confusing to the characters. When Tiny starts dating OWG, there is a bit of confusion about who is Will Grayson and who is Other, but it adds to the comedy. The authors capture a lot of the trials and tribulations that face adolescents today as they struggle to do what is right when doing the right thing could turn you into the school's biggest loser. Social groups change in an instant; someone always gets hurt. Much like what I have seen of "real life," the characters in Will Grayson, Will Grayson struggle to identify who they really care about and how to keep those people in their lives. We hope they will make the right decisions and come out of it better people in the end.

This is a great book for 9 - 12th graders who will be comfortable enough dealing with Tiny Cooper's gigantic gayness. The language is accessible; reading this novel is not going to catapult anyone's lexicon of SAT vocabulary words to the next level, but it may help them develop their own notions of friendship and love and what can happen when you are willing to take the chance to care and speak up. There are some slightly illicit scenes where underage adolescents use fake ID's to gain entrance to bars for concerts and one scene where a totally heartbroken Tiny Cooper gets drunk and passes out, but the characters are such reasonable people that I felt, even as I parent, I could take their actions in stride. These are good kids, testing their wings, figuring out what love is all about, making mistakes, and learning from them. Will Grayson, Will Grayson gets two thumbs up from me.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Marked with the Stamp of Greatness!

Occasionally I read a book that is so good I have to read every review of the book, find the author's website, and hunt to find if there are signings, sequels or any other news about the book. This is rare for me, but when it happens, I feel as though I have been steamrolled! Birthmarked by Caragh O'Brien sent me on just such a hunt!

Gaia and her mother are midwives in a dystopian community just north of Unlake Superior (no longer a lake since the climate change). The community consists of a walled in city called the Enclave and the small communities outside the wall. The Enclave requires every midwife to "advance" the first three babies born every month to the Enclave to be adopted to Enclave families. Gaia and her family serve the Enclave well until her parents are arrested and Gaia enters the wall illegally to find them.

Inside the wall, the truth and reality about the advancements comes out. The small city has had so much inbreeding due to the ambiguity of the adoptions that the population will soon be extinct due to infertility and hemophilia if something isn't done quickly. Now the Enclave wants to get their hands on the secret, illegal records the midwives have been keeping. When Gaia is caught inside the wall after she delivers a baby from a woman who was just executed, she is put in prison with the other doctors and midwives. While her time inside the wall is haunted with worries of her imprisoned parents, she learns more about healing and about the genetic nightmare inside the wall than she ever would have on the outside. Now, with the help of the kind guard, she must betray her parents records of the birth in order to prevent her mother's execution. More importantly, though, she must save her mother and escape the Enclave.

I love a good dystopia, especially with a strong heroine who can see through the corruption of the government. Gaia is just such a heroine, and she is determined to do what is right regardless of the consequences. The bizarre but haunting troubles with the Enclave are an interesting and disturbing take on a society's downfall. This is particularly interesting when the forced adoptions are factored in and the Enclave's only hope are the people outside the wall they have used essentially as slaves for generations.

The writing can be a bit more mature than most YA (the word avuncular is used in the first 20 pages!), but the story is so gripping, it might challenge a struggling reader. While the story isn't stiflingly complex, the higher reading level and intricate story might be best for older students. I would give this to students grades 10 and up. There is no content a parent might find objectionable, such as drugs, alcohol, sex, etc. Instead, the disturbing parts are upsetting for a whole new reason- what could happen after a very real threat: climate change. This was an excellent YA dystopia and I am very excited O'Brien's publishing company decided to make this a trilogy instead of one book! Now I just have to wait (im)patiently for the second book!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hex Hall Put a Spell on Me!

Hex Hall (Book 1)
"Of course the only words I actually managed to yell at at the werewolf as he ran at me were, 'BAD DOG!'" You need a book that will actually make you laugh out loud? Look no further! Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins had me laughing all night! I couldn't put it down!

Sophie Mercer is a sarcastic young witch who has gotten herself into trouble, again. Unfortunately, this time caught the attention of the Council, a group of witches and warlocks who keep magical folks from exposing their world to humans. Now she must stay at Hecate Hall, nicknamed Hex Hall, until she is 18 and considered trustworthy with her magic. Unfortunately, with a human mother and a warlock father who left before she was born, Sophie doesn't know anything about the Prodigium, or magical world.

Even though Hex Hall is supposed to be protected, a girl was killed before Sophie arrived, and another girl is attacked just after school starts. Everyone is blaming Sophie's roommate Jenna, the only vamp on campus as part of the Council's attempt to integrate them with the rest of the Prodigium, but Sophie knows she is innocent. Even Sophie's crush, Archer, is convinced Jenna's guilty. But it quickly comes out that there is more to Sophie's family than just magic. Between her possibly murderous roommate, a father who is the reason most kids were sentenced to Hex Hall, an evil group of mean witches who has it in for Sophie, and all the dark witches dropping like flies (Sophie being a dark witch herself), Sophie has found Hex Hall to be worse than her past 19 schools. Now she has to find a way to exonerate Jenna!

This is a great story with fun, spunky characters who anything but the whiny females you can sometimes find in YA lit. They are sassy and don't take crap from anyone. Even the teachers have different dimensions; Lord Byron, the real Lord Byron, is a vampire who teaches poetry at Hex hall because when he was turned, he was too conspicuous, and when the Council released him, all he wanted to do was turn all of Europe into vampires!

This is fun, fast-paced read that is enticing to anyone. The reading level and content are appropriate for middle school to high school. As this is the first in a series, it is a perfect opportunity to suck a student into an exciting story and keep them reading. Give the story a shot, but don't be surprised when you find yourself giggling out loud as you read!

The Key to Happiness is Family and Fun!

Turtle in Paradise
When you teach dyslexic students, it is very hard to find books that match both their maturity and interest levels as well as their reading level. It is especially hard to find Middle Reader books that are interesting, funny and engaging for an older reader. So when you find one that is an appropriate story for younger readers as well as an engaging story for older readers, it is time to do a little dance of happiness! I did just such a dance after reading Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm!

It is 1935, and Turtle's mom got a job as a housekeeper for a woman who wouldn't let Turtle and her cat live with them, so she and Smokey were sent to Key West to live with her mother's sister. While there, Turtle has to quickly adapt to island life, from checking your shoes for scorpions to the odd nicknames everyone seems to have. Her mischievous cousins, Kermit, Beans, and Buddy, spice up the story with their antics. Beans and a few other local kids have started the Diaper Gang, who are basically roving babysitters for the Bad Babies. And their secret diaper rash formula is legendary on the island!

When Turtle finds out her grandmother is really alive (even though her mother told her she was dead), she realizes there is more of her own history on this island than she could have imagined. When she finds a treasure map to a hidden pirate's treasure, she takes the gang along with her on an adventure that changes them and the island in more ways that one.

This is the kind of story that has you giggling out loud and loving every page. It is a short enough story so as not to be too overwhelming for beginning readers. The writing is perfect for higher skilled elementary students to low-skilled middle school students, but even high school students would get a kick out of these kids and their goofiness. I know I did!

The fact that it is based on the author's grandmother and her life in Key West makes the story even more interesting. At the end of the book, there are a few pages where the author explains which parts of the story are based on real situations. She even includes pictures of places and people mentioned in the story! This is a cute little book that spans a great spectrum of interest. Give it a shot! It is a great beach read that you can finish in a sitting!

Falling? or Hovering with Uncertainty?

Sometimes you simply can judge a book by its cover! Fallen, by Lauren Kate, is packed with teen angst, sorrow and confusion, as if that wasn't clearly stated by the haunting cover! But is there more to the story than just a teen in trouble?

Luce has been sent to a reform school called Sword and Cross after a boy dies in her last school and she is blamed for the fire that killed him. When she gets there, she is instantly taken in by a girl named Arianne who shows her the ropes. But the one thing Luce can't seem to ignore is Daniel Grigori, despite the fact that he clearly isn't interested in her. When another boy, Cam, shows he is overly interested in Luce, she is torn between Daniel's cold shoulder but haunting appeal and Cam's overzealous attention that borders on stalking.

When Luce befriends Penn, the daughter of the former groundskeeper and only kid not forced to be at Sword and Cross, they begin to dig into Daniel's history. What they find is confusing and indicates there is more to Daniel Grigori than he lets on. When things at Sword and Cross start to go horribly awry, Luce finds out there is more to her life than just the strange shadows she keeps seeing; destiny might be at work here.

The synopsis of this book seems vague, because the majority of the novel is quite vague. Luce is at the boarding school for something we learn is not completely her fault, but there isn't much explanation offered. The story continues for a fell 9/10 of the book about Luce in the reform school, and only in the last bit are any questions answered. Even then, the story seems lacking because the explanation is rushed and not really fleshed out.

This book is very slow, not because the characters are uninteresting, or the setting is dull, but because you know there is more coming. You keep waiting for it and waiting for it, but it doesn't come until it is squeezed into the last 50 pages of the book. I am assuming the story will be more clear in the upcoming sequel, but this book would be hard for most reluctant readers- there just isn't enough to understand until the bitter end. I enjoyed the story, but I would be reluctant to give this to a student because it is so slow moving. Hopefully the sequel will be faster and clearer!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Do you Need to be Captivated?


After reading Carrie Jones' Need, I couldn't wait to get my hands on more with Captivate. I love when I find a book and the sequel is already out there! Saves me the agonizing wait! With Captivate, I was dying to know more about Zara, Nick, the pixies and the weres. What I didn't expect was a whole new element brought into the story!

Zara and her friends continue to keep her father's reign of pixies locked in the glamoured house, but with more and more pixies coming into town, the house is getting fuller and more dangerous. When a pixie King comes into town, Zara finds him wounded and tied to a tree and saves him from a Valkyrie who wants to take him to Valhalla. The new king, Astley, has some odd effects on Zara, in particular turning her blue! Astley tells Zara other pixie kings are coming into town and none are as understanding and non-violent as he is, but they all have one desire, including Astley: taking Zara as their queen.

Zara is stuck between a rock and a hard place when her choices involve remaining human and risking the pixies killing Nick to get to her, or turning pixie to protect Nick and losing him forever. Astley seems sincere and kind, but if history has told Zara anything, it is that pixies can't be trusted. When Nick is mortally wounded and a Valkyrie takes him to Valhalla, Zara will do anything to save him from fighting the "final battle".

This was a surprising sequel to the first book, in that it broke from the original premise of weres and pixies and rolled into a whole new element with Norse mythology. Between the Valkyries, Valhalla, and the God Odin, there is another underlying story that could take on a life of its own. My only problem was that the Norse mythology was introduced, but never really explained. The little explanation that existed was superficial at best. When introducing such a huge piece to a story, I feel there should be a clear reason this is being introduced- especially when it is done so in the second installment of the story and never once mentioned in the first. One thing is for sure, there will be a third book to this series, as the second book does not have any closure. I hope the Norse influence will be better explained in the next book. Unfortunately, now I have to wait for that book to be released!

Is Bree's Short Life Worth it?

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner: An Eclipse Novella (Twilight Saga)
Of course there is no point in reviewing anything Twilight these days, because if it has to do with Edward and Bella, people are going to buy it. But this story might go unnoticed for its hidden uses if someone didn't bring them up! The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephanie Meyer was short and fun as part of the bigger series, but can serve a greater purpose!

Bree's life begins when she is turned by a mysterious woman (Victoria). There are so many newborns, and they are all kept together by a vampire named Riley and their collective fear of burning in the sun. They are ordered to be careful when hunting and stick to the "dregs" (people who won't be missed) in order to maintain a low profile. This is easier for some than others. When Bree and Diego see a group ravaging an intersection and creating an obvious scene, they wait until the newborns were gone and clean the mess up. This is the start of a wonderful, albeit brief, friendship.

Bree and Diego are late returning to the house only to find it destroyed and the rest of the group had moved on. With no place to stay and the sun coming over the horizon, they know they must find a place to hide to escape the burning agony of the sun. While hiding in a cramped cave, Diego shows Bree a theory- that the sun doesn't actually cause vampires to burn. After this revelation, they start to wonder what else Riley and this mysterious woman who created them are hiding. They are especially concerned about this "threat" they suspect is coming.

While we are all familiar with Meyer's writing style, it is a little hard to sink your teeth into a story that is only 170+ pages. Without 500+ pages, how could she possibly weave her magic?? But this might be the redemption of the story. I know Harry Potter and Twilight have done more for encouraging children and young adults (especially LD young adults) to read than any other franchise out there, but let's face it- they are HUGE! I know so many kids who would love those stories, but they look at those giant books that could kill a person if wielded with any force, and they are instantly deflated. They start to think, "I could never read a book that big!"

So what if you had a much smaller book that piqued their interest? This is the beauty of Short Second Life. If a student takes a chance with this much less daunting story and is interested, maybe, just maybe, it would open the door to Twilight. Which might open the door to another book, and another book, and so on. And hopefully, after all our scheming and plotting, we might make another kid a reader. Nothing makes me more excited than the thought of a person who hated reading, who was scared of it, finding the magical worlds and exciting characters we all know and love!! So give Bree Tanner a shot and consider what you can do with it!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Let Yourself Find the Body FInder- You won't Be Sorry!

The Body Finder
Not only does The Body Finder by Kimberly Derting sport a beautiful cover, but it is a story you simply cannot put down. With great characters, a suspenseful plot line, and a girl with a gift she wishes she could be rid of, this book is one you won't soon forget.

Violet has an ability that haunts her each and every day: she can see echoes of murdered bodies and imprints on the people who killed them. This ranges from animals her cat hunts in the night, to military personnel or police officers who have killed in the line of duty, to the serial killer who has ravaged her small town by abducting young women. Imprints can be a smell, a taste, a color, or even a sound that connects the body to its killer. When Violet finds the first body the serial killer has left, she is haunted by the fact that she is the only person who can identify the killer.

Violet's best friend Jay has grown up a lot over the summer, and the girls at school, Violet included, are looking at him differently. Jay knows Violet's secret and will go to any length to protect her. When Violet is determined to find the imprints that match the dead girls' echoes, Jay reluctantly tags along to protect her. What she finds, however, is something she never bargained for. It looks like the two bodies and the missing girl are only the latest in this killer's long history.

This book is everything good about YA wrapped up in one book. You have the supernatural element with Violet's ability to sense bodies, the suspense with the serial killer who is stalking young girls, and you have the most adorable romance between Jay and Violet. When Derting first started describing Jay, all I could think was this boy was too good to be true. I was really worried he was going to be somehow linked to the killers (He's Not!). But as the story continues, you just grow to adore Jay. His desire to protect Violet and her obliviousness to his feelings for her make for an exciting romance, especially since it takes so long for Violet to figure out how he feels about her. This story would have been good with any one element of the story, like the suspense, the ability, or the romance, but put them all together and you have a real page-turner!

The story has some violence, but it isn't graphic by any means. Neither is the romance between the two lead characters. The reading level is moderate. The book would be appropriate for a mature middle school student to a high school student. The story is gripping from page 1, so this is a great book for a student who has been struggling to stick with a book or really get hooked on one. Overall, this is a fantastic story, and your summer would be better for having read it! Just be happy you don't share Violet's ability- talk about creepy!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Is it Worth it to Survive If this is All There is?

The Compound
I was excited to find another YA post-apocalyptic novel, but The Compound by SA Bodeen is SO much more than that. In fact, its level of twists, turns, and truly disturbing plot lines will keep you interested through every page.

Eli is the son of a brilliant billionaire, Rex, whose technological advances have rocked the world. When he finds out a nuclear attack has occurred, he rushes his family into The Compound, a shelter he has been working on for almost a decade in case just such a thing occurred. When they rushed to get in, though, their grandmother and Eli's twin Eddy are left outside. When Eli shouts that they have to wait for them as the Compound door closes, his father says, "At least I have one of you."

Life in the Compound has been growing increasingly precarious despite the monotony and the boredom. The food source that was supposed to last for 15 years has been compromised in many ways. The livestock grain was poisoned, the grow lights were actually normal bulbs, and the food supply would never last for the full 15 years necessary for the radiation to dwindle to safe levels. Rex has found a way to survive for longer, but the result, held behind the yellow door, is something no one in the Compound but Rex is willing to consider.

When Eli finds his brother's old computer and picks up a wireless signal (Rex had removed wireless capabilities from all the other computers), he beings to question why they are really in the Compound. Was there really a bomb? Did people survive? Could Eddy and Gram have survived? Is his dad telling them the whole truth? This novel will keep you asking crazy questions from beginning to end.

While there is no sex or real violence in this story, it is very disturbing in parts. The lengths Rex will go to survive will leave the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end. At first he is a quirky rich man intent on protecting his family, but as the story unfolds, it is clear he is also more than a bit unstable. I would save this crazy story for a more mature reader, although the reading level is quite accessible. While the life in the Compound is fairly routine, Rex's madness is anything but. This is an amazing, creative, and disturbing story, but make sure not to read it on a dreary day!

We all Need more Fantasy!

It makes me crazy when every book that comes out is compared to the giants like Harry Potter and Twilight. Now don't get me wrong, I am sure you could find similarities in just about anything within the genre, but why ruin a good story by obsessing with how it compares to other books? if you read Need by Carrie Jones, you have to put Twilight out of your mind! If you do, you will be pleasantly surprised by how this book stands on its own two fantastic feet.

The story starts with Zara arriving in Maine to live with her grandmother after her stepfather dies and she loses her spark. Zara's mother and grandmother think a change of scenery is just the recipe for pulling Zara out of her funk. When Zara arrives, she finds herself pulled between two gorgeous young men, Nick and Ian, and hated by the popular girls. Luckily she finds friendship in Issie, Devyn, and Nick. Unfortunately, that isn't all she finds.

When two boys go missing, stories of the last time this happened begin to surface. Before Zara was born a bunch of young boys went missing, never to be seen again. Now that it is happening again, the town is growing nervous. Zara keeps seeing a man who has followed her from Charleston to Maine and when she shares the information with Issie and Devyn, they share their hypothesis with her: he is a pixie. Pixies are evil creatures that can make themselves look human. If their King is without a Queen for too long, he requires young boys as tributes for him and his subjects to feed from. The only protection humans have from pixies is the weres: werewolves, weretigers, werebears, even a were-eagle. When Zara continues her research, she realizes there is much more to her mother, her stepfather, her grandmother, her friends, and even her own history. Now Zara and her friends and family must find a way to stop the pixies from hunting her and taking any more tributes.

This is a really interesting story with creepy pixies instead of vampires. Their history and culture is so interesting and complex, I just wanted more! I loved both the main character and the subordinate characters. Zara is strong and forceful, and her grandmother is one we all wish we had (OK mine is pretty cool, but Gram ROCKS). I love that Zara doesn't take crap from the popular girls who clearly think she is encroaching on their territory. And when things start to get dark and creepy, Zara throws herself at the problem instead of hiding from it. At one point she goes alone into the woods and shouts, yells at, and even threatens the pixie she is convinced is hiding in the woods. In her spare time, she even writes letters for Amnesty International and starts a chapter in her new high school!

The story is the first in a trilogy and leaves room to continue. It is captivating and exciting, combined with a whole new world of pixies and shape shifters. This is a great book for both boys and girls and is at a great middle-of-the-road reading level- good for middle school to high school. I have already ordered the second book and can't wait for the third! But I am pretty sure I have pegged who the pixies and the weres in my life are!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

On Our Minds @ Scholastic: Kids log 12.6 million minutes for summer reading already!

On Our Minds @ Scholastic: Kids log 12.6 million minutes for summer reading already!


Graphic novels have taken the literary world by storm, and they're become increasingly popular among the young adult set. The emphasis on the visual and use of text only when it's necessary can make these novels especially appealing to young adults with reading problems. When you first pick one up, your reaction may be "But this is just a comic book." You would be wrong, oh so wrong. I still haven't read as many graphic novels as I would like, mostly because that misconception jumps out of my brain, slaps the graphic novel out of my hand, and points me to something more like a "real book." However, the graphic novels I have taken a chance on have impressed me with their content, which in no way resembles that of an Archie or Bat Man comic.  Yes, the comics are out there, but like everything else, we need to be judicious consumers. Pick up Persepolis or American Born Chinese, and I defy you to compare them to comic books. Today, I add to that list Stitches, by David Small.

Stitches came to my attention because it was one of ten books that won this year's Alex Awards. Awarded by the American Library Association, the Alex Awards are given annually to books written for adults that have special appeal for children, age 12 to 18. Each spring and summer I try to read my way through the most important of the children's book awards, which help guide me when buying books for school or selecting books for individual young adults.  Of course, it's also just plain fun. I try to get through as many of the Alex Awards as possible because they usually provide me with good choices for our higher skilled readers; in general, they hold appeal because young adults can relate to the themes or the characters, but the language is more sophisticated. 

Stitches is a memoir of illustrators David Small, recipient of the Caldecott Medal, the Christopher Medal, and the E.B. White Award for his work in picture books, including Imogene's Antlers, So, You Want to Be President, and The Gardener, one of my favorite children's books. Stitches is a dark book. Small grew up in an angry family with a cold and authoritarian mother and a distant father who lived for his work. As a child, David suffered from respiratory problems. His father, a doctor, believed he could treat David with heavy doses of radiation. Years later, David developed a growth in his throat. His parents delayed getting him to a doctor, but one day he woke up from an operation to find that he had stitches across his throat and could no longer speak. Even though David was horribly scarred and mute, his parents hid his cancer (probably caused by the radiation) from him until became old enough to figure it out for himself. Stitches is a coming-of-age story that follows David's childhood struggles with his parents and health issues, his transition to an adolescent who runs away from home to escape, his journey to becoming an artist, and ultimately coming to grips with his family's past.

Stitches opened my eyes to yet another way images can be used to tell a story. It was quick read for me (I read it in an hour before bed), which makes me think it would be a reasonable book for a young adult with difficulty reading. The use of text is limited, but the print is fairly large and in capital letters, which makes it easy on the eyes. For the struggling or reluctant reader, it also offers the advantages of being an adult book (much easier than trying to sell a high school kid on a 4th grade novel) and being a true story, which many of my students appreciate. Small's story is grim-bordering-on-gothic, but he rises above his troubled childhood to become a successful illustrator so it also has elements of triumph and success. You may want to pick up a few of his children's books so that you can see the contrast between the images in Stitches.  If you need a good memoir, or you want to try a graphic novel for the first time, or you have a little time to while away, give Stitches a try; you can't lose.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Evil Genius

Eighth grade student Oliver Watson is not the least popular kid in school, but he's close. He's pudgy, socially awkward, and never knows what's going on in his classes. He is insulted and abused on a regular basis by his classmates, derided by his teachers, and pitied by his parents. He is also the third wealthiest person in the world. You should fear him.

I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President, by Josh Lieb, tells the story Oliver's campaign for the presidency of the eighth grade class. Despite his apparent bumbling idiocy, Oliver is a world power. Having realized at the ripe old age of infancy that he was smarter than his parents, he decided to play dumb. His mother had married with nothing but her looks to offer, and they were long gone; she "would be terrified by my brain." His Daddy wanted nothing more than to produce "something amazing," something that would "change the world." But Oliver was already put off by Daddy's misplaced arrogance and "wasn't going to let him warm his frigid little heart by the hot flames of my genius."

When the time was right, Oliver stole $50 from his mother and invested it well. Quickly, he became a world power, with personal assistants, secret operatives, hidden rooms, bat caves full of technological devices, and off shore oil rights. I'm not sure how accurate that list is, but you get the gist. Oliver=hidden power + hidden money. The one thing Oliver craves, despite his disdain, is the love and respect of his father, who wants in return, a "normal" son. When the student council elections are announced, Oliver realizes the only way to get through to Daddy is to become president, just like Daddy used to be. Oliver plans to use his power and money to win the election; his attempts to bribe the principal, manipulate his English teacher through hidden messages in his cigarettes, and unseat the most popular kids in the school are laugh-out-loud funny. His soft, round, and stupid mother inadvertently becomes the manager of his rag tag campaign, and their attempts to help him out by controlling his campaign come close to undoing all his behind-the-scenes work.

No spoilers here, but Oliver discovers that even genius, money, and power are vulnerable to variables beyond their control. As the bombers circle overhead, he struggles to hang on to his empire while finding a way to build a relationship with his parents.

There is a lot about this book that I love. Oliver is a perfect evil genius; his haughty arrogance and intellectual brilliance combined with the simple need for parental love made me want to bring him home and feed him grilled cheese sandwiches. Josh Lieb paints the adults and other students in Oliver's life in such tedious, mediocre, boring, fatuousness that I felt they deserved to be manipulated by him. I felt that the ending was a little too tidy, but with Oliver's wealth, maybe it WOULD be. This is a great read for a kid who has a healthy intolerance for foolishness and appreciation for the underdog. Even though Oliver is an eighth grade character, this is not an easy read; his character's vocabulary and experiences are well beyond those of the average eighth grader. Lieb's use of pictures, footnotes, paragraphing, and varied kinds of dialogue help to break up the story and keep the reader's interest.

Pick it up now; you know you want to. Besides, how else will you find out who is the next eighth grade president?

Who are the Kids' Enemies Now?

Product Details
Oh, Lord, more zombies! Well, actually these aren't true zombies, int he strictest sense. But they are still terrifying! The Enemy, by Charlie Higson, has zombie-like adults (anyone over 16 years old) who are so sick and diseased they have gone mad. They shamble around like zombies, but they aren't the living dead. They can be injured and scared, and other than the overwhelming hunger that will lead them to eating anything, they don't bear much resemblance to real zombies- just a pack of crazy, plotting, adults ready to kidnap and eat any kid who dares come into contact with them.

Enemy starts out with a group of kids who have been living in Waitrose, a grocery store in a good neighborhood. There is another group of kids farther downtown in the poorer neighborhood hiding in a grocery store called Morrisons, but the two groups don't cooperate. Life is difficult for the kids, as they are finding barely any food while scavenging, are losing kids all the time to attacks from grown-ups, and morale was gone long ago. When an odd boy named Jester shows up with grown-ups after him, the Waitrose crew and the Morrisons crew save him and bring him into Waitrose. He tells them of his job, to gather kids all over London to come and help grow food and defend Buckingham palace.

With the situation growing more and more dangerous each day, both crews decide to travel across town to the palace. This is no easy feat, of course. They must battle everything from smart, plotting bands of grown-ups, to apes from the zoo who seem to be suffering from the same sickness that attacked the adults. When they finally arrive after having met another crew of kids called the Holloways and having lost many kids, they realize life in the palace isn't as idyllic as Jester told them. There isn't much food and the leader, David, plans on ruling all of London, even if it means war with other kids. Blue, head of the Morrisons, and Maxie, new head of the Waitroses, must figure out whether safe life controlled by David in the palace is better than a free life outside the palace where danger is at every turn.

This was an enthralling story, but I warn you, there is absolutely no closure. Higson is clearly gearing up for a sequel, and I cannot wait! The story is great for boys, primarily, or any girls who need suspense, and can be used for high level middle school students all the way to high school students. The violence isn't particularly gruesome. Although there are zombie-like adults walking about, there is no gore. Any violence is done tastefully without reaching for the blood factor. The interesting part is how similar the last quarter of the book is to Lord of the Flies when the 3 crews get to the palace. The acts of kids trying to play at "government" and "politics" gets out of hand and dirty real quickly. The characters are very interesting, and the side story of Small Sam, a kid taken from the parking lot at Waitrose, gives another side to the city. This is a great book for a kid who needs action to keep them reading, because in The Enemy, the action never stops!