Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Prepare to Burn Through This One

The Girl of Fire and Thorns
Fantasy is a peculiar genre, full of worlds completely different from our own to worlds similar to ours, but just different enough to be mysterious. The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson shows a world where both the characters and the reader will be in for a few surprises.

Elisa has married the king of the nearby kingdom, but she knows she was second choice in a necessary deal to form an alliance between the two kingdoms. Surely her beautiful and graceful sister was the first choice, but Elisa is the Bearer of the Godstone. Elisa bears the Godstone in her belly as this century's bearer. Only one bearer comes every four generations, and they must live up to the prophecy of great importance. Unfortunately, frumpy Elisa feels anything but important.

She settles into the new kingdom uneasily, especially when she find she must keep her marriage and the Godstone a secret. The Godstone is a source of great power, and for her protection, no one must know of it. When she is kidnapped and dragged into the desert for a life or death journey, Elisa begins to understand just how much faith people put in the Bearer of the Godstone, even if the bearer is a simple girl who has never done anything heroic. Once she reaches the end of their journey, Elisa not only sympathizes with her captors, she realizes her new husband has abandoned them to the incoming army in an attempt to save the rest of the kingdom. Spurned by the long trek which has strengthened her resolve along with her body, Elisa tries to help them by developing a plan. While their numbers are far fewer than the incoming enemy, they find ways to attack and still live to attack another day. Their efforts are successful, but the enemy possesses an impenetrable ally- the animagi. The animagi are sorcerers who have found a way to harness the power of previous bearer's Godstones. With the animagi helping the enemy's army, Elisa and her new kingdom are sure to lose... unless they can find a bit of their own magic.

This was a superb fantasy that flirts with the mystical and magical without falling into it face first. Very similar in style to Kristin Cashore's Graceling, this story is the perfect blend of history and fantasy to appeal to a wide range of people. It is a very serious book with great losses to the main character Elisa, but that is to be expected during a time of war. Elisa is a fascinating character who transforms throughout the book from a frumpy, insecure teenager to a strong, commanding woman who will risk everything to save innocent people. She is that hero we all love who doesn't really understand how important they are and how much they can achieve. The reluctant hero is one who can inspire the masses!

Being such a serious book, I would suggest this story for junior high students as long as they have the stamina and interest to make it through a 400+ page book. It would probably have more success with high school students, and it may be perfect for that student who rarely reads fantasy, since the mysticism is relatively contained. The story is certainly engrossing, and appropriate for most ages. There is some violence, but nothing gratuitous. I can see this book as a great means to get a reluctant reader going- exciting, interesting, and only the beginning with a trilogy in the works!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Don't Step on any Cracks

A Scary Scene in a Scary Movie
Can you imagine living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)? You would be a slave to your compulsions and it would control your life. Step On a Crack, Break Your Mother's Back. Simple saying could overtake a simple walk home from school. OCD is a disorder we think we know something about, but we have no idea what goes on inside the mind of someone suffering from OCD... that is, until Matt Blackstone's book, A Scary Scene in a Scary Movie.

When Rene gets nervous, he sniffs his left hand. Only his left hand. When he gets upset, the Batman cape comes out. He can't step on cracks or something horrible will happen to someone he loves. Rene has OCD. Not a pleasant affliction when you are expected to walk the halls of the high school jungle every day. But Rene knows if he can get a friend, just one friend, his life will become infinitely better. When he finally puts himself out there, he manages to meet a pretty interesting young man named Gio. Gio lives his life to the fullest each and every moment. He has the kind of carefree lifestyle Rene would kill for, or step on a crack for.

Armed with Gio's support, Rene finds himself coming out of his compulsive shell. He even stands up to one of the school bullies in order to protect his favorite teacher, Mr. Head (Mr. Richard Head). When his absentee father Phil reappears, Rene finally loses it- with Gio's help, he does something he never would have thought of doing before... he runs away. On an impromptu adventure to New York City, Gio and Rene attempt to answer some very deep questions... and some not so deep questions too!

Years ago I read a book about a teen girl with OCD named Kissing Doorknobs. It was touching, funny, and so very sad. I was expecting something similar from this book, but I didn't get the same feeling. The main character seemed to have Aspberger's more than OCD. He definitely had some compulsions and obsessions (like his inability to do anything at a time that added up to 13), but his actions didn't strike me as particularly OCD. I also struggled with the plot. I actually put this book down twice and read two entire books in the duration of trying to finish this book. The plot faltered and seemed forced at many times. It was as if Blackstone had a vision in mind, but wasn't sure where it needed to go.

The book is appropriate for any junior high or high school student, but I don't think I would recommend it to many kids. If they were interested in OCD, I would give them Kissing Doorknobs before I gave them this book. If they were looking for a fun, interesting book, I have tons of other books I would give them before this one. Sadly, it just wasn't what I was hoping for. Matt Blackstone is going to be at Oblong Books and Music for the Hudson Valley YA Society event next Sunday in Rhinebeck. I am interested to hear him read the book aloud- hopefully I am mistaken about this book and there is more to it!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

She is About to Lose Everything

Gone (Wake)
When we last left Janie, our Dream Catcher, she was recovering from a horrifying undercover sting where she helped bust that put some teachers in jail for drugging and raping her classmates. While she is a hero for putting herself in such a scary position to help others, the job came with some very serious realizations about her ability to step into people's dreams. In Gone, by Lisa McMann, the story continues with a very real examination of what kind of life Janie can hope to live.

Now that janie knows her fate as a Dream Catcher, blind by her 20's and gnarled, crippled hands shortly after that, she is facing Morton's Fork- a philosophical fork in the road where both choices are impossibly horrible. She either becomes a shut-in who hides herself from the world or goes blind and becomes crippled due to her dream hopping like the only other Dream Catcher she knew- Mrs. Stubin. When she gets a call that her father, the same father she never knew who abandoned her to a life with her alcoholic mother, she has to go investigate.

Her father is in a coma and it is almost as if his brain "exploded". When she sleeps into his weak, fitful coma, she is faced with a terrifying realization- her father might have been a Dream Catcher too. It is possible the reason he abandoned her mother was to escape the very same dreams she suffers from. Now she must truly face Morton's Fork and decide what she wants to do with her life- isolation or become crippled. How can one choose between two impossible choices? What would you choose?

The interesting thing about this series is how wildly it varies in target audience from book to book. The first book was good, but clearly a soft, middle reader light mystery that would be best for middle school students. Then came the second book which was quite disturbing and graphic. Finally, we get the last installment which is strangely introspective and delves into really deep decisions and situations. Now I really have no idea who this series is geared for! I assume it is best for older, lower-skilled students, but they might be bored by the first book. Younger students might be too young for the second book. I am not saying this is a bad series or without its merits, but it is a strange fit student-wise. The writing is low-leveled, so it would be best for a struggling reader. But be sure the content is best for the student you are giving it to!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Society as the Cause of its Own Demise

We have weapons we don't completely understand. When the Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, no one really understood the long-lasting consequences or the full range of destruction. Now, we have EMP bursts and sneaky ways of taking down a civilization that aren't even close to conventional weapons. How can we create and use something we know nothing about? In Ashes, by Ilsa Bick, you will see first hand how much damage we can do to our own species.

Alex has an inoperable brain tumor. She gave the treatments one last go with tiny nanotech beads of chemo that are supposed to travel through her bloodstream and cluster around the tumor to be activated later by a laser. When those beads fail, she decides to let the monster in her head have her. She takes her parents' ashes and travels to the expansive park to hike and make some important decisions. What she doesn't expect is run into a very nice gentleman and his orphaned granddaughter and then watch him die. With a pain in her head and body like she was being squeezed from all ends, Alex assumes she is dying. The old man is clearly gone, and now Alex is left with Ellie, the little girl. They have no idea what has happened, but all their electronics are fried. On their way down the mountain, they get a first hand show of just how crazy things have become- they find three teenagers eating a woman at a campsite.

Alex and Ellie get away undetected, but it is clear something is wrong. When they are attacked by a pack of dogs and another cannibalistic man, they are saved in the nick of time by Tom, a former soldier hunting the cannibal who used to be his friend. It seems some people survived, but not all are OK. Middle aged people dropped dead, older people and young children were spared, and young adults turned into zombie-like cannibals. They aren't exactly zombies- they can still feel pain, think (although only limited thought processes), are very strong, and die from normal fatal wounds, but they have lost all connection to humanity and eat anything they come across that still pumps warm blood.

Tom explains he was in the woods at the time the EMP burst and watched his friend Jim turn. Together they decide to find their way out of the woods to the ranger station. The station is abandoned, and while they stay their for a while, they know things will only get worse for the survivors. They decide to travel north to find a place to live and survive where there won't be many people (or crazy zombie-like teens who want to eat them). On the journey, they encounter what society has devolved into- looters who will do anything to stay alive. They take Ellie and wound Tom, leaving him and Alex to survive with no supplies and an infection gun shot wound. But Alex won't let Tom die and can't give up on Ellie. Will she be able to save them? Or will she lose everything... again.

Oh good grief, this book was intense! You will pick it up and won't be able to stop. I started reading, looked up about 140 pages later and realized it was almost midnight (way past my bedtime on a school night!). It was absolutely fantastic and I can't believe how it ended... Darn you Ilsa Bick! Leave me hanging with those last two sentences and just STOP! I know there are tow more books coming, but you want me to wait a whole YEAR for the next one! ARRGGHH! I call foul on that! But in all seriousness, this was an amazing, exciting, fast-paced book you won't be able to put down.

The reading level is fairly average, but there is some obvious violence you might not be comfortable giving some younger students. The violence isn't too graphic, but there is cannibalism, so you can make the judgment. The story line will keep anyone hooked, and I was one of its first victims! The characters are complex and deep, which makes you want to know more, but continue to question your feelings for them. My one critique was the strange make-up of age groups and what happened to them from the EMP. It seemed a little too random and not explained in any great depth (they assume brain chemistry had something to do with why certain age groups died, some recovered, and others turned). I hope it is explained better in the next books, because it left me a little skeptical about the premise with this book. Still, skepticism aside, this book was a crazy whirlwind that picked me up and spat me out the other side! Awesome! Simply Awesome!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

No, My Name is....

Also Known as Rowan Pohi
What kind of meaning is in a name? Does your name define you or do you make the name? In Also Known as Rowan Pohi by Ralph Fletcher, Bobby Steele would do anything for a new name. And to be honest, he would do anything for a new life while he was at it.

Bobby Steele shares his name with his father, the same man who went to jail for two months for burning his wife's arm with an iron during an argument. Now Bobby's mother has abandoned them, his father barely speaks to him, and his little brother thinks he is an Indian. Life sucks for Bobby Steele... until he and his friends decide to apply to the local upscale private school, Whitestone Academy, with a fake name. The fill out the application as a joke, and even make up a fake recommendation to send off for the recently fabricated student, Rowan Pohi (IHOP spelled backwards), but none of them thought Rowan would be accepted. When he is, Bobby's friends are ready to abandon the joke, but Bobby can't stop thinking about Rowan.

On a whim, Bobby attends Whitestone's new student orientation. There he meets a few people and manages to fend off the admissions office who wants his transcript from Rowan's old school. He even applies for a scholarship, since the financial aid office wants to know where Rowan's tuition check is. As Bobby/Rowan starts school, he struggles a bit with the new caliber of students he attends with- kids with trust funds and summer homes. But quickly he makes a few friends... and a few enemies. Unfortunately, his enemies know his secret, that his name is really Bobby Steele. Can he pull off living as Rowan, or will they rat him out and ruin the first real chance he has ever had for something good in his life?

I often have a hard time finding good middle reader books that aren't too childish. I want them to be well written, a lower reading level, but not condescending to the readers, who may be much older than their reading level would let on. This isn't an easy request to come by. This book fits the bill quite well, though. It has an interesting premise and isn't overly complicated, but it is something kids of a wide variety of ages could relate to. The scenes where Bobby recalls what happened between his parents are pretty intense, but delicately handled.

I really liked Bobby's character. He was likable, but still troubled by his mother's abandonment and blamed his father for her leaving. His father is clearly wracked with guilt, and almost doesn't know how to relate to the son he traumatized. The little brother, though, is the one who seems the most lost. He latched on to the idea that he was Native American as something to obsess about and compensate for his loss. My heart broke for this little boy. Bobby's experiences in the school are interesting, especially because he doesn't pretend to be rich or hide his scholarship- he just hides that he is Bobby Steele, Jr. Son of the man whose face was on the front page of the paper for burning his wife with an iron. This story is short (200 pgs) and simple at first glance, but there is a lot of meat to it. Don't let its size and reading level fool you- this is a book with some depth that will grab readers of any age. I would suggest it for grades 5-12 depending on the strength of your reader.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

When the Ash Begins to Fall...

On the front cover of this book, Michael Grant is quoted as saying, "The scariest apocalypse is one that could really happen." He is so terrifyingly correct. When we think about an apocalypse, we like the comfort that it won't happen. With Ashfall, by Mike Mullin, you won't have that comfort. In fact, it will make you incredibly uncomfortable and terrified all in one fell swoop... and you will love every minute of it!

Alex is excited for a weekend in the house alone while his family goes to his uncle's farm in Illinois. What he doesn't expect is a chunk of flaming rock to be hurled 900 miles from Yellowstone National Park where the supervolcano has finally blown. What was supposed to be a fun, independent weekend has become the end of life as Alex knew it. After he escapes the burning wreckage of his house, he stays with his neighbors while the terrifying explosions of the volcano continue. But after a few days, when looters attack the house and his neighbor kills them, Alex knows he must find his family (and hopefully escape the madness). Unfortunately, with ash falling steadily and crushing buildings and cars, the couple hour car ride seems like an eternity away. Alex grabs his father's old cross country skis and starts his journey.

Along the way he encounters some kind people, lots of terrified people (many with guns) and a few maniacs. When Alex is attacked by a madman with a hatchet named Target, he gets away but is gushing blood from his ribcage. He falls into a barn, and luckily it was the right barn. Darla and her mother find Alex and put him back together. He stays with them for a while, but when Target returns, Alex knows he must go back to his journey to find his family. With nothing left, Darla joins him on the terrifying journey, but will they make it back to Alex's family?

This was an amazing example of post-apocalyptic literature, and a boundary breaking example of young adult literature. The circumstances of the story are of course terrifying, but Mullin doesn't hold back when he tells the tale of what will really happen to a lone teenager when the world falls apart. There is rape, starvation, accidents, violence, and all of it could and would really happen. This book grabs the reader from the first page and doesn't let go even as you finish the last page. It is a book young adults will appreciate because it speaks to them like adults. There is no sugar-coating in this story, no fluff. Just cold, hard reality that will put a knot in your stomach. We all know teenagers can smell condescension from a mile away, and this book is anything but. It will make young readers feel adult and mature while still being accessible for young adult reading levels.

The book is very mature and might be best left for grades 10 and up. I would give it to a younger student only if I was sure they could handle the mature subject matter. Nothing in the book is gratuitous or melodramatic. It is just stark, simple and realistic. Yes there are rape and murder scenes, but they are handled tactfully. Don't ignore this book because it is mature. Pick it up or give it to a student because it is written with respect to young adults as people- not kids- who can handle mature situations. This is one of the best PA stories I have read in a long time, and waiting until October 2012 for the sequel is going to be pure torture!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Sincerely, Not a Victim

Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories
Were you the bully? The victim? Or somewhere in between? Maybe you were more than one through your childhood. Whatever mold you fit into, I am sure you have been a part of bullying from one angle or another throughout your life. As a teacher or parent, you have probably had to witness it. You have tried to stop it, but felt powerless in the face of the beast that has consumed childhoods and ended some. Sure, you can stop what you see in front of you, but the bullying is everywhere, like an omniscient, suffocating monster that is impervious to your efforts. That is why Dear Bully was published.

Dear Bully is a compilation of short essays from 70 authors. These are authors our children have read, and maybe we have read as well. These are adults who write for our children every day, so who better to talk to them about bullying? The stories these adults shared were ones of anger, of survival, and of shame. Some were the victims, the bystanders, or the bullies themselves. This is an amazing compilation of stories that dissect the bullying phenomenon from the inside out. But most importantly, they speak to kids today.

The stories aren't written for parents or teachers. They are written directly for the children surviving in the terrifying jungle that high school has become. Some are stories of triumph while others show pure survival. Either way, bullying is serious, it can kill you, but you don't have to give in to it. Some are funny, some are terrifying. R.L. Stine's story of how coincidence combined with his wise-guy big mouth got him bullied reminded me of why I loved his books as a young adult. He added humor to his story and showed how quick wit can get you into trouble and out of it with quite a flair!

The most touching stories for me were those of the bystanders, the kids who did nothing to stop the bullying or went along with it for fear of being the next target. In my senior literature class this term we have been talking at length about a three character play called Death and the Maiden where the characters represent the victim, the perpetrator, and the bystander. Victims and perpetrators are fairly straight forward, but the bystander is a fuzzy gray area. Sometimes they are guilty, sometimes they are innocent, but one thing follows them and even haunts them- the failure to do anything to stop the hurt of the victim. This is a group my kids and I struggled to define because they are so different. One thing they have in common, though, is that shame of not trying to stop it.

When we are young, we barely know who we are yet. Who are we kidding, I am 30 and I barely know! So how do we empower kids to stand up, stop the bullying, and free themselves from the shame of being a bystander? How do we let kids know that there are people out there to talk to, people who can save them? This book is a huge start. I loved the fact that the stories ranged across the bullying spectrum, but my one criticism is that the stories are predominantly from the female perspective. There are a few male authors, but mostly women contributed their stories. i wish it was more even across genders, but I still love what this book contains. It holds hope. Page after page, from cover to cover, you see hope. This is a message we can't prevent our children from hearing.

The stories themselves are very short- the longest is about 5 pages long. This is great for a student who has a short attention span or struggles with comprehension in a full-length novel. The short snippets are independent and can therefore be used as excellent comprehension checks by themselves without a need to remember everything that came before it. The wide mix of stories is also great to reach many different kinds of children. And if they aren't into a particular story? Skip it! This is an amazing book that should have a home in every classroom, library or home with children. Spread the message:

"Dear Bully, You think you can beat me. But I disagree. Sincerely, Not a Victim"