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Monday, April 27, 2015

A German Author Draws on his Childhood in Syria to Write a Novel that Might Connect to YA Readers in the States.

Schami, Rafik (1987) A Hand Full of Stars New York:  Dutton.

Opening Lines:  January 12 -- One day my old friend, so dear to me that I call him "Uncle" Salim, said to me,: "What a pity I can't write.  I have experienced so much that was important.  Today I no longer know what has kept me for years from sleeping at night."

In this book we read the journal of a young man growing up in Syria (He refers to himself as I.  I seem to remember that somewhere in the book one of his friends, or his Uncle called him by his first name, but I can't seem to find it.  The journal writer loves school, but his dad wants him to drop out to take over the family bakery.  He wants to be a journalist, but the old journalist in his neighborhood tells him it is an awful job.  He is in love with Nadia, but her father works for State Security and can make things very uncomfortable for the journal writer's family. 

A lot of the book is pretty standard coming of age stuff, as the protagonist deals with lying to his parents, with rebelling against the government, with seeing his first pornographic film (and almost being picked up in a raid), with exploring sexuality with his girlfriend, and with losing those he loves.   What makes this book different is the passion that the kid has for writing and, by writing, for changing the broken world he lives in.  Even though the Syria in the book is certainly not the Syria of today, it gives readers a picture of what it is like to live in a country where freedoms that many North Americans take for granted, especially freedom of the press, is certainly not a given. 

This book has references to the protagonist and Nadia having sex (though it is only mentioned in vague summary), and contains vulgar language, so a parental challenge is certainly possible.  The book, though, gives an excellent window into a very different world than the one most North Americans live and would be a good book to have in a high school classroom library. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Minor League Dystopian YA novels that might be worth a read

Weyn, Suzanne (2006) The Bar Code Rebellion.  New York:  Scholastic.

Opening line:  "Kayla Reed spoke directly into the camera as it closed in on her earnest face."

It didn't take much to start the avalanche of dystopian novels.  After the success of the Hunger Games and Insurgent books, dystopian science fiction books with plucky heroines started coming out of the woodwork.  When I read Suzanne Weyn's Bar Code Rebellion I was initially not particularly impressed.  The book seemed filled with concepts that needed more explanation.  This particular world of the future is one where a corporation, with the support of the US Federal government, has begun requiring all citizens to get a bar code tattooed on their arm.  The bar code contains all their genetic information (must be quite a bar code).  The protagonist, Kayla, is part of a group who are rebelling against the bar coding.  She is also moderately telepathic (we find out later in the book that this is because her DNA has been spliced with bird DNA (though why bird DNA should make one telepathic is never explained.) 

When I was more than halfway through the book, I realized that it was not the first book in this series.  Thee are apparently two books that come before it.  There is nowhere, however, on the cover or inside my copy of the book, that explains this.  It looks like a stand alone book.  And so I read the book thinking that. 

Anyway, I suspect if you rad the other two books, it would be quite an engaging story, but as I read it, it seemed to be equal parts predictable and lacking internal consistency.  It is unclear, for example, why the Global-1 Corporation wants to institute a nefarious underground program at huge expense (and no apparent basis for profit) to be able to quell future rebellions.  But I suspect that the earlier two books might set up some relationships and rivalries that would make the revelations and revealing of this book quite gripping.

Bottom line:  There is nothing offensive in this book, and nothing particularly interesting from a thematic perspective either.  It would be a good book to give to a student who likes dystopian novels to keep him or her interested for a few hours, but it isn't about to win any awards or end up in anyone's favorite book lists.

Schusterman, Neal (2007) Unwind.  New York:  Simon and Schuster.

Opening line:  "There are places you can go," Ariana tells him, "and a guy as smart as you has a decent chance of surviving to eighteen."

You will enjoy this book if you can get past the basic premise.  So in the future, after a civil war between Pro-life and Pro-choice armies, the Bill of Life establishes that life begins at conception and as such no human life may be harmed ... until a child reaches the age of thirteen.  From 13 to 18, parents get to decide whether they want to keep the child or have it "unwound", which essentially means that they take the child apart and their parts are used for transplants -- a kind of retroactive abortion.  The book gives very little justification for this odd turn of events  --making it hard to imagine a society that would every agree to such a bizarre set of rules.  In comparison,  the Hunger Games seem utterly believable.

The story itself, though, is pretty good.  Connor is sixteen.  His parents have decided to let him be unwound.  Connor decides to go on the run.  While trying to escape from the authorities, he causes a pile-up on the highway and meets Lev, whose parents are tithing him -- having him unwound for religious reasons.  They soon stumble into a kind of underground railroad for such people and eventually make it all the way the a hidden desert base where lots of fugitives from winding are hiding out.  Then things really get interesting. 

It is a really good book if you can get past the initial premise.  The story moves along well, the characters are interesting, and it raises some important ideas and themes.  I don't think it is a strong enough story to stand up to study in class, but it would be a great book for your classroom library.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Benedict Cumberbatch and Emma Watson to team up to write YA novel about Sherlock Holmes and Amelia Earhart

So I was talking with a children's author who I met last year at a conference -- and he was telling me that he had some inside information he wanted to pass on.  It turns out that his agent, the well-known former editor for Houghton Mifflin, S. Loo Flirpa, was recently involved in a transatlantic deal in which the acclaimed actor Benedict Cumberbatch (known for his roles in The Imitation Game and the BBC series Sherlock) has agreed to team up with Emma Watson (best known for her role as Hermione in the Harry Potter movies) to write a novel for young adults.  The book, tentatively titled Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Foolish Woman, would be published by Warnerbooks' new British imprint, InSence which has been desperately looking for a young adult blockbuster.

The children's author I was talking to (who doesn't wish to be identified because he had promised to keep this quiet until the publisher makes its announcement at a press conference scheduled for three days from now, on Friday, April 3) reported that the book will pair up the great detective and no less a personage than Amelia Earhart.  He explained that although neither Cumberbatch nor Watson have ever written a book before, they are both voracious readers and have been wanting to try this for some time.  Apparently, Cumberbatch will write half the chapters, from the perspective of Sherlock Holmes, and Watson will write alternating chapters from the perspective of Amelia Earhart, who becomes involved when some underworld figures hide stolen jewels in her plane and she is soon on the run.  Sherlock Holmes, independently investigating the jewel theft, finds Earhart, and contrives to hide her while both of them pursue the truth.  The story allegedly has a remarkable twist toward the end.

My source said that he partly wants to break the news early because he is angry at Warnerbooks, which apparently is going to bill the co-authors as "Holmes and Watson" which my source thinks is unfair to both authors.  In an email he sent me late yesterday he said, "That's just stupid.  I think Cumberbatch is a smart guy and will be a good writer.  It is a cheesy gimmick to fail to distinguish between the actor and the character he plays.  And worse still, just because her last name is Watson, they make it out like she has some connection to Dr. John Watson, Sherlock's friend?  As far as I know, they don't even intend to include John Watson in the story. Emma Watson cares deeply for the story of Amelia Earhart and is really excited about being able to write about her.  Like I said, it is just stupid."

My source says Warnerbooks has committed to paying each author an unheard-of advance of 1.7 million.  Actually, this doesn't surprise me much since YA literature has become a remarkably successful business.  After all, the Harry Potter books reportedly grossed over 15 billion dollars.  It is reasonable to expect, given Cumberbatch and Watson's followings, that their book would be quite successful indeed.  Warnerbooks expects to release the book before Christmas of this year.

Bear in mind this is only a rumor at this point, but I have to say, I am excited about the possibilities.