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Saturday, February 10, 2018

Books that will make you scream at me, "Why didn't you tell me about this book sooner?!"

Gidwitz, Adam (2016)  The Inquisitor’s Tale  New York:  Dutton.

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Opening Lines:  “The king is ready for war. 
Louis of France is not yet 30, and already he is the greatest king in Europe.  He loves his subjects.  He loves God.  And his armies have never been defeated.
This war, though, is different.
E is not fighting another army.
He is not fighting another kind.
He is fighting three children.
And their dog.”
This is a hard book to describe.  It is wonderful, but any summary will make it seem less than wonderful.  And so I am tempted to not summarize it, but you need to understand what it is like.  I will try.  My apologies for not doing this splendid book the justice it deserves. 
We hear the story as travelers tell it to each other in the dining room of an inn in France in 1242.  A\t first the story seems like it might be exaggerated, but gradually it becomes clearer and clearer.  Jeanne is a peasant girl whose life is saved by her dog which is then martyred but returns as a mysterious ghostly hound.  Jeanne herself has visions of the future.  Jacob is a Jewish boy whose entire community was destroyed by the King’s soldiers.  He discovers that he can heal any wound.  William is a moor from Africa who was raised by monks and has remarkable physical strength.  The three kids find themselves travelling together and soon draw the ire of the king by trying to prevent a public burning of books.  In the story, the three kids grow closer together, the king unleashes his army, and the kids work several miracles in the service of justice and mercy.
I know nobody reads a book because it contains important themes, but this one looks at making space for differing religious perspectives, contains a serious exploration of why God lets bad things happen, and also addresses themes of redemption and forgiveness.  There are some beautiful passages of dialogue which utterly fail to answer any of the questions these themes raise. And that is what makes this book ring authentic.     
“There are some people in this world who have magic in them.  Some of these people, it turns out, are children” says the inquisitor who has been following the children with the intent to turn them over to the authorities.  A few pages later, reflecting on their mostly unsuccessful attempt to save books form being burned publically by the king, Jacob says, “We saved five books.  How many worlds did we save?”
This book contains an excellent story that will make you think.  There is nothing here that would cause the book tobe challenged.  I think it could work as a read-aloud in fourth or fifth grade and as a book to be studied in middle school or even high school.  Regardless, you need to read it right away.  No sense in waiting any longer.  Go get a hold of it. 

Zentner, Jeff (2016) The Serpent King.  New York: Crown

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Opening Lines:  “There were things Dillard Wayne Early Jr. dreaded more than the start of school in Forrestville High.  Not many, but a few.  Thinking about the future was one of them.”
            Dill’s dad is a former snake-handling preacher who is in jail for distributing pornography and because of this, Dill is an outcast among his fellow students.  Fortunately he has two friends who are also outcasts.  Lydia plans to be a fashion designer in New York, and because of this, her fellow students in Forrestville High look down on her for not being like them.  Dill’s other friend is Travis, who loves fantasy novels and wears a cloak and carries a staff with him. Each one of these high school students have dreams, secrets, and fears and they all care for each other.  One reason I love this sotry is that it is an excellent depiction of what real healthy friendship looks like.  (Of course you will also encounter bullying, injustice, physical abuse, intolerance, horrible parents, awesome parents, and all the stuff that goes along with being a teenager.  This story slowly grabs hold of you and then becomes irresistible.  Parts of it make you want to yell at the book.  Other parts of it will leave you smiling to yourself. 
            This book is for high school students.  There is some vulgar language here, a reference to masturbation, and senseless violence.  There is also real love, transformation, and redemption.  There is hopelessness and hope.  One of my favorite quotes from the book is this one, “And if you are going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.” (327)
            If you buy this, and if you read it, you will be glad you did.  

Lathan, Jennifer (2017) Dreamland Burning. New York:  Little Brown.
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Opening Lines;  “Nobody walks in Tulsa.  At least not to get anywhere.  Oil built our houses, paved our streets, and turned us from a cow town stop on the Firsco Railroad into the heart of Route 66.  My ninth grade Oklahoma History teacher joked that around these parts, walking is sacrilege.  Real Tulsan’s drive.
     “But today my car is totaled and I have a one o’clock appointment with the district attorney at the county courthouse.  So I walked.”

      Rowan is about to begin her summer internship. When the workers renovating her family’s carriage hours discover a body (and leave the worksite immediately, fearing the authorities will investigate their immigration status) Rowan is the one who calls the police.  She starts to wonder whose body it is and how it came to be hidden in her carriage house.  From there this excellent novel splits.  We follow one story concerning Will Tillman, a white teenager growing up in Tusa in 1921 who inadvertently sets in motion a chain of events that will lead to a race riot that he will try desperately to prevent.  Rowan’s story continues as she finds out more about the body and also navigates race relations in today’s world as a mixed-race daughter of professional, upper middle-class parents.  After Rowan witnesses a car versus pedestrian accident that seems racially motivated, the two stories come together in an incredibly powerful conclusion.
      This story has enough going on in it thematically and is well-written enough that would be a good book for a high school English class to pair with something like To Kill a Mockingbird.  It would also make a fine addition to a classroom library.  And you would really enjoy reading this one. At the very least, put it on your summer reading list.

Balliet, Blue (2013) Hold Fast. New York:  Scholastic.
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Opening Lines:  “It was the bitterest, meanest, darkest, coldest winter in anyone’s memory, even in one of the most forgotten neighborhoods in Chicago.”

Warning:  This is a really good book, but you are going to have to be patient.  There is a long wait for the payoff.  Things get desperate quickly and for a long time the mystery doesn’t get solved.  I found that frustrating when I first read the book.  It is not until the last third of the book that things start to come together, but when they do it is worth it.  And then it is totally satisfying. 

            The story is about a family.  Summer and Dash are the parents, and Early (a girl) and Jubilation (a boy) are the kids.  Dash disappears abruptly from his life, gone without a trace.  Thugs break into their house, threaten them and ransack the place.  Summer, Early, and Jubilee go on the run and soon find themselves in a homeless shelter and also find out that the FBI is looking for their dad, and that Early may hold the key to finding him,.This is not just a mystery of a missing dad and an unknown crime – the book also explores the second mystery of why there are thousands of homeless people suffering lives of crushing desperation and at the same time, thousands of foreclosed buildings sitting empty.

            Balliet’s writing is, as usual], filled with clues and cyphers, and evey now and then an amazing quote that will really grab you.  One quote that grabbed my attention was this one: “Reading is a tool no one can take away.  A million bad things may happen in life and it’ll still be with you, like a flashlight that never needs a battery.  Reading can offer a crack of light on the blackest of nights.” (p 166).

            This one is probably best suited to high school, though advanced middle school readers could also read it.  It would work as a read-aloud, but I think is best suited to be part of your classroom library.


Gansworth, Eric (2013) If I Ever Get Out Of Here.  New York:  Scholastic
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Opening Lines: 
“Cut it off,” I yelled.
“Shut up, or my dad will hear you,” Carson Mastick said.  “He’s not that drunk yet, and I’m gonna have a hard enough time explaining how you came down looking like a different kid than the one that went upstairs.”  For ten minutes he had been farting around, waving the scissors like a magic wand.  Now he yanked the long tail of hair from my neck and touched the scissors an inch from the collar.

            Lewis Blake has grown up on the reservation.  High school has been torture to him so far.  Nobody ever talks to him.  Kids bully him, and his family is so poor they have a hole in the roof of their kitchen.  Then he meets George Haddonfield, who is a new kid, and what’s more, George lives on the base – his dad is a soldier and his Mom is from Germany.  They hit it off, bonding mostly over music, especially the Beatles and Paul McCartney and Wings.  George invites Lewis over and Lewis is impr3essed with how nice George’s family is, but Lewis can never reciprocate.  He likes in a ramshackle dwelling on the reservation, his mom works long hours cleaning other people’s houses and never has any energy to clean her own, and his Uncle Albert who Lewis shares a bedroom is a little, well, off.  He has other things to worry about too.  George is getting friendly with a girl, what if he gets a girlfriend.  And on top of all that, Lewis gets bullied constantly by Evan Rediger, whose father is so rich and powerful that no one will listen to Lewis when he reports what he is going through. 

            This is a book that is remarkably real to some kid’s high school experience.  It has some vulgar words in it and some honest conversations about difficult topics. It is also a book that shows what real friendship is like and a book in which the bullies and the corrupt do not always win in the end.  It is also a book that says a lot about poverty and what it is like to be an outcast because of your culture.  This would be an excellent book for your classroom library (though you would want to read it first).  I could also be a fantastic read aloud or better still, a book to be studied in class.

1 comment:

  1. I wish Lewis's problem comes to an end.After reading this Blog my Curiosity to know what happens next has increased a lot.