Monday, September 28, 2015

Aurora West is Back! (Unstoppable Graphic Novel Heroine Returns)

Pope, Paul; Petty, JT; Rubin, David (2015)  The Fall of the House of West.  New York:  First Second.

Opening lines:  "I've been learning a lot about my mother recently.  She was an explorer.  A linguist.  A scientist and a hero.  When I was four years old, she was murdered."

Paul Pope's first graphic novel in this series, Battling Boy was about a young boy who comes to Arcopolis from another realm to fight monsters since their previous monster-fighting hero, Haggard West, was killed by a particularly nefarious monster gang.  In that graphic novel, there was a minor character, the grieving daughter of Haggard West, named Aurora.  Her determination and resourcefulness made her at least as intriguing as the Battling Boy and soon Pope wrote a prequel about Aurora West.  This is a second prequel that takes Aurura from the end of the first prequel (when she was making progress in learning about how her mother died) to the beginning of the Battling Boy book. And it is a good book, with action and adventure and mystery and even some lighthearted moments.  But it isn't perfect.  SO here are a couple of things you should know before you pick it up.

First, it can be kind of confusing.  I would not recommend this book as an introduction tot he series.  It doesn't help that the format is so small. Occasionally the panels are so full of action, it is hard to figure out what is going on.  Usually, though, it is just a matter of figuring out who the characters are and how they are related to each other.

Second, it is moderately violent.  It is nowhere near the top of the violence spectrum in graphic novels, but it is possible that some parents might object tot he amount of violence.  I would recommend this book for a more seasoned graphic novel reader.  For those who like graphic novels with female protagonists, it might be a good follow up to Shannon Hale's excellent Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack.

The story is engaging.  I think this one would work best for fifth and sixth grade and up.  It is worth adding to your classroom library.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

More amazing YA fiction from Cory Doctorow!

Doctorow, Cory (2013) Homeland.  New York: Tor.

Opening lines:  "Attending Burning Man made me simultaneously one of the most photographed people on the the planet and one of the least surveilled humans in the modern world.."

Marcus Yallow, the teen-aged hacker-turned-political-activist who we met in Doctorow's Little Brother is back.  While he is attending the Burning Man Festival in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, he runs into his old  nemesis, Masha.  She slips him a flash-drive just before she is kidnapped by the same quasi-government operatives who jailed and tortured Marcus in the previous book.  Marcus is injured in the explosion that serves as a diversion to cover the kidnapping.  When he eventually returns to civilization and gets a chance to look at the documents on the flash-drive, he discovers that Masha has handed him a huge set of incriminating documents that could shut down the oppressive government operation forever.  But how can he verify the information and get it out there without the government goons tracking it back to him?  What follows is a wild ride of a story that involves peaceful protest, police manipulated into brutalization, a crusading politician, plenty of close calls, and enough hacking, techno-strategy, and suspense to keep any thinking reader on the edge of her or his seat.

This book would be best for high school.  It is too big to be a read-aloud in a single semester, though you could get far enough into it to get students hooked, then leave it up to them to finish it.  It weaves together themes of human rights and civil rights versus increased government control in order to have safety from terror; technology's role in consolidating or distributing power, and how activism can make a difference.  It might be hard to use the book in a classroom setting because it is a big one (390+ pages) -- but perhaps as a post-test unit for an AP class.

Oh, and while I am thinkng of it, though the cover looks like a graphic novel, this is a traditional YA novel.

There is little here that would bring about a parental or community challenge.  There are implied moments in which Marcus and his girlfriend Ange are together alone in his bedroom and sex is implied, but not really stated.  It is also true that neither Marcus nor Ange are advocates for traditional marriage -- but all this is very much peripheral to the story.

I highly recommend it.  It is a gripping, interesting, and very smart book.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Non-fiction book about the plot to steal Lincoln's body

Craughwell, Thomas J. (2007) Stealing Lincoln's Body  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press

Opening Lines:  "At 7:22 in the morning of April 15, 1865, a twenty-three-year-old United States Army surgeon felt the last tremor of life leave the body of Abraham Lincoln."

This blog generally contains reviews of the best Young Adult Literature i can find, so what am I doing reviewing a non-fiction book that was written for adults.  Well, it turns out that some young adult readers like non-fiction, and some of them don't seem to pay much attention tot he boundaries that publishers set between different ages of readers.  Also, this is a honking good book that high school students interested in history, crime, crime-fighting, Abraham Lincoln, or good stories would absolutely love.

Craughwell starts off with a prologue that describes Lincoln's last days and the funeral train that toured the country to unprecedented crowds, and then the debate that began about where Abraham Lincoln.  But things get even more interesting when we start to read about the men who hatched a plot to steal Lincoln's body from the cemetery where he was interred in Springfield, Illinois, and hold his body hostage until the government released one of the most accomplished counterfeiters ever from the jail in Joliet, Illinois.  Along the way we find out about the history of counterfeit money in the US, the huge part it played in the civil war, the creation of the Secret Service (authorized by President Lincoln the day before he was assassinated, and the bizarre story of how Lincoln's body was buried in a basement under a pile of lumber for many years, its location known only to a secret society of trustees.

Craughwell doesn't write in a overly-academic style, so his prose is accessible for interested high school readers, but some of the vocabulary may stretch them just a little bit.  Craughwell is a historian and does a really nice job of contextualizing the events of the book, explaining the sources for his assertions, and questioning facts that are uncertain, but he does so in a way that is interesting and not off-putting in the least.

I have to give my oldest daughter credit for finding this book. She spotted it while on a National Close-Up trip to Washington DC.  It think it would be a fine addition to both high school history classrooms and any high school classroom library hoping to provide a variety of books that might interest young readers.  

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Best Graphic Novels about the Civil Rights Movement Yet!

Lewis, John; Aydin. Andrew; Powell, Nate (2013) March Book 1 Marietta, Georgia: Top Shelf

Lewis, John; Aydin. Andrew; Powell, Nate (2015) March Book 2 Marietta, Georgia: Top Shelf

Opening lines: "John?  Can you swim?"
                         "Well, neither can I -- but we might have to."

These lines, spoken by John Lewis and his friend Hosea as they march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the front of a line of protesters, toward police officers armed with tear gas is the beginning of the two-book graphic novel series, March.  It is an autobiography of congressman John Lewis and his part in the civil rights movement.  Although the opening scene is dramatic, the real strength of the book comes in the smaller moments.  John Lewis was a young college-aged man during the beginning of the civil rights movement.  He took part in a lot of actions that never made the news -- sit-ins (in which civil rights protesters would enter and sit at the lunch counter or a restaurant or store that posted that they would not serve blacks) and smaller protests.  This book brings out those smaller moments, difficult decisions, one-to-one interactions between activists and store owners.  Those are the moments that seem the most powerful to me.

The first book has a framing story in which Congressman Lewis is spending some time explaining the movement to two young boys (and their mother) before the Obama Inauguration.  Even this framing story highlights the smaller personal moments behind historical events.

Like many autobiographies, there are movements when the reader wonders how the memory of the moment might have changed over time --  but most of the story seems like a credible account.  Artist Nate Powell does a fantastic job of capturing both the history and the personality of each moment he depicts.  The creators seem to have deliberately aimed the book at a very broad audience in terms of age, prior knowledge about the civil rights movement, and even reading comprehension level.  I am convinced a strong fourth grade reader could get through this material, enjoy it, and understand pretty much all of it.  At the same time, there is enough solid material here that reading this book graphic novel would be appropriate in a high school or college class as well.

There is a scene in the story where John Lewis and others are going through desensitation training to prepare them for the abuse they can expect during the sit-ins.  During that scene, civil rights activists pretending to be anti-integration people, scream the N-word at those pretending to be civil rights protesters.  It is a short scene, and the word is clearly condemned, but some parents may not want their children to even be exposed to that word. 

These are both excellent books.  You and your students need to buy and read them as soon as you can. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Post-Apocalyptic Native American Monster-Killer YA Action Novel (now with extra mutants)

Bruchac, Joseph  (2013) Killer of Enemies,  New York:  Tu Books

Opening lines:  "I'm five miles away from the walls of my prison, up in the high country above the Sonoran Desert.  Thus far, surprisingly, nothing has yet attempted to maim or devour me since I have settled here a half hour ago."

Lozen is 17 years old.  She lives in a place that was a prison before the cloud came and civilization crumbled.  She serves four warlords who live in an uneasy alliance.  Lozen's job is to venture out into the wilds beyond the walls of the prison and dispatch the genetically modified monsters who prowl the landscape so that the soldiers and messengers of the warlords can move about freely and loot the wreckage.  Lozen hates the warlords and she hates her job, but she does it because her family also lives int he prison and the Warlords control her access to them.  Lately, though, when she has been out hunting, she has heard a voice in her mind, communicating with her. She isn't sure if the person behind the voice is a friend or a foe, but she suspects that soon everything in her world may change.

This is a good action story that will grab female and male readers alike.  Although most teen readers wouldn't notice or care, there are some flaws in the book.  The first half of the book is written almost episodically.  Lozen gets sent out on mission after mission.  Each time, she fights some kind of genetically altered beast and returns to see her family.  About halfway through the book the larger story really gets going and the pieces start to fit together.

The other thing is that Lozen's identity as a Native-American comes through mostly in her violent warrior heritage.  It helped a lot that her mother's folk stories sometimes clarified for her ways to use her intelligence to defeat her enemies.  It still remains however that shooting something or blowing it up seemed to be the most effective problem-solving strategy in the book.

This one is probably most ideal for high school, though advanced middle school readers could handle it.  It contains very occasional profanity (one or two instances in the whole book) which would probably not result in a challenge.

This would be a good one to add to your classroom library.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

YA Novel about deafness, grace, school, families, and rock and roll

John, Antony (2010) Five Flavors of Dumb  New York:  Penguin.

Opening Lines:  "For the record, I wasn't around the day they decided to become Dumb.  If I'd been their manager back then I'd have pointed out that the name, while accurate, was not exactly smart.  It just encouraged people to question the band's intelligence. maybe even their sanity.  And the way i saw it, Dumb didn't have much of either."

Piper is eighteen years old, a senior in high school, and deaf.  When her big mouth lands her a job managing the garage band "Dumb" and worse, after promising to find then a paying gig, Piper realizes she has gotten herself into a difficult place.   Soon she is dealing with a rivalry between the bands angry female punk bassist and the airhead female guitarist who one of the male group member brought on board; trying to prepare them for a recording session with a washed-up former rock musician; and trying to convince the male members of the group to accept a nerdy chess-team refugee who also plays the drums.  Piper is also dealing with her parents, who intend to spend her college money for an operation that will allow her newborn deaf sister to be able to hear (and thus deprive Piper of a sister who might be able to understand her.  Throw in her brother who seems bent on self-destruction, a mysterious mentor who keeps sending the band to historical parts of the city to learn rock and roll history, and a couple of romantic sub-plots and you have a funny, remarkably engaging novel that high school students will really enjoy.

Early on in the book, my one complaint was that Piper's Dad is a pretty colossal jerk.  He has never learned sign language, he doesn't seem to know who Piper is or what is important to her. By the end of the book, after a fair amount of grace, he turns out to be a better guy than anyone knew.  And I am always a fan of any book where the nerd gets the girl (or in this case, the girl gets the nerd)..

The reading level of the book is probably suitable for middle school kids and up, but the content seems more ideal for high school.  This is a good story and well worth checking out.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

If Harry Potter were written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver -- you probably wouldn't want your kids to read it -- but you might like it.

Grossman, Lev (2009) The Magicians  New York:  Penguin.

Opening lines:  "Quentin did a magic trick.  Nobody noticed."

When we were in Boston this summer, my friend Laird recommended I read this book.  Since I couldn't recall Laird ever recommending a book to me before, I bought it.  Then I read it.  Ever since then, I have been trying to figure out what to make of it.

This is the story about a kid who gets to realize his dream, walk through a door into another world, go to a school of magic, and learn to be a magician.  It sounds like Narnia and Hogwards rolled into one. Except there is more to it than that.  Quentin Coldwater is as brilliant as Hermione and in some ways as courageous as Peter Pevensie, but he is also a teenager and is as filled with as much angst, insecurity, and moral ambiguity as many modern teenagers.

And when he steps through the portal in an alley and ends up in a school of magic, the air is sweeter and the world is magical, but there is also a lot of hard work and studying to be done to master magic, and friends are not easy to come by, and although the world is beset by an unnamed peril, stopping it is not as easy as it is for Harry, Hermione, and Ron.  Quentin makes some mistakes, some big ones.  He has some good teachers, but none of them have the wisdom of Gandalf or Dumbledore.  He also finds himself to be one of the best pupils.  He learns his lessons really well.  He falls in love, or at least thinks he does.  He also starts partying too much and eventually is unfaithful to his girlfriend.  He becomes disillusioned and even the chance to explore another new world brings him only to a place of greed and desperate danger.

Make no mistake, this isn't the sort of book you could teach in your school.  You couldn't keep it in your classroom library either, not even in the special shelf behind your desk  There is too much vulgar language, sex, and people treating each other really badly for that.  And in fact, most of you probably wouldn't like it yourselves (I am still not sure if I liked it, though I am glad I read it.).  But, then again, it might be the sort of book you might want to read.  Quentin faces harder, more grown-up struggles than Harry ever did, and he falls further into despair than Frodo and Sam ever did -- but when he triumphs (and it isn't a complete triumph) there is some powerfully realistic hope there.

And this might be the sort of book that you could give to a former student who over the years has become a good reader and a friend.  And even if neither of you are sure you like it, you might have a really good conversation about it.