Tuesday, March 27, 2018
A quick note: one of my students who follows this blog convinced her roommate tot alk to me about ways to improve this site. I ave been too busy reading and reviewing to give it much thought. This student, however has some really smart and basic suggestions. So stay tuned for a much better look.
Five Realistic YA Novels With Female Protagonists:Ranging from Excellent to Downright Bad
Bauer, Joan (1999) Backwater. New York: Penguin.
Opening Lines: “I knelt in the snow in front of my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s gravestone, took my bristle brush and cleaned the surface the surface, working the bristles deep into each engraved letter.
Smith, Amber (2016) The Way I Used to Be. New York: Simon and Shuster.
Opening Lines: “I don’t know a lot of things. I don’t know why I didn’t hear the door click shut. Why I didn’t lock the damn door to begin with. Or why I didn’t register that something was wrong—so mercilessly wrong – when I felt the mattress shift under his weight.”
Rock, Peter (2016) Klickitat. New York: Amulet.
Opening Lines: “It all started when I noticed the way my sister was walking. It was late in the afternoon and I was upstairs in my bedroom, watching her out the window. I’d wedged myself between my bookcase and the wall so they both pressed against me, holding me tight. Below, outside, at the edge of our backyard, I saw Audra.”
Beaufrand, M.J. (2016) Useless Bay. New York: Amulet.
Opening line: “Our dog learned obedience from a murdered man.”
Sones, Sonya (2016) Saving Red. New York: Harper
Opening lines: “Why am I out here in the middle of the fricking night wandering the streets of Santa Monica looking for homeless people when I could be lying in bed watching videos of babies eating lemons and soldiers reuniting with their dogs? Because I need four more hours of community service this semester. That’s why. And I need them by tomorrow morning.”
What makes a realistic YA book good? This is a hard question. It is much easier to identify things that make a realistic YA fiction book bad. Here we will take a look at both.
Joan Bauer’s Backwater is a good book. Ivy Breedlove is a teenager who, it is expected, will become a lawyer. That’s what all Breedloves become – well except for her crazy Aunt Josephine, who lives on the side of a mountain, deep in the wilderness. Ivy would rather be a historian, and because of the argumentative nature of the Breedloves, Ivy would love to be able to interview her. But even if Ivy climbs the mountain, will her hermit of an aunt be willing to talk to her? Ivy hires a rather unconventional guide and sets out on a journey full of surprises.
What makes this book work is that it has at its core a good solid story. One of the things a good solid story does is it lets the reader fall into it and get lost in it. Bauer’s writing style first of all serves to carry the reader on that journey. He prose is also beautiful in places, but it primarily serves the story.
There also has to be relatable truth. In the case of this book, when readers get inside Ivy’s struggle to get her dad to see her as something other than a failed potential lawyer, many of those readers can either connect with that feeling personally or see how it played out in the life of a friend.
This would be a great book for middle school language arts, though it could also be a good optional book for middle school history. There is nothing in this book that parents are likely to object to.
Amber Smith’s The Way I Used to Be is much more complicated. It is a much harder book to read, a much harder book to use in any capacity in a school, and at the same time, it is a book that has a much greater potential payoff, provided readers are willing to stick with it to the end.
Eden is a broken kid. When she was in middle school, she was raped by her brother Caelen’s friend from high school She knows she should tell someone, but doesn’t because she is in shock, then is ashamed that she didn’t tell someone right way (and afraid they won’t believe her) and so she keeps it to herself. She is hurting, and starts a lunch hour book club to try to escape from the noise of the cafeteria. The reader can see the way her pain is eating away at her. The summer after Freshman year she gets contacts and starts smoking. When school starts she ditches her friend Steven (who stood by her when no one else seemed to). She drops band. The story is told in first person, and even Ivy’s language changes, as she starts using the f word constantly. And she starts having sex with a kid named Josh, yet making sure that she doesn’t get too emotionally close to him.
The next school year her relationship with Josh falls apart, Edy and her friend Mara spend more and more time and effort on finding ways to buy alcohol and cigarettes. And Edy spends more and more time sleeping with guys she doesn’t know and eventually starts getting high too.
I have two daughters, and as I was reading, at this point, my papa-sense started going off like crazy and it became harder and harder to read about Ivy’s self-destructive path. It was particularly hard to watch as Edy’s friends, boyfriends, parents, keep trying to build relationships with her and she keeps sabotaging them. But throughout the book, there is a sense in which her experience rings true. Edy’s self-destruction finally hits bottom well past three-quarters of the way through the book. And although it was hard to read, it was also important, it seemed to me, to read about the deep swath of destruction that swirled out from the original violent act of rape.
In the end, Edy hits bottom and finally tells her story and there is community, redemption, and even some justice. But it is such a hard road to get there. This would be a good book for some high school seniors to read, but it is certainly not the right choice for everybody at that time.
I am still trying to figure out why I didn’t like Peter Rock’s Klickitat. Rock has won an Alex Award for his adult novel My Abandonment which I haven’t read. Perhaps that novel works better. This one seems pretentious, deliberately obscure, and inconclusive.
Klickitat tells the story of Vivian, a young girls who has anxiety attacks that are revealed by pressure (though she does not seem to be autistic, which I usually associate with this condition. Vivians’s parents seem to be disconnected from their children’s lives. Vivian’ sister Audra has met a buy named Henry whom she intends to run away with to live a purer life in the woods (though at the moment, they are living together in the crawl space under a house. Vivian maybe has a crush on Henry. Vivian has a notebook in her bedroom who someone keeps writing nearly incomprehensible poetry in.
The book, at its best, can be ethereal. At its worst though, it seems artsy, in the sense that it is trying very hard to seem like art. It is like it is hinting at meaning that is not there. The messages in the notebook are a good example of this. They carry some sort of meaning, but nothing that really helps Vivian. It is like reading lines of abstract poetry without any context. As the book goes on, I became more and more convinced that everyone who writes notes in this book is allergic to making any kind of applicable point.
The truth is, it reminds me of both the worst literary fiction of the 1990s and the kind of rocks songs that you thought were profound when you were in high school, but now listen to again and realize that, although they sound profound, they aren’t actually saying anything. And actually, I find this terrifying. One of the things I love about children’s books is that children tend to demand a coherent story that comes to some sort of a conclusion. Children have little patience for pretention. I am praying that this sort of book does not proliferate. I suppose there may be something school students out there who might love this book, but I cannot recommend it.
Similarly M. J. Beaufrand’s Useless Bay (2016) seemed like an intriguing premise that didn’t deliver. Set of Whidbey Island, off the coast of Washington State, this book tells the story of the Gray quintuplets and their dog who regularly serve as an informal search-and-rescue team. When a boy is reported missing, the Gray’s search turns up a body, but not that of the missing boy. Soon the quints are in the middle of a complicated mystery with multiple suspects and lots of danger. Sounds good?
There are some problems, though. We don’t get to know the Quints well enough to really care for them. There is also some mystical magical realism thrown in which doesn’t add to the mystery, but rather seems like it is out of place. The magical realism is not internally consistent, nor does it make much sense. I know that magical realism is magical, but it also has to fit into the story in a way that makes sense. Magic has a kind of weird logic to it. In this book, that logic was very hard to follow. The story moves well, I will give it that. The ending is quite gripping. But the ending is not particularly satisfying.
This book, like all YA literature in the last five years, has it’s fair share of vulgar language. There are a couple of cheap shots at different populations, including one at people of faith. “Mom was firmly anti-religious because of all of the people of faith who gathered around her with casseroles when she was a new mother of quintuplets and promised to help…if only she would repent and admit she’d been a whore to get herself knocked up to begin with.” (52) I have no doubt that there are people who would say such things in the world, and that this is the mother’s interpretation, but even so, it seems an unfair stereotype.
Sonya Sones’s Saving Red, on the other hand, works. While on a service project helping to count homeless people. Molly sees a girl who seems about her own age and later makes it her project to reunite that kid with her family by Christmas. Aided by a boy she met at the amusement park who rapidly becomes both a friend and something more, Molly begins to find out more about the girl, whose name is Red. She finds out that Red is not so easy to help, that Red might not want to be reunited with her family, and that Red has schizophrenia and hears voices that tell her what to do.
This is a book about a kid trying to learn about homelessness and trying to do the right thing, but realizing that homelessness, like most important issues, is far more complicated than she thought. Red learns that people care about her. This is not a perfect book. Molly is partly able to help Red because she herself comes from an affluent family and his resources that not every kid would have. But she learns. She makes a difference for Red, but doesn’t solve her problem. And the fact that Molly meets a nice boy who cares about her counterpoints the fact that Red, because of her homelessness and disability is unlikely to have such a relationship. I suspect that, if this bok gets reviewed, critics will skewer it for oversimplifying the problem of homelessness.
But it is a good and entertaining story (told using poems, by the way, though five minutes into the book you will hardly notice that is the case) and the middle school and high school students who read it will enjoy it. The story is coherent, the characters likable, and its portrayal of life is real, at least to some people’s experiences. This one is worth buying.
Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Yang, Gene Luen; Holmes, Mike (2016) Secret Coders 2: Paths and Portals. New York: First Second.
The Coders are back. Hopper, Eni, and Josh now discover that Mr. Bee, the grumpy janitor from the first book, was once a teacher at the school, and he begins to teach them while at the same time, they begin to dig into some of the suspicious doings that the dean of the school (and his pet rugby team) seem involved in. When the dean captures one of the janitor’s robots, and then the janitor himself, the secret coders need to decide if it is worth unleashing chaos to set the janitor free.
There is a lot of learning in this book, but Yang embeds the instruction into the stories so completely that many students won’t even notice they are learning coding, geometry, and even how to write letters in mandarin Chinese. Yang takes his time with both character development and plot development probably because he knows he will have many books in the series to develop these aspects more fully.
What makes this such a great book for a math classroom library is that the math stuff is solid, but deeply embedded in the experiences of the children. This book goes a long way toward helping students see the answer to the perennial questions, “What are we going to use this stuff for?”
Holmes’s artistic style seems drawn from Saturday morning cartoons. The characters are drawn in part like caricatures, but there is enough realism built in that a student can get lost in the world of the book. If you teach math or coding, you need this book now.
Yang, Gene Luen; Holmes, Mike (2017) Secret Coders 3: Secrets and Sequences. New York: First Second.
This is what happens when I do more writing than review writing. I end up with more wonderful Secret Coders Books to review. In this one, Principal Dean kidnaps Hoppers Mom and the kids follow, eventually ending up in the lair of Dr. One Zero, a former pupil of their janitor-mentor, Mr. Bee. Dr. One Zero imprisons them and steals their flying turtle to use its laser to draw out Mr. Bee from hiding and at the same time destroy their school. Along the way, the Coders have to learn use their newfound skills at writing ifelse statements to trick a robotic cat into destroying their cell door and program a flock of robotic birds to intercept Dr. One Zero’s craft and foil his plans. Unfortunately, after rescuing Hoppers Mom, they return to school to find that Dr. One Zero has become the new principal of their school.
Math. Geometrey. Coding. Problem-solving. Fun. Buy this.
Shiga, Jason (2017) Demon 2. New York: First Second.
What does a story about a guy who, when he dies, possesses the body of the nearest person to him, have to do with teaching math? When the main character, Jimmy Yee has a mission, to get revenge on the drunk driver that killed his family, and when he uses math to do it. Jimmy is a former actuary who can cube two digit numbers in his head, and so evading the mysterious government agency that is after him, escaping capture, and getting to his goal is mostly a matter of logic and math. Although the story is certainly grisly, it may be amazing way to teach the value of logic in problem-solving, if you can get past the carnage.
So here are the rules, which Jimmy Yee figures out as he goes (and so does the reader). 1. Jimmy possesses the body of whomever is nearest to him when he dies. 2. The possessions do not ross species, so he cannot possess the bodies of animals. 3. The possessions occurs somewhere between a speed of mach 10 and instantaneously. 4. He does not gain or loses his own mental skills when he transfers. He gains some physical skill if he possesses a bodybuilder, but not all. 5. He possesses the body of whatever person’s head is closest to his own.
But when Jimmy breaks into prison to complete his mission, he finds out his daughter is still alive and has the same abilities that he does, and that both of them are surrounded by hundreds of agents. Can Jimmy figure out a way to escape the trap?
Jason Shinga draws the characters in this graphic novel with big, often round heads that are reminiscent of Charles Schultz’s peanuts characters. This stylized drawing approach minimizes the reality of the story that Jimmy is racking up a pretty massive body count. Shinga also uses the convention of drawing Jimmy’s face on whatever person he has possessed so that it is easy to keep track of when Jimmy makes the jump.
In an age of violence, school shootings, and indifference to death and suffering, this book seems to be more a part of the problem than the solution. The fact that Jimmy is being hunted by people who want to use his abilities for nefarious ends, and the fact that those people try to use his daughter to blackmail him, and the way that he uses logic to get out of trap after trap, makes this book one that may win you over.
Given the violence and several occasional vulgarities, this book would be best for high school and the teacher should preview it before putting it in her or his classroom.
Wednesday, March 7, 2018
Fleming, Candace (2014) The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia New York: Schwartz and Wade.
Opening line: “On the night or February 12, 1903, a long line of carriages make its way through the Imperial Gates of St. Petersburg’s Winter palace.”.
There are moments in history when everything turns upside down. When Tsar Nicholas and his wife, Empress Alexandra began their rule of Russia, they were following a long line of predecessors into what seemed a predictable reign. Alexandra bore three daughters and, after much waiting, a son, Alexei, who would turn out to suffer greatly from hemophilia. Then follows wartime troubles and Alexei suffers from more bouts of hemophilia-induced internal bleeding and the pain that accompanies it. The Tsar and Tsarina eventually put their trust in a peasant mystic named Rasputin. Rasputin, many allege, not only brings about the downfall of the Tsar, but would be indirectly responsible for Nicholas’s abdication of the throne, and eventually the death of his whole family.
Fleming carefully unwinds the narrative, paying attention not only to the Royal family, but to the peasants as well. She paints Nicholas and Alexandra as partly naïve, party disinterested monarchs who more than anything want to escape the burdens of leadership and raise their family without interruption. This is a tragic moment in history and it is fascinating to see it unfold.
Strong fourth and fifth grade readers could make sense of most of this, but it is probably ideal for middle school and high school readers. The book does cover the murder of the royal family in a matter of fact way and makes vague references to Rasputin’s womanizing, but there is little here that could offend or trouble parents.
Haskins, James (1977) Barbara Jordan. New York: Dial Press.
Opening Quote: “If there are any patriots left, I am one.” --Barbara Jordan.
One thing history can do is remind us that things were not always the way they are now. Somehow in the last forty years, the word politician became a bad word. When Barbara Jordan became one of the first black women elected to US Congress,that was not so much the case. Jordan was skilled at the art of compromise, of crossing the isle and finding the common ground of justice and helping the American people that let the legislature get things done. She was organized and passionate, feisty and a good friend, principled and a good bridge-builder. This book chronicles her hard work in law school, her hard work running for office, and her phenomenally hard work once she was in office. This biography is not only an interesting portrayal of Barbara Jordan, but also a fascinating portrait of a time in our country's istory when compromise across the aisle was the ay we got things done.
And she did all this as a black woman running for office in Texas. Texas at the time seemed to have a very different sort of identity than it does now. Although the biography probably skews in the direction of being overly positive toward her life, it does not omit the criticism of her being an Uncle Tom, or forgetting her people. It acknowledges those criticisms and offers her response, then lets the readers decide.
I stumbled upon this book because it was a Coretta Scott King Award winner. Although I believe it is out of print, websites like ABE.com can be relied on to have a used copy usually for under six dollars.
Moss, Marissa (2017) Kate Warne: Pinkerton Detective. Creston Books.
Opening Lines: “Kate read the newspaper advertisement for the third time: Wanted: Detective. Must be observant, determined, fearless, and willing to travel. Pinkerton Agency 353 Michigan Ave. Chicago. She had no experience at all, but the job called to her.”
Okay, yes, this is a picture book, but it is a wonderful one. Moss tells the story of Kate Warne, the first woman detective in America. Moss describes how Warne convinced Allan Pinkerton to hire her, even though he had never hired a female agent before. She describes Warne’s first case, a theft of $40,000 from a locked pouch in a safe. Warne took on a disguise, befriended the suspect’s wife and found out where the money was hidden. An extensive author’s note at the end of the book fills in some details including how Warne served in the Secret Service, how she died, and where she is buried.
April Chu’s illustrations do a lot to bring the reader into the dusty sepia-toned world of Chicago in 1856. Moss’s writing engaged the reader in the story, but also makes sure they will be interested in the history of it as well. And extensive author’s note at the end will fill in some of the gaps for the interested reader.
I was going to say that this would be a great picture book for kids interested in history or detectives or law enforcement. But as I think about it, this is the sort of book that might take a kid who doesn’t yet realize they are interested in these areas and start an interest that could make a huge difference. I suppose the book is probably targeted at first through third grade – but I would use it up through middle school and high school as a way of getting students interested in a topic. Check this one out.