Sunday, February 21, 2016

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 11

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Title: Masterminds
Author: Gordon Korman
Genre: Adventure
Read If You Like...: Fast-paced plots, ensemble casts, and a Stepford Wives-level mystery
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Serenity, New Mexico, is the most perfect place to live in the country—at least, that's what Eli and his friends have been told their entire life. But the perfect houses, perfect lawns, perfect everything in this tiny idyllic town are starting to seem suspicious to Eli, and when a freak occurrence during a lightning storm gives a glimpse of life outside Serenity, Eli begins a quest for the truth. This conspiracy adventure is totally engrossing and just plain fun for all readers—and luckily its sequel just came out, which I can't wait to get my hands on!

Title: Goodbye Stranger
Author: Rebecca Stead
Genre: Realistic
Read If You Like...: Alternating point of view, quirky characters, and friendship sagas
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Three points of view tell the story of Bridge, her best friends Tabitha and Emily, wallflower Sherm, and an unnamed high school girl struggling with the betrayal of a best friend. Seventh grade is proving tougher than expected as friendships change, new relationships emerge, and the cast of characters struggles with individual identity. The style of storytelling may be unappealing for some readers [I've gotten mixed reviews from my students], but Stead gives us a real story about finding yourself and finding your place.

Title: The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible...on Schindler's List
Author: Leon Leyson
Genre: Memoir
Read If You Like...: Child survivors, WWII/Holocaust stories, historical settings
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Leon Leyson credits his life to one man, Oskar Schindler, and in this middle-grade memoir he chronicles the collapse of his 12-year-old world when the Nazis invaded his homeland of Poland and his fight for survival through four years of horror. As an adult well-versed in Holocaust stories, I feel it's a story that is the same no matter how many times it has been told, simply because, at this point in my life, I've read so many of them that I know how things were, how they ended. For young readers, though, who are encountering historical moments like this for the first time, this is a welcome new perspective that introduces the gray-area definitions of people—that individuals are often more than a label.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Fiction | This Ain't Hollywood

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I picked up this next book based totally on judgment of its cover. Its retro setting and road-trip adventure plot didn't hurt, either; nor did the mission of its indie publisher. To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie by Ellen Conford was originally published in 1982 and has recently been re-released by Lizzie Skurnick Books, an imprint of Ig Publishing, dedicated to bringing new life to YA classics from decades past. [This is my Read Harder "indie press" category choice.]

So, I've been wanting to read this one ever since I first set eyes on this gorgeous imprint. [Its titles follow the same beautiful, retro design scheme; the type looks good; the pages feel good.] But because it's such an old book and new reprinting, NO ONE HAS IT! No public library, no school library... Finally, I bought a copy for my own school library, along with many others in the imprint, just so I could read it!

Conrad tells the story of a 15-year-old girl named Sylvie who has spent her young life hopping from one foster home to the next. She's had neither a stable or safe upbringing; her moves tend to be the result of some purposeful misbehavior, Sylvie's own found defense mechanism against creepy foster dads with wandering eyes and hands. Her only comfort is the escape to Hollywood she's been planning for the past three years. If Sylvie dresses up with the right makeup, hair, and shoes, she can pass for 18, and that's what she's counting on to get her across the country to begin her new life as a star.

After a series of unfortunate events (aka, all her money gets stolen), Sylvie finds herself stranded in middle American and dependent on a ride from a Bible salesman named Walter to take her the rest of the way. Obviously, her decisions are misguided here. Walter is fairly young and pretty charming, but he's definitely got that smarmy quality. Knowing Sylvie's past encounters with untrustworthy men, it seems somewhat surprising she'd agree to hitch a ride with this shady dude, but maybe she just figures she can handle whatever is thrown at her. Regardless of her reasons, the result is a cringe-inducing journey across the country where all we can do is sit back and hope she survives the trip.

I have to say that this daunting plot with a seedy under-belly isn't exactly what I expected for this story. It's more like an after-school special in book form. To All My Fans broaches issues like molestation and sexual assault in a way that introduces a great distrust of adults who are in positions of supposed trustworthiness. For a brief moment, I questioned whether this was "middle school appropriate" for my library, but then I decided that "middle school" doesn't need to mean watered down. This book is by no means overly graphic, nor would I consider any of the content "too mature" for kids in this age group. In fact, there are probably middle schoolers who deal with some of these issues and need to encounter stories and characters that mirror their own lives.

The story doesn't end with a big climactic situation or confrontation; rather, it peters out by bringing this plot-driven adventure back around to the main character, ending with a "checking in" (for lack of a better phrase) with Sylvie—what she's thinking and feeling, where's she's going from here. Readers looking for a simple thriller or adventure story may be disappointed, but there are substantial talking points raised for discussion.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Nonfiction | Aging, Forgetfully

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Back when I committed to the Read Harder Challenge, I did a fair amount of book research and made a whole big list of the titles I was going to read for each category. For the category requiring "a book written by someone when they were over the age of 65," I had originally picked Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking, because I've never read any Didion.

Well, that was a year ago that I made that selection, and at this point, I'm really not in the mood for some deep, depressing literature. So a quick browse through my library's eBook offerings led me to something shorter and sweeter—Nora Ephron's humorous observations on aging, I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections.

Knowing that Ephron passed away just a couple years after this was published, this series of essays and comedic ponderings feels almost like her final reflections on the meaningful moments and serendipitous situations of her life. She talks about her early career and entry into journalism in an era during which women were relegated to lower, menial job titles for no reason other than blatant sexism and gender inequality. She jokes about her constant battles with technology, despite penning a rather successful screenplay based on just that [though funnily enough, though, her recent encounters with technology seem to be stuck in the You've Got Mail era of internet communication]. She discusses the satisfaction of professional success and the heartbreak attached to flops. 

Obviously, Ephron is an engaging, enjoyable, observant writer. This collection, though humorous, certainly has a bit of melancholy tagging alongside. Sure, she shares lots of funny anecdotes and on-point observations that inspire that chuckle of agreement, but what she's really speaking to is the act of GETTING OLD. And that's not without some small level of sadness, be it because of fear or unfulfillment or whatever. But what I think Ephron is trying to do here with this book, as with all her works, is bring a lightness to a disagreeable idea, to trigger a realization that this experience is universal, to make molehills out of the mountain of Aging.

I didn't love this. Some bits seemed more worthy of a recollection over drinks with a friend than an essay published to the masses. And I'll probably forget most of what she said by this time next month. But then again, Ephron is writing plainly, jovially here about life experiences, ones that I don't currently have but that many do. If this connects with the right reader, and brings a little humor to a daunting concept, then I guess it has served its purpose.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 10

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Title: Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History...and Our Future!
Author: Kate Schatz
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography
Read If You Like...: Reading about famous people, short spurts of learning, feminism
Three-Sentence Thoughts: A work like Rad American Women—one that celebrates the achievements of a diverse array of women—is totally needed in the realm of literature for young people. Each page spread includes a pop-art-esque illustration of a celebrated woman and a one-page, quick-summary bio that gives just a teaser of said important figure. To me, the content amounts to little more than what an entry-level researcher could quickly compile from a browse through Google, and though I was left with the feeling that way more could be said, perhaps this is the only way a middle schooler will willingly connect with this information to hopefully inspire further independent reading.

Title: The City of Ember
Author: Jeanne DuPrau
Genre: Dystopian
Read If You Like...: Boy-girl adventure duos, stories with mysterious circumstances, realistic yet improbable worlds
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Ember is a city created hundreds of years ago by a group of people called the Builders, meant to keep its people safe and living for the rest of time, but now the electricity is getting unreliable and food is running out. Lina and Doon stumble upon pieces of a very old document from the days of the Builders, and, as they start to unravel the mystery of Ember, they begin to wonder if they've found the answer that will save them all. This is a great dystopian story that is still packed with adventure and lacks much of the heaviness and despair usually found in YA dystopian novels. (The first in a series of four.)

Title: Sunny Side Up
Author: Jennifer L. Holm, Matthew Holm
Genre: Realistic, Graphic Novel
Read If You Like...: Fun, cartoonish illustrations; realistic stories on everyday issues; books by Raina Telgemeier
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Ten-year-old Sunny is sent to Florida for the summer to live with her grandfather in his retirement community—a vacation she envisioned very differently (more beach and Disney, fewer golf carts and fake teeth). Things look up when she meets another kid her age, Buzz, and many adventures ensue, but Sunny's still wondering why she was sent down to Florida in the first place. With bubbly and bright artwork, the Holm team has created an appealing story about everyday adventures that manages to broach more serious family issues in a manner that is accessible, and still enjoyable, to a younger middle school audience.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Fiction | A Thousand Acres of Tragedy

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To be honest, there have been several daunting categories in the Read Harder Challenge. I don't do self-help; romance is meh; poetry is torture. The "retelling of a classic" has been one that does NOT excite me, because, you know, if it's a classic, it means I've probably already heard it! One of the "classic" options listed was Shakespeare, and I think that's the worst. Me and Shakespeare have had a long battle of misunderstanding and boredom since high school, and also those stories have been told a thousand times before!

To try and counter-act the negative stigma I'd attached to this category, I decided to pick a story I didn't already know well. I decided on Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, which is essentially a retelling of King Lear. Set in an Iowa farm community in the 1970s, Smiley's 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner tells the story of a retiring farmer who bequeaths his prosperous land to his three daughters. Ginny and Rose, the two elder daughters, live on the land with their husbands and have spent their lives dedicated to the family and farm. However, the youngest, Caroline, lives as a lawyer in Des Moines and expresses little interest in her father's plan. It seems like such a simple response—Caroline's disinterest in a lifestyle she doesn't live—but their father sees it differently. Overwhelmed by this rejection, he cuts Caroline off entirely, and Ginny and Rose are left to suffer in the wake of his anger.

The last few weeks had shown well enough for anyone to understand that the one thing our family couldn't tolerate, that maybe no family could tolerate, was things coming into the open.

This story sounds simplistically melodramatic at its core, to the point where I didn't expect much depth or surprise beyond a predictably emotional plot. What Smiley manages to do, though, (and maybe this follows the pattern of King Lear—I don't know; I haven't read it) is create turmoil through the narrator. We hear the story from Ginny's perspective, the eldest daughter who seems the most reliable, the most responsible. As the story progresses, though, Ginny seems to fall apart at the seams. There is no big climactic episode that shifts the story, no turning point after which things will never be the same. Instead, there are many mini-episodes—conversations & situations, jealousies realized & memories unearthed—that slowly change Ginny into someone different than the woman we thought we knew at the beginning.

Though her voice, as narrator, never devolves into the emotional chaos of her character, we begin to distrust Ginny's grasp on reality as she loses stability. The same cannot be said of the plot, which seems to mirror Ginny's spiral into turmoil. The scenarios become heavy—adultery! abuse! murder!—but the narration maintains its even keel. It's almost disorienting, leading us forward with an inkling of disbelief: is this really happening?

"If Daddy got to them and hurt them in any way I would help them learn about evil and retribution. If he doesn't, then they can have the luxury of learning about mercy and benefits of the doubt."

I found this story exciting, as I was constantly calling into question who I liked and trusted. It's an odd and rare reading experience to suddenly turn against your trusted narrator. In addition, Smiley truly writes beautifully, with words that put the simplest of thoughts or feelings into a much bigger picture, calling much more into question. Though lacking the bombastic histrionics of Empire (TV's popular interpretation of King Lear), A Thousand Acres is an amazingly nuanced "retelling of a classic" that is worth reading.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Reading Roundup: YA Edition

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The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason is the first in the Stoker & Holmes mystery series—a genre I constantly try to refresh in my library! Evaline Stoker and Mina Holmes carry famous names, and being sister to the famous Bram Stoker and niece to the infamous Sherlock Holmes often puts them in rather bizarre situations. When two high society girls go missing, Evaline and Mina find themselves entangled in the investigation. Total opposites at the core (Mina's the brain, Evaline the brawn), the two must work together, despite their differences, as they've been tasked with this case that may end up being their downfall.

The setup for this story is great. You've got two well-known literary figures, and the author took a creative turn with a pop culture establishment. Further, it's not just your basic Victorian mystery; it's Victorian steampunk, with a hint of mysticism. The execution, though, wasn't as strong. Our main characters are quickly defined, but there is little further development. The plot is so-so with an unnecessary romance that is forced from the very beginning. These "heroines" exhibit their flaws—I'll pass it off as inexperience in this, their first adventure together—but I would like to have seen more growth and empowerment as young women in these roles. Perhaps that will happen in future titles. Definite potential.

Isabel's War by Lila Perl is historical fiction set in New York during World War II. Isabel is a Jewish girl living in the Bronx that loves French class and is more focused on boys and clothes than the war happening across the ocean. Things change, though, when a friend of the family from Germany, Helga, comes to stay with Isabel's family. Just a couple years older, Helga has lived a vastly different life than Isabel's sheltered one in New York. As Isabel learns more about Helga's life as a Jew in Nazi Germany, she begins to realize that her lucky fate as a New Yorker is the only thing protecting her from the fear and hardship Helga has suffered.

Though less well-known, Isabel's War is a great novel for young readers about this era in history. Isabel is your typical self-centered preteen, in the way natural to all young'uns who lack an awareness and understanding of events and lives outside of theirs. This perspective of hers is an important one for readers to know, and the book does a good job of establishing the significance of the war even though it felt distant to a person in Isabel's position. Hopefully, by the end, the reader will grow awareness, as Isabel did. The story itself also had enough of a "mystery" to keep the reader wanting to know more about Helga and her past. A fast read, but a pretty good one.

Sophie Kinsella's YA debut, Finding Audrey, tells the story of 14-year-old Audrey who's used to living her life in fear. It stems from a bullying-related incident at school (one about which we never actually get all the details), and she's been pretty much debilitated by a severe anxiety disorder ever since. I'm talking pulled out of school, unable to go outside, forever hiding behind a pair of over-sized sunglasses. She's been working with a therapist named Dr. Sarah, making the "two steps forward-one step back" kind of progress, and her family has been super supportive—when mom, dad, and brother aren't embattled in their never-ending duel of short tempers and snark, that is. Amidst the sometimes-chaos at home, Audrey meets Linus, her brother's gaming partner and the first person that has some success with (inadvertently) coaxing Audrey out from behind the shades.

I think my experience with this book would've been different had I not been reading it as one of the Battle of the Books titles for my middle school students. First off, the author is British (you know her from Shopaholic), so naturally the dialogue and humor follow. My inner-city, American middle schoolers do not get the references, slang, etc. So thinking of them reading, I was kinda like, "Oof, that's lost on them." Secondly, there is language! And it's used very casually, whereas we'd definitely write referrals for kids speaking similarly! There's a very gray line of "appropriateness" for middle school libraries, and I was a little concerned "endorsing" this by way of it being an official read for an event sponsored by my district/public library.

But all of that is to say I think this is definitely a YA novel. I'm glad to read a story about a condition and experience that is common but often "taboo," for whatever reason, to discuss openly. I think it's important to address disorders, like anxiety, more often so that any stigma surrounding them, whatever "they" may be, decreases and eventually disappears. Loads of people suffer anxiety; I had my own lapse of attacks late in college. They are not fun. But reading about it definitely helped. Important book, especially for the right reader.