Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bitter End

After the stomach-splitting laugh fest of my previous read, this was a complete 180 in terms of subject matter.  Once again, Jennifer Brown takes a touchy subject and makes it completely accessible to any reader.  According to Brown's acknowledgments at the end, her psychology classes in college were a jumping off point for this book.  That experience certainly played a big role in the accuracy of the relationship elements of the book and the acknowledgments also include her teenage daughter for things like accuracy for how teenagers talk, but I suspect that Brown has not forgotten what it's like to be a teenager.  This is one of the most valuable tools a YA writer can have.  Now to the meat...

Alex doesn't remember the night her mother left but she knows the story: looking for "answers," her mother left suddenly with the goal of getting to Colorado, but she was drunk and didn't make it out of town before she wrapped herself around a light pole.  Alex and her sisters slowly grew apart and their dad became a ghost.  Fortunately for Alex, she has two of the best friends a girl could ever ask for in Bethany and Zach.  They have stood by Alex every time the lack of a mother has come up and always loved her.  For years they've been planning a trip to Colorado after they graduate high school.  Now in their senior year, Alex's dream of trying to learn some more about the mother she doesn't remember is starting to become a reality.

Enter Cole Cozen.  Cole is a transfer and causing quite a little stir among the the coaches and many of the girls.  Alex is paired with Cole to tutor him so he's eligible for the sports he wants to play.  Alex falls hard for Cole's romantic gestures and good looks.  Unfortunately, she also learns all too quickly just how hard Cole can be.  Cole is jealous of Alex's relationship with Bethany and Zack (particularly Zack).  His emotional manipulation of her soon turns into physical rage.  Commonalities in their family dynamics helps Alex make excuses for Cole's abuse.  She feels ashamed that she can't seem to predict Cole's mood swings.  She also doesn't want to be "the abused girl" and have people judge her for not being able to stand up to Cole.  While the physical abuse isn't on a daily basis, Cole's mistreatment continues even when Alex almost completely cuts off Bethany and Zack.  However, one day while Alex is working a former girlfriend of Cole's confronts Alex and warns her.  Realizing how dangerous Cole could be and that she can't fix him, Alex resolves to break things off with Cole.  But, Alex is too late...Cole is waiting for her outside of her work and he had been watching Alex.  The beating that follows is pain that Alex has never known; but before Cole can beat her senseless, her manager intervenes.  Starting with a stay in the hospital, Alex begins the long road to healing physically, emotionally, mentally, and eventually to Colorado. 

Knowing the general ending of the book (it's in most of the summaries you'll find) made starting the book kind of hard.  Despite that, I found myself rooting for Alex and Cole at the beginning of their relationship when Cole was nothing but sweet.  Reading it was fulfilling, gut wrenching, and emotionally exhausting.  Really though, isn't that a hallmark of great writing?  Just like with Hate List, this is a book is one that everyone should read to broaden their perspective of the world. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Beauty Queens

Even though it took me eons to get through my last Libba Bray book Beauty Queens, was a breeze!  While there was a massive layer of social commentary, the complete lack (at least to me) of the metaphysical was a big plus.

It's been a while since I made a good check list so let's list some of the best things about this book:
  • beauty queens (obviously) - some kinda dippy, some kinda witty, some that'll knock you on your butt
  • a bona fide Sarah Palin character
  • an unhinged, Elvis-obsessed dictator (no that's not the Sarah Palin character) whose top adviser is a stuffed lemur named General Good Times
  • secret plots & secret compounds
  • hilarious footnotes
  • PIRATES: swaggering, sweet-talking, British pirates!!!!*
  • the cover, which is pure genius
  • Libba Bray's writing (it kinda has a life of its own)

On their way to a preliminary part of the Miss Teen Dream Beauty Pageant, the contestants crash on a deserted island in the Caribbean.  With only half of the contestants and none of the camera or flight crews surviving, the girls must fend for themselves.  Some of these girls have been in the pageant system for a long time and it takes them a couple of days to realized that if they want to eat anything other than a few tiny bags of pretzels they will have to work as a group for real.  Strong and distinct personalities emerge, secret hopes and fears are spoken out loud for the first time, leg hair grows out and then....pirates show up...really, really good-looking ones.  What neither the girls or the pirates know is that the island isn't actually deserted.  The Corporation, which manufactures practically every product in the United States, produces all the TV shows, and sponsors the Miss Teen Dream Beauty Pageant has a "rogue," power hungry stockholder who is scheming to secure the highest position of power - President.  The plan includes a double-crossing weapons deal with a Kim Jong Il-like dictator of a small country.

To quote Sarah Jessica Parker's character in the movie Hocus Pocus, "Amok, amok, amok, amok!"   That's how things go once the pirates and the girls discover the secret that the island holds.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Libba Bray book if there wasn't a healthy dose of romantic action and at least one GLBT character.  No one turns into a tree in this book though.

As a side note, this was the first book I read on my Nook Color.  I was a bit apprehensive at first because of the footnotes, but there was nothing to fear - it worked just fine.  The footnote numbers in the main body of text jumped to the end of the chapter and then I could hit the number by the note itself and I went right back to the storyline. 

* Who the heck needs vampires when you have pirates?  Pirates are welcome any time at my blog. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

And now for something completely different...

In a Missouri newspaper article on July 26th, it was reported that a school had voted to remove two books from its library's shelves and keep one after a complaint was filed about the three books. The book that was kept: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.  The books that were removed: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler.  Horray for Speak!  Horray for...wait, what?!?!  Twenty Boy Summer was banned?  Seriously?!?!

I haven't read Slaughterhouse Five, but I know enough about it to understand why it ruffles feathers, but it's considered a classic now for heavens sake.  However, I have read Twenty Boy Summer (TBS from now on) and it was fantastic, and nothing like how it’s being portrayed by the folks who opposed it.  It’s about dealing with loss and the strain that tragedy can put on relationships.  It’s realistic in its portrayal of how some people don’t handle grief well, how they make mistakes when they try to just make it go away.

Frankie is outgoing and spunky, but when her brother Matt dies suddenly she doesn't deal with it so well.  Her best friend Anna has always been the more quiet of the two.  Anna and Matt had been in love but because they’d all been friends for years they hadn’t told Frankie yet, so Anna keeps her loss to herself.  When Frankie asks Anna to come with their family on a summer vacation on the California coast a year later, Frankie tries to drown her sorrow in boys.  Anna has a hard time emotionally joining Frankie in the flirt-fest because she’s still not over Matt (and she still hasn’t told Frankie).  Even when Anna meets someone new she can’t help but feel that she’s betraying Matt’s memory.  When the truth does come out about Anna and Matt’s relationship, the friendship between girls is almost broken.  Frankie feels betrayed that she was never told and Anna feels that Frankie is insensitive to her own sorrow over Matt.  However, it does end up being the turning point that they both needed to start healing. 

It’s beautifully written and deeply touching.  I cried, multiple times, particularly hard when Frankie screams a torrent of grief at the ocean.  After reading the article several times and mulling this over for half of today, this is how I interpret the explanations of why Speak was kept and TBS was not.  In Speak the main character is a victim, but in TBS the main characters are responsible for their own actions.  It doesn't matter why they did what they did or that Frankie in particular ends up regretting how she acted or that TEENAGERS DO STUPID THINGS OUT OF GRIEF TOO (and definitely more than most adults want to acknowledge), many adults who will read TBS will only see the parts that they label "inappropriate" and completely ignore the part where the characters actually learn something and start to change.  

I could go on and rant about how there's not one thing in the article to indicate that the man who put forth the complaint is a parent of a teenager at this school.  I could rant about how ridiculous it is that TBS was removed from the curriculum, which means it was probably just on a suggested reading list because can anyone imagine asking a high school guy to read and discuss this book? (insert crickets sound here).  But I won't because Sarah Ockler has actually just won something: a place in the group of other fine authors whose work has been banned because it challenges people to see the world around them differently.  And that, my fellow YAngleists, is one heck of an awesome group to be a part of.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Relic Hunters: Grey Griffins, The Clockwork Chronicles Book 2

My first book review on this blog, was for the first book in this series.  While there were a few flaws I gave it an okay review.  I can't say I'll be as kind to the second in the series.  I feel so bad for you co-authors Derek Benz and J.S. Lewis - you were so close...but yet so far away. 

The Grey Griffins - Max, Harley, Natalia, and Ernie - are still in their first year of school at Iron Bridge and still fighting Otto Von Strife (the Clockwork King), even though he's really not around.  Now he's trying to make something called a paragon engine that will create a portal to the Shadowlands and might allow him to time travel.

The Griffins aren't really around any more either, in a manner of speaking.  Ernie, still distraught over his friend and fellow changeling Robert's death, is spending more and more time with the other changelings.  They have decided to take on the people who steal changelings in acts of vigilante justice.  Natalia is making friends with other girls and Harley is spending more time in Monti's workshop, which leaves Max feeling very lonely.

Once school resumes after winter break they all end up in a class together taught by Obidiah Strange.  They're going to train to be "relic hunters," which seems to be the fancy pants Templar word for archeologist/treasure hunter.  So they go to classes and they study but they never seem to actually do any homework.  Monti starts looking ill but keeps working. They keep up the Round Table tournament to determine who will be on the school team, but instead of it feeling thrilling, it feels like a gimmick.  Schrodinger also comes into the story because there's a Schrodinger box the Relic Hunters have to find and keep away from Von Strife.  

In the end, not much of substance has actually happened in the story but there's a cliffhanger that sets up the next book.  The characters are incredibly shallow in that you never really feel connected with any of them.  Instead of being characters, they feel like gimmicks - especially Natalia.  There's more steampunk descriptions and faerie lore thrown in but they fall flat.  I really think the book is trying to be a steampunk Harry Potter but it doesn't work. 

The Honor Tree

Normally I do not review picture books on this blog because YA books are typically more complex and need more thorough reviews.  It's easy to sit down and read through a picture book and usually the reviews you will find of them tell you everything you need to know.  Professionally, I feel reviewing YA books is needed more.

However, this is too bad to not review.  That's right, too bad.  I received my copy of this book from the author, Ava McAllister,  herself.  Warning signals started going off in my head the moment I looked at the cover.  The story is about a young Native American boy named Indigo who is supposed to find honor one day so he can plant his honor tree.  Going about his day and searching for some honor, he encounters different people from his village and helps them out in various ways.  That afternoon he goes back to his village to prepare for the ceremony but he's disappointed because he couldn't find any honor.  His father gives him a little pep talk about all the kind things he did for people that day and how that is true honor.  So Indigo feels better and plants his tree.

I'll address my issues with the author and the book in an orderly fashion.  
  1. According to the back of the book, Ms. McAllister's degrees are in the biological sciences and her career is in the healthcare industry.
  2. Ms. McAllister is from Connecticut, but she makes no mention of working with or consulting any of the Native American tribes from her area or any other area.  Nor is there any indication that Ms. McAllister is Native American herself.
  3. Although I did not do extensive research, nowhere can I find any evidence of any North American Native cultures having an "honor tree."  If any Native American person out there reads this and knows otherwise, I will most humbly apologize and believe you. 
  4. Using the Oyate Criteria for Evaluating Books, my own knowledge of Lakota culture (which isn't extensive but I take it very seriously), and other random knowledge of mine here are my cultural issues with the book: 
  • The main character is named Indigo
  • Another village boy is named Shiloh, which is a Hebrew word
  • A hunter named is Tomahawk
  • The text says Tomahawk is testing a crossbow when Indigo comes across him.  My husband bow hunts so I know enough about bows to know that the bow pictured in the book is not a crossbow, a long bow, or a compound bow - it's a recurve bow.  I also have not found any evidence that Native American historically used crossbows. The Inuit people did use them for hunting. However, not until enslaved Africans were brought to North America did crossbow technology develop in the area now called the continental U.S.
  • Indigo's father is named Riverwolf
  • Indigo encounters a medicine woman, which is Plains Indian culture and the story is clearly set on the East Coast (like say, in Connecticut) 
  • Indigo has two eagle feathers in his hair at his ceremony.  Traditionally in various Native American cultures, eagle feathers were given to an individual for great acts of heroism including (but definitely not limited to) a brave act in battle, saving a life/lives, etc.  It is highly unlikely that a boy of Indigo's age would have one feather let alone two.        
  • The illustrations of people are very generic and other than coloring, they don't really look like Native Americans. 
 So I urge you, no matter what the message of this book is, don't purchase it - there are better ones out there.

Creature of the Night

I will also be book talking this title at the SDLA Annual Conference for YARP/SD Teen Choice Book Award High School List.  So this review will also be short.

While sometimes the story seemed unbelievable (and not because there's a faerie/supernatural element in the book), it was very creepy.  Creepy enough to make me regret reading it in the dark.  Thanks Kate Thompson.

Set partially in Dublin but mostly in County Clare, Ireland (on the west coast), the story follows fourteen-year-old Bobby who got in too much trouble with his gang of friends in the city.  Wanting a change, his young mother moves Bobby, his younger brother Dennis, and herself to the country.  But the tiny, run-down cottage they rent comes with baggage - literally and figuratively.  Bobby is desperate to get back to the city and will try any means necessary to do so.  But being 14, jobless, and poor limits his options.  The mysterious and sudden disappearance of the former tenant adds to the tension of the story as Bobby struggles to decide where he belongs and who is really is - a hard-working boy with a bright future or a trouble-maker bound for prison or worse.

And again, since there's already more detailed information about it at the link above and because it'll ruin the book talk, I'm not going to say anything else.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Reinvention of Moxie Roosevelt

This is going to be a shorter than normal review.  Now before ya'll go all bug-eyed on me and start complaining, let me tell you why.  I read this book because it's on the 2012 YARP/South Dakota Teen Choice Book Award list for middle school.  I will be book talking this at the South Dakota Library Association's annual conference in Spearfish this fall.  So, I kinda want things to be a surprise.

I will say that while some parts were kinda unbelievable, the story was still really cute and funny.  Elizabeth Cody Kimmel remembers what its like to be a young teen girl trying to figure out just who she is.  And so what if some times I thought to myself "no high school freshman would think this maturely without major parental intervention or a brain transplant"?  Some times its good to have these books so that teen girls can help themselves find words to put with their crazy, hormonal, and irrational feelings.

But if you're really jonesing for some more information on it, the annotated list for all the YARP books can be found right here!  If you want more information, well you're just going to have to come to conference! 

Hidden Roots by Joseph Bruchac

I read this book in the late winter/early spring but I'm just now posting a review of it for a reason.  I work with a group called the Baltimore Dakota Learning Camps, more specifically with the Hau Kola Teen Camp in Oglala. This was my third consecutive year to work with the Teen Camp, and my 7th year overall.  My role is two fold: to lead a book discussion with all the teens and to help those teens who decide to work with the leadership group to design a puppet show/play for subsequent elementary and/or preschool camps.  For this year's camp I chose this book for discussion.  Because we only have 4 days with the group and we are never sure who all is going to come until they actually arrive at the building, the teens don't get the books ahead of time to read.  My charge is to select sections that can be read aloud in the time allotted and come up with discussion & journaling questions that are challenging, culturally sensitive, and age-appropriate.  As a non-Native person, this is something I take very seriously.

Obviously, I would not have chosen this book if I didn't think it wasn't appropriate or a "good" book.  While the book is set in rural, upstate New York in the 1950s and the protagonist is a young teen, the issues that the book addresses are still relevant today, particularly with the teens that the camp works with: prejudice, personal identity, cultural identity, physical abuse, and the importance of family.  I'll admit, when it came time to create a book discussion guide I tried the easiest way first - looking up other ones online and culling questions from those.  Unfortunately, the only two I could find were obviously aimed at non-Native adults.  So I forged ahead and wrote my own.

The good news is that the feedback I received from the other staff members was overwhelmingly positive - the read aloud selections were spot on, the discussion questions were great, and the journaling questions resulted in some deep sharing from the teens.  As this was the first book discussion guide I have ever written all on my own from scratch, this made me feel very accomplished both professionally and personally.  I've posted the discussion guide here.  It's going to make the post really long but I can't attach it as its own document.  It is free to all and anyone can adjust it to meet their own needs.  However, if you do use it, I would like to know about it so I can report this professionally.     

*Note: Because this book is frequently out-of-print, the copy that I obtained might not be the same copy you have.  Thus, the page numbers may not align completely. 

Hau Kola Teen Camp 2011
Book Discussion Read Aloud Sections & Possible Discussion Questions

Three main themes to focus on:
·       the respect & reverence shown to nature & the environment
·       domestic violence/child abuse
·       the power of family & forgiveness

Read aloud p. 3-8 (top half)
Q: On page 4 Howard says “I’d been taught that it was not good to sleep too heavily. Otherwise you might get crept up on.”  What do you think this means for Howard?

Follow-up or other prompts:
Do you think Howard is afraid of something and that’s why he sleeps light?  If yes, then what?    
What other things in this section tell you that there’s something wrong?

Q: A boy at school tries to start a fight with Howard.  Why did that boy do that?

Q: Howard knows that the other kids want to see a fight but decides he doesn’t want to “give them that satisfaction.” (pg.6)  Why do you think Howard didn’t want to fight – what does he mean by not wanting to give them that satisfaction?  

Journaling questions:
·        Have you ever gotten in a fight or have you ever walked away from one?  Why or why not?
·        Is it wrong to fight?  Why or why not?
·        Howard knows his mother, Martha, is different from the other mothers at school.  His mother tells him (pg.8) that other mothers may not have lived through “the no-matter-what” like she has.  What does “no-matter-what” mean to you? 

Read aloud p. 12 – 14
Q: Howard’s father, Jake, tries to make him scared of the big paper mill machines so he’ll learn something.  What do you think Jake is trying to teach him?

Journaling questions:
On page 14 Howard makes himself three promises, “I will never as long as I live work in the mill.  I won’t be one of those turning what’s wild and free into napkins and toilet paper.  I will never be as angry as my father.”
·        What kind of promises like this have you made to yourself – to not be like somebody else or do what someone else has done?
·        These are kind of like small goals for your life – what goals do you have for your life?

Read aloud p. 19-25
Q: Howard’s father feels that people look at him “funny” because he didn’t serve in the war like he was supposed to.  What do you think “funny” means?

Q: Would you say Jake is bitter? 

Journaling questions:
·        Why is Howard’s father angry and sometimes abusive? 
·        Does he have a good reason to be angry and sometimes abusive?
·        “The mind that was twisted by anger or grief or shame, can be made straight again.”  Do you think people that are as bitter as Jake can change?

Read aloud p. 31-35, 55-59
Q: Both of these sections, particularly the second one, relate some very heavy prejudice.  This was a common way of thinking in the 1950s & 60s.  Do you think this prejudice still exists today?  If so, what can any of us do to get rid of this way of thinking?

Read aloud p. 61-66
Q: Who do you think Uncle Louis really is, not what his relationship to Howard is, but his heritage?  (He’s Native – Abenaki) Why do you think Uncle Louis asks Howard to come along to greet the morning? 

Q: On page 66 Howard asks if it’s okay to be “acting like Indians” and Uncle Louis says yes, as long as no one sees them.  Why do you think they have to do this in secret?

Journaling questions: When Howard goes back to school in the fall he decides it’s better if he goes unnoticed.  He doesn’t think he’s good looking, smart, or good at sports like other people in his class.  He says on p. 67, “I didn’t try that hard and hung back as much as I could.  It would have been worse to try real hard and make yourself noticed and then fail rather than just doing things halfheartedly or staying the background.” 

·        Have you ever felt this way?  If so, why?
·        What makes you want to try hard and do your best?
·        What things are you good at?  What things feel like they come naturally to you – sports, reading, writing, drawing, computers?

Summarize from page 66-109:
·        Howard starts to grow physically and turns out to be pretty good naturally in basketball.  He’s able to make some friends with the boys at school. 
·        Howard discovers the school library, which has a new librarian.  She helps Howard find some books that he really enjoys.
·        Winter comes and brings a chance for Howard to make some money with a friend by shoveling driveways and sidewalks for people in town.
·        Howard’s father finally becomes a hero by saving a new guy at the paper mill from getting pulled into one of the big machines, but he loses a couple fingers in the process.
·        Since Jake can’t work for a while, Uncle Louis continues to help out the family by Jake’s deer tags and doing occasional chores around their house. 
·        Mrs. Rosen, the school librarian tells Howard a little bit about her family history – that her parents were Jewish and sent her to the U.S. to escape Nazi Germany.

Have a staff member read p. 109 – 112, camper(s) pick up, read aloud p. 112- 119
Uncle Louis turns out to really be Howard’s grandfather, and relates the importance of family when he says (on p. 116), “Roots is what helps a tree to stand up against the wind. Your family is always your family.” 
Q: Who are your “root” family members?  Who helps you stay strong when times are tough? 

Summarize: Louis and his wife Sophie lived in Vermont when a law was passed granting doctors the ability to make decisions about who should not be allowed to have children any more.  Often the doctors would have free clinic visits to where Abenaki people lived, using this as a disguised opportunity to select people for operations.  Realizing that something was wrong with Sophie after one of these visits, Louis broke into a clinic and stole the medical records.  They figured out what had been done to Sophie but it was too late and there was a law. Sophie never recovered from the surgery and eventually died. 

Read aloud p. 126-129
Q: What words stand out to you in this final passage?  Why? 

Brief discussion on eugenics if time allows?    

Journaling questions:
·        What would you like to do to learn more about your roots?
·        What can you do to celebrate your heritage and culture?
·        Looking back at everything that Howard learns about himself – he’s good at basketball, he like to read, he’s a hard worker, he’s Abenaki – WHO ARE YOU?