Posts tagged ‘young adult’

May 11, 2013

it’s not easy to get out of the Easy

outoftheeasyHere’s the first sentence.

My mother’s a prostitute.

Not how your average YA book begins. But keep reading. Here’s the rest of the paragraph:

Not the filthy, streetwalking kind. She’s actually quite pretty, fairly well-spoken, and has lovely clothes. But she sleeps with men for money or gifts, and according to the dictionary, that makes her a prostitute.

Don’t you love that voice? That character? And don’t you want to read more? I did. Thus begins the story of Josie, a seventeen-year-old protagonist with one very strong desire: to leave behind everything she knows and get out of New Orleans. Or as the title says it, “Out of the Easy”.

I loved this book. It had everything I want: fast-moving plot, lots of action and drama, strong characters with strong desires, and great writing. Some of the great characters include Josie, the main character who cleans the brothel and works in a bookstore, her two guy friends (the bookish one and the cool one), her mother (a tragic and not very nice character), the colorful madam of the house who looks after Josie, and many, many others who come in and out and fill beautiful and dark roles.

Despite the setting, and the opening lines, this book is pretty PG-rated. We are talking some mild kisses and one almost-groping scene…lightyears away from Twilight, for example. I know there are some people who will say “what’s a prostitute doing in a YA book”? But those people probably haven’t read YA in about 50 years, and they likely don’t know many teens.

Most teens will relate to this character’s desire to get away from anything and everything they’ve always known. Of course, most teens do this in more of a figurative sense–with behavior (and a lot of “whatever”s). But the idea is the same, the pull to be in charge of their own life, to set out and make their mark. Another way to say it comes from David Copperfield, in a line oft-quoted in this book: “Whether I turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Reading this book with your kid would be a great foray into those questions. You might not be able to directly ask your teen what they want to change in their lives (but if you are, awesome!). But you could start with a hypothetical. If they could get in that car with Josie and drive anywhere they wanted, where would they go? What would they want to do when they got there? And go back to that quote from David Copperfield. If they learn it as the quote from Out of the Easy, so be it. It’s something every teen should think about, and this book will make them do just that.

outoftheeasyTitle: Out of the Easy
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Age: 12 and up
Genre: Historical Fiction

April 10, 2013

Fast-paced mythological fun

Rick Riordan, author of the mega-smash hit series about Percy Jackson and the Olympians, almost makes my days in the Junior Classical League cool again. (In case you missed JCL while you were off doing something more normal like cheerleading, it was a competition where you could recite Latin poems, play ancient-Roman-based trivia games, and wear togas.) I said almost, okay?

I’m into the Kane Chronicles right now, a trilogy that follows a brother and sister team as they try to learn their family’s ancient Egyptian magic and save their father. The books are told in the first person from both Carter’s (the nerdier, grew-up-homeschooled-and-on-the-run-with-archaeologist-dad, darker-skinned brother) and Sadie’s (the hipper, cooler, sometimes-braver and fairer-skinned sister) point of view. You can meet these kids here. And you can learn more about their family’s magic here. And if you really need to, you can play some Egyptian games here.

As always, I’d encourage you to read these with your kids! This one is an easy assignment, because you are going to love it and before you know it, you’ll be done and off looking for some more Riordan ancient civilization fun.

After you do, you can talk about one of the fun ideas in this book, a secret name. Everyone has one and knowing someone else’s gives you complete control over them. Sadie controls the God Set because she knows his secret name (Evil Day). Tere’s a great moment in the book where she needs to guess her brother Carter’s secret name, something she can do because she knows him so well. Why not discuss your secret names around the family dinner table? Or in a classroom? Kids could come up with names for themselves or friends, tapping into their best qualities or highest ambitions. What better way to get close to your child than to know their mythologically secret name?

serpents-shadowTitle: Kane Chronicles: The Red Pyramid, The Throne of Fire, The Serpent’s Shadow
Author:
Rick Riordan
Genre:
Fantasy
Age Group:
Middle School kids

This book would be great for:

- reluctant boy readers (it’s big, but fast-paced and action-packed)
– anyone into mythology or ancient Egypt
– anyone studying mythology in school
– readers looking for mixed-race main characters (I’ve had many parents ask about this before: their race is not an issue in the book, just a fact about them, which is nice)
– anyone who likes a LOT of action (sometimes I find myself needing to catch my breath!)

So, what is your secret name? And if you have this conversation with your kids, let me know how it goes! Or don’t, if it’s a secret…

November 24, 2012

You ain’t slick and I ain’t stupid

To quote a movie I cannot stand, this book had me at “hello” and held onto me all the way to goodbye. After a wonderful, family-filled, post-Thanksgiving day yesterday, complete with family, a workout, a walk in the snow, and an after-dinner movie, we joked about crashing the Michigan frat parties that were likely just starting up as we trodded off to bed, the hour still in the single digits. But if I’m not staying up for parties anymore (yeah, right, ’cause I used to all the time…) there is one thing that will keep my light on, and Like Sisters on the Homefront, a 1996 Coretta Scott King Honor Book by Rita Williams-Garcia, meant I didn’t turn it off until about one o’clock this morning.

Sisters grabs you from the first page, when Gayle’s mother, hearing the bathroom door too many times in a row, immediately knows something is up. And immediately knows what that something is. Gayle’s voice rings and sings through perfect prose as the defiant 14-year-old is dragged to an abortion clinic by her mother and then sent away from her beloved New York City to live with relatives down south. Gayle already has one child, a baby who comes with her on the journey, and is indeed with her every moment of the day. Gayle struggles mightily against her God-fearing, Jesus-worshipping family, but even as you know what’s coming, or think you know, this book will have you turning the pages quickly.

Whether you fall for Gayle immediately (like “Great” does, the family matriarch who lies dying in her bed and shares life-changing stories of the past with her) or whether it takes you some time to warm up to her (like her cousin “Cookie” who can belt out the Lord’s music like nobody’s music, might depend on who you are and where you’ve been. But that you will fall in love for her I have no doubt. True, this book deals with adult themes–a very young girl is a mother, and on top of that, she’s experiencing the pains of abortion throughout much of the story. But this isn’t pain for pain’s sake. This book feels real. You meet these characters so intimately, you will ultimately feel like your mother sent you down South to live with them. Some mothers might shy away from a book like this, but to the extent that it’s appropriate for me to do so, I would discourage that. This book is filled with positive messages, the good kind that are honest, learned the hard way, and rooted in a messy but caring family.

Title: Like Sisters on the Homefront
Author: Rita Williams-Garcia
Genre: Fiction
Age: 7th grade and up

If you read this book with your daughter, there are a lot of good conversations you could have at the end. (Hint: one of them does NOT start out with the phrase “and that’s why you shouldn’t have sex until you are 35!”) :) But Gayle has been using sex to get something she doesn’t have anywhere else. What is it? And why doesn’t she have it. Gayle talks about about the baby’s daddy and her latest boyfriend, but we don’t see them at all in the book. Why not? Ask your daughter about it. What is the difference between Gayle and Cookie when Cookie finally admits her own crush? And what happens that fateful night when Cookie rushes to the car? What is Cookie thinking and why does what happens next happen?

If you’re not ready for the romantic/sexual side of the conversation, this book has a lot more to offer about family and history. Why is everyone so keen to hear the “Telling” before Great passes away? What does it mean to know one’s own history and why does that matter? There’s a wonderful passage where Great tells Gayle she should never be angry at another African because they could be family, separated by slavery, time, and geography. Isn’t that something we could all learn?

The last line in this book is still whispering itself softly between my ears. The imagery of the scene is dancing in my mind, even after a good night’s sleep, even after a morning with my own family, who I appreciate through the lens of this newly-read book, resting on my brain, now a part of me.

As Gayle often says, she “ain’t stupid”. But that doesn’t mean she has nothing to learn.

And that’s why we read.

January 30, 2012

what if you had to die again and again? and again…

I don’t really have a good parenting story for this book because I have toddler boys instead of teenage girls (says a small prayer of thanks). Toddler boys have their issues, but high school popularity contests, alcohol, sex, and suicide are not among them. I realize that’s a lot of weighty issues, but don’t let them turn you away from this book. Its’s weighty, but not in a preachy way. And not in an over-the-top way. Just in a very real, very honest way. It’s a very good story with very good writing, which at the end of the day, is a great way to spend some time.

Title: Before I fall
Author:
 Lauren Oliver
Genre: Fiction
Age: High School or Upper Middle School (but the topics are definitely high school rated)

After not really liking the first chapter (I was thinking, is anyone really THIS shallow?), I got into the book until it had such a hold on me I couldn’t put it down even though the baby has been keeping me up and I really needed to sleep. Here’s my two cents, and I think this would be a GREAT book for any teenage girl and her mom to read together. Even if you are at the point in your relationship where this main character is and you don’t talk much, just the shared reading experience would be great. As a mom (or a dad!) you would be sending the message to your daughter, that yes, you are up for topics like this, that you are willing to read about them and even talk about them, that you were a teenager once, too.

(Although please do not ask your child to read it and then give them any high-road morality lectures about alcohol or driving or sex. Trust me, the book speaks for itself. That is the beauty of it. If you have a close relationship with your kid, treasure that and talk to them about the characters, their lives, and their decisions. Let your teen lead the way with the discussion. Don’t push it.)

This book is really well-written. Told from the point of view of a popular high school girl who dies in a car crash and has to relive her last day over and over, it’s a beautiful story about life and the way we live it. It’s a great story about the lessons we learn along the way, by one girl who learned those lessons way too late. I was a little worried it was going to be too predictable–she starts out so shallow and obviously she is going to learn, change. But it wasn’t like that at all. For one, she learns lessons in a really honest, believable way. For two, what seems so shallow at first is explained so well in later chapters that depth is added to her character and she becomes so alive. Which is only somewhat ironic, given that she’s dead.

I think teenage girls would really relate to this book, even if they’ve never stepped into the popular circle or touched a cup of beer to their lips. This book is about growing up. It’s about finding out what’s important. It’s about the changes we make on purpose and the ones we don’t realize we’ve made until they are already a part of us. It really makes you think about how you live your life. In a good way.

From a parent perspective, here are two of my favorite observations, which you could talk about (or not) with your kids:

For page references purposes, I had a library-bound hardcover.

Page 225: It’s the weirdest thing. I’m popular–really popular–but I don’t have that many friends. What’s even weirder is that it’s the first time I’ve noticed.

Page 194: Here’s one of the things I learned that morning: if you cross a line and nothing happens, the line loses meaning. It’s like that old riddle about a tree falling in a forest and whether it makes a sound if there’s no one around to hear it. / You keep drawing a line farther and farther away, crossing it every time. That’s how people end up stepping off the edge of the earth. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to bust out of orbit, to spin out to a place where no one can touch you.

That second passage is a really good reminder for parents. It can be so hard to draw that line–and once drawn, to keep its meaning. When I worked as a principal, I saw so many parents struggling with it. But it’s so important, and this is why. Kids WANT that line, they crave that line, even if they could never, ever express it for themselves. I used to tell parents that, and they wouldn’t always believe me.

I remember hearing an NPR interview a long time ago with a woman who had once worked as a dominatrix. I don’t remember what she had turned herself into that landed her later on NPR, as that was likely less interesting. But this is exactly what she was talking about. She said she never had any boundaries growing up. So she just kept pushing and pushing, looking for the walls. She tried alcohol, she tried drugs, she tried stripping, and she just kept going. Unfortunately, I never found a polite way to share that story with parents, but I wish I could have–if that didn’t make them give their kids some boundaries, I don’t know what would. This book, might, though.

August 18, 2011

high school is hard and here are THIRTEEN REASONS WHY

When I think about teasing in school, there are two incidents that come to mind immediately. The first one was 4th grade, when I got glasses. I was SO excited about my glasses and a girl called me “four-eyes”. She was my friend and I think she was just trying to tease me and say something funny. I took it as a compliment. My teacher took it as an insult, though, and talked to her about it. I thought that was ridiculous.

About two years later, I was in the middle school girls’ bathroom when two more girls came rushing in. One was in tears. Sobbing hysterically; I thought someone might have died. When I figured out what was wrong, though, it turned out that one of the boys had called her flat-chested–I forget the terminology he used, but he got the point across. I had no idea how to respond. I really, really, had no idea why she was upset. Because one of the boys said her boobs were small? Really?

That should give you a good picture of me. That’s the nerd I was in middle school (yeah, right, like I’ve changed…)  :), and let me tell you, there are a lot of advantages to traveling socially-unaware through middle and high school in between the cliques and the put-downs.

This book is about someone who wasn’t as lucky. This is about someone who travels right in the middle of the social circles, who tries hard to fit in and who gets trampled on again and again. This is about someone who couldn’t take it anymore. Specifically, it’s about a girl who kills herself and leaves behind a set of tapes explaining why.

Title: Thirteen Reasons Why
Author: Jay Asher
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Age:  Young Adult, 13 and up

Summary and Review:

Now, nothing is wrong. :) I’m not sure why I’m writing about two books about death right in a row (see my last post about the wonderful story each little bird that sings), but that’s just what I picked up recently. I’ve actually been avoiding this book for awhile now but saw it at a bookstore and decided it was time to read it. It sounds horribly depressing, but it isn’t. And even though the main character and one of the two narrator voices is actually dead (she killed herself before the book begins), it isn’t really about death. It’s more about high school and how we treat each other in high school.

The book is told from the point of view of a boy, one of the thirteen recipients of the tapes. He finds the tapes on his doorstep one day and starts listening. In horror, he realizes the voice he hears is of a girl he knew, a girl he was almost friends with, a girl he wished he had been closer to, narrating her experiences in high school as he walks along the paths she used to walk and visits the sites she used to visit.  He hears about the boy she kissed, the rumors about her that weren’t true, the way she was treated by her peers.

If you are at all interested in YA literature, you’ve heard of this book. It’s as good and as important a book as people say it is. It should be required reading for anyone who has anything to do with high school–especially the teachers who might not remember as acutely as the kids just how much the little stuff hurts.

I do wish I got to know the two main characters a little bit more, but I also liked that I could fill in some of the blanks about their personalities myself. And while I’ve heard others say that the girl who killed herself doesn’t leave a lot of room for sympathy, I disagree.  Yes, she is bitter. Yes, she sounds condescending. But I’m sorry–she’s a teenager, and a depressed, suicidal teenager at that. She’s not beyond blame–that isn’t the point of the story. She’s just the one that couldn’t handle it. The fact that you might not like her only adds to the story–the others didn’t like her much either, but they should have treated her with more respect. It’s a powerful page-turner, and I highly recommend it.

As a mother, I really liked the way the author brought the boys’ mother into the picture. He is clearly a good kid, and she trusts him, but she knows he is lying about what he is up to tonight and whether or not he is okay. But she gives him his space, she allows him to do what he needs to do–miss dinner, stay out late, and listen to the tapes–all without knowing what is going on. And he trusts her enough to ask her to bring him the tapes, even though he knows she will know something is wrong. The malt that he drinks at her suggestion meant so much to me, thinking about my own son in the future, going through a tough time, not able to tell me about it, but able to trust me enough to bring me into the picture for a bit, and to have a milkshake in my honor.

I think this book is an important read for all of us, whether we’ve been there or not. It’s great for high school students to understand the effects of their actions. It’s great for teachers and parents to understand the gravity of the situations their children might be facing–at times adults can trivialize the problems of youth–read this and you will never do that again.

April 28, 2011

On the darkest side of beautiful

Fairy tales were never meant to be pretty.  The original stories are a lot less about princesses in pink dresses than about evil mothers and vengeful fairies.  Briar Rose, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, would make the authors of those original dark stories proud.  It is a story about an average American family, an average girl, and the darkest part of the human heart.

Title: Briar Rose
Author: Jane Yolen
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fairy Tale
Age: Older, mature Middle School students and High Schoolers

Summary and Review:

Rebecca is a young reporter who has always been very close to the red-headed grandmother she resembles.  Ever since she was a little girl, she has loved listening to the story her grandmother tells again and again–the story of Briar Rose, or Sleeping Beauty.  Rebecca can recite her grandmother’s version by heart, but loves to hear it again and again anyway.  But the story is full of mysteries, and the most important one guides this book: why does Rebecca’s grandmother insist that she is Briar Rose?  That she is a princess from another land, that she is Sleeping Beauty?

Rebecca makes a promise to her grandmother as she is dying that she will discover the truth, that she will learn what her grandma means when she claims to be Sleeping Beauty.  And while her older sisters mock her, Rebecca sets off on a life-changing journey and learns the remarkable story in her family’s past.

The idea that drives this book and the history behind it is brilliant.  It’s an incredible reinterpretation of the story of Sleeping Beauty, and this comes beautifully to light in the first half of the book.  If I can quibble with the book (and I guess I can…), I would say that I was a little disappointed with the second half.  It seemed very disjointed from the first half–I would have loved if the two stories were more interwoven.  However, that being said, this is a beautifully conceived story.  (More info about the plot below the spoiler line.)

I also felt that the “mystery” she is trying to solve—that is, how exactly her grandmother could have been Sleeping Beauty—is fairly obvious from very early on in the book.  (And I NEVER solve anything in a book until the end—I am a VERY clueless reader!)  So I found it distressing that I predicted most of the events way ahead of the main character, who in comparison seemed completely clueless and out of it.  I guess I would have preferred if it was just presented less as a mystery, but that’s just my take.  However, just in case there are those out there that like to hang on to the mystery, I have left the rest of my review below a spoiler line, although I will by no means give everything away!

SPOILER — SPOILER — SPOILER — SPOILER

Rebecca’s journey takes her to Poland, where she finds the proof that her grandmother came to America near the end of World War II, not before the war as her family had been led to believe.  What happened to her grandmother during the war and the people she met along the way pose the setting and the characters for a dark and violent Sleeping Beauty story.

Parents might want to know that despite the happy and very G-rated first half of the book, the story definitely takes a turn that will require a more mature reader for the end.  The violence of the concentration camps and death camps is described in a lot of detail, including descriptions of inmates being forced to do things like roll in the cold snow, mentions of the gay inmates being asked to “try” themselves in brothels and be castrated if they “fail”, talk about babies being killed and people being stuffed into trucks with their children and gassed to death, among other descriptions of the horror that was the Holocaust.  There is also some mention of having sex (although no description of this).  Nothing is gratuitous and it’s all within the range of acceptable for a young adult reader, but parents and teachers might want to read the book along with their children to provide support.

February 7, 2011

The haunting song of the mockingjay

I was SO excited for this book.  I LOVED the first two in the series (Hunger Games and Catching Fire, in case you are either from another planet, or maybe don’t have a teenage daughter around), and pre-ordered this book from Amazon.  While I love Amazon and my free two-day shipping and access to almost all products cheaper, in general I try to buy my books from my local indie store.  But I wanted this one immediately.  Trouble is, Amazon didn’t send it immediately.  In fact, I ended up getting it about a month after it came out, by which time I was so upset about the whole thing I wasn’t really excited to read it anymore.  So it took me until now to open the coveted pages of one of the most anticipated books of the year.  There were parts that I really liked.  There were also parts that I hated.  I do think the trilogy as a whole is a brilliant piece of work, from deep character development to a great analysis of humanity and the worlds we create for ourselves.

I was excited to discuss my opinion of the book with someone, but when I logged on to my favorite discussion group, I was wholly disappointed to find all the chatter to be about Peeta versus Gale.  REALLY?  While the final decision, if it even was a decision, is symbolic of some of the book’s messages, it is not always about the boy.  Well, maybe in the case of Twilight, it was about the boy.  But these books are actually about something.  Hopefully, my discussions below will help you discover what.

The questions below are well-suited to the individual reader who just wants to sit and ponder for a minute, and would also make great discussion starters for a family that reads together, a book club, or a classroom of students with a teacher astute enough to assign something that is both so popular and powerful.  WARNING: from here on out, I assume you’ve read the book.  SPOILERS INCLUDED.

Title: Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Dystopia
Age Group: Middle Grade, Young Adults, and Millions of Adults!

Summary and Review (CONTAINS SPOILERS):

The rebellion is in full force now, but unfortunately we don’t see much of the action.  While I loved Katniss’s voice in the first two books, I felt strangely trapped inside of her head in this one.  I REALLY wanted out.  The first person became too much, as through the first half of the book, all she does is whine her way through the days.  She whines about Peeta.  She whines about Gale.  She whines about District 13 (and yet seems to strangely ignore all the weirdness and fascism that IS District 13).  She is SO uber-serious about her own thoughts and jumps on anyone who doesn’t read her mind and respect her immediately, and yet she is just as quick to put everyone else down.  It all got really tiring after awhile.  The worst part, though, is the beginning, where she is considering whether or not to be the symbolic “mockingjay” for the rebellion.  I wanted to kick her head in as she weighs the pros and cons behind something that really isn’t her decision–it’s just who she is.  Throughout the decision process, she plays the constant victim, and yet also wants our sympathy for being a hero at times–saving Peeta’s life, threatening to eat the berries.  Let’s face it, she’s been a rebel for awhile, even if if was unknowingly at first.  The fact that she couldn’t embrace that made me almost turn my support over to Coin.  I mean seriously.

Although, in Suzanne Collins’ defense, she is a teenage girl, and I DID feel trapped inside the mind of a teenage girl.  So maybe that’s what she was after.  But in general, I like my heroes to have SOME likable qualities…I mean anything that I can respect and relate to.  But maybe that wasn’t the point.

The other thing that really got to me was the amount of time spent describing the propaganda and the cameras.  I though the same point could be made without quite that many pages dedicated to make-up.  I get it–people are superficial!  I get it–war is about propoganda and lies just as much as bullets!  Enough already!

But here’s what I loved: I LOVED the ending.  I loved the message–that humans are evil, the world is evil, and it pretty much always will be!  When I was reading the first two books, I was wondering if it could end any other way, but I doubted the ability of a major book to end with such a honestly depressing theme.  But I shouldn’t have doubted Suzanne.  It’s not that I think the world is a horrible place.  But let’s face it.  The world is, at times and for many people, a horrible place.  Look at Egypt right now.  Look somewhere else tomorrow.  And to ignore that is to let it continue.  So that you, Suzanne, for not letting us ignore it.

Okay, maybe that’s enough of me, too.  I’m including below some of the questions I’ve been asking myself.  I would love to stand in front of a middle school English class and ask them.  Or ask them to a group of teenagers.  Or anyone else that’s read the book.  But my husband has not and my toddler has not.  So I’m asking you.  Please feel free to respond with comments!  I would love that!  And if not, please use these questions in your our family, your own book groups, or your own classrooms.  That would be cool, too!

Discussion Questions for Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay

1. Katniss mentions a few times in the beginning of the book her discomfort and unease with the totalitarian ways of District 13.  But she doesn’t seem to question them much and no one else does either.  It seems completely shocking to me to leave the control of the Capitol for something so controlling and not talk about it.  Why do you think it is?  Does no one notice?  Do they notice but not dare say anything because that’s what they are used to doing?  Is anything better than the Capitol?

2. Katniss seems unwilling to take control of her own life in the beginning of the book.  Why?  Is this a low point because of all she’s endured?  Or is she (like all of us perhaps) just a better person when things are going badly and turns back into her own narcissistic teenage self when life is more comfortable?

3. Think of specific scenes from the book.  We are seeing them only through Katniss’s eyes.  What would they look like through Gale’s or Haymitch’s?  How would this be a different story? (Because I believe it would be REALLY different.)

4. The message of the book was that humans suck, war sucks, violence sucks and humans will always default to war and be violent.  Do you agree or disagree?

5. Why, oh god why, did Katniss take so much time deciding whether or not to be the Mockingjay?  Personally, I wanted to shoot her.  I wonder how the story would have been different if she just assumed she would be and did it from the beginning.  I’m not sure I see the advantage in the many pages of anstsy decision-making.  But maybe you do?  Discuss.

6. The book focused a lot on propoganda.  A lot.  Why?

I’ve got more, but I’ll leave you with that for now.  If you have opinions, I’d love to discuss them with you!!  Or leave me your own to discuss.

:)

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January 14, 2011

Part-time identity

I’ve been meaning to read this book for some time, so I was excited when I was semi-forced to read it by two coincidental things.  One, I started my book challenge, and this counts as an “X” author.  And two, I was doing an article for a school magazine and interviewing a teacher about teaching this book, so it made sense to read it first.  It was great!  A really fast read–I was done in one night and a wonderful weekend afternoon while my husband played with our son.  The book covers a lot of issues, mostly about culture and American identity, what it means to be a native American in the modern world, and what it means to find yourself.  It’s a coming-of-age novel for a kid who thought he’d never come of age to be anything other than poor and drunk.

Title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Genre: Fiction
Age Group:
12 and up, Young Adult

Summary and Review:

Junior is growing up on an Indian reservation outside of Spokane, Washington.  It isn’t an easy life—he sees absolutely no hope for himself and no future for anyone he knows, other than to become poor and drunk.  He hangs out with his best friend Rowdy whose father is abusive and neglectful.  And then, during one of his first days in high school on the reservation, he looks at the copyright date on his math book and notices its the same book used to teach his parents.  He is outraged at how little he and his people has and throws the book in anger, accidentally hitting the teacher.  The teacher, though, has an unexpected response, and counsels Junior that he can have a future, and that he should transfer to a school off the reservation.

Junior takes his suggestion, and is immediately seen as a traitor to his people.  He hitchhikes or walks most days to the school, some 30 miles away, except on the rare occasions when his dad manages to (a) get the car running, (b) find enough gas money, and (c) remember to take him to school.  He is immersed in a white world where he must learn new rules of teenage society and try to fit in.  At the new school, he feels like an outsider, but when he comes back to the reservation each night, he is treated even more like one.

Junior, now called “Arnold”, his official name, manages to make some friends at his new school, and even joins the basketball team.  The dramatic games he plays against his former teammates and reservation friends highlight the tension between the Native American world and the white world right outside.

The book is an excellent portrayal of the tragic fate of Native Americans in this country and will make any kid think about it.  It’s also a wonderful book about growing up and finding out who you really are—and what defines that.  Junior’s search for a future is something anyone will identify with, and something all young adults will benefit from reading about.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and can’t wait to read more Sherman Alexie.

Follow-up with the kids:

There are months of conversation you could have about this book, and where you want to go with it probably depends on who you are and who your kid is.  A classroom or kids in a homeschool environment could read this book and have some great discussions about ethnic conflict, the history of Native Americans in this country, what it means to be an immigrant, and how circumstances really unlevel the playing field when it comes to the “American Dream” which for the kids Junior knows, is just a myth or a truth for people other than themselves.

If you are reading this at home with your kids, you can still talk about that, and I would encourage you to, but you can also take the conversation on a more personal level.  Ask your child what their dreams are.  What holds them back or pushes them forward?  Is there a way in which they are an outsider or an immigrant themselves?  How does that define who they are?

A great activity to do when talking about who you are is to draw a series of concentric circles.  Then brainstorm a list separately of adjectives that describe you (male, teenager, black, white, soccer-player, nerd, dog-lover, son, brother, etc.) and then put those adjectives in the circles, with the one that means the most and describes the most profound part of you in the center circle and working out accordingly.  This is an exercise that can mean a lot to kids and teens and help them think about their place in the world and where (and who) they want to be.  Sometimes they will surprise themselves at the adjectives they put close to the center and you can ask them about what it means to them to define themselves in such a way.  (For example, a kid might put “brother” as an identifier and be surprised when he realizes how important that piece of him is.  Why does he define himself as a brother so strongly and what is it about being a brother that shapes who he is?)

Possible Issues:

This is a young adult book told from the point of view of a ninth grade boy.  It’s honest.  He talks about masterbating (a lot), boners (also a lot), and some minor girlfriend lust, although they never actually do anything physical together.  There is also a lot of talk about drinking on the reservation and what alcohol has done to his family and his friends.  It’s all pretty minor stuff, and nothing unusual for a YA novel (unless it’s unusual for having LESS sexual content than many I’ve read).

January 10, 2011

AM I IMPORTANT???????

I’m not sure how old I was when I realized that I didn’t have to save the world to have a meaningful life, and to be honest, I’m still not sure how I feel about that realization or whether or not I actually agree with it or think it’s a cop-out.  Am I relying on others saving the world, or just hoping that if we all do our part, something will happen?  I’m not sure, but I loved the message in this book of just-graduated high school seniors on a road trip, one of whom is going through a very existential crisis: he’s been a child prodigy all his life, something he reminds us is very different than being a genius, as prodigy implies that terrifying of terrifying things: potential. Well, he isn’t a child anymore.  So what is he?  And what happens to “potential” when you grow up?

Title: An Abundance of Katherines
Author: John Green
Genre
: Fiction
Age: Young Adult, 12 – 18

Summary and Review:

Colin Singleton is a half-Jew child prodigy who thinks, upon graduating from high school, that he’s all washed up.  After all, he can’t be a child prodigy if he’s not a child anymore.  Not it’s time for him to prove his worth and accomplish something.  But what?  After being dumped by his 19th Katherine (yes, that’s right, he’s had the dubious honor of ONLY dating–and only being dumped by–girls named Katherine), he decides to invent a mathematical theory that will predict the course of a relationship.  With this theorem in hand, he reasons, not only will he have fulfilled his long-studied potential, but he will also know when the heartbreak is coming before it comes.  Somehow, he thinks this will be a good thing.

He’s hanging out with his best friend, a devout Muslim and fellow outcast, who (at least until this road trip) is completely sworn off drinking and women, and whose lifelong goals include lying on the couch and watching Judge Judy.

Together, they embark on a road trip that takes them to a small town in Tennessee where adventures with their first jobs, two local girls, neither of whom are named Katherine, and a small factory-dependent community, the two boys unwittingly learn a little bit about life.

Follow-up with the kids:

If your kid is a math genius, you can ask him or her to decode the formula for you.  Apparently, as it exists and evolves in the book, it actually works according to the rules and histories of the characters and relationships experienced in Colin’s life.  Despite helpful footnotes and a lengthy explanation at the end, this was math beyond my level of comfort.  Maybe I could have handled it fifteen years ago (that’s a scary thought), but that part of my brain has more recently been sacrificed.  On the plus side, I can now change diapers and wipe noses, which going back to the idea of fulfilled potential, should be some encouragement.

There’s also something to be said in this book about what it means to have potential and what it means to fulfill it.  We all have potential to do a lot of things.  In no way are we going to fulfill all of it, so how do we choose?  And my favorite question, if we have the potential to do something, are we thus obligated?  I think a lot of kids grow up today thinking this way, and that’s why the book has rung so true to so many of them, even if they aren’t child prodigies studied by development experts and put on TV game shows.  If they have the potential to be a great piano player, is it okay if they choose to be a mediocre guitar player instead?  If they have the potential for an ivy league school, is it okay if they choose to travel the world instead?  And pick up their education ten years later at a state university?  Well, I know what I think the answers are for my own life.  But what is your answer, and does it agree with your child’s?  And if not, is the disagreement putting a strain on your relationship or your child’s own view of his or her self-worth?

These are tough things to think about and tougher things to talk about.  But I was just told by a friend of another high school suicide.  Star athlete, the whole shebang.  I don’t know the story of why.  I don’t know that, in this case, it had anything to do with potential, realized or not.  But I do think these things are important enough to be work the effort of conversation and understanding.

January 6, 2011

Geek out with Harry Potter literary analysis

Hardison, the computer geek character in Leverage, my current favorite TV show, is fond of saying “It’s the age of the geek!”  And looking at Google and Facebook alone, it’s hard to argue that, although whether or not it’s the age of the literary geek is probably more debatable.  However, I’m happily able to admit that I am a full Harry Potter geek, even if I don’t have my own wand or invisibility cloak.  And that as a result, this book made me REALLY happy.

Title: Harry Potter’s Bookshelf
Author: John Granger
Genre
: Reference/Literature, Young Adult, Adult, Middle Grade
Age: 12 and up

Summary and Review:

John Granger really goes all out in his literary analysis of Harry Potter.  His author email address is john@hogwartsprofessor.com, and he takes his professorship seriously.  Which, let me tell you, I appreciate.  Reading this book has given me not only profound insight into the Potter series, but also the centuries of literature it is built upon.  Whether Rowling was influenced by the exact books Granger mentions or whether she alludes to them with her writing style purposely, is irrelevant.  The brilliance of the book is how it ties together so many forms of literature and shows how those forms have influenced writing today, specifically the writing of the great JKR.

Topics in this book include the narrative structure of the book–why Rowling might have chosen the third person omniscient limited as her main form of narrative style, genre–how each book reads like a classic mystery tale, and author-influence–how frequently Jane Austen and her characters and ideas flit through the pages of the Potter novels.  He also covers the setting as structured like a familiar British boarding-school novel, and the moral meaning of the significant gothic influences and postmodern themes present in the book.  He covers satire, allegory, literary alchemy, and fantasy.

The book was a great read.  As a Harry Potter fan, I enjoyed a new glimpse into the books, and it has encouraged me to pick them up another time, reading at a deeper level.  As a reader, I loved learning about the literary history that I either never learned in school or have long forgotten.  And as a writer, I really appreciated the chance to dissect a great book and to really think about why it’s great and what choices the author may have made along the way.

This book certainly isn’t a children’s book, but a precocious Potter-loving middle school would enjoy it.  And any high schooler with an appreciation for the young wizard will get a kick out of it, especially since he or she would likely be in the middle of the stage of education where many of the books mentioned in here are required reading.  This might make Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre a heck of a lot more fun!

Follow-up with the kids:

It would be a lot of fun to reread one of the Potter books or even the whole series with this analysis in mind.  Or you could do a scavenger hunt through one of the books and look for some of the clues and allusions Granger mentions.  And despite the fact that it’s a literary analysis, you could probably (sigh) watch the movies (which, don’t get me wrong are great, but really) and find some of the trends, especially as regards the setting, in there as well.  So grab some popcorn and sit the family on the couch to look for gothic symbolism or medieval signs.

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