Title: The Wall
Author: William Sutcliffe
Publisher: Walker Children’s
Publication Date: 5/4/2013
Length: 304 pages
Genre: YA contemporary
Source: ARC from NetGalley
Joshua lives in Amarias, a nice town surrounded by a big wall. He lives with his mother and step father. His life is pretty normal: he goes to school, plays with his friends, and fights with his stepfather. Joshua never thinks about the wall, or the soldiers guarding the entrance to his town. He never thinks much about the people on the other side. They are the enemy, and the wall keeps him safe from them. One day while playing in an abandoned lot, Joshua finds a tunnel that leads to the other side of the wall. So he explores. And once he visits the other side of the wall, he learns of a whole new world — one that makes him question everything he’s known.
I requested this book on NetGalley because it seemed so interesting. It’s no secret that the story is written about Israel’s West Bank, even though the town and characters are entirely fictional. I thought it would be like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but I think The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is more accessible and has wider appeal. Which is a shame, because The Wall touches on subjects that need to be discussed. These are real conflicts happening in the modern day. Of course, Israel is an extremely controversial subject, which is why many teachers might hesitate to use such a book in classrooms. But I would encourage high school teachers in particular to give it a read.
What’s interesting about the book is how it presents itself as a traditional dystopian story at the beginning. The idea of a closed, utopian society is one that starts so many novels I’ve read recently: Matched, Taken, The Giver, and Divergent, for example. As readers move through the story, the connections to modern conflicts are clear. Sutcliffe is showing us that dystopia is not fiction. Most of us, as adults, are aware of this. But The Wall is a perfect book for making this connection clear to young adults.
FINAL GRADE: B- It’s not a perfect story, but it is an important one. There is plenty of depth to the writing, enough for a robust analysis in an English class. And there is plenty of depth to the content, enough for a robust analysis in a social studies class. The emotional connection from The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is missing here, but I would say the story could be used in a similar way. It’s not a top tenner for me. However, I will be putting it on my mental list of books for classroom use.
REQUIRED READING: Required for high school and middle school teachers, and anyone interested in the Middle Eastern conflict.
LIBRARY RECOMMENDATION: Definitely buy it for a middle or high school library. Would also be a great addition to a public library or classroom library.
Have you heard of this book? What are your thoughts? It’s a very difficult book to review!
Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Benjamin Alire Saenz
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Release Date: 2012
Length: 359 page; 7 hours and 29 minutes
Genre: YA Contemporary
Source: Review copy from publisher
I would have never picked this book up on its own. It never would have made its way to my radar without winning a 2013 Printz Honor medal AND a Stonewall Book Award (AND a Belpre!) this January. Oh, a Stonewall award, you say? Hm.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a coming-of-age book about two awkward Mexican teenage boys growing up in the 1980s. Aristotle (Ari) is closed off from everyone, even himself. Dante, though also awkward, is brilliant and surprisingly confident. The two meet at the swimming pool one summer and become fast, intense friends. Ari needs Dante’s blunt questions, and Dante needs a loyal, non-judgemental friend. But life gets complicated. Emotions get complicated. Ari must learn who he is.
This is a quiet novel. It’s beautiful, lyrical, and emotional. Remember when I raved over the incredible feelings I experienced in The Sea of Tranquility? I would say Aristotle and Dante gave me a similar experience. I feel in love with both of these boys, felt the tension, and wanted to give everyone around me hugs. I HAVE JUST READ THIS INCREDIBLE BOOK AND I WANT TO HUG EVERYONE. Yeah, it was like that.
The desert setting (El Paso, Texas) was an interesting feature of the story. Ari and Dante spend a lot of time driving out to the desert to look at the stars, often with varying combinations of friends or girlfriends. It essentially reminded me of every single Counting Crows album I own. Sometimes books have soundtracks in my head, but this connection was so obvious that I can’t help myself! In particular, the song “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” was fitting. It’s one of my favorite songs, but I can’t embed the video from Germany (you can check it out on YouTube if you’re interested). Anyways, it’s this stanza from the song that sums up the novel:
“We drove out to the desert just to lie down beneath this bowl of stars
We stare up at the Palace like it’s the last of the great Pioneertown bars
We shout out these songs against the clang of electric guitars
You can see a million miles tonight
But you can’t get very far”
Since the book won a Stonewall, it obviously gets the LGBT tag. But I can’t really say why, because that would be spoiler-tastic. Let’s just say it’s more coming-of-age than LGBT, which is exactly what I’m looking for. Being LGBT does not define a character or a person, is one aspect of a greater life lived. That being said, this is far and away the best YA LGBT book I have read to date. So kudos, Benjamin Alire Saenz — you deserve every single award sticker on the front of your book.
FINAL GRADE: A Read it. It is a little slow at the beginning — Ari is a hard narrator to connect with, but that is by design (he can’t even connect with himself!). Honestly, I should just read every Printz novel because they are always stellar. This isn’t an action-packed, surprise-twist kind of novel. It’s not a romance or a trilogy, and there are no kick-ass female protagonists to be found. But it’s good. It gets the Tara stamp of approval.
Required Reading: Required for anyone interested in Mexican authors, books set in Texas, coming-of-age novels, literary fiction, fans of The Sea of Tranquility, and, of course, readers of LGBT fiction.
Library Recommendation: Put it in a high school library. As always, I would put it in my middle school library, but I’m a rebel. There are references to drinking, drinking and driving, sex, sexual feelings, and drug use. However, the parents presented in the novel are excellent representations of involved, realistic parents. I think all of the above issues are discussed by the parents with their children at various points in the novel.
Thoughts on the book? What was your favorite 2013 award-winning novel?
Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the bloggers over at the Broke and the Bookish. Book bloggers from all around create lists based on the chosen topics, and post links to the host blog to share our love of books. This week we are looking at books on tough topics. As a librarian, I felt these were important to helping students learn empathy and even actual useful information about important issues. It also breaks my heart that many of my students were seeing reflections of themselves in the stories they read. Here are some of my favorite picks:
Top Ten Books About Tough Topics
[this is not an after school special.]
All links go to my full review if you want to know more.
1.) Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher – Suicide.
2.) By The Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead by Julie Anne Peters – Suicide.
3.) The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin – Living with an abusive parent.
4.) Before I Die by Jenny Downham – Teen cancer.
5.) A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – Death of a parent.
6.) Hate List by Jennifer Brown – School shootings and bullying.
7.) The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney – Rape/date rape.
8.) Forever by Judy Blume – Teens having sex…and not dying/getting pregnant/regretting it/getting an STD.
9.) Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard – Witnessing the death of a friend.
10.) The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams – Escaping a polygamist cult.
What books about tough topics would you recommend?
Title: Where Things Come Back
Author: John Corey Whaley
Publisher/Year: Atheneum, 2011
Length: 228 pages
Genre: YA literary fiction
Source: Purchased from Amazon
Winner of the 2012 Printz Award
A giant woodpecker. A missing brother. An African missionary. Where Things Come Back is the story of each of these. All of these. It’s one of those stories where three seemingly different tales weave together to create one narrative.
First, the woodpecker. Lily, Arkansas is an in a tizzy because one man, a Mr. John Barker, has sighted an extinct woodpecker. The Lazarus woodpecker, to be exact. Everyone in town, especially the media, is a buzz with talk of the woodpecker and hopes for confirmation. The local motel, a cheeseburger, and even a hairstyle are all named after the woodpecker.
Second, the missing brother. One day, Gabriel Witter disappears. His brother, Cullen Witter (our protagonist) is left to deal with the situation and search for meaning in what has happened. Cullen’s also trying to date and manage his friendships in small-town America. He’s also a little skeptical of the whole woodpecker business. Basically, he’s searching for answers.
And finally, the African missionary. Benton. He’s a got a crappy home life, and his mission isn’t quite helping him find the answers he’s searching for. He’s in a crisis of faith.
I’ll admit, it took me some time to get into this novel. In fact, I think it took me a couple of months and a couple of tries to keep going. The main conflict wasn’t apparent and I couldn’t tell where the story was going. Maybe the woodpecker thing just didn’t intrigue me. I don’t know. But once I got about 1/3 of the way in, I had to admit that John Corely Whaley knows what he’s doing. It’s a coming of age novel set in front of a mystery. It’s Cullen’s story, but it’s also Benton’s story. It’s biblical allusion out the wazzu.
If YA fiction has a “literary fiction” genre (which I would argue that it does), this novel would be among the small number of novels in that group. That’s why it won the Printz. For me, the book gave me a “WOW” moment at about the 80% mark, when I really didn’t know what was going to happen. For the first time in the novel, I felt fear. The quiet, crafted story entered the arena of suspense, and I was hooked. I dropped everything and read to the end. It all made sense and it all came together and I barely even saw it coming. I tip my hat to you, Mr. Whaley, for that.
FINAL GRADE: A Well written and memorable. Unpredictable. Solid, steady, and beautiful. I give books As for different reasons: the thrill ride that was Divergent, the slow-burn romance of The Sea of Tranquility, and the thought provoking/edgy Every Day. When I think of those books, I know Where Things Come Back must be among them. Excellent writing, multi-dimensional characters, phenomenal plot, and a killer ending. This novel may be short and it may be a little difficult to get started, but trust me: it’s worth it.
Required Reading: Required for anyone who doesn’t typically like YA, high school teachers, and fans of contemporary novels. Stay away if you need vampires or intense action to enjoy a book.
Library Recommendation: Strongly recommended for high school. I would skip it for my middle school library (I just don’t think it would interest them).
What do you think of Printz novels or the category of “literary fiction” in YA?
Title: Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong
Author: Prudence Shen and Faith Ellen Hicks
Release Date: 5/7/2013
Genre: YA contemporary
Format: Graphic novel
Source: ARC from NetGalley
Cheerleaders, a robotics team, and a school election? Oh. Do tell me more.
Nate and Charlie have been best friends since grade school, even though they are social opposites. Nate is the geeky president of the robotics team, while Charlie is the captain of the basketball team. When Nate hatches a plan to run for school president to ensure funding for the robotics team, he expects Charlie to be on his side — not to run against him! The cheerleaders have forced Charlie to run so the extra money will go toward new cheerleading uniforms. A prank-tastic battle ensues. Eventually, all forces (including the super organized, but bitchy, cheerleaders) must put their faith in a robot battle competition with a hefty cash prize. Sprinkle in some family and relationship drama, and you’ve got Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, FirstSecond’s latest YA contemporary graphic novel.
There are not a lot of good YA contemporary novels that feature a strong male friendship, so this graphic novel was refreshing. The story is sensitive to jocks and nerds, so it has wide appeal. The story is short, and some of the plots underdeveloped, but the characters are strong. My one criticism would be that the cheerleaders bordered on stereotypical. I kind of expected the novel to surprise me with the cheerleader characters, but they were fairly flat and definitely played the antagonistic role for the first half of the story. Overall, though, the story made me laugh and taught some lessons along the way. Teens will appreciate it, and that’s what matters.
FINAL GRADE: B FirstSecond, you have impressed me again. Your graphic novels always deliver. I’d recommend this for middle and high school libraries, and it will be a hit with both nerds and reluctant readers. Fans of other FirstSecond titles will enjoy this novel, as would fans of YA contemporary. This novel, or any of the other books from this publisher, would make great “gateway” graphic novels for any teachers or librarians looking for an introduction to the genre or titles for the classroom. I know I sound like I work for the publisher (I definitely don’t!), but there just isn’t anyone else out there offering what they offer.
Other 01FirstSecond titles of interest that I have read and reviewed:
Last weekend, the Durham Public Library held ComicFest 2013. One of my favorite graphic novelist, Raina Telgemeier, just so happened to be one of the main events. So, of course, I dropped all of my studying for the afternoon to watch Raina speak and draw. I also got my copies of Smile and Drama signed.
Raina’s presentation was awesome, and it really shed some light on the process of creating a graphic novel. I was aware that they are far more labor intensive than text novels (something we as librarians struggle with — these books are lost more often, but cost more to buy). She said she spent five years on Smile and two and half years on Drama!
I love Raina’s work. More importantly, my students loved her work. I did not discover her on my own! It was the intense demand for Smile at a 2010 book fair the put her on my radar. I think I had to buy eight copies to meet the demand in my school. There are not many graphic novels geared toward readers of realistic, contemporary fiction.
It was so nice to meet Raina, and to see the enthusiasm from girls and boys alike in the audience. I was especially impressed by the number of dads and daughters! Of course, I also geeked out about Raina’s other books (the graphic adaptations of The Babysitter’s Club, which were my FAVORITE books as a child) and her love for particular comic strips that I also read as a kid (For Better or For Worse and Calvin and Hobbes). All in all, I’d say it was a good day.
Interested in Raina’s books? You can start with my review of Drama from this past summer. It was the ONLY BOOK on the 2013 ALA youth media award winner list that I had read before the award announcements at ALA midwinter. You should also check out Smile, since Raina’s childhood dental dramas are incredibly relatable.
I’ve read some scholarly stuff on gender in children’s cartoon novels, but nothing on Raina’s graphic novels. Future paper topic?
Have you read any of Telgemeier’s books? Any other favorite graphic novels you want to share?
Title: Almost Perfect
Author: Brian Katcher
Publisher/Year: Delacorte, 2009
Length: 368 pages/10 hours and 40 minutes
Genre: YA Contemporary
Source: Purchased from Audible/Amazon
Logan Witherspoon is a senior in small-town Missouri. He lives in a trailer with his mom, runs track, and recently had his heart broken by his cheating girlfriend. Sage is the new girl in school — tall, strangely beautiful, and mysterious. She and Logan become friends in biology class, and it quickly becomes clear that there is something more between them. But when Sage admits that she was born a boy, Logan’s feelings turn to outrage. Logan seeks to understand Sage, and himself, and they both determine if they want to be friends, lovers, or nothing at all.
Almost Perfect is a daring little book in all the best ways. While there are a lot of books out there featuring gay and lesbian teens, there are far fewer books offering positive portrayals of the transgender experience. Even within the LGBT community, transgender people can be marginalized and misunderstood. Logan moves through every emotion, and readers can empathize with his anger, curiosity, confusion, and attraction toward Sage throughout the novel. Katcher does an excellent job of avoiding an “after school special” approach to the story — while the details will answer questions readers may have, the ultimate focus is on the friendship between two well-developed, multi-dimensional characters.
I also have to note that the book is very realistic. Life isn’t perfect, and things don’t always happen like we want them to. Sage’s story is heartbreaking at times, and Logan can be kind of an idiot. People aren’t perfect, and small towns can be very close-minded places. But there are also beautiful moments and beautiful people who make it all worthwhile. Every moment is just a stepping stone to the next moment. I felt that Almost Perfect kept everything in perspective. In that sense, I think the ideal audience for the book would be teens who have not struggled with gender identity. Transgender and queer/genderqueer teens will certainly get a lot out of the story, but I believe Logan and Sage’s story can be a thoughtful stepping stone in anyone’s life path.
FINAL GRADE: B Almost Perfect is…well…almost perfect. This is a very good read, and I highly recommend it. It’s a slow book, but it does pick up more near the end. It’s definitely one of the better LGBT books I’ve read. There’s a reason it has a Stonewall Award sticker on the front!
Required Reading: Required for anyone who works with or teaches teenagers. You need to have this book in your mental bookshelf, because I guarantee you will find an opportunity to recommend it to a teenager or another adult in your life.
Library Recommendation: Since the Logan and Sage are both 18, I’d say Almost Perfect is intended for a high school audience. For parents, be aware that sex, sexual urges, teenage drinking, and violence (including a hate crime) are major points in the story. Logan is actually a really good male role model, for what it’s worth.