Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas With Family and Friends

Christmas started for me last Sunday morning when I arrived in Salt Lake to do Christmas with my sister's family, mom, and grandparents. I lounged around the house avoiding the cold weather and enjoying my nieces and nephews. That evening we celebrated Christmas; the hightlight, of course, was watching my niece and nephews instantly fall in love with their brand new scooters. The blizzard in Orem put a damper on some of our plans on Monday, but I managed to get my 72 hour kit (my super exciting Christmas present). Salt Lake didn't get as much snow so we did get to enjoy Temple Square that evening before I had catch a plane back to LA. I was disappointed that I didn't get to attend the temple that day, but it was great to soak up the peace on Temple Square.
After 2 days of work, I headed down to San Diego, where my friend/mission companion/former roommate, Emilysa, and her friend picked me up from the airport. We intended to go Midnight Mass but went to Denny's instead - Big Difference! We laughed and talked until 3 AM and then went home and finished talking at 4 AM. I typically think people who do this are insane.
A few hours later we started opening presents. Santa found me in San Diego, and Emilysa's family spoiled me with books and treats as seen below. I think they were even inspired at some of the presents they gave me.
After 4 hours of present opening (Emilysa has a big family and we took a break), we ate a ham dinner and lounged around. I feel that Christmas is for lounging so this was wonderful. Just before I left for home, the family gathered around the grand piano for caroling. A very merry Christmas thanks to a wonderful and generous family.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Snow in LA

A sudden cold snap fell upon Southern California this week and it snowed in the northern parts of the county, causing some libraries to close. Luckily, I live in the South. We just got pelted with rain, but we made snow of our own as seen below.

Notice how my art is intended not to intimidate children. I want them to out shine me with their artistic talents. Until future notice, I'm content with construction paper snow.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Celebrating the Season with Goofy

Disneyland, the happiest, most decadent place on Earth, is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from me. They candy cane striped, Christmas treed, and lit up the whole park just for me it seems.
My new favorite ride is "It's a Small World" which they decked out for Christmas as well. The funny thing is that it really is a small world. On my first trip to Disney, just after I moved here, I ran into a long, lost roommate.
Unfortunately, I missed the fireworks and thus the snow that Disney pours down every night. It might be the only snow I see all year.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Charlie Brown Would Be Proud

I wouldn't say I've decked the halls per se, but I did find some festive decorations for my favorite time of year. I think Charlie Brown would think that it looked just great!
If you look carefully, you'll see the musical note ornament which is my favorite.
This is a blurry photo of what it looks like in the dark.
I love Nativity sets and had to have this one the moment I saw it.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Gratitude and a Lot of Food

Thanksgiving season this year has involved a lot of food. It started in Boston when I celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving with myroommates and friends. Then last Sunday I had a second Thanksgiving dinner, followed on Monday by an FHE Thanksgiving Feast. The real fun began early Thursday morning when I flew to Utah for a quick trip. Jen's family picked me up at the airport and we drove to Ogden where her in-laws live. Thanksgiving dinner #4 was truly delicious and I was so grateful that the Chantry's let me be part of their family for a day.
Megan and I spent some quality time together. She also liked pretending to be my teacher and just being plain cute.
Michael practiced the art of sneaking up on me and was pretty proud of himself. He showed me his excellent reading skills using Green Eggs and Ham, and taught me some songs I'm sure to use in storytime one of these days.
This is Jen and I enjoying the feast. We didn't purposely try to look like Christmas decorations, it just happened that way.

On Friday, I took the Frontrunner, Trax, and the 811 Bus down to Orem where I got to spend time with my grandparents. In the morning, I played Dominoes and visited with Grandma Houghton. She even let me pick out the ceramics that I wanted for Christmas. (Usually I just have to wait and see what I get.) She used her master packing skills and I had plenty of room to carry them on the plane with me.

Now I have a few Christmas decorations!

That afternoon I headed over to my Grandma and Grandpa Call's house where I enjoyed my fifth and final Thanksgiving Feast. Grandma even made her delicious rolls because she knew I would want them. I loved being there and telling them about my new life and hearing about the rest of the family. Grandpa Call drove me to the airport, where Emilysa and I "happened" to cross paths. It made the wait in the airport wonderful. I got home and made a new friend during the shuttle ride. For a quick trip, it was great and even relaxing.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Once in a Lifetime

Here's a look at how my week went. Amazing to say the least!

Lawndale turns a page with dedication of new state-of-the art library

Combine that with bike riding, warm weather, the hokie pokie, and an almost empty matinee and I would say it has been a great week.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Infinite Power of Hope

I'm not one to write about anything too personal on my blog, but today I have decided to. I feel a little like a copy-cat because I had a friend blog about the same thing recently. Oh well!

I spoke in church yesterday using Pres. Uchtdorf's talk "The Infinite Power of Hope." from the October Conference. I chose it for 3 reasons.

1) I think about Hope often because it is not given as much attention as Faith and Charity.
2) The world would be a better place if we focused on True Hope and not doom and gloom.
3) The definition of Hope in a spiritual sense is much stronger than the term used in other contexts

Here's a couple parts from Elder Uchtdorf's talk that I liked a lot. (Emphasis added)

"Hope is believing and expecting that our prayers will be answered. It is manifest in confidence, optimism, enthusiasm, and patient perseverance."

"We hope in Jesus the Christ, in the goodness of God, in the manifestations of the Holy Spirit, in the knowledge that prayers are heard and answered. Because God has been faithful and kept His promises in the past, we can hope with confidence that God will keep His promises to us in the present and in the future."

I discovered that Hope is consistently linked with good works. This means that like Faith, Hope is a principle of action and leads to Charity, the Pure Love of Christ.

"When frustration and impatience challenge charity, hope braces our resolve and urges us to care for our fellowmen even without expectation of reward. The brighter our hope, the greater our faith. The stronger our hope, the purer our charity."

I appreciate that Pres. Uchtdorf took on this topic. In a world that can feel so hopeless to so many people, it is great to know that we can have real Hope based on a firm foundation.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Introducing ...

My Brand New Bike! (I have yet to name it and am taking suggestions.) I bought it on Saturday at a little bike shop here in Torrance and was so excited I decided to ride to the beach.

I don't navigate using maps, I just sort of go. Any of you who have tried to go anywhere with me may have picked up on this. So I just started West and figured I would hit The Strand (the area of the beach I was heading for.) Needless to say, I got lost in some neighborhoods and found some really steep hills that I was not expecting. But after some trouble I found this ...

The view, cloudless sky, and salty air made this a glorious ride. I also got a mild case of "too much sun" which has never happened to me in November before.

On the way home I had a minor problem with my bike. The seat slid down very low. My bike is currently living inside my house with me until I determine how to solve the problem.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Big Change

In an attempt to keep friends and family apprised of my goings on, I have decided to change this blog to a general discussion of my life rather than an analysis of books I have read. You may find a book review or two in the future. But this is no longer the express purpose of my blog.

So I've survived my first week of work which involved training at a library that I was temporarily assigned to. It is great to finally get payed to do what I love. Yesterday, I did a bilingual storytime. The kids were adorable and I got to practice my Spanglish. Then I went to Library Headquarters and look at books. In the future, I'll get to place orders for my library, but because I'm completely unaware of what is currently there, I just helped the other librarian I have been working with. All in all I have learned a lot this week. I've also discovered that being a librarian involves a lot of paperwork and nobody told me that in library school.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tomorrow's Wizard, by Patricia MacLachlan

MacLachlan, Patricia (1996). Tomorrow's Wizard. San Diego: Magic Carpet Books, 66 pages.

I am a huge fan of this author, and when I saw this book on my roommate's bookshelf, I decided I must read it. I didn't know MacLachlin had tried her hand at fantasy. Tomorrow's Wizard, his apprentice, Murdoch, and their talking horse set out to respond to villagers' wishes. Tomorrow only wants to deal with the big problems, but Murdoch is willing to take a more human approach. They help cure grouchiness, perfectionism, and loneliness in chapter long episodes, and come to realize that they may want more than they have.

This book is great. It's entertaining and humorous, but at times cliche. The chapters each tell a story within the entire story which make it great for an independent reader. It's simply and swiftly told. It is a lot less magical than I expected it to be. I would say practical, which is probably why I liked it.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, by Gennifer Choldenko

Choldenko, Gennifer (2007). If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period. New York: Harcourt, 217 pages.

Aaaaah, another quirky, angst-ridden middle school drama, with a twist reminiscent of Days of Our Lives. Told from the perspectives of both Kirsten (her chapters in first person) and Walk (strangely told in the third person) the story begins with a new year at Mountain Private School. Kirsten is your typical rich, white student whose parents are constantly arguing and whose best friend is following a more popular path. Pair those things with her distorted body image and she's in for a hard year. Walk is an African-American student who worked hard and earned a scholarship. He excels in school but becomes angry when stereotypes affect him and his friends. It turns out that Walk and Kirsten are more connected than they ever imagined.

This isn't a bad book. It is fast-paced and has short chapters to hold a reader's attention. Small if not predictable events keep the story moving. All the loose ends are carefully tied up by the end which is a little too Full House for me, but I can see the appeal. I had a hard time deciding who I would recommend this to. The writing seems appropriate for a younger audience, but the themes (especially the plot twist) would take a more mature reader to handle - hence my labeling it young adult. I would say middle-school students would enjoy it the most.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Your Own Sylvia, by Stephanie Hemphill

Hemphill, Stephanie (2007). Your Own Sylvia, a Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 261 pages.

It's obvious that I'm in a poetry rut at the moment and probably imperative that I read something different for awhile. This biography of Sylvia Plath is simply o.k. The author took on a hard task trying to mimic the work of a master. Hemphill did well, but not good enough for me to love the book. She tells the story of Plath's life from beginning to tragic end using poems written from the point of view of those who knew her. There was the occasional insertion of one of Plath's poems rewritten to describe her life.

Here are a few impressions from the book:
  • The author had a heavy feminist bias. Apparently men only use you as an object, drain all of the talent out of you, and break your heart. She did not relate it well only to Sylvia's situation which made the work biased..
  • The descriptions of Sylvia's suffering were excellent. The poems were fast-paced and agonizing - this was good work.
  • I did find that most of the poetry lacked in the occasional emotion as mentioned above. The metaphors seemed off and it all seemed like a stretch to be poetic rather than fluid poetry.
  • I can see the appeal in this book for a young audience especially those interested in Plath's writing or other similar characters.

Overall, however, the book really wasn't for me. Now to move away from poetry.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Carver: A Life In Poems by Marilyn Nelson

Nelson, Marilyn (2001). Carver: A Life in Poems. Asheville, North Carolina: Front Street, 103 pages.

Before I give a summary of this book, you must know that I was biased to begin. I've heard praise of this book from many sources and was expecting to enjoy it. In fact, I found it nearly flawless. It was refreshing to read a work so artfully written.

Nelson tells the life of George Washington Carver, using vivid poetry. Rather than focusing the poetry on Carver's agricultural accomplishments, she emphasizes the type of person he is. I felt a bond with Carver by the time I was finished. Rather than just saying that Carver was a well-rounded man who broke through many barriers for his race, it was almost sung. The imagery was beautiful. In one poem a woman refers to Carter as a "sepia boy" describing his color. Another poems says "Beauty is commonplace, as cheap as dirt." And again, "history is a jetsam of stardust." I rarely read such well-written works.

There are many things about this book that I loved, but the emphasis on Carver's faith in God was probably my favorite. He was criticized by the science community for claiming that inspiration helped him in his work. But Carver was a great example of a man who believed in God, and Nelson freely included this in her poems. Nelson quotes directly in the poem about Carver's bible class "Your Creator, he said, is itching to contact you." Communication with God is described as a "vast broadcasting system."

To sum this up there are very few people to whom I would not recommend this book - peanut lover or not. It brings together important information, excellent storytelling and real poetry.

"A personal relationship with the Great Creator of all things is the only foundation for the abundant life. The farther we get away from self, the greater life will be."
George Washington Carver

*One of the labels of this post claims that this is a novel. It is not a novel, but in this case uses verse to tell a true story.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Enchantment: the Life of Audrey Hepburn by Donald Spoto

Spoto, Donald (2006) Enchantment: the Life of Audrey Hepburn. New York: Three Rivers Press. 352 pages.

It may come as a surprise, but this biography was not written for children or young adults. This detailed look at Audrey Hepburn's life combines life events, analysis of film, and some interpolations of fact to give an intriguing and well-balanced look at a timeless icon. Spoto tells her life story candidly not hesitating to include Audrey's insecure or even scandalous moments. He does, however, tell these events without sensationalizing what isn't necessary.

My favorite feature of the book is Spoto's frankness about Audrey's desire to have a quiet family life contrasted with the pressures of being a movie icon. Her dreams of being a mother were repeatedly dashed; when she finally had the opportunity, it was difficult to give up her acting for a quiet life. My second favorite part of the book was the attention given to her role in The Nun's Story. This role prevented her from being typecast and gave her ample opportunity for introspection. Spoto often brought in personal events from Audrey's life and compared them to roles she played in film.

This was an excellent and realistic look at an actress who I personally admire. She did not have the royal life that some might suspect after watching Roman Holiday. This book shows her as a real human who became famous and did something with it.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

After the Death of Anna Gonzales, by Terri Fields

Fields, Terri. (2002). After the Death of Anna Gonzales. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 100 pages.

The best word I could use to describe this book is weak. Told in poetry, it gives the reaction of 47 people to Anna Gonzales's suicide. Students, teachers, and friends give feelings or mostly their lack-there-of to the shocking news that Anna has taken her own life.

The poems allude to students' somber faces, but the majority of the poems were shallow, selfish reactions to the incidents. One cheerleader's concern is that the pep rally will be canceled. Another kid can't wait to uncover the inside scoop. Another wonders how long she has to wait to take Anna's desk which is next a cute boy. The teacher's on the other hand all had profound thoughts about the death. How patronizing for the young adult reader! I couldn't believe how the author portrayed these teens. It was infuriating and I'm not a teenager. Give the teens some credit!

The poetry was lifeless, and she had to tell the reader when she used metaphor. (Because a reader might not understand it in all it's frankness.) It was hard to tell one voice from another. This could have been a really good book, and I think it failed.

Sarah Morton's Day by Kate Waters

Waters, Kate & Russ, Kendall (1989). Sarah Morton's Day. New York: Scholastic, 32 pages.

Most people may be able to tell by now that I am a fan of nonfiction especially that work which will appeal to the recreational reader. This book uses photographs and first person narration to give a day in the life of Sarah Morton, an actual pilgrim who lived at Plimoth Plantations. Photographer, Kendall Russ uses Amelia Poole to reenact what might be a typical day for Sarah Morton. The real life photographs which were taken at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts bring her story to life.

The narration uses the old style of language, but is still simple and accessible to the young reader. The day begins when Sarah gets dressed. Photos show each piece of heavy clothing that she is required to wear. She takes the reader through her daily chores, games, lessons. She also describes her insecurities about having a new stepfather that she wishes will accept her. Sidebars and boxes highlight a recipe and a Bible passage she may have memorized. Overall the story is well told in a way that is accurate and can relate to children today.

This would be a great November read aloud for elementary school children or could be read independently by a good reader.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Bartoletti, Susan Campbell (2005). Hitler Youth: Growing up in Hitler's Shadow. New York: Scholastic Nonfiction, 176 pages.

Bartoletti tells the story of the Hitler Youth program from its inception until the fall of the Reich. Using personal accounts from from various boys and girls, she tells the stories of those of both those supported and resisted Hitler.

I listened to this book. The narrator had good intonation and pronounced all the German names and phrases correctly - which is more than I can say for Bartoletti whose accent was painful for me a German speaker. She did clearly define all difficult concepts and words. The book is informative for more than just youth. The writing was sophisticated and not patronizing. Bartoletti did her research and used real accounts of soldiers who destroyed Allie tanks, students who opposed the Reich, and even average members of the Hitler Youth.

The book shed light on aspects of the Third Reich secondary to the Hitler Youth, but it still fit. For example, propaganda explained Kristallnacht as a spontaneous reaction to the murder of an official by a Jew. In reality it was a planned attack against the Jews. Also, the government forced the Jews to pay for all the damage. The German news announced that Hitler died fighting on the front lines in the Battle of Berlin rather than the true story. These lies were linked to the films and propaganda that the Hitler Youth were educated with. To reeducate the soldiers and youth raised as Anti-Semites, the showed the Germans films of footage from the concentration camps. Many of them were difficult to convince that the man who they fought for was a mass murderer.

Overall this was an excellent book that was sensitively written and hit on what I think are the major aspects of being young during the Third Reich.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Second Summer of the Sisterhood, by Ann Brashares

Brashares, Ann (2003). The Second Summer of the Sisterhood. New York: Delacorte, 373 pages.

In this sequel to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the four girls have waited until this summer to pull out the pants and let them work their magic. Bridget, normally impetuous and confident, has hidden herself under hair-dye and excess weight. Spontaneously she leaves for a summer in Alabama to reacquaint herself with her mother's mother. Lena finds out that last summer's Greek boyfriend Kostos has a new girlfriend, but he manages to surprise on her doorstep. Carmen again has troubles with her parents, this time her mom. Tibby heads of to a summer film program in Virginia and learns a few things about what is good film making.

I liked this book even though it's cheesy and didactic. Besides the quotations at chapter breaks the dialog is full of those cliche adages about life, friendship and family. I think this is one of the reasons the book is so popular. It's comforting to see friendships exist as only in dreams. A pair of pants that fits four different shaped girls isn't the only fantasy here. The fantasy of being free to roam from state to state, sneak in and our of dorm rooms undetected, and having friendships so unconditional don't actually exist for teenagers. But the idea is attractive. The pedantic messages are often comforting and provide an objective viewpoint for a teen reader.

This book is full of those writing issues for which I criticized Meyer. I hold Brashares under the same scrutiny. But to be honest the quick pace of the book and the movement between characters distracted me from the writing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Meyer, Stephenie. (2005) Twilight. New York: Little Brown & Company 498 pages.

Bella, a clumsy and somewhat jaded teen, has just moved back to Forks, Washington to live with her dad. At school she is mystified by Edward who seems different from the rest and saves her life on multiple occasions. Edward is a vampire and before Bella knows it she's in love with him and the adventure begins.

So most people know that I struggled with this book. But it is my goal to write a fair and rational review. Thus, I'm going to start with what was good about it. Edward was attractive and at times downright sexy. I personally prefer men with a heart beat, but Meyer made him heroic in the most traditional sense. This made him easy to fall for. Second, although I had to wait almost 400 pages for it, I must say the climax was creative and exciting. That's all I'm going to say in case there are blog readers out there who haven't read the book yet.

Now for the critique. The writing left a little to be desired. In my opinion adverbs are the root of all evil and given Meyer's heavy use of them, she disagrees. The word "incredulous" was used multiple times in various contexts. It drove me nuts. To steal from The Princess Bride, "I do not think that means what she thinks it means." Second, probably over 100 pages of this book were spent with Edward explaining to Bella how dangerous he is. I kept thinking, "I know, I know - get over it! Less talking more action, Please!" Third, was the lack of a strong female character. I'm not used to reading books where the girl is constantly unable to take care of herself. I found this difficult to handle. Edward always had to be there to save her.

For the record, I did get sucked in. I think the only option is for Bella to become a vampire herself, and I'm proud of Stephenie Meyer for being so successful.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows

Barrows, Annie & Blackall, Sophie (2006). Ivy and Bean: Book One. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. 113 pages.

Mischievous Bean, formally known as Bernice, refuses to get to know Ivy, the new girl, because she is "nice," and nice equals boring. But when Ivy helps Bean escape the wrath of her older sister Nancy and shows Bean her secret spot, Bean starts to think that maybe she isn't so bad. Ivy even knows a couple witch spells to help keep Nancy in her place.

Ivy & Bean is a relatively recent transitional series to become very popular with good reason. The story line is fluid. simple and combines a lot of fun illustrations. The story is comical with a strong moral at the end which just makes the story fun. Bean and Ivy are both quirky in their own special ways making this a great team for a series of books.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff

Giff, Patricia Reilly. (2002). Pictures of Hollis Woods. New York: Scholastic, 166 pages.

Hollis Woods was abandoned as a child and since then has bounced from foster home to foster home from which she has a tendency to run. Now, she is 12 and at Josie's house, a lovely older woman who has the tendency to forget. Hollis brings her pictures to Josie's in which unfold her strong desire for a family and the story of how she almost had one once. When the social worker threatens to take Hollis away from Josie, she escapes with Josie to the place where she first found family.

I was so excited to read this book. I loved the title and the little silver medal on the cover. I must say I was disappointed. It was short, but slow and honestly just dull. It all seemed extremely melodramatic and unrealistic. I can see how a child would like it but I was left wanting.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech

Creech, Sharon. (2001). Love That Dog. New York: Harper Trophy, 86 pages.

At the beginning of the school year, Jack is not so sure about writing poetry and makes that very clear to his teacher in his poetry journal. First he starts by writing complaints broken into short lines. He discusses poems that his teacher presents to the class until finally he is able to share the love for his dog in a poem inspired by “Mr. Walter Dean Myers.”

I went into this book thinking 2 things:

1) This is going to be another pet story
2) There is going to be some really good poetry here

I was wrong on two accounts. More than a story about a boy and his dog is a story about a boy realizing that it is okay to be who he is. The poetry improves as Jack gains confidence in himself and his work. The story is told only in his words and we get the teacher’s perspective only through him. This is not another Because of Winn Dixie.

Second, the novel may be in verse but it is a child’s verse. Myer’s novel Street Love (see below) incorporates a more mature poetry with metaphor, rhythm and all other expected elements. This obviously reflects a child’s voice – an immature effort at poetry. This doesn’t make it bad. In fact, it makes it accessible to a younger audience than it would otherwise and will build confidence in understanding poetry.

The book incorporates both classic and contemporary poetry in a creative and not pushy manner, but focuses on Walter Dean Myers the most contemporary of the authors. This adds a personal touch and may motivate a reader to further exploration.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Remember, by Toni Morrison

Morrison, Toni (2004). Remember: the Journey to School Integration. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 78 pages.

Using high quality archival photographs, Morrison tells the story of school integration from a child's perspective. She begins with a brief yet informative explanation of the book followed by the series of photographs with a fictionalized commentary. Following the approximately 70 pages of photographs is a timeline of important events and descriptions of each photograph.

The photos make this book a success. Morrison used photo archives to find the photographs. Photos of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and pivotal days of integration are familiar to adults and may be recognizable to children. Other photos of children at school or trying to go to integrated schools are less famous. They were all high quality and representative of what children may have experienced. Each photo is clear, thought provoking, but not disturbing for children.

Honestly, I'm a little disappointed with how the information was handled. Rather than telling the story of the actual photograph, Morrison creates short fictionalized commentary for many of the photos. The real story of the photo is at the back of the book in an index. This made for a lot of flipping back and forth and was frustrating. This format would be tedious for a child using it independently. In a group setting the fictionalized commentary would probably work better because it is short and would hold students' interest. The whole purpose of this book is to document this difficult time and telling the real stories of the photos would have had more impact in my opinion.

Friday, May 30, 2008

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Yang, Gene Luen (2006). American Born Chinese. New York: First Second, 233 pages.

This graphic novel intertwines an ancient Chinese fable with two modern tales of young life as an Asian-American. The Monkey King is eager to be accepted as a god, but is not welcomed into the feast because he is a monkey with no shoes. Henceforth, he attempts to denounce his monkey-hood to be accepted as an equal to the gods. In California, Jin Wang is trying to be accepted as a Chinese-American in his middle school. With a little help from his friend, Wei-Chen, Jin even manages to ask the girl he likes out, but not without some challenges. Last, Danny, a blond kid, somehow has a cousin who is the Chinese stereotype. He visits every year and destroys Danny's social life. Cleverly, these stories converge revealing a lesson about accepting ourselves.

I've said this before but graphic novels really aren't my thing. I respect them. In fact, graphic novels often incorporate more difficult vocabulary than their traditional counterparts. Reading a graphic novel depends on different set of literacy skills. That said, I'm just not the most visually literate person in the world. So in judging the book I'm trying to divorce myself from a general dislike. In this case I enjoyed it, but I didn't think it was amazing. The telling of the modern school stories interested me more than the fable of the Monkey King. I find mythology in all its forms dull. But all sections incorporated some clever dialogue and humor which kept me going. The art was clear and not difficult for a novice like me to understand. The actions in the images were consistent with the text. This book has earned a lot of acclaim and while I enjoyed it I'm not sure it was worth all the accolade.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Prince Caspian, by C.S. Lewis

Lewis, C.S. (1951). Prince Caspian. New York: Harper Trophy, 223 pages.

Peter, Susan, Edmond, and Lucy are standing on a train platform headed for boarding school when they are mysteriously transported back to Narnia, but not the Narnia any of them remember. Cair Paravel is now a ruin, and it seems that evil men have over run the kingdom driving away the "Old Narnians." But Prince Caspian, heir to the throne and friend of the Old Narnians has stepped in to restore the country, but needs the help of the ancient kings and queens and Aslan himself.

I enjoyed this book almost as much as I enjoyed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It had a faster pace, more excitement, and stronger symbolism than The Horse and His Boy. I thoroughly enjoyed the parallels to faith portrayed by following the lion. And from an LDS perspective, I found strong links to apostasy and restoration. After the kings and queens left, another government prevailed and the stories of Aslan became legend and almost forgotten. A young worthy prince helps restore order but can only do it with the help of Aslan and the children.

As a children's story, I think it works well, although some parts such as the lengthy letter that Peter writes and Aslan's journey to collect trusting humans became a little dull and might drag on for a child,

Thursday, May 15, 2008

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Lee, Harper (1960). To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: HarperCollins, 407 pages.

Scout and Jem are two curious kids being raised by their widowed father in Maycomb County Alabama. Some of their activities include visiting their neighbors, playing with their friend Dill in the summer, and trying to figure out a way to lure Boo Radley, a reclusive and feared neighbor, out of his home. Life intensifies for Scout and Jem when their father defends an innocent black man in a rape trial. Suddenly the whole town is talking and Scout quickly learns who her friends really are.

It's so refreshing to read a book this good. First, it is beautifully written but a the same time accessible. Told from the eyes of a child, the sentences are well formed but not difficult. Because, Scout is trying to understand the adults around her, she meditates at length on many of the symbols. Second, Scout and Jem are trying to learn who they are and what they stand for which at times makes them a bit rebellious, but they aren't subverting their father. For someone who reads a ton of young adult literature this is new and different. Third, (and this is just my opinion), it's a candid yet respectful portrayal of Southern life during the depression. We can thank Atticus for that. With his even-temper and good natured respect for all even Ewell, the villain, could not be perceived as a demon.

I can't believe it took me almost 26 years to read this book. I think everyone should read it. It's that good and I normally don't recommend books across the board. But this is one of the exceptions.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Whale, by Valerie Tracqui

Tracqui, Valerie (2004). The Whale: Giant of the Ocean. Watertown, Ma.: Charlesbridge, 29 pages.

This brief book uses text, photos, and captions to tell the story of the humpback whale. The book discusses the whale's body structure, migration, mating, and other general topics. It also includes information on ongoing work to save the endangered species and brief introductions to other species of whales. While the main text is helpful and informative, I found that the most interesting parts of this book were the captions to the high-quality photographs. For example, I learned that humpback whales have two blowholes that spout air, water vapor, and mucous. Whales also have whisker like hairs on their faces to help them sense what is around them. I admit I'm a little biased in my enjoyment of this book due to my love of whales.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban

Urban, Linda (2007). A Crooked Kind of Perfect. New York: Harcourt, 213 pages.

Ten year old Zoe has big dreams of becoming a world renowned pianist and playing at Carnegie Hall. But when her dad goes to the music store and comes home with a Perfectone Organ instead of a baby grand, she is terribly disappointed. Still, Zoe tries her best to prepare for the Perfectone Organ competition, but not without a few glitches along the way.

Fast-paced and funny, this book captures the true essences of what it is to be ten. From Zoe's struggle to fit in with her classmates to coming to terms with her quirky family - its all there. The book is structured in short journal like entries making it a very quick read and capturing Zoe's personality well. Some entries are straight narrative while others are lists or simply one sentence. At first, I thought this form was weak but came to terms with it along the way. This book is filled with pre-teen awkwardness that just brought a smile to my face.

Friday, April 25, 2008

When Jeff Comes Home, by Catherine Atkins

Atkins, Catherine (1999). When Jeff Comes Home. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Summary and Evaluation: Two and a half years after Jeff is kidnapped, Ray, the kidnapper, returns him to his family. Embarrassed, scared, and unable to cope, Jeff refuses to tell his family, friends, or investigators what really happened to him. As time goes on, Jeff's father tries to help him reenter normal teenage life, but Jeff's secrets and public speculation keep him from being able to adjust to his new life.

I put off reading this book for a long time knowing that it was a difficult topic; now I can't stop thinking about it. The choppiness of the paragraphs and the unrealistic dialog made the writing unremarkable, but the handling of a subject most people prefer not to think about made it disturbing and memorable. Jeff, the narrator, gave enough details so the reader could understand, but was careful to reveal himself. Especially profound was Jeff's relationship with Ray - fear, disgust, and some acceptance all blended together. Until the end he only, admits that to the reader. But even at the end, Jeff has barely begun to heal. Rarely does a book leave me wondering about what I would do in a similar situation. What kind of assumptions would I make? How would I act around him? Would I ask the same insolent questions? Would I be relieved when he lied to me? This is not one of those books that I would say I enjoyed. Indeed, I would much rather read Gossip Girl. Although I have not yet read any commentary on the novel, my guess is that Atkins did not intend this book to be entertainment.

Booktalk Hook: If I were to booktalk this, I would read from the prologue of the book telling of how Ray took Jeff until Jeff realized that he had blood on his throat. After that i would tell a little about Jeff's return and his struggle to come to terms with what happened.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Novel Idea, by Aimee Friedman

Friedman, Aimee (2006). A Novel Idea. New York: Simon Pulse, 234 pages.

Summary and Evaluation: Sixteen year old Norah is anxious to experience her first kiss, but she has bigger things to worry about when she finds out that unless she picks up some extracurriculars she can kiss her college goals good-bye. With the help of her friends, Norah starts a book group at an indie bookstore and, low and behold, James walks in. He's attractive and friendly, and they even have the same taste in books - except maybe the romance novels that Norah secretly loves. She follows the schemes of her favorite heroine, but finds that romance on the page is much different than romance in real life.

I don't need deep meaning in everything I read, but I do tend to choose books that have more than an escapist appeal. I never knew mind candy could be so sweet. This is just downright fun for book lovers. It is no magical literary masterpiece, but it does have a lot of stereotypical, lovable characters. Norah has a best friend who is trying to convince her family she doesn't need to go to college and a busy-body gay friend who both help her out of some tough spots. Then, there's the awkward romantic moments like Norah's almost first kiss. Norah's over the top application of her favorite romance novel spins her into lies about her many imaginary admirers. It follows the romance formula perfectly seeing as Norah is basing her plan on it. But a comical twist at the end makes it slightly unusual. The best part of the book is that it constantly pokes fun at chick lit and romance. The author even references her book, South Beach, when Francesca, a preppy member of the book group, starts naming off all of her "shallow" book preferences. I appreciated that the author did not take herself or this book too seriously.

My concern with this book is readership. The simple prose and fast-paced narrative tempt me to offer this to reluctant readers. But allusions to Weetzie Bat, Speak, and even The Devil Wears Prada may alienate a reader who is not familiar with these books. Someone more involved with literature may be turned off by the trite prose. But on the other hand maybe they, like Ime, will enjoy a lighter read.

Booktalk Hook: Here's my script for a short booktalk. "Everything that Norah knows about love comes from her contraband collection of romance novels. Desperate to beef up her college applications, Norah starts a book club and suddenly romance becomes a reality. James saunters into her club and she is smitten; they even have the same taste in books. Eager to win his affections, Norah turns to lessons from her secret stash of romance novels. Unfortunately, in her life things just don't work out the same way. Can Norah find a way to win James over?"

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

Rosoff, Meg (2004). How I Live Now. New York: Wendy Lamb, 194 pages.

Summary and Evaluation:
In order to escape her father and stepmother, Daisy leaves New York City for England where her aunt and four cousins live on a farm. War breaks out and Daisy and her cousins create a peaceful world on their farm until the war finally reaches them. Separated from Edmond, her new found love, and the happiness that surrounds her, Daisy must survive the war and find her way back to that happiness.

This story is surreal and subversive, disturbing yet magical. It engenders all of those things that in real life I would reject, but somehow in this idyllic farm life that Daisy has discovered, it seems only to make sense. All of the major characters defy what I think of as "normal" in everyday life. Daisy, an anorexic American, starves for her younger cousin Edmond, a freethinker, smoker, and underage driver. When the war separates them, Piper, who is innocence embodied, becomes Daisy's support. Piper understands all that is good in nature. Her revulsion to death and killing set her up as the opposite to the war. Piper isn't even able to kill fish for food.

Rosoff's writing contributes to the dreaminess of the story. Until the end there is a complete lack of quotation marks. I had to get a feel for when someone's speech ended and Daisy's narration resumed. She capitalized letters as she felt necessary, but sometimes left them out where they are traditionally used. It always brought my attention back to what she wanted to emphasize. Daisy exaggerates a lot. I imagine she didn't eat one thousand hazelnuts and she certainly wasn't away from the farm house as long as she said. This made it all feel more like a dream. At times the narration was just short and shocking. Daisy and Piper find their long, lost goat dying of starvation. After a moment of mourning, suddenly and without warning, Daisy shoots it in the head. It caught me so off guard that it is one of the most memorable scenes in the novel.

Booktalk Hook: I would do a booktalk pretending to be Piper, the innocent observer. I would explain that a newcomer, Daisy, has come to the farm, share Piper's feelings about her, and tell about Daisy's relationship with Edmond from Piper's point of view.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Unspoken, by Thomas Fahy

Fahy, Thomas (2008). The Unspoken. New York: Simon & Schuster, 166 pages.

Summary and Evaluation:
Five years ago, six teenagers who were forced to be in a cult burnt down the campsite killing the self-declared prophet, but not before he could prophesy that each of them would die of their worst fear in five years. Thus, when Allison and the others learn that her friend Harold mysteriously drowned, they are drawn back to the town where it all began. The curse is being fulfilled as others mysteriously disappear and die. It is up to Allison to discover the truth behind the mystery and find a way for herself and the others to survive.

When choosing this book, I prepared myself for a gruesome horror story, but was disappointed that it wasn't nearly as shocking as advertised. Allison's dreams during her seizures gave warning of impending death; however the details of the dreams were not vivid and did not create suspense. Each dream was followed by the discovery that one of her friends died. Though descriptive, they were not suspense builders. Even with the lack of suspense, the plot did move along quickly after the five surviving teens gathered. The story switches from the present to five years ago telling the horrors that each teen experienced while living in a commune with the other cult members. These frequent flashbacks were good for understanding each character's fears, but made very obvious the "who-done-it" aspect of the story. Fahy tries to resolve the story partly with realism and partly using the supernatural giving Allison one last premonition leaving the story unresolved and a bit unsettling. Many of the plot elements were left unexplained which I preferred. I could choose which explanations I most enjoyed.

Booktalk Hook: Because of the age of the characters and the style of writing, I would present this book to older YA's. To describe this book, I would read from the passage when the cult leader takes Allison to the confessional.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Street Love, by Walter Dean Myers

Myers, Walter Dean (2006). Street Love. New York: Amistad, 134 pages.

Summary and Evaluation:
Damian, an upper class student headed for the Ivy League, falls for Junice, a girl struggling to keep her family together after her mom goes to prison for dealing drugs. When they meet in the office one day, Damian is eager to get to know this beautiful girl, while Junice is careful to hide her life that she is ashamed of. Against the will of friends and family, each must show what they are willing to sacrifice in order to be together.

Like A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, the language of this book took some getting used to. Told in free verse, the rhythm and style kept changing as each character spoke. But after a little time, I acclimated and found that this form was beautiful. When Damian was hanging out with his guy friends, I felt like I was singing along to a rap. Other times, I was just reading concise angry sentences like when Junice is at family court. "You quote paragraphs and sentences/And laws with numbers and subsections/Will my tears erase them?" When Junice spoke the poetry used vivid imagery. She says that her hands can "crush razor blades and catch sunbeams." Novels in verse also do not tell the whole story. I appreciated the chance to add my own inferences to the story which is something I have not often found in the literature I've read so far. Although I liked the form of the book and I found the plot compelling, I was left disappointed at the end of the book. The ending seemed unrealistic and uncharacteristic of both Damian and Junice.

Booktalk Hook: I would create and memorize a free verse poem of my own that introduces Damian and Junice and their struggle to show their love for each other.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher

Crutcher, Chris (1993). Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. New York: Greenwillow Books, 216 pages.

Summary and Evaluation:
Eric Calhoune, aka Moby, is obese; Sarah Byrnes is ugly and has been since she was three. An accidental burn permanently disfigured her face because her father would not let doctors repair it. Eric and Sarah Byrnes have been friends for life believing that "terminal ugliness" brought them together. At the beginning of high school Eric even started overeating afraid that he would lose Sarah's friendship if he lost weight due to swimming. Now it's senior year and Sarah Byrnes has suddenly sunken into a strange catatonia and is hospitalized. Eric finally discovers the truth about Sarah's deformity and must help free her from her horrible past.

I initially chose this book because I wanted to read a sports story. This one was about swimming (a favorite of mine), but seemed to have more than descriptions of monotonous practices and vicious competitive spirit. Well, that was true. Woven into a rather secondary story of preparing for regionals is a complex story dealing with issues of religion, abortion, and abuse. Crutcher presents these issues in such a way that it forced me to consider the reasons for my own beliefs on the matters. Although challenging, the topics were introduced with sensitivity. Students brought up each issue during a course called Contemporary American Thought; then the issues remained present as various students had to deal with the real life applications of them. Suspenseful action scenes and the occasional bit of humor prevent the book from being overly philosophical. Eric's clashes with Sarah's father and testosterone heavy competition keep the story moving for those who may not be the philosophy types.

Booktalk Hook: Because this book has so many layers it may be difficult to summarize well, but I think a five sentence booktalk would work best. "Sarah Byrnes and Eric Calhoune are best friends because they are both ugly. When Sarah Byrnes was three she was scalded by a pot of boiling water - at least that's what she says. Now it's senior year and the normally vicious Sarah Byrnes has slipped into a mysterious catatonia. Eric is trying to balance school, swimming, and helping his friend find a way out of her mental trap. When all the secrets finally come out, Eric has to choose the best way to be loyal to his friend."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Elsewhere, by Gabrielle Zevin

Zevin, Gabrielle (2005). Elsewhere, New York: Square Fish. 288 pages.

Summary and Evaluation: When Liz wakes up one morning sailing in the S.S. Nile, she assumes that she is still dreaming. In reality, she is dead and sailing to the afterlife, an island called Elsewhere, where she will live and work much like on Earth; only Liz will age backwards. At first, Liz struggles to cope with the reality that she is dead and separated from her family and friends, but with help from her grandmother and a few friends, particularly a young man named Owen, Liz comes to understand the importance of both of her lives. This fantasy reads very close to realistic fiction. Life in Elsewhere is very similar to life on Earth. People go to work everyday, shop at the mall, and have romantic relationships. The only difference is that animals and humans speak with one another and eventually everyone will become young again. Except for an out-of-place incident with some mermaids, there were no mythical creatures or great expeditions. For this reason, I enjoyed this fantasy novel. It puts an unusual and comical spin on the afterlife and reincarnation. How many people could imagine their grandmother hooking up with a rock star in the afterlife?

I could have used a little more description in some places. When Owen cooks for Liz there is an allusion that the food is mediocre, but no description of the food itself. When Owen saves the day all Liz says is "I'm pissed at you!" There is no resolution to the argument and there's no telling what actually solved the problem. At these points the scenarios end abruptly. Liz swims to the bottom of the ocean to make contact with her family, but the lack of description make it impossible to know what "The well" looks like. It is almost as if the author didn't know herself. Despite the lack of descriptions, the premise was fresh and at times the book was very emotional and funny.

Booktalk Hook: One of the biggest questions in life is "What happens after I die?" This book presents a perspective answer to that question. My booktalk would start with, "If you died tomorrow what do you think would happen?" Then I would tell how Liz died and the new life she has to face.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Road of the Dead, by Kevin Brooks

Brooks, Kevin (2006). The Road of the Dead. New York: Scholastic. 339 pages.

Summary and Evaluation:
Fourteen year old Ruben has always had the ability to experience exactly what a member of his family is experiencing; thus he knows the exact moment his sister, Rachel, is murdered. Frustrated that they cannot get her body back, Ruben and his older brother, Cole, leave London for the small town where Rachel was murdered. Up against racial antagonism and a town desperate to keep its secrets, Cole and Ruben must find a way to see justice done. At first this book reeled me in, and I was anxious to see how the mystery was solved. About half way into the book, the murder is solved, and the book devolves into a story akin to a bad action movie - no plot, moderate characterization, a lot of shooting, and gallons of blood. The blood and shooting would have been no problem if only combined with sufficient evidence of motivation by Ruben and Cole. The only explanation is that Cole wants his sister's corpse back. I also had to remind myself that the book was set in England and the racial friction was between the British and the gypsies. The dialog and the language of the writing made the story feel like it was set in the American South. Racial discrimination between gypsies and other groups is not often handled in literature, and I would have appreciated more coverage of that theme. I also got the impression that Ruben's premonitions were an excuse to switch perspectives which became confusing. With that said, this book probably has great appeal for those who love action. Cliffhangers at the end of most chapters keep the action moving, and it is easy to get swept up in the bloody emotion of the moment.

Booktalk Hook: Ruben's premonition at the beginning of the story elicits a lot of emotion. I would start a booktalk by asking the question, "How would you feel if you could know what your family members were experiencing at any moment? What if that family member were being murdered? This is exactly what happens to Ruben when he experiences his sister's murder along with her."

The Big Empty, by J.B. Stephens

Stephens, J. B. (2004). The Big Empty. New York: Penguin. 204 pages.

Summary and Evaluation:
Half of the world's population has been killed by Strain 7, a mysterious virus and the United States is under military rule. The government has forced everyone in the Midwest to evacuate and move to cities on the edges of the country. A secret "almost utopia" has formed a community and has invited many young people to join them. This first book in the series tells how seven teenagers from across the country must leave family, friends, and relative comfort in order to find this secret civilization.

I don't typically enjoy the melodrama of post-disaster stories nor do I enjoy survival stories; however I found that this story really kept me interested. Perhaps it was because the back of the book advertised that there were seven teenagers, and until about half way through I could only count six. I was interested in how all of the teenagers were going to come together. I also found that each of the characters had distinct personalities. Keely, a rich brainiac, met up with Amber, a feisty pregnant teen. Maggie, the shallow unaffected brat, flees New York with her angry boyfriend Michael. Irene uses her medical drama know-how to save Diego, and finally Jonah proves to be the resourceful one. I could tolerate the story because it was told in short chunks jumping from character to character. I wasn't told how everyone got from one place to another, but in stories like these I would rather imagine it than be told every minute detail. The abrupt ending even made me want to check out the second book in the series.

Booktalk Hook: I would do a basic booktalk for the entire series. To get their attention, I would start out saying, 'half of the world's population is dead and America has become a dictatorship." Then I would move into telling what people are doing about it and the adventures this group has.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Getting Away With Murder, by Chris Crowe

Crowe, Chris (2003). Getting Away with Murder: the True Story of the Emmett Till Case. New York: Dial. 128 pages.

Summary and Evaluation: In this nonfiction telling of the murder of Emmett Till and the farcical trial that followed, Crowe puts the crime into context with the Southern way of life and tensions of the emerging Civil Rights movement. Emmett Till was a fourteen year black youth from Chicago who when he visited family in Mississippi was brutally murdered and left in the Tallahatchie River. After an historic indictment (almost no lynching ever went to trial), J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, the murders were tried and acquitted by an all white jury.

Learning about the Civil Rights Movement in school did not put in context everyday life for an African American in the South the way this book did. Knowing that up to that point, no white person had gone to trial for lynching and that it was accepted as part of life made the murder trial that much more important. Also, the murder could have been all but unnoticed if Emmett's mother, Mamie Till Bradley, had not instantly begun notifying the press of the incident. When the body of her son was finally returned to her, she insisted that the world see what they had done to her son. She allowed hundreds of irate citizens and the press to see Emmett's mangled body. The narrative of the trial was enhanced with high-quality photographs. It was only until I saw the photos of Milam and Bryant, playfully holding their children on their laps or happily lighting a cigar after the acquittal that I realized how apathetic the killers were to what they had done. No description of Emmett's corpse matched the photo of his mangled face and body.

While the message was powerful, the writing itself was a little disjointed. Tellings of the crime were often repeated in different section of the book. I also found it easy to get the many involved individuals confused. I often mistook the prosecuting attorney's words for the defense attorney's and had to flip back pages to ensure that I understood exactly who had done what.

Booktalk Hook: This book lends itself to the read aloud booktalk. Crowe includes concise newspaper articles that were printed around the time of the trial and contain detailed description of Emmett's body and the attitudes of the killers. I would select portions of the article on pages 68-69 to present to the group. It reports on the discovery of Till's body, its condition, and the possible murderers in such a way that it gives a sense of the ensuring injustice.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Anderson, Laurie Halse. (2000). Fever 1793. New York: Simon & Schuster. 251 pages.

Summary and Evaluation:
Matilda is a fourteen year-old living in Philadelphia when a Yellow Fever epidemic ensues and her mother forces her to go to the country to escape the fever. Matilda and her grandfather never make it to the country, however, and Matilda herself must survive not only the disease but also the anarchy that ruled Philadelphia during the hot months of September and October. When she loses her grandfather, Matilda must learn how to care for herself and others as she overcomes the devastating effects of the fever.

Anderson presents a vivid description of a little known event in history. When I think of Philadelphia at that time, I conger up thoughts of Washington, Jefferson, and Adams debating and little about the everyday people that lived there. This presented a different picture of the city. I was especially shocked to discover how inhumane citizens treated their own family members. Whenever someone was thought to have contracted the fever, the other members of the household would force him or her to leave. Looters came to the city to find abandoned businesses. Matilda does find herself working with a friend and The Free African Society which was essentially the only group to help the sick and impoverished during this time. Anderson includes an appendix of historical notes so that the reader can separate the truth from the fiction.

Everyone around Matilda seems to lose their entire family and livelihood. Comparatively, Matilda loses little. Intruders break in to her family's coffee shop more than once, but never find her family's savings. Matilda manages to recover in almost record time. I was certainly glad to see that she did not lose everything, but it seems a little unrealistic for one person to have so much luck.

Booktalk Hook: I would most likely present this book to a group of middle school students because Matilda's age and the way the subject matter is handled seem most appropriate for that group. At the beginning of each chapter, Anderson uses an original quote to introduce the content. Some of them can be rather gruesome in their descriptions of the pestilence. I would begin with the quote by Dr. Benjamin Roth that says, "Shafts of death fly closer and closer to us everyday" (p. 138). Then I would describe Roth's old-fashioned bleeding treatments for the fever before I introduce the fictional character Matilda.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Who Am I Without Him? by Sharon G. Flake

Flake, Sharon G. (2004). Who am I Without Him? Short Stories about girls and the boys in their lives. New York: Hyperion. 168 pages.

Summary and Evaluation: This book, a collection of ten short stories, presents in a variety of forms the challenges and joys of dating and relationships as a teenager. Erika, a scholarship student at a private school can't help but like white boys, but may be willing to go too far to get their attention. Asia is taunted so much for her skin disease that she's had to transfer schools, but finds her own way to cope. E wants to date Ona but finds that their class differences only bring problems to their relationships. Each story presents a different cast of characters and individual problems to face.

After reading the first story about the girl who desperately wants to be with a moderately abusive, cheating boyfriend for the sake of having one, I was worried that every character would have the same flaw. But as I progressed, I was pleased to find a variety of realistic and sympathetic characters. Some of the girls in the stories were attractive and dated a lot, but were not often the hero of the story. Other girls wanted boyfriends but were overlooked by boys because they weren't considered pretty enough. In one story a group of girls forbidden to date by their pastor set out to find boyfriends, but find themselves unprepared for the challenges they face. As I read, I found that I could identify each situation in some way (sometimes small) to real life events and attitudes. The stories focus on the inner city experience and have a strong African-American voice, but themes of love and respect for one's self are strong enough to give this book universal appeal.

Booktalk Hook: This would be an excellent book to have the group relate to their own lives. I would have a group imagine for a moment the type of guys/girls they are interested in or the type of person they are dating. Do they enjoy boys/girls that are responsible and or caring? Do they prefer guys/girls who are considered "bad?" How do you prefer this person to treat you? Then I would introduce a few of the male and female characters in the stories and relate some of the dilemmas they are involved in.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Plain Janes, by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg

Castellucci, Cecil and Jim Rugg (2007). The Plain Janes. New York: DC Comics.

Summary and Evaluation - After Jane suffers injuries during a attack in Metro City, her terrified parents move her to suburbia away from the dangers of a big city and from her nameless friend still unconscious in the hospital. On her first day at her new school, Jane discovers a table of misfits, a science geek, a benchwarmer, and a theater enthusiast, who all share Jane's name. Determined to have friends and instill a bit of confidence in each one, Jane forms a gang of artists that uses the community as a pallet. Energized by their "art attacks" and inspired by her anonymous friend, Jane plots even greater escapades until the police get involved and try to stop the so-called vandalism.

At first glance, this is a rather typical High School story. A beautiful, miniskirt clad move-in raises the status of the shy, frumpy, and frustrated to the level of respect in the school. The cute boy rejects the most popular girl for the freakish new girl. The romance is rocky but ends with the boy sacrificing himself to save Jane's honor. I found that despite these typical story elements, I could really enjoy the characters and their quirky attempts to save the community through art. Many high school stories are shallow attempts at seeming cool, but this proves that teens have more strength than adults realize. Jane's growth is mostly shown through her numerous letters to her friend asleep in the hospital. Her letters show her personal struggle that otherwise we would not see. I normally cringe at the thought of a graphic novel, but the illustrations were realistic and depicted each personality well. Jane is experiencing different feelings in almost every frame. With four characters of the same name, the graphic form is really the only way to make this novel work. While prose could have added deeper insight, it would have become chaotic for the best of readers.

Booktalk Hook: I don't think any graphic novel is going to need much of an introduction, but the realistic graphic novel is still an emerging genre. I would emphasize the themes of finding oneself and how it is presented in a realistic story.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The First Part Last, by Angela Johnson

Johnson, Angela (2003). The First Part Last. New York: Simon Pulse. 132 pages.

Summary and Evaluation: Bobby is a father; he is only sixteen and now juggles who he really is, a kid who likes arcades and graffiti, with who he must be, a father willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of his daughter, Feather. This short novel alternates between “Now,” the struggle of raising an infant alone, and “Then,” the many decisions that Bobby and Nia, his girlfriend, need to make. The stories intertwine answering the question of how Bobby came to raise his daughter alone and what he does about it. Overall, I felt like the book was well done. The alternating structure of the book kept me wondering how exactly, Bobby came to be the single parent and whether I would meet his girlfriend in the “Now” chapters. Had the story been told chronologically, I probably would have found it difficult to finish. Angela Johnson did not waste words. The brevity of the descriptions and episodes enhanced the awkwardness of the situations. Short two word paragraphs without quotations are used to tell only Bobby’s side of his conversation with Nia’s parents. The concise narration is the unspeakable confusion Bobby is caught up in. One moment he’s watching fish swim around the aquarium and before he realizes it, it is six hours later. He starts spray-painting bricks before school and gets caught by a policeman in the same place hours later. At times the language threw me off. Sometimes Bobby refers to his mother as Mary, and at other times she is mom. At first, I thought that Fred was his stepfather, but in reality it was Bobby’s father who had been divorced from his mother for many years. The story also became somewhat formulaic. Johnson had to find a way for the father to raise his child alone which led to a rather uncreative demise of the mother. Though typical the mother’s fate was not a pedantic warning against teen sexual behavior.

Booktalk Hook: This book is unique because it tells the story of teen parenthood from the father’s perspective. I would booktalk it with other problem novels told from a male perspective and emphasize that most books about teen parents are told from the perspective of the mother.

Seventeenth Summer, by Maureen Daly

Daly, Maureen (2002). Seventeenth Summer. New York: Simon Pulse. 291 pages.

Summary and Evaluation: Angie Morrow has just finished High School and expects to spend her summer hanging around the house and reading, but that was before she starts going out with Jack. Angie discovers the sensation and anxiety of being in love as Jack takes her sailing driving and picnicking in their small town. As the summer progresses, Angie makes mistakes along the way like going out with Tony when she should have said “no,” and learning what it is like to think constantly about a boy. Jack and Angie’s feelings for one another intensify, but they are forced to face the realities that summer does not last forever. At first Angie’s naivety and the slow narration of the text frustrated and annoyed me. Angie rarely speaks to Jack and though they are in love they hardly know each other. But as the story progressed, I began to enjoy the long descriptions of nature scenes and Angie’s introspective moments. Her innocence progressed into a deep understanding of herself. The book is successful in showing Angie’s maturation from a child into an adult. By the end of the story, she is no longer as concerned with what her parents think. While at times the text was overdone, it still told stories without words. I knew exactly what Lorraine’s relationship with Martin was without being told the details and without Angie even realizing them. The old fashioned language like “fellows” and “go with” even became enjoyable.

Booktalk Hook: This book presents a culture of dating and adolescence that has disappeared and is a depiction of average life in early 1940's America. I would present it as a romance from a different time and offer at an entertaining contrast from YA romance novels of today.