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.