Thursday, June 8, 2017

Summer Reading: One of Us is Lying, Alex Approximately, and Alex and Eliza: a love story

Frequently, writers find inspiration from other artistic representations of a story that they are in essence retelling.  A chapter in my book, "Classic Connections," is devoted to books inspired by classic literature.  The novels I am recommending this month are inspired by dramatic performances.  Alex Approximately by Jenn Bennett (The Anatomical Shape of the Heart) gives a nod to the film You've Got Mail. In the book a New Jersey teen has an online relationship with a California boy based on their shared love of classic film.  When she moves to the West Coast for the summer, she struggles with the decision to meet him in person. One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus was inspired by John Hughes' film The Breakfast Club. In this re-imagining five students from differing social strata show up for detention and one of them ends up dead. Melissa de la Cruz (Something in Between) was motivated to write Alex and Eliza: a love story, when she went to see the musical Hamilton on Broadway. This imagined courtship between Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza Schuyler weaves together fact and fiction for an enchanting read. 

In Alex Approximately, classic movie buff Bailey "Mink" Rydell is heading from the East Coast to California to live with her dad. Throughout her junior year Mink has been involved  in an online relationship with a film geek named Alex, who happens to live in the same surfing town as her dad.  She decides to surreptitiously discover his identity before she reveals herself to him.  Meanwhile she is working at the oddball Cavern Palace Museum, where she is tormented daily by a security guard named Porter Roth.  When they get locked in the museum together one night, Mink begins to look at Porter in a different light and wonders if she should give up her search for Alex and focus on Porter.  What she doesn't know is Porter is actually Alex, approximately. This book is great fun and all the references to classic film are a bonus for movie buffs.

One of Us is Lying turns The Breakfast Club into a murder mystery.  Five students end up in detention, only four survive. Simon, who authors a brutal gossip app containing dirt on kids at his high school, drinks a glass of water laced with peanut oil and dies of anaphylactic shock.  He has damning information about all four remaining detainees: Bronwyn, the brainy good girl; Cooper, the baseball hero; Addy, the girl in her boyfriend's shadow, and Nate, the drug dealer. Now murder suspects, the four team up to find the real killer, upending their lives and finding romance along the way. This fast paced thriller will keep readers guessing, as the pressures of high school and the dangers of social media are explored in alternating chapters from all four suspects' perspectives.

Alex and Eliza, a fictionalized version of the romance between Alexander Hamilton, an aide for General Washington and America's first treasury secretary and Eliza Schuyler, a socially connected young woman, includes some historically accurate information and much imagined. Alex meets Eliza and incurs her wrath, when he delivers news to the family that her father is to be court martialed. He can't forget her fiery nature and two years later pursues her in Morristown, NJ, where she has come to inoculate soldiers against smallpox.  Although he comes from humble beginnings, he ultimately earns her love and rescues her from a disastrous engagement.  The story ends with the wedding of the two, who become a political power couple in the early days of a new nation.  Although many of the characters are real, much of the action, including Eliza's engagement to Henry Livingston and Hamilton uncovering Benedict Arnold's treason,  are fictional embellishments to add pizzazz to the story.  Told from Eliza's perspective, the story sheds some light on the civic minded woman who aided her husband with his political writings throughout his career.  This is an entertaining read for those who enjoy "history light."

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Social Awareness: The Hate U Give, The Unlikelies, and Love and First Sight

According to Robert Selman,  past chair of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Human Development and Psychology department, “Good children's literature not only raises moral dilemmas, but also generates the feelings that are associated with situations where moral conflict and confusion exists.” He suggests that through reading about social conflict students can vicariously experience the resolution of problem situations. This month I will review three very different books that explore situations that their main characters navigate, giving readers a chance to empathize with people struggling with a variety of problems.   The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas focuses on an African American girl, who witnesses an unprovoked police shooting.  The Unlikelies by Cary Firestone introduces a diverse group of "Hometown Heroes" who begin a movement attacking bullying.  Love and First Sight by Josh Sundquist deals with the problems a blind boy deals with when he is mainstreamed into a public high school.  

Starr Carter, the main character in The Hate U Give, lives in a poor black urban neighborhood, but attends a suburban prep school where she plays basketball and has a white boyfriend.  She successfully navigates these two very different realities until the night she witnesses a police officer shoot her unarmed friend Khalil, when they are driving home from a neighborhood party. Although her parents want her to stay out of the news, she is challenged to come forward about the injustices following the event.  Khalil is painted as a drug dealing thug and the officer is not charged.  Starr, who has known Khalil since childhood, realizes she owes it to him to speak out, even if it endangers her family.  This examination of the complexities of the race issues in America is beautifully written and takes a topic that is very current and examines it on a very personal level.  An in-the-works movie adaptation further confirms that this is an important book that teens will want to read.

In The Unlikelies Sadie is brutally attacked while trying to save a baby in the back seat of her drunk father's car. A video of the rescue goes viral and Sadie becomes an unlikely hero. At a local luncheon recognizing her and other local teens' heroics, she meets a new group of do-gooder friends.  They decide to begin a movement attacking "internet trolls and bullies" and championing their targets.  Things get more serious when they go after a heroin dealer in the hopes of helping an addicted friend.  The diverse group of homegrown heroes (Haitian, Salvadoran, white and mixed race teens) will charm readers and inspire them to attempt to make the world a better place, as well as help them confront their own issues with prejudice, loyalty and friendship. 

In Love and First Sight Will Porter, who has been blind since birth, decides he wants to be mainstreamed at a new high school and learn to live in the sighted world.  Told exclusively from Will's point of view, the reader navigates the challenges with him as he is bullied, develops friendships and ultimately falls in love.  When he is given the opportunity to undergo a dangerous surgical procedure that may restore his sight, he is conflicted, but proceeds.  The depiction of the recovery process is heart-wrenching in its detail and leads the reader to understand Will may be better off blind.  The slow painful process and uncertainties about his recovery, as well as his disorientation as his sight returns, are not something one would expect to read about in a YA novel.  Any time a seemingly simple decision is revealed to be anything but, it gives readers an opportunity to think about what they would do in the main character's place. The author, Josh Sundquist, (We Should Hang Out Sometime) is a ParaOlympian and motivational speaker, who is no stranger to adversity.  He survived cancer and the amputation of his leg at age thirteen and is the first person to be named to the US Paralympian Ski Team and the US Amputee Soccer Team. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Colorado Teen Literature Conference

I facilitated the Blue Spruce workshop at the Colorado Teen Literature Conference last Saturday and as always had a wonderful time and got new ideas for future reads.  The keynote speakers were Gail Carriger and Greg Neri and I also attended a "Happily Ever After" workshop with Entangled Teen Crush writer Lisa Brown Roberts.  Gail Carriger is probably best known for her steampunk series called The Finishing School.  Greg Neri refers to himself as a "mashup DJ of a writer" who likes to sample real life and remix it into a story.  Although best known for Tru and Nellie, his re-imagining of the childhood friendship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee, he spent the majority of his talk on Ghetto Cowboy, a book about urban cowboys in Philadelphia. Lisa Brown Roberts did a workshop with fellow romance writer Jenna Lincoln, examining trope driven novels that lead to happy endings. Her latest book Resisting the Rebel is a bad boy/good girl story wrapped around  the fake girlfriend/boyfriend trope.

Gail Carriger's keynote speech was very brief, outlining how she transitioned from archaeologist to YA author. Then she spent the rest of the time eloquently fielding questions from teens in the audience.  I was struck by the fact that when asked what "Harry Potter House" she identifies with, she had a detailed answer.  Investigating further I found quizzes online that place one in the proper house. (She and I are both Ravensclaw)  I wondered if she had been asked that before.  When asked about her favorite character in her own books, she said "Vieve" and talked a bit about her Finishing School series, which begins with Etiquette and Espionage.  Like her adult series the Parasol Protectorate, this series is set in an alternate history version of Victorian era Britain, where supernatural creatures such as werewolves and vampires are part of society.  The first book introduces the headstrong, calamity seeking 14-year-old Sophronia, who is sent by her mother to Mademoiselle Geraldines' Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.  What her mother doesn't know is in addition to dance, fashion and manners, the girls also are trained in the "fine arts of death, diversion and the modern weaponries." The school is set on a chain of dirigibles  and is manned by mechanical servants as well as "sooties" who work in the boiler room. Sophronia's friend Vieve is a cross dressing lesbian whose aunt is one of the teachers.  She invents many useful devices, such as one that interferes with mechanicals long enough for the students to evade their watchful eyes.  In Etiquette and Espionage the girls are tasked with finding a prototype essential to communications which is sought after by flywaymen who are determined to have it. This spy-school romp includes subtle commentary on race, class and gender identity. Kids will love Sophronia and her band of misfits in this madcap espionage/adventure mashup.  Additional novels in the series include Curtsies and Conspiracies, Waistcoats and Weaponry and Manners and Mutiny.

Greg Neri, (pen-name g.neri) the 2011 Coretta Scott King Author Award winner, was inspired to write Ghetto Cowboy by the real-life inner-city horsemen of Philadelphia and Brooklyn,  The story begins when Cole's mom takes him to live with the dad he's never met in the mean streets of Philadelphia.  The last thing he expects to see there is a stable full of horses complete with black cowboys.  He changes his slacker behavior of skipping school and goofing off, and is soon hard at work in the stables. Then the city threatens to shut down the stable and take away the horse Cole has come to love.  He decides that it's time to fight back and stand up for what is right.  School Library Journal's review says,"Cole's spot-on emotional insight is conveyed through believable dialogue and the well-paced plot offers information about a little-known aspect of African-American history, as well as a portrait of contemporary urban stable life." Neri also has written novels-in-verse, including Chess Rumble and Hello, I'm Johnny Cash, and is soon to release Paulie and Artie, a book about Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel's childhood friendship.

Lisa Brown Roberts writes for Entangled Teen Crush publishing, which features contemporary romances between 16-18 year-olds with trope driven stories, whose "heat level" can vary from sweet to suggestive. Her latest Resisting the Rebel is a cut above when it comes to teen romance.  In the story Mandy Pennington, the high school spirit committee leader and all around extra-curricular queen, is secretly crushing on her friend, Gus.  When he takes her to a party and then hooks up with her archenemy, Mandy flees and is inexplicably rescued by Caleb Torrs, who has a loner bad boy reputation. He enlists her in a scheme to pose as fake girlfriend/boyfriend so that she can make Gus jealous and he can get his stalker ex-girlfriend to leave him alone.  One of the things that makes this book stand out is Mandy's passion for everything from the 70s.  Her mother, who recently died of cancer, has a closet full of clothes and music from the 70s and embracing the 70s makes Mandy feel closer to her mom. The book's chapters are titles from appropriate 70s songs.  Caleb predictably finds her music annoying, but secretly finds her style adorable.  Unpredictably, he is the good student who agrees to tutor her, so that she can keep her grades up and remain on the dance squad.  Their disagreement over Catcher in the Rye, a book he loves and she hates because Holden Caulfield is such a whiner, makes for hilarious, yet thought-provoking dialogue, as he struggles to help her write a paper about the book. There is no doubt that the two will end up together, but the journey to that destination is an enjoyable one.  If you are looking to recommend PG-13 rated romance for teens, Entangled Teen Crush books are a safe bet.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Inventive Pairings: Frostblood, Defy the Stars and The Impossible Fortress

In order to appeal to both male and female readers, authors of young adult novels attempt to come up with a male/female duo as the main characters for their novels.  This month I am going to recommend three new action packed books with very inventive pairings for their protagonists.  Frostblood by Elly Blake imagines a world filled with Frostbloods whose powers are ice born and Firebloods with fire born powers.  Ruby and Arcus, despite their opposing powers, are drawn together in a plot to overthrow the Frost King.  Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray finds a teen soldier teaming up with an enemy android to end an interplanetary war. The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak is a comedy set in the 1980s that pairs a geeky boy who dreams of being a computer game designer with a female computer programming whiz.

The first book in the new Frostblood Saga introduces Ruby Otera who lives in a world where the ruling class of Frostbloods have abilities that are ice born.  She is a Fireblood who hides her fire born powers, until the day her mother is killed trying to protect her in a Frostblood raid.  Her powers exposed, Ruby is taken prisoner, but is rescued by a band of rebels who hope to use her powers to overthrow the Frost King, a maniacal ruler, who is controlled by the evil Minax.  Ruby is trained by a band of monks, including the mysterious Arcus, whom she comes to love.  When she is once again captured and forced to compete in the king's competitions between Firebloods and Frostblood warriors, Ruby hopes to find a way to destroy the throne and create a new world where Firebloods and Frostbloods can live together in peace.  This thrilling page turner is filled with exciting battles, magic and romance, and sets up an intriguing world for the books to come.The sequel, Fireblood, is available now.

In the new Sci/Fi thriller, Defy the Stars, Earth has used up all its resources and is attempting to take over planets that are connected to it by Gates between the worlds.  Noemi is a teen soldier from the pristine planet of Genesis She is on a practice run before a suicide mission to destroy the Gate and stave off an attack by Earth, when she discovers an Earth ship abandoned during the last war.  Abel, an intelligent robot who seems human, has been waiting there alone for 30 years, hoping to find a way to return to his creator on Earth.  When Noemi rescues him, she finds he has been programmed to recognize any human as his new superior and he knows a way to destroy the Gate.  Enlisting his help, they travel throughout the universe, hoping to recruit other worlds in their mission to destroy the Gate and end Earth's imperialistic wars. Although Abel thinks he must obey Ruby, his passive aggressive behavior toward her adds a great deal of humor to the story.  As the book progresses Noemi finds herself more and more drawn to this android who ultimately overcomes his programming to help her put an end to the wars.  This thought-provoking adventure is filled with philosophical explorations of religion, terrorism and what it means to be human.

The Impossible Fortress. a nostalgic comedy, opens with 14-year-old Billy and his buddies trying to get a hold of the latest copy of Playboy magazine, which features nudes of Wheel of Fortune's Vanna White. After several failed attempts to steal it from Zelinsky's Office Supply store, they cook up a scheme for Billy to befriend the owner's daughter Mary, who is a whiz at computer programming. Billy, who dreams of being a computer game designer, has been trying create a game on his Commodore 64 computer.  He enlists Mary's help and they develop a game called The Impossible Fortress to enter into a contest for young programmers.  As Billy is falling love with Mary, his buddies are cooking up a money-making scheme, selling copies of the pictures, before they have them.  Filled with period details and pop-culture references, this is a delightful comedy-filled caper. These novels are all appropriate for middle level, as well as high school readers.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award

The CO Blue Spruce YA book award winner was announced at the CCIRA conference today, along with the new nominees for 2017.  The 2016 winner is The Amazing Book is Not on Fire by Dan Howell and Phil Lester. The authors are Youtube sensations who share their awkward teenage lives on the internet. The 2017 nominees include *All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, * The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, *I Was Here by Gayle Forman, Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, *The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock, Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King, *Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Thicker Than Water by Kelly Fiore, This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp, and The Treatment by Suzanne Young. Those that are starred have already been reviewed in this blog.
Carry On is a companion book to Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl.  In Fangirl, twins Wren and Cath write fan fiction for a fantasy book whose main character is Simon Snow, a wizard who has been compared to Harry Potter. Carry On is Simon's story. Unlike Harry, Simon is not a very good wizard. He can't get his wand to work, his roommate may be a vampire, and he has a monster running around wearing his face.  This book appeared on many best books of 2015 lists, including Time magazine and School Library Journal.
Outrun the Moon is a wonderful historical fiction about 15-year-old Mercy Wong who lives through the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  She lives in Chinatown, but finagles her way into attending St. Clare's School for Girls. Mercy is an outcast at school until the earthquake forces her and her classmates into a temporary camp at the park, where she rises to the occasion and helps those around her survive. A sequel is said to be in the works.
Six of Crows is the first in a duology starring six dangerous outcasts in the magic infused city of Ketterdam, who are offered vast sums of money to liberate a scientist from a maximum security prison. Kaz, who heads the crew, recruits his friends to help him with the heist. The story is told from multiple points of view and along the way readers find out each person's backstory which leads them to Kaz's gang. This page turner ends with a cliff-hanger ending, followed by the sequel Crooked Kingdom.
Still Life with Tornado, the latest by A.S. King, involves a 16-year-old artist, Sarah, who is devastated when a piece she created for a show is destroyed.  She wonders if life is really worth living.  She has a dysfunctional family, her brother is missing, her art teacher is dismissive and cruel, and she has lost her ability to draw.  Her 10, 23 and 40-year-old selves help her navigate the waters of depression, as she wanders the city trying to find a reason to go on. This book appears on many best books of 2016 lists including The New York Times and Booklist.
Thicker Than Water is a heartbreaking story of family tragedy and drug addiction. Cecelia Price is locked up and forced into treatment, after being accused of killing her brother.  After her mom dies, CeCe's brother, a star soccer player, is injured and gets addicted to painkillers.  As his life spirals downward, and their father is in denial, CeCe takes matters into her own hands to try to save the family.
This Is Where It Ends is a story about 54 minutes during a school shooting. The story is told from the perspectives of four different teens, who all know the shooter and have reason to fear him.  During a school assembly at Opportunity High in Alabama, the troubled teen locks the doors and begins shooting, randomly killing staff and students.  Two boys who were not in the auditorium mastermind a rescue operation.  This debut novel also made many best books of 2016 lists.
The Treatment is the sequel to last year's nominee, The Program, about a futuristic society, that deals with teenage depression and suicidal tendencies, by wiping the troubled teens' memories. The followup finds teens working with rebels to put an end to the program.  Protagonists Sloane and James find the key to unlocking their memories, so they can take down The Program, lies with the Treatment, a pill that can bring back their memories but at a high cost.
Promotional activities, book talks and author responses are available at www.coloradobluespruceaward.org.